By CHRISTIAN M. WADE
NEW PORT RICHEY – They spoke on the telephone, before he went on a patrol.
He told her he was OK. He missed her and the family. He would be coming home soon.
The 23-year-old soldier’s parting words to his mother were comforting:
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you the most,” she replied before hanging up the phone.
That was about a week ago.
On Tuesday, Army Sgt. Michael David Rowe, a soon-to-be father, was killed when the armored convoy he was leading through Rutbah, Iraq, was hit by a roadside bomb.
He died less than a day before his 24th birthday.
“He knew we were proud of him,” said Marcy Rowe, his mother. “He knew he was loved.”
Family members learned of his death early Wednesday, when a military attaché knocked on the door of their New Port Richey home. On Thursday, an American flag outside the one-story house flew at half-staff and an Army flag fluttered from the rooftop.
Inside, friends and relatives sat around the kitchen table, flipping through family photo albums, remembering the life of a tenacious boy who grew up to be a man of true grit.
His wife, Rebecca, who is seven months pregnant with their first child, was too upset to talk with reporters Thursday. His father, David, walked through the kitchen without saying a word.
“It’s been hard on us all,” Rowe’s mother said. “But we’re holding our ground.”
A 2001 graduate of Gulf High School, Rowe was an avid swimmer who won several top awards for the school’s diving team. He was a photographer who enjoyed disc jockeying and was known to play practical jokes on friends and family.
He had enlisted in the National Guard and was in training at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. He switched to the Army nearly three years ago and was deployed to Iraq in November.
Two weeks ago, family members said, he re-enlisted for four more years.
“He wanted to be a professional soldier,” his mother said. “He enjoyed the life.”
Rowe was a member of the 46th Engineer Battalion’s convoy escort, or Tactical Movement Team, which escorts vehicles throughout Iraq’s western Anbar province. The job is one of the Fort Polk, La.-based battalion’s most dangerous details in the country.
Iraq’s insurgents frequently target U.S. troops with crude explosives planted in roads and detonated by remote control as the patrols pass.
It was a risky assignment; one that he tried to keep from his mother.
“He didn’t want me to worry about him,” she said. “He wanted to protect me.”
His friends remembered spending hot summer afternoons with him, sneaking into local swimming holes; the neighborhood parties at his parents’ house with Rowe spinning the turntable; and hanging out in his beat-up yellow sedan at Anclote River Park.
“He was a different breed of man,” said Lara Winter of Holiday, who graduated from high school with Rowe. “He lived every day like there was no tomorrow. He was phenomenal.”
Rowe’s personal profile on myspace.com, an online blogging site, has become a cyberspace memorial with dozens of messages posted by his friends and acquaintances.
“Everybody knew Mike, he was very popular,” said Holly LaRosa of New Port Richey, who was on the varsity diving team with him in high school. “We are all devastated.”
The family doesn’t know when his body will be returned from Iraq. Military officials are working with the family to make funeral arrangements, his mother said.
Winter said the soldier’s friends are trying to organize a motorcycle ride in his honor.
“He was too important to go unnoticed,” she said. “His story needs to be heard.”