LORAIN — Slain Army Sgt. Bruce Horner wasn’t seeking glory in the Iraq War.
At 43, Horner was nearly twice as old as many of the soldiers killed in the war, and his brother and widow said he wasn’t looking to prove himself in combat. But he loved being a military police officer and liked training Iraqi police officers to try to bring stability to the war-torn nation.
“He was humble. He could be very charming. He was a good teacher,” said Horner’s brother, the Rev. Douglas Horner of the Cleveland-based St. Paul’s Community Church. “It fit his personality to be training.”
The primary mission of Horner — a member of the Army’s 127th Military Police Co., based in Germany — was training at Forward Operating Base Iskan in Iskandariya, Iraq, about 20 miles south of Baghdad. But when three soldiers disappeared after a May 12, 2007, ambush outside Baghdad, it was all hands on deck and Horner took part in the search.
Horner was killed June 1, 2007, by a sniper during the U.S. escalation of the war known as “the surge,” the deadliest period of the war for Americans. A total of 4,409 U.S. soldiers were killed in the eight-year war, according to the Defense Department, and another 31,927 were wounded. At least 120,000 Iraqis were killed, according to Iraq Body Count, a website that tracks Iraqi civilian deaths since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Today is Memorial Day when America officially remembers its war dead. But every day is Memorial Day for their families who have only memories.
Standing earlier this month at West 26th Street and Oberlin Avenue near the house he and Bruce Horner grew up in, the recollections came flooding back to Douglas Horner:
The brothers practically falling out of bed and still making it down the street to nearby Admiral King High School on time.
Rowdy neighborhood football games and getting paid to mow lawns.
Singing in the choir at the First Congregational UCC on Washington Avenue.
The Horners lived in Lorain from 1972 until moving to Cleveland around 2004, and Lorain City Council members last week approved placing street signs named after Bruce Horner at the intersections near the former Horner home.
Christianity and the social gospel were instilled in the brothers at an early age by their parents, Betty and Ed Horner.
Ed Horner, who died in July at 84, was a longtime Lorain YMCA director and Betty Horner, 82, is a retired nurse.
The brothers saw how their father sacrificed time with his family to spend many nights and weekends at the YMCA because that was when it was busiest. Betty Horner, an urgent care nurse, took her young sons to some of the poorest sections of South Lorain where she treated needy patients.
The lesson of serving the needy rubbed off on Bruce Horner. Horner said it was typical of his brother to show up late for family gatherings because he helped a neighbor who was moving or stopped to fix a flat tire of a stranded driver.
“Some people only dwell on him losing his life in his service to his country, but my brother served humanity,” Douglas Horner said.
After graduating from Admiral King in 1982, Bruce Horner became an emergency medical technician and enlisted in the Army National Guard. He later enlisted in the regular Army and while serving in Newport News, Va., met his wife whom he married in 2003.
‘He died doing something
he lived his life doing’
Erin Pauls laughs when she remembers her former husband.
He had an unforgettable laugh and a goofy sense of humor. Imagine him singing “Feliz Navidad” to a recently emigrated Korean couple while trying to defuse a Christmastime domestic dispute as a military police officer — yeah, he did that.
Life on military bases can be insular, and Pauls said one of the reasons Horner loved his job was because it allowed him to get off the base and mix more with civilians.
“He had a personality that did not quit,” said Pauls, who remarried in March and now lives in Abilene, Texas, near Dyess Air Force Base with her new husband, a member of the U.S. Air Force.
“He glowed when he laughed,” she said. “It was so sincere.”
Horner was always a people person. Clarence Doers, a close friend from Lorain, recalls spending hours together drinking soda in bars and playing pool in the 1980s and of Horner accompanying him on an impromptu road trip to Atlantic City on Horner’s 21st birthday in 1985.
Horner’s easygoing personality attracted Pauls when they first met as part of a church group. Horner was 6-feet, 4-inches tall and about 240 pounds and as a police officer could be tough when he had to be, but his brother and Pauls said he was mainly a gentle giant.
He loved lifting weights and worked out five days a week at the gym.
“Even if working out only involved him carrying around a jug of water and talking to people at the gym,” Pauls said, laughing. “He cracked me up. Oh my gosh, he cracked me up.”
At the Olivet Christian Church in Newport News, Horner sang in the choir and worked with youth groups.
“He almost had this glow about him,” Tammy Willis, wife of Pastor David Willis, told the Associated Press after Horner’s death. “He loved people and he loved helping people.”
Despite loving the Army, Pauls said Horner probably wouldn’t have re-enlisted in 2006 if he had known he would be sent to Iraq. The two were happy in Newport News where they had bought a home.
But two weeks after enlisting, Horner was told his unit was moving to Germany and would likely go to Iraq, where he ended up in November.
Horner made the best of it. Pauls said he started a Christian worship group and befriended the Iraqi police he was training. He asked Pauls to send him care packages for the Iraqis. A few years before smartphones, Horner and Pauls spoke by a landline about three days per week.
Their last conversation, a few days before his death, was nondescript. Horner said his weight had dropped to 215 pounds and he was losing his muscle mass due to the intense heat, and Pauls, who had followed Horner’s unit to Germany, said she was planning to visit Poland.
Pauls and Douglas Horner don’t have many details about Horner’s death, but the location provides some clues. Horner was killed in Seddah, a town in Southern Iraq that is home to many Shiite Muslims loyal to Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr, whose brother and father were killed by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Muslim regime, is greatly admired by many Shiites for opposing the U.S and the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki.
At the time of Horner’s death, al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which would eventually be crushed, was in the midst of years of fighting Americans, the Iraqi army and Sunni rebels.
Pauls said she is grateful that Horner was shot in the collarbone and died instantly rather than suffering. Horner was in a Humvee that had stopped for a mandatory water break and exited the vehicle to pour water out of a water tank for the gunner. Pauls said Horner had to be aware that his size made him a target for snipers, but his selfless act was typical for him.
“That’s who he was,” she said. “He died doing something he lived his life doing.”
Pauls, 38, said prayer and an “amazing support system” of friends and family helped her cope with Horner’s death.
“I’ve seen people that have gone through this and they don’t have the love that I had, or the friendships, the support, and it’s just ugly,” said Pauls, who is studying to be a dental assistant. “They go downhill quickly.”
‘I always loved him
and he knew that’
Douglas Horner said he and his parents grieved differently. Bruce Horner’s decision to re-enlist upset his parents.
Ed Horner was a Korean War veteran whose service made him antiwar and an outspoken death penalty opponent. Betty Horner, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease last year, is rarely emotional, but Douglas Horner said he could sense she was angry with Bruce Horner over his decision.
She worried about him being killed or injured, and opposed the war.
Horner said his mother is stoic and his brother’s funeral in Newport News was one of just two times he has seen her cry. He sensed his mother’s outrage when a general delivered a eulogy.
“The words sounded so hollow. How many times has he said this to a family?” Horner said. “He doesn’t even know the soldier.”
Horner said his mother compartmentalized her grief and spent more time doing charitable endeavors. His father became more outspokenly antiwar.
At a Cleveland memorial to his son 16 days after his death, Ed Horner pleaded for peace as he hugged one of his granddaughters.
“I’m hoping there will be enough of us eventually to stop the slaughter in Iraq,” Horner told The Chronicle-Telegram. “You figure for every American soldier that is killed, another 25 to 30 Iraqis are killed and it has to stop. My son had a lot more life to give and we miss him.”
After his son’s death, Ed Horner joined Cleveland Peace Action and demonstrated against the war on Saturdays. Wearing his veteran’s hat and carrying an antiwar sign, his son said his father sometimes argued jaw to jaw with war supporters.
“He’d come home exhausted, but that was better than grieving,” Douglas Horner said.
Horner said he hopes Americans will honor the death of his brother and other soldiers by doing more for the survivors. Horner, whose ministry works closely with homeless veterans and those suffering mentally and physically from war, said more must be done to reduce the high suicide and unemployment rates for veterans.
And Horner said he hopes the Iraq War and sacrifices like his brother’s will make Americans more reluctant to send their daughters and sons to war.
Horner, 52, served in the Marine Corps before attending Yale University Divinity School and becoming an ordained minister. He calls himself a “recovering Marine.”
Horner opposed the Iraq War due to his Christian beliefs and the belief that democracy cannot be achieved through the barrel of a gun.
“More times than not, we can succeed by really empowering people on the ground rather than destroying their way of life and then watching them struggle to rebuild over generations,” he said. “My brother knew how I felt, but I always loved him and he knew that. And he knew that I trusted him to do his job.”
Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or firstname.lastname@example.org