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Mourning a Fallen Soldier

COAL GROVE — The grapevine wreath in the front yard with its black ribbons softly blowing in the breeze says it all. This home on Center Street in Coal Grove is now a house of mourning.

At 1 p.m. Sunday, Bonnie Allen opened her front door to see what every mother of a soldier dreads to see. On her front porch were two Army officers there to tell her that her youngest child had made the ultimate sacrifice.

Sometime Saturday evening U.S. time, Sgt. Justin Bradley Allen, 23, was killed in the line of duty as an Army Ranger serving in Afghanistan. Often Rangers, one of the most elite branches of the military, are sent out to local villages to uncover any neighborhoods that might be harboring Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

This was Justin’s fourth deployment to Afghanistan and was to have been his longest, close to six months, twice the length of his typical tours.

However what Allen’s mission was has not been declassified by the Army.

“He wanted to do whatever he perceived to be the hardest job he could do,” Brian Allen, Justin’s older brother, said Monday afternoon as he sat in their parents’ house. Friends had gathered there all day, bringing covered dishes and words and embraces of comfort.

Justin grew up outside of Coal Grove and graduated from Dawson-Bryant High School in 2005.

He was both an athlete and an academic, noted for his dogged determination on the gridiron and his inveterate games of chess.

He went on to the Ohio University Southern campus in Ironton with the plan to become a physical therapist.

But the desire to serve his country in uniform proved too strong.

“In school he had perfect grades, was very intelligent, very athletic, very muscular. He took care of himself,” James Pommell said. “Everything he wanted he worked until he got it.”

Pommell, whom the Allen family calls Jimmy, met Justin in third grade and formed a bond of friendship that lasted through the decades.

“When it is someone you grew up with, it hits you on a whole different level,” Pommell said by phone from North Carolina. “I pretty much feel sick at my stomach. I’ve been a wreck all day.”

Pommell was the first to go into the military joining the Marines. In about a year his friend signed up to become a Ranger.

“He wanted a challenge,” Pommell said. “He wanted to be something special.”

Down the road from the Allen home is Dawson-Bryant High School, where since Monday morning the sign board has offered an electronic tribute to Justin. So much attention would have embarrassed the young man, his mother said.

“He just didn’t like to be fussed over,” Bonnie said. “He didn’t like a lot of attention.”

As word of Justin’s death spread throughout the Coal Grove community, classmates and teachers shared their memories.

One of those was Coach Nick Miller, who guided Justin as he played defensive back and wing back for the Hornets and ran track at Dawson-Bryant.

“Justin was really respectful, just a friendly, hard worker,” Miller said. “He was fast and very strong. He really excelled. He was one of those kids who was really great to have around. It is horrible news. He was such a nice kid.”

In November Justin was going to marry his fiancée, Kimberly Schwartz, whom he had met when she moved to Lawrence County from Florida.

“She had already bought her dress,” Bonnie said.

The last time Bonnie saw her son was this spring when he came home between deployments. She wants her son to be remembered for his generosity, honesty and patriotism.

“I have so many memories,” she said. “I remember how generous he was. Super generous. And he just had a beautiful smile and eyes.”