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Marine from Conn. dies in Iraq

Track star, scholar was on foot patrol

SUFFIELD, Conn. -- A Marine from this town was killed Wednesday in Iraq while on foot patrol, his father said yesterday.

Stephen Bixler, 20, was on his second tour of duty in the insurgency hotbed of Fallujah, said his father, Richard.

''He was on a foot patrol, that's all we know right now," Bixler said. ''We were very proud of what he was doing. He would say a lot of positive things. He was totally committed to his mission."

Bixler is the 30th person from Connecticut who has died since March 2002 in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two of those killed were civilian workers.

An Eagle Scout, Bixler joined the Marines shortly after graduating from Suffield High School in 2003, his father said.

Kevin Goff, whose son was a close friend of Bixler's, said the Marine was a genuinely nice person who made the choice early on in high school to join the military.

''Stephen was the ultimate person that just wanted a simple life and just wanted to do well for other people," Goff said. ''He was the all-American kid who wanted to serve his country."

Administrators and students at Suffield High School were shaken by the news.

A moment of silence was held to honor Bixler before classes started yesterday and the American flag outside the school was flown at half-staff.

High school principal Thomas Jones said Bixler was a track star and a scholar.

''Steve always had a quiet presence in school, but there was certainly strength in terms of his will and his sense of himself," Jones said. ''Today we were in shock. It was just a very solemn day."

Bixler came back home during the holidays last year and spoke to English classes at the high school about his experiences overseas, Jones said.

Selectman Scott Lingenfelter said it was a sad time in town.

''Everybody had nothing but great things to say about him, from teachers to coaches to students," said Lingenfelter, who did not personally know Bixler. ''It hits close to home. It makes people realize what's going on overseas. It was devastating for us."

Under his high school yearbook picture, Bixler quoted legendary football coach Vince Lombardi: ''I believe a man's finest hour is the moment he has worked his heart out and lies exhausted on the field of battle, victorious."

Suffield, a town of about 14,000 people, is 20 miles north of Hartford on the Massachusetts border.

Governor M. Jodi Rell ordered both the US and Connecticut flags to be flown at half-staff until sundown on the day of Bixler's burial, which had not been scheduled yesterday.

''The thoughts and prayers of all Connecticut residents are with the Bixler family today," Rell said in a written statement. ''Lance Corporal Bixler served his country honorably, and he bravely defended our freedom. His loss is extremely painful to us, but we will remember with deep gratitude his courageous service and will always honor his sacrifice."

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