Still Waters: Honoring a hero

It’s just a little spot by the highway at the edge of a small town with a gas station on one side of the road and a post office on the other.

But it is sacred ground.

On Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Veterans Day — and many days in between — mom and siblings gather at this spot and remember a son and a brother who was taken too soon.

Army Pfc. Travis Anderson was only 28 years old when he was killed while serving during Operation Iraqi Freedom on May 13, 2005. The U.S. Army sniper specialist was killed when a vehicle-borne explosive device detonated near his convoy in Bayji, Iraq. He had been returning to base after a successful mission.

Travis, or “Loopie” as those closest to him called him, was from Hooper, one of the San Luis Valley’s smallest towns. At full capacity it might have a population of 100. Four times that many gathered for Travis’ funeral. They included dignitaries and generals.

The county flew flags half-staff in his honor. U.S. Representative John Salazar honored him on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Travis was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star for bravery in combat and buried with full military honors.

Daniel, Travis’ hound dog, was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral. His second cousin Brant remembered how Travis would put Daniel in a backpack and drive around on his motorcycle. Daniel died a week or two after his master’s funeral. Travis’ mom Barbara figured it was from a broken heart.

Travis is buried in the same little cemetery, Rito Alto Cemetery, as his grandfather Jearold “Jed” Freel, a World War II paratrooper who had served at the Battle of the Bulge.

Travis had attended Sangre de Cristo High School and worked on farms and ranches after high school before joining the Army in 2003.

He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Georgia.

He was an excellent sniper, having honed his skills shooting everything from coyotes, rabbits and mice to deer and elk, the latter winding up on the dinner menu at his house. He loved hunting and fishing while growing up in the Valley.

A tragic irony, Travis had survived hantavirus, which has taken more than its share of lives in the Valley and almost took his. He had been flown out Flight for Life and had been in serious condition for several days. He miraculously recovered not long before hitting boot camp at full speed.

His grandma Violet Freel, who passed away a couple of years ago, described Travis as “full of life, happy-go-lucky.”

His sister Billie “Bissie” remembered that he had always wanted to be a sniper, from the time he was little, and he was an expert shot. “He was in the Special Forces. He was proud of what he was doing.”

During his tour in Iraq, Travis led 200 missions and 300 raids.

He had written to his sister Toscha, “For once I feel I am doing the right thing.”

Staff Sgt. Jeremy Schultz, who had been in charge of Travis’ platoon in Iraq, at his funeral called him “a damn fine soldier.” He said Travis planned to be a career soldier and wanted to earn enough money to buy land in the San Luis Valley.

He was a “damn fine brother,” too. His little brother Cory remembered when he broke his collarbone and couldn’t work in junior high school, and his brother sent him money from his paycheck so he would have clothes for school.

He had his faults, for sure, and a childhood friend said, “If he was an angel, the horns on his head kept the halo up.”

But he had found his place serving in the military. It was somewhere he belonged and where he excelled.

It was a heinous coward who drove a car loaded with explosives past a line of vehicles waiting at a checkpoint in Beiji, Iraq and detonated the device that killed Travis and wounded several other soldiers.

Travis could have had that career in the military and bought that piece of land in his beloved Valley. He could have found a sweetheart and become a father, teaching his children the skills he learned hunting and fishing. He could have enjoyed family gatherings at his mom’s house in Hooper.

Instead, there’s a memorial for him not far from his mom’s house by the side of the highway that runs through a little town with a gas station on one side of the road and a post office on the other.

This Saturday afternoon, Veterans Day, some folks from Hooper and county officials will hold a flag ceremony at that memorial site for Travis … on that little spot of hallowed ground that will forever honor a hero.