By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
When Justin Allan Rollins learned that he was being deployed to Iraq last year, the soldier had a mission of his own: to see his beloved Boston Red Sox play at Fenway Park one last time.
Spec. Rollins saw more than just a game that summer day. He got to meet one of his heroes, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. Ortiz signed a ball for him. Later, in the stands, Rollins turned to his father.
"He said, 'If David Ortiz hits a home run, I can die a happy man in Iraq,' " recalled Kathryn Hanson, a close family friend. "His father thought it was the most eerie thing he had ever heard."
The Red Sox won that June 24 game against the Phillies -- with a home run by Ortiz. And this month, Rollins, 22, of Newport, N.H., died in Iraq. He was killed March 5 in Samarra, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his unit during combat.
But even as he was buried yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery, Rollins's memory lived on for the player whose heart he had touched.
Ortiz was so broken up upon learning of Rollins's death that he sent a white No. 34 jersey to the funeral Saturday in Rollins's home town -- with an inscribed baseball he wanted placed inside the coffin. The jersey, displayed at the funeral and wake, contained a dedication to the young soldier: "My deepest condolences to the Rollins family. It was an honor to meet Justin and I will keep him in my prayers. Sincerely, David Ortiz."
Friends said they were not surprised that Rollins had touched Ortiz. "That's the kind of kid Justin was," Hanson said. "His personality was magnetic. He made an impression. David Ortiz meets how many people?"
Ortiz, through a Red Sox spokesman, declined to comment Friday, and Rollins's family could not be reached. The 6-4, 230-pound home run hitter wiped away tears as he talked to a reporter for MLB.com about Rollins.
"He's a young kid, full of life," Ortiz told MLB.com. "Unbelievable, you know. It's just sad."
More than 50 of Rollins's friends and family members paid tribute to the decorated soldier at yesterday's burial. Mourners stood in the brisk breeze and late winter sunshine for the brief Catholic service. Marine Sgt. Jeremy Oaks presented the U.S. flag that had draped Rollins's coffin to his parents, Mitchel and Rhonda Rollins.
Rollins, an assistant machine gunner with the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, was the 318th service member killed in Iraq to be buried at Arlington. Five other soldiers were also killed in the blast.
Rollins joined the Army in February 2004. He had been assigned to recruitment duty in the United States but fought to be sent to Iraq, said Marjorie Hutchins, a close friend from high school.
Friends described Rollins as a fun-loving kid who enjoyed playing practical jokes, even showing up at his high school prom in a golf cart with a cigar hanging out of his mouth. A football player and track team member, he was obviously intelligent but would occasionally skip classes.
He was so well liked that hundreds of people lined the streets of his home town, waving American flags, when his body was returned last week.
When Rollins joined the military, something changed, friends said. He carried himself differently, stood a little straighter. He loved being a soldier and returned to Iraq after he was injured by a roadside bomb.
"He was still himself, still a funny guy, but he was so proud," Hutchins said. "He met some of his best friends over there. If he didn't die of old age, he wanted to die in combat, doing something he believed in."