Residents of a small North Carolina community are reaching out to the family of a Kennewick soldier who was killed recently in Afghanistan.
Leonard Rizzo of Columbus, N.C., organized a letter signed by almost 70 people -- many former service members -- to send to Army Spc. 4 Robert Wayne Ellis' relatives.
The 2010 Kennewick High School graduate died in a June insurgent attack at Bagram Airfield, where he was serving as a truck driver with the 32nd Transportation Company.
Rizzo, who served in the Navy from 1959 to 1962, heard about Ellis from his daughter, Sgt. 1st Class Kimberly Walker, who also had served at Bagram.
Walker, who didn't know Ellis, was touched by his story.
Walker heard of the deaths of Ellis and three other soldiers after she was reassigned to duty in Colorado Springs, where she was stationed after suffering an injury in which two of her vertebrae had to be replaced. Her father said she went to her commanding officer and asked and received permission to escort Ellis' body to Washington.
After meeting the flag-draped coffins of Ellis and the other soldiers in Delaware, she boarded the flight to the Tri-Cities with Ellis' body, Rizzo said. The only other people on the plane were a pilot and co-pilot.
Walker stayed with Ellis through all his services until his burial with honors.
Afterward, she called her father to tell him this had been the most difficult duty she'd ever pulled.
Rizzo responded that he never had been more proud of his daughter, and they both wept.
"She was honored to do it," Rizzo told the Herald. "She said it was such a moving experience."
But Rizzo wanted to do more to help the Ellis family. So he wrote a letter, letting them know that the tiny "God fearing and highly patriotic" community in the Carolina foothills supported them.
It tells of the prayers offered in local churches and of the people who have asked Rizzo to tell the family of their gratitude for Ellis' sacrifice.
"It is more than fitting that we here in the Southeast honor Robert who is from the Northwest," Rizzo wrote. "You knew him and in our hearts we have gotten to know him, but there are millions between us who will never know him, it was for them that he gave his life."
Rizzo asked a number of his friends from the American Legion to sign the letter. He also used his connections from a column he writes about animals for the newspaper in nearby Tryon.
"The people here know me," he said. "All I have to do is ask."
Ellis' mother, Joelle Ellis, read over the letter carefully Thursday.
"Wow," she said. "That's amazing."
The family got to know Walker a bit when she came to Kennewick, she said.
"She's a very nice lady," she said.
Family members say they have received letters of support from as far away as New York state since Spc. Ellis died.
His mother took out a box Thursday overflowing with condolence cards and notes.
Spc. Ellis' father, John Ellis, picked up another box, filled with around 50 challenge coins of varying shapes and sizes.
"People give them for appreciation of the military," he said.
All the support can be a "double-edged sword," Joelle Ellis said.
While she appreciates peoples' good wishes, she rather would have her son home.
But John Ellis sees the support only as a positive.
"For me it's good, because it shows that Robby didn't die in vain," he said.
"And people appreciate that," Joelle Ellis added.
While the signatures on the letter he sent fill up almost two pages, Rizzo said there was enough support in town to take up 20 pages.
"They really opened up their hearts," he said. "I just want the people in Kennewick to know that there's a whole community out here that cares. Maybe we can make Kennewick our sister city."
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom