U.S. Army Spc. Kyle A. Coumas stood up for what he believed in, especially America and God.
"Those of us who are in the military, there is really no other way we would choose to go other than fighting, standing up for what we believe in. As much as I know Kyle, he would have chosen that over any other way," said Joe Gonzales, who has been Coumas' best friend since kindergarten and is from Lodi.
Coumas, 22, died Wednesday in Afghanistan of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his vehicle. The Lockeford native was the only son of Michael and Lori Coumas.
Lori Coumas requested that Gonzales, who is in the Marine Corps, be part of the honor guard for her son. If the request is approved, Gonzales will fly to Afghanistan to bring Coumas home.
After finding out about his friend's death, Gonzales, who is stationed in North Carolina, said he didn't want to believe it at first until he called Coumas' mother. "There is no way to describe it. Your best friend is here and then he's gone. You always think you have more time, but life happens and the time you thought you had gets ripped away," Gonzales said.
When they were kids, Gonzales and Coumas both went to Mokelumne River School in Acampo, and they used to imagine what it would be like to be in the Army.
"We used to play Army non-stop, for days on end," he said.
The two remained friends, even though they went to different high schools. Gonzales said Coumas was a good person to look up to and did not get into much trouble.
The two often played video games. He remembered one particular morning after the two had spent all night playing video games.
"My truck broke down. He probably only got an hour of two of sleep, but he drove an hour or half to come pick me up. No matter what, if it was in his power to help you, he would," Gonzales said. Locally, 250 elementary and middle schoolers, who had minutes earlier been bouncing around and cheering at a Century Christian School morning assembly Friday, stood silently to honor Coumas on Friday.
"We need to use these opportunities, as unfortunate as they are, so it can become real to them," Principal Chris Finch said.
Chico State student Matt Aguire, who is from Galt, has been friends with Coumas since first grade, and their families are close friends.
"He was a good person. I think our community as a whole is losing a person who is very valuable to it. These people don't come along very often. It's going to be hard for everyone to get over the loss of Kyle," Aguire said.
Coumas began his tour of active duty in February 2007 and was assigned that June to Fort Lewis, Wash. He left for Afghanistan three months ago. He was assigned to 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. Funeral services are pending.
Aguire kept in touch with his friend in Afghanistan through the Internet and talked to him every couple of months. The last time he was with Coumas was when their families had a barbecue in Washington, near Fort Lewis, in July 2008.
"It definitely was a shock; he was way too young to go," Aguire said. "Losing a friend who I've known since first grade sent me into a state of shock, and it was only yesterday I realized this guy isn't coming back."
Aguire also went to school with Coumas at Mokelumne River School in Acampo. Coumas then transferred to Century Christian to finish middle school. Aguire and Coumas both attended St. Mary's High School and carpooled freshman through junior years.
Coumas enjoyed playing the coronet and was in St. Mary's band, Aguire said. His passions were music and video games.
"I'll never forget the night I spent the night at his house, and we stayed up from 7 or 8 at night until 3 or 4 in the morning," Aguire said. "We just stayed up and talked and played video games, just relaxing. He was kind of a laid-back guy and always down for a good time."
Coumas had a strong bond with his family, Aguire said, and he imagines this is a hard loss, especially because Coumas was an only child.
Calling it an "untimely and tragic death," Fritz Collier, a math teacher at St. Mary's, said he vividly remembered teaching Coumas during his freshman and sophomore years. Collier choked up as he said that Coumas was extremely smart to the point sometimes he seemed bored in class.
"He had a profound sense of humor. It went over everyone else's heads, sometimes even over mine," Collier said.
Even though none of the current students at Century Christian School knew Coumas, Finch said it is important they knew it was a day of mourning. To help the children understand, he compared the day to Sept. 11, when the school also lowered the flag to half staff.
"Some days in your lives, you don't forget about them," he told his students. "Today, I hope you have a mental picture. The freedom you have to do what you want — to pray, to walk down the street — that freedom doesn't come free. It's because of our brave men and women who gave their lives."
He wanted to make sure that the students understood the importance of Coumas' death.
"These kids — he was 22 — they die everyday," he said after the ceremony. "We need to remember he was someone we knew, he used to wear our sweatshirt, he used to walk on this campus."
The school had planned a dance party Friday to celebrate the end of the quarter, but Finch said when school officials got the news, they knew they needed to change the plans for the day.
"The Lord says some days are for laughing, some days are for playing and some are for mourning," he told the students.
The students had a moment of silence and then listened to David Trujillo, the school's drum and bugle instructor, play "Taps."
While pointing to a picture of Coumas' middle school class, Finch said, "I wanted to burn it into their mind: The next time they hear "Taps" or look at the flag, they will remember this picture and know the other 20 are still alive and he's not because of his sacrifice."