Kennewick soldier remembered for gentle spirit

Robert Ellis was a quiet boy with a gentle spirit and warm smile. Even as he grew into a strong young man and accomplished soldier, he remained generous and humble, with that same smile.

And people loved him for it.

“You could always get along with Robby. No one ever argued with Robby,” said cousin Katie Ellis of Kennewick. “He touched so many lives.”

On Monday, hundreds of those he touched — relatives, friends, Army comrades — gathered to mourn and honor the Kennewick native in a memorial service in his hometown.

Ellis, 21, died last month in an insurgent attack in Afghanistan. He was a motor transport operator with the Army’s 32nd Transportation Co., based at Fort Carson, Colo., and was due to return to the U.S. in August.

“For his family and friends, there is nothing I or anyone else can ever say or do that will remove the pain or fill the loss that you feel,” said Brig. Gen. Michael Bills during the emotional service at South Hills Church. “But we can all honor the life and the service of an American hero.”

Bills, deputy commander of the Fourth Infantry Division at Fort Carson, told mourners that soldiers are taught to live by Army values of loyalty, honor, integrity, sacrifice and personal courage — extensions of the values families instill at home.

“Robert echoed them all — wanting, striving for more responsibility, to become a leader for our nation, protecting our nation’s freedom,” Bills said.

The young soldier — who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, among other decorations — entered the Army in 2011, the year after he graduated from Kennewick High School. He deployed to Afghanistan in November 2012 and died June 18 with three others in a rocket attack at Bagram Air Base.

Ellis, who’d recently been promoted to specialist, planned to forge a career in the Army.

In letters read at the memorial, fellow soldiers described him as efficient and well-liked. The commander of the 32nd Transportation Co. wrote to Ellis’ parents in January — months before Ellis died — to say that his skill operating vehicles, including some of the largest and heaviest in the Army’s fleet, was “unmatched by many of his peers.”

Ellis’ squad leader called him “one of the best of us,” telling of how the young soldier “made me laugh” and would lift spirits with his Christian faith.

That faith was mentioned often during the service, which was officiated by Pastor Bill Dupignac of Grace Baptist Church in Kennewick, where the Ellises are members.

The pastor spoke of how Ellis’ soul lives on, how he now is “clothed in Christ’s righteousness” — his uniform for eternity.

At one point, a slideshow played, with the photos charting Ellis’ transformation from a smiling baby to a little boy, to a teen in the Kennewick Lions’ orange and black, to a man in his Army uniform.

Relatives talked of how Ellis positively influenced others, of his love for God, his country and his family. His family shares his faith and knows that “someday we’ll see him again,” said great aunt Judy Winn of Kennewick.

Ellis’ parents are Joelle and John Ellis of Kennewick. His other survivors include a younger brother, Jimmy.

After the service, a long procession of vehicles passed beneath a billowing American flag held aloft by fire trucks and worked its way to Desert Lawn Memorial Park in Kennewick, where Ellis was buried.

Kennewick police stopped traffic to let the procession pass, and the community took notice. Employees from the Home Depot near the church came out to the street in their orange aprons. One man got out of his car and held his cap over his heart; another stood on the grass across from the cemetery holding a flag.

Under the blistering sun at Desert Lawn, a military honor guard fired off a rifle salute and folded the flag stretched across Ellis’ casket.

Members of groups such as Operation Thank You, Young Marines and Patriot Guard Riders — who also stood at the entrance of the church before the memorial service — lined the grass near Ellis’ family and friends.

Pastor Dupignac prayed and referenced Scripture, including the passage saying “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

“Robby Ellis gave all that he had — he gave his life in defense of our country,” the pastor said. “Today we are all Robby Ellis’ friends.”