Area soldier fights for his life after bomb blast
By Dale Killingbeck, Cadillac News
TUSTIN - A Tustin-area mom and dad wait for a phone call that will send them to Texas to be with their critically burned soldier-son.
Don and Carol Akers learned their son Spencer, 35, of Traverse City was on patrol Monday morning when his Humvee was hit by an improvised explosive device while on patrol near the town of Al-Habbaniyah, Iraq.
“It flipped over and burst into flames,” Don Akers said. “One died and four are critical.”
Akers said his son is burned on more than 75 percent of his body. The U.S. Army veteran of the first Gulf War and sergeant with the Michigan National Guard now battles for his life at a hospital in Germany.
“We've been talking to the doctors in Germany. It's just a case if he can get through the infection,” Don Akers said. “The biggest part of the burn is his faceŠ The odds are not in his favor.”
A team of specialists from Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, were flown to Germany to help provide care for Spencer Acres and other buddies injured in the blast. They could be airlifted to Texas soon.
One soldier died from the explosion, Don Akers said.
A single man, Spencer Akers volunteered for the Iraq duty to spare some married soldiers the assignment, his dad said. Although assigned to a guard unit in Big Rapids, he joined with a Flint-area unit for the Iraq deployment.
Following training, he arrived in Iraq in June.
“He was due to rotate back for a two-week leave,” Don Akers said. “He was due to leave on Thanksgiving Day to be home on the 30th.”
A team leader and sometimes turret gunner in the Humvee, Spencer Akers communicated with his dad often. They talked briefly by phone two weeks before the incident and by Yahoo Messenger on the computer just the day before the blast, Don Akers said.
The Akers showed their son lots of support.
“We just mailed out some packages Wednesday,” he said.
Don Akers said he hopes people continue to show support for the troops through packages and letters. He appreciates all those offering prayers for his son in church prayer chains across the state and nation.
“Everybody I talk to says I've got you in our prayer chain,” he said.
The attack on Spencer Akers' Humvee is in the same area that claimed the life of a Cedar Springs soldier earlier this month.
A Michigan National Guard spokesperson could not be reached for comment on the incident Tuesday evening.
Akers succumbs to burns
By Mike Dunn and DALE KILLINGBECK, CADILLAC NEWS
CADILLAC - The price of Operation Iraqi Freedom became real to the Cadillac area Thursday night.
Sgt. Spencer Akers, 35, a Pine River High School graduate, died of complications from burns and other injuries sustained in a Nov. 21 explosion in Iraq. His parents, Don and Carole Akers of Tustin, and his sister, Jeannine Robertson of Canada, were with him at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston near San Antonio, Texas, at the time of his death.
“When he died, the chaplain was beside his bed holding his hand,” Don Akers said on Sunday night. “We suffered through this thing with him since it happened and it's a relief to know it's all behind him now. There's no more pain, no more damage. He's in a better place.”
Spencer remained unconscious and heavily sedated until the time of his death, his father reported. Don Akers also said that his son received excellent care at Brooke Army Medical Center.
Akers expects his son to be flown up from Texas to Michigan on Wednesday and brought to Peterson's Funeral Home. The funeral will take place at Covenant Life Church south of Lake City, where Don and Carole Akers are longtime members and where Spencer was in the youth group as a teen. As of Sunday night, a formal date had not been set for the funeral, however.
“It will be a military funeral,” Akers said. “We expect to meet with the casualty officer tomorrow (Monday) and go over the military portion of the service and finalize everything.”
Sgt. Akers and four other soldiers under Akers' command were patrolling near al-Habbaniyah, Iraq, on Nov. 21 when their Humvee hit a land mine. One soldier, PFC John Dearing, 21, of Hazel Park died in the blast.
The other soldiers, Sgt. Duane Drearsky, 31, of Novi, Sgt. Matthew Webber, 23, of Stanwood and Spc. Joshua Youman, 25, of Flushing were all critically injured, suffering burns and other injuries.
They were all flown to Brooke Army Medical Center's burn unit at Fort Sam Houston.
A spokeswoman at the medical center said the other soldiers remain in critical condition. No other information was available on their status, but Don Akers, who met with the parents and wives of the three wounded soldiers last week at the hospital in Texas, said there is hope that all three will recover in time.
Don and Carole Akers returned home to Tustin on Saturday. Since then, they have received a number of phone calls from friends of Spencer and from a number of his fellow soldiers, offering condolences and paying tribute to Spencer.
“We're getting calls from friends of his in the military and outside of the military that put Spencer as No. 1 for being a friend and a mentor,” Akers reported. “He was highly looked up to. People are coming out of the woodwork, calling from all over the U.S. and even the United Kingdom to tell us what kind of person Spencer was and how he affected their lives.”
Many people from the area who knew Spencer also remembered him fondly.
Wexford County Commissioner Bill Goodwill, a longtime friend of the family, said Spencer grew up with his kids and participated in the church youth group with them.
“He was a normal kid growing up,” he said. “He was a typical young guy from northern Michigan with a good set of values and a sense of duty.”
Goodwill said Spencer Akers served in Operation Desert Storm in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. Goodwill noted that Akers did not have to return to that war-torn part of the world. Akers volunteered to go to Iraq with his Saginaw-based unit so that married soldiers could remain at home.
“That just shows the kind of person Spencer was,” Goodwill said. “He was willing to put others above himself.”
Spencer, who lived in the Traverse City area, returned home for a final visit before shipping off for training. He arrived in Iraq in June. Before leaving Michigan, he attended church services with his parents at Covenant Life Church. The congregation offered their spiritual support.
“We prayed for him before he went off to Iraq for this last time,” Goodwill said. “He appreciated people's prayers and said that is what he felt he should be doing.”
Lake City resident Chris Reitz got to know Akers when the two were part of the same youth group at Covenant Life Church in the mid-1980s.
“Spencer was a real good guy,” Reitz said. “We went to different high schools and played against each other in football, so we would tease about who was going to win between Lake City and Pine River. He would kid around, but he was also an independent thinker, not somebody who would just blindly follow the crowd. He was always cordial and nice and a real good sport about things. He comes from a great family.”
The last time Reitz and Goodwill saw Akers was at the church service shortly before Akers left for Iraq.
“We all gathered around Spencer and prayed for him that day,” Reitz recalled. “At the time, I never would have thought that this would be my last time seeing him in this world. The great consolation is knowing that I'll see him again in heaven.”
Matt Mayer got to know Akers quite well over the past four years. Mayer, who is also a sergeant in the National Guard, came to Traverse City from Detroit in 2001 after Akers offered him a place to live. The two got to know each other while serving together in the Detroit area in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack.
“He was a great leader in the National Guard, but outside of that, he was a great person, always looking out for his friends,” Mayer said. “He was an open guy, somebody who was very easy to relate to. He cared about people. He was always willing to help anyone in need.”
Mayer said that Akers searched for months to find a unit to go overseas with.
“He volunteered, just like he did for (Desert Storm),” Mayer said. “He had a strong passion for the military and believed strongly in what we're doing over there. He figured that if he went, a married man wouldn't have to go.”
Akers' death has had a profound effect on Mayer.
“Being in the National Guard, I've known others who have died in the war, but no one that I was as close to as Spencer,” he said. “This is something that'll be with me for a very long time. I literally haven't stopped thinking about him since this happened. He was a hero. In the back of my mind, as long as I'm putting on this uniform, I'll remember what he did.”
Prior to going to Iraq, Akers worked part-time selling big screen TVs and home-theater systems at the Best Buy store in Traverse City.
“I couldn't speak enough good things about him,” said Connie Nunemaker, a customer services manager at the store. “We would have customers come in and ask for him by name. He was a great employee.”
She said he had worked for the store for about two years.
At Pine River High School, a 1988 yearbook features Akers on the first page of the senior photo wearing a tie and light-colored shirt. A few pages later, in a large Class of 1988 outdoor photo, he stands in the third row of the class wearing a fedora hat.
Former teacher Ralph Hurley says his son, Ralph Hurley Jr., and Akers were friends.
“I remember him quite well,” he says. “He was a high-energy type kid. Š I thought he was a good kid.”
Former football coach Tom Roy said Spencer Akers played football for him in the mid-80s.
“He was a hard worker, undersized, but out there mixing it up with the big guys,” he said. “He just kept at it. He had a lot of perseverance.”
Mark Brock, an Osceola County Commissioner, was a school chum of Akers and a fellow 1988 graduate of Pine River. Brock and Akers were two lockers apart during their high schools years and had many classes together.
“Spencer was a good guy,” Brock said. “We goofed around a lot and kidded each other with our lockers being so close. He was a jokester, but he also had a serious side. I'm not a bit surprised that he would volunteer to go to Iraq so that married soldiers could stay home. He was the same kind of person in high school; he had a heart for people. That's probably what put him into the military. He knew he could serve there and help people.”
Brock echoed the comments of others in expressing appreciation for the price that Akers paid on behalf of all Americans.
“He's certainly a hero,” Brock said. “He was there overseas fighting for our freedom and paying the ultimate price. You're always thankful for the soldiers who are willing to put their lives on the line, but it's a little different when you actually know somebody (who dies in the war). It really hits home.”
At the Big Rapids Armory, Sgt.1st Class Ted Platz of the 125th Infantry Company E said he could not answer questions related to Akers' military background. He did have some personal reflections on him.
“He was an awesome soldier,” Platz said. He confirmed that Akers volunteered to go with the Saginaw's Company B to Iraq.
“He did volunteer and he was always willing to do his job,” he said. “He was always there when anyone needed any extra duty or extra help with anything.”
An e-mail sent out to members of Company E encouraged the soldiers through Spencer Akers' example. The author of the e-mail is identified as Capt. Wagh. No first name is given and attempts to contact the captain for this article were unsuccessful.
“This soldier has raised his hand and followed a path few could or would follow in similar circumstances,” the e-mail said. “He has led the way for us left behind. He understood what the word duty truly means.”
As of Thursday, Akers becomes the 72nd member of the armed services to die from Michigan as result of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
Since the beginning of the war, the Department of Defense reports 1,804 have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.