Family, friends remember Pionk as 'a soldier's soldier'

Someone stepped on a rug, a house in a volatile Iraqi province exploded, and hundreds of people who knew and loved Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Pionk lost a friend and a leader.

Someone stepped on a rug, a house in a volatile Iraqi province exploded, and hundreds of people who knew and loved Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Pionk lost a friend and a leader.

On Saturday, mourners said goodbye to the 30-year-old Oliver native and Eveleth resident at a private funeral service at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Superior. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle attended the ceremony, which concluded when Pionk's casket was loaded into the back of a hearse behind a protective screen of American flags, which snapped in a bitterly cold wind.

A military spokesman said the family did not wish to speak to reporters on the day of the funeral, and cameras were not allowed into the church. But friends and family spoke before the funeral about the man they described as an uncommon blend of a kind soul and a bold leader.

Pionk died in an incident that made national headlines because of its toll -- it killed six soldiers in one blast -- and because it happened during a renewed push against al-Qaeda strongholds outside Baghdad.

Reading about the violence and betrayal that led to Pionk's death brought a small measure of closure to people who were close to him. Still, knowing the circumstances of that day in Sinsil brought no real comfort, said Pionk's wife, Melanie.


"You want to know, probably so there weren't any questions," she said, her voice calm and steady in an interview during the week before her husband's funeral. "But I don't know anything for sure. I don't know if everyone else wanted to know the same things."

The New York Times, working partially from an account of the incident by Sgt. Joseph Weeren, cast a dramatic picture of the explosion. The house had been cleared of explosives in late December, according to the story, but insurgents apparently rewired it. On Jan. 9, a villager led Pionk and his team to the home.

Weeren, a sniper team leader from Winchester, Mass., was on the roof of the building when it exploded. Despite their own injuries, he and others began pulling survivors from the rubble after the explosion. According to the New York Times, Weeren believed the blast was set off by a trigger wire hidden beneath a rug. Soon after the explosion, Weeren arrested the villager who had lured Pionk and the team to the rigged building.

Pionk's friends and fellow soldiers spoke of a friendly, generous man who was an excellent soldier, "a soldier's soldier," said Derek Eckstrom, who served in the same Stryker regiment battalion. They served together in Mosul for a year, and Eckstrom said he heard only the best about Pionk.

"Just like anywhere, you have rumors about how good a person is, how well he leads," said Eckstrom, who grew up in Duluth and now lives in Coon Rapids, Minn. Pionk was a natural leader who inspired confidence and trust in his fellow soldiers, he said.

"You always heard the best about him," Eckstrom said. "He did it right, in terms of soldiering."

Eckstrom said Pionk's death was all the more unfortunate "because I don't believe it was a mistake on [Pionk's] part that made it happen."

Since he returned home in 2005, Eckstrom has avoided the news: He has seen too many fellow soldiers fall, he has known too many troops -- close to two dozen -- who have died. So when Eckstrom's wife asked if he had known Pionk, "my heart just dropped," Eckstrom said.


"From a soldier's perspective, we don't want people suffering," Eckstrom said. "If he didn't suffer at all, that's the thing we care about. I don't want him sitting there, screaming in pain."

"I don't think he did suffer," said Kurt DeKipe, a close friend of Pionk's. The two grew up within a few miles of each other, went to school in Superior together and kept in touch through the years. DeKipe lives in Tomahawk, Wis.

Hearing about his friend's death prompted some disbelief -- but DeKipe also said Pionk "was doing what he liked to do."

"He really looked up to the people he was working with, and was a role model for them," DeKipe said. "Matt was the type of guy who could walk into a room and start talking with people he had never met before. And before he left, he'd be everybody's best friend. ... He's a hell of a guy. He was really one of the good ones."

That her husband was able to blend those two seemingly contradictory qualities -- of being an amiable, friendly man as well as a highly respected soldier -- is something that's a little puzzling, even to Melanie Pionk.

"It is a strange combination, but he made it work," she said. "I don't know how."

First Sgt. Chip Mezzaline met Pionk when he was a newly minted soldier at Fort Wainwright in Alaska. Mezzaline plucked Pionk from the ranks of new privates because he seemed to have potential as a squad leader. And, Mezzaline said, he was right.

"From my 21 years of service, I can name a couple of people you'd genuinely want to follow," and Pionk was one, Mezzaline said. "Soldiers will do what you tell them. But some do it because they want to do it [for you], and others will do it because it's their job. ...Very few people have those qualities."


Mezzaline, who currently is based in Georgia, watched as Pionk's military career and personal life blossomed over the years. When a colleague contacted him to share the news about Pionk, it brought a wave of emotion to the career military man, even as he remembered Pionk as a soldier "at the tip of the spear, fighting the global war on terror."

"It's really tough. I'm struggling with it personally," Mezzaline said. "I know how Matt was, and you assume those risks when you go out and do what you do, but thinking about those families, that's tough. ... It overwhelms you. You have to step back and do a little bit of soul-searching."

News Tribune staffwriter Will Ashenmacher contributed to this report.

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