Sarah Katherine Small was in the fourth grade when she told her father she was going into the military. Years later, Small was commissioned in the Air Force, becoming the fifth generation of her family to wear a military uniform.
On Sept. 19, 1st Lt. Small, 25, died near the Egyptian city Wady el-Natron while en route to a military training exercise. The van in which she was riding flipped over, ejecting Small, who died at the scene.
Yesterday, hundreds of friends and family members gathered to commemorate Small's life as she was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Mourners overflowed from the Old Post Chapel for a memorial service at which her parents, William and Gloria, her older brother, Matt, and her younger brother, Sam, shared their recollections.
"She had an infectious laugh, a radiant smile and twinkling blue eyes," said William Small, who served in the Army. "Sarah was a leader among leaders. She was just able to rise to the top in everything she participated in, and she was always the first to volunteer and support others."
After the service, mourners walked to the grave site, where Small was buried with military honors. Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne presented an American flag to her parents.
Small was born March 13, 1980, in Nashville. Her family lived in Jackson, Miss., Pittsburg and Syracuse, N.Y., before settling in Herndon when she was in middle school. She graduated from Oakton High School, near Vienna, where she was student government president and was crowned homecoming queen her senior year.
Two years after graduating in 1998, Small returned to Oakton as a commencement speaker for the Class of 2000.
"She went out of her way for everybody, even if she barely knew them," said Jennifer Hurwitz of Reston, who met Small a decade ago through a B'nai B'rith youth group and attended high school with her.
"If she ever saw somebody standing off by themselves, she would approach them," Hurwitz said. "If anybody was lonely or looked unhappy, she was always the first one to step up to draw them in. She was what a friend was meant to be."
Small enrolled at the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., an all-female military program, where she majored in political science and minored in communication and leadership studies. She completed the Air Force ROTC program at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va.
Lisa Bliss of McLean met Small during matriculation, and together they experienced the travail of being first-year students at the Institute. "She was just a wonderful person and left a mark on everybody's life for the better," Bliss said, adding that Small inspired her to pursue her dream of studying for a master's degree in education.
As she encouraged others, Small also remained focused on her own goals, Bliss said. "She had a desire to serve her country," Bliss said. "It just became a passion to her . . . something she wanted to do."
After receiving her Air Force commission, Small was stationed at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. In 2002, she lost all her belongings when a typhoon hit the island, but even during the crisis, she put others first.
"She went out and found people less fortunate than herself and gave away her last ration of water because she knew she could find more," said her father, who added that she was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal for helping the people of Guam after the typhoon.
Small was later stationed at Langley Air Force Base, where she became deputy chief of public affairs at its Air and Space Expeditionary Force Center, writing articles for the public affairs office. She was sent to Egypt to support Exercise Bright Star, a training exercise involving tactical air, ground, naval and special operations forces of the United States and its allies. Her task was to keep those inside and outside the military informed about the operation.
Small is the first graduate of the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership to die in the line of duty.