Alabama native son and fallen hero honored

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - A memorial service for Senior Airman Mark Forester was held Thursday afternoon, October 7, 2010. A capacity crowd of relatives, friends, honor guards, and comrades in arms filled the floor and the west stands of the Haleyville High School gymnasium in Forester's north Alabama hometown. Forester's flag-draped coffin was surrounded by flowers and a large portrait of Forester in his combat gear. A large screen slide show with background music preceded the commencement of the service.

The twenty-nine year old soldier was one of two soldiers killed in an intense firefight in Afghanistan on September 29, 2010. Forester had served in hotly contested areas of that country's war zone since May of this year.

Mark Forester, the son of Ray and Pat Forester of Haleyville, played basketball and tennis and participated in student government at Haleyville High School. Following high school graduation, he served a two year mission at his own expense for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Oakland, California. He then enrolled at the University of Alabama where he graduated with a degree in finance in 2006. He was an avid Alabama fan and was known to wear Roll Tide paraphernalia under his uniform.

After college he felt a strong urge to serve his country and joined the U. S. Air Force. He underwent training as a combat controller. The dangerous assignment of a combat controller is to accompany army special operation ground troops on patrol and communicate with overhead aircraft regarding the placement of close air strikes against enemy forces.

Following training, Airman Forester volunteered for service in Afghanistan and quickly earned there a reputation for his exceptional competence, professionalism, and bravery. As attested by a fighter pilot who had fired his aerial weapons under Forester's directions, "He loved what he was doing, was highly proficient, and remained calm and collected in the heat of battle."

Dignitaries paying tribute with citations and flags included Congressman Robert Aderholt, State Senator Roger Bedford, and State Representative Michael J. Millican.

Three military officers praised Forester's heroism on multiple occasions, one of which had earned him the Bronze Star for Valor in a prior action, but had not yet been awarded at the time of Forester's death.  Brigadier General Otis G. Mannon stated:  "Airman Forester served quietly in the Air Force's most demanding position. Under intense fire, he made a conscious decision to aggressively press forward in the aid of a fellow soldier. He will never be forgotten."

Major Edmund Loughran, Forester's Squadron Commander, praised Forester as "a man of virtue, integrity, honor, and compassion that others admired. He exposed himself to enemy fire time and time again to provide protection for his teammates. He was like a sheepdog that places himself between his flock and the enemy."

A training roommate and friend, Staff Sergeant Robert Bonello, said that "Mark was my moral compass. He was the most well-disciplined man I ever met. He stood out amongst us.  He was fearless in the heat of battle and Special Forces ground troops were always pleased to learn that Mark would be their combat controller. He established an outstanding record and reputation very fast. I lost my best friend."

Forester's family members played a major role in the memorial service. His three brothers, Joseph, David, and Thad, each shared personal feelings, scriptures, and stories. His sister-in-law Patsy Forester sang a beautiful solo of "Lighthouse in the Night," and several young nieces and nephews sang the LDS primary song "Families Can Be Together Forever."

The service concluded with a recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The 1,250-plus in attendance spontaneously stood for the last verse.

The native son hero of Haleyville, where all flags had been lowered to half mast, was laid to rest with full military honors at Winston Memorial Cemetery.