PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A Rhode Island National Guard sergeant who was killed in Afghanistan while saving an Afghan boy was remembered Monday for having the "courage of a warrior" and the "heart of a father."
At a memorial service at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, fellow soldiers and friends recalled Sgt. Dennis Weichel Jr.'s goofy smile, his obsession with Superman and a selflessness that left no one who knew him surprised to hear how he died.
The 29-year-old Providence resident was struck and killed by an armored vehicle on March 22 in Laghman Province after moving an Afghan boy to safety who was trying to retrieve something underneath the vehicle.
Weichel had been a member of the Rhode Island National Guard since 2001.
In his eulogy, Rhode Island National Guard commander Maj. Gen. Kevin McBride said Weichel should be remembered as a hero who acted without a second thought for his own safety, saving the boy from certain death. The military had previously reported the child was a girl.
Weichel leaves behind a son and two daughters.
"Dennis Weichel had the courage of a warrior, but that isn't what drove him to save Zaillah. What drove Dennis to save that child was the heart of a father," McBride said.
"The dictionary defines a hero as a person of remarkable bravery who is admired for noble deeds. Dennis was incredibly brave. He twice volunteered to serve his country in a war zone. And that is how you should remember him — as a hero, a brave solider who embodied the best of us all."
Weichel was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and NATO Service Medal Afghanistan Campaign Ribbon RI Star. He was buried with full military honors at the state Veterans Cemetery in Exeter.
He mobilized with Company C, 1st Battalion, 143rd Infantry Regiment, to Camp Atterbury in Indiana in November and was deployed to Afghanistan in early March.
McBride said that Weichel was proud of a Superman tattoo on his right arm and that his fiancÉe Ashley recalled that he even referred to himself as the superhero at times.
"Given what we know today that was not too far from the truth about Dennis," McBride said.
He spent three weeks planning a trip home in December to surprise his children for Christmas. Son Nicholas wrote a letter to his father after his death that National Guard chaplain Capt. Timothy Bourquin read aloud at the service.
"I really, really miss you. I promise I will protect my sisters, Hope and Madison, like you told me to," the boy wrote. "You are my hero. I know you are in heaven watching over me. You are the brightest star."
Staff Sgt. Ronald Corbett, who deployed with Weichel to Iraq in 2005, said he hoped Weichel was smiling his goofy smile even while family and friends cried for him.
"It's you who taught me to live life to the fullest, love your family and friends a little more each day and go to bed each night, no matter what, with a smile on your face," Corbett said.