CAMP DAHLKE, Afghanistan -- Over a traditional Afghan meal, U.S. and Afghan soldiers came together Saturday for a difficult meeting none of them would have wanted in the first place.
Less than a month before, advisors with the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade's 3rd Squadron had visited their counterparts at nearby Camp Maiwand, the headquarters of an Afghan National Army brigade.
The friendly, routine visit quickly turned disastrous. As the advisors and Afghans walked to the camp's dining facility, shots rang out and fatally hit Command Sgt. Maj. Timothy Bolyard, the squadron's senior enlisted leader. Another Soldier was also wounded and remains in stable condition.
The insider attack, which led to the arrest of a rogue Afghan policeman, briefly halted relations between both partners as grief spread across the sergeant major's unit and in his home state of West Virginia.
When the recent lunch began, which was intended to mend those relations, the somber tone still lingered.
"Our hearts are still very heavy with sergeant major having passed," said Lt. Col. Ian Palmer, the squadron commander. "And that will take some time to go away, if it ever will."
Bolyard's strong influence in the squadron was clear, as Soldiers opened up and shared stories of the late sergeant major. Among several things, his caring personality often stood out.
For eight years, 1st Sgt. Joshua Bernthal was friends with the sergeant major. They previously served together at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and Fort Carson, Colorado, and during that time their families grew close.
When Bolyard and others began to stand up the 1st SFAB, he called up the first sergeant and asked him to join the ranks of the Army's new specialized train, advise and assist unit.
Bernthal, who now serves in the squadron's Bravo Troop, did not hesitant to serve with him again.
"He was truly my mentor," Bernthal said. "He was the first guy I called to seek advice."
While they served together in the Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, he recalled often sitting around a campfire after work with the sergeant major as they talked about how he could improve his leadership.
"He was the kind of person who made you want to be better," Bernthal said.
And when his family moved to Fort Carson, Bolyard was there to lend a helping hand again.
The sergeant major refused to let Bernthal's family stay in a hotel, so he invited them to live in his home until they found a place.
"We lived in his basement for a few weeks and then he helped us move and helped us paint the house and get it ready," Bernthal said, smiling. "That's just the kind of person he was; he always took care of people."
With three children of his own, the sergeant major also adored Bernthal's three daughters and frequently jumped on an outdoor trampoline with them.
Bernthal and his wife even chose Bolyard to be godfather to their youngest daughter.
"He would love spending time with them," Bernthal said. "He had a great time with my kids."
To the squadron commander, Bolyard was a kind, selfless and personable leader.
"You'll see all different shapes, sizes and flavors of leaders in the Army," Palmer said. "And he was one that did things because it was good for you. He did things because it was the right thing to do and not because it would get him praise or it was valuable for his career."
After he graduated high school in Grafton, West Virginia, Bolyard signed up for the Army as a cavalry scout in 1994.
He went on to serve in numerous enlisted leadership roles and deployed 10 times in support of contingency and combat operations around the world. He was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor twice, as well as several other awards and decorations.
The lieutenant colonel leaned on that expertise as Bolyard made subtle tweaks in how the squadron operated.
"As the commander, he was my wingman and my battle buddy," Palmer said. "I always had his support in anything that I wanted to do."
The loss of Bolyard hit the unit hard, and the entire state of West Virginia felt it, too.
During his funeral procession last week, people lined the roads for miles to pay their respects. The governor even ordered that state flags be flown at half-staff in honor of him.
In a talk with his squadron, Palmer attempted to console his Soldiers as they struggled to cope with a key piece missing from their unit.
"While he is not physically here anymore," Palmer told them, "he is here in the team that we've built and he is here in the relationships we all built between one another."
HONORING HIS SACRIFICE
Bolyard's presence was also in the relationships he helped forge with the squadron's Afghan partners.
During the lunch, Afghan army Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq, commander of 4th Brigade, 203rd Corps, stood up and expressed grief and fault for the sergeant major's death.
The incident had occurred on his base, and he deeply regretted that an insurgent had infiltrated his unit's home.
"That was our mistake and we accept that," he said through an interpreter. "I would have preferred to be killed myself."
The enemy, he said, had carried out the attack to create mistrust between the American and Afghan armies. He vowed to not let that happen.
"Since the beginning of this Afghan army, I've been working with the Americans shoulder-to-shoulder," the general said. "Today, whatever we have within the Afghan army, it's all because of the hard work of Americans and their support."
He offered his condolences and then handed a plaque commemorating the sergeant major and an Afghan rug to be given to Bolyard's family.
Palmer accepted the gifts and promised to hand-deliver them.
"If we on our side were to let this incident affect any way our commitment to what we came over here for, then sergeant major would be very disappointed," he said.
The mission, he said, must go on to honor Bolyard's sacrifice.
"He was personally invested in what we're doing here," Palmer said. "He would, of course, want us to proceed."
For Bernthal, he believes his friend's death has driven the unit's Soldiers to re-engage with their partners and give their all into accomplishing the mission.
Because, in true sergeant major fashion, Bolyard would not have it any other way.
"He wouldn't have tolerated us giving up or feeling sorry for ourselves," Bernthal said. "He would have pushed us to continue the mission and to do everything that we can to help the people of Afghanistan."
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