Fallen U.S. soldier returned to family

Kowalczyk 'smart , mature and dedicated to mission'

JEFFERSON COUNTY - Kathy Park and Michael Kowalczyk stood in the doorway of a Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport hangar on Wednesday, both dressed formally and, mostly, in black.

Out on the tarmac, a jet howled to a stop. Their brother, Army Spc. Stephen M. Kowalczyk, killed in Muqdadiyah, Iraq on March 14, had arrived.

The sister, who lives in Boulder County, dabbed her eyes with a tissue. "You want one?"

Stephen Kowalczyk arrives home
Army Spc. Stephen M. Kowalczyk was killed in Muqdadiyah, Iraq, on March 14. Sammy Dallal/Daily Camera

she offered.

"I might need a couple of those," answered the brother, of San Geronimo, Calif.

The whine of a cargo door pierced the silence of two dozen family members and nearly as many military and funeral-home representatives, setting in motion Boulder's first military funeral of the four-year war in Iraq. A procession escorted Kowalczyk 's body from the Broomfield airport to Boulder, where a service will be held today.

Steve Kowalczyk , 32, didn't grow up in Boulder and only lived here periodically, visiting his sister, doing carpentry and stopping by the home base of Sky Chairs, for whom he spent five years as a nomadic salesman. But if Boulder ever had a fallen soldier in its image, Kowalczyk is he.

Rather than drive, he preferred transit, walking or hitchhiking. On trips to arts and crafts fairs from Costa Rica to Alaska in the name of Sky Chairs, he slept in tents or, better yet, under a canopy of stars.

He relished hiking, mountain biking and surfing. He seemed to need few possessions and left as scant an ecological footprint as a human in a developed country could probably manage, family members said.

"He could've been the guy drinking green tea at the Trident," said Sarah Kowalczyk, his sister-in-law.

Kowalczyk was one of those rare creatures able to both drink in life and contemplate its intricacies, according to those who knew him. In Iraq, he would drive an armored Humvee, patrolling streets booby-trapped with improvised explosive devices, then return to base and describe the sound of wind shaking eucalyptus in letters to his siblings' children.

He kept detailed journals, one which Sarah Kowalczyk had with her Wednesday. It was a yellow legal pad, folded in half with a cover abused by many backpacks. The Army is sending more.

Kowalczyk motorcadeJack Watson/For the Camera

The youngest of seven siblings, Kowalczyk grew up in Minnesota and Albuquerque, N.M. His father, Michael, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, died in 1984 when Kowalczyk was 9. The son spent two years at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., setting school records in swimming before dropping out.

He spent 11 months in Boulder, living with sister Kathy and doing construction before going to California to work for Sky Chairs. But Kowalczyk sought a more substantive focus for his energies.

"He read the New York Times every day, but he wanted to see the major issues firsthand," his brother Michael said.

Kowalczyk shipped out to Fort Hood in November 2004. His brother-in-law Robert Anderson said he was "shocked to the point of disbelief" when he heard Kowalczyk had enlisted at the age of 29, a decade older than most recruits.

"But I came around to believe it was almost perfect for him," Anderson said. "He was so free, he could have potentially destroyed himself."

Stephen Kowalczyk letter to his nephew
Spc. Stephen M. Kowalczyk wrote this letter to his nephew Lucius, 9, in February. Kowalczyk had dried the flower and glued it to his correspondence. Courtesy Sarah Kowalczyk

Instead, it would be small-arms fire in Diyala Province, Iraq.

Army Capt. Chris Wooldridge, 39 - Kowalczyk 's first commander at Fort Hood - stood on the tarmac Wednesday. He called Kowalczyk " smart , mature and dedicated to the mission " and a leader despite his rank.

He cried when he learned of Kowalczyk 's death, Wooldridge admitted, choking up at the thought.

An honor guard from Fort Carson guided the flag-draped casket to an M.P. Murphy & Associates Funeral Directors hearse.

Outside the gates waited seven Boulder police motorcycles and a dozen members of the Patriot Guardian Riders there to honor Kowalczyk .

Because of a threatened protest by members of a radical Kansas church, the riders planned to have a member walking around Trinity Lutheran Church - the site of today's funeral - through the night. Kevin Granberg, one of seven motorcycle patrol officers who escorted the procession back to Boulder, said the city's SWAT team had been activated.

At a family viewing at Trinity Lutheran Church, Kowalczyk 's nephew Lucius, 9, described how he received a toy tank his uncle and a friend fashioned from part of a rusting Soviet T-72 tank tread. The toy tank arrived the week after news of Kowalczyk 's death.

In the accompanying Feb. 10 letter, Kowalczyk described how soldiers had dragged a T-72 carcass to block a bridge that insurgents were using as a route for suicide car bombs.

"I was kind of sad," Lucius said. "I was about to send him a note when I learned he was dead."