When James Riney’s mother took him shopping for bedding to outfit his room in their new house, the 4-year-old considered a few options: sharks, dinosaurs, comic book superheroes. He passed on all three.
“Can we do superheroes like my daddy?” James asked.
Sgt. Douglas Riney, 26, was shot and killed by a suspected Taliban infiltrator in Afghanistan nearly two years ago. James barely remembers him, his mother Kylie Riney said, but his awe for him and others in uniform has been shaped by memorials and ceremonies he’s attended since his father was killed.
Earlier this month, she put out a call on social media for military or public safety uniform patches to use to decorate his room in their house in Farmington, Ill. So far, one package of patches has arrived, she told Stars and Stripes on Wednesday, shortly after popular Facebook page “U.S. Army WTF! Moments” shared her request.
James, who can pinpoint his father in photos around the house, plays hero nearly every day with his sister, Elea, who will turn 6 the day after the second anniversary of their father’s death in October.
They don whatever gear is on hand. A green “junior zookeeper” vest with cargo pockets, a toy construction helmet and rain boots have served as proxies for kiddie combat gear. They go on patrol hunting down the family dogs.
In the bathroom one night, the 4-year-old placed rain boots on a neon pink stool in front of the sink, a toy rifle pinched between their rubber soles and a helmet in front of them — a child’s version of the battlefield cross that is a familiar symbol of Americans killed in far-flung conflicts.
He was already asleep when his mother discovered it, and she left it up until morning, when she asked why he’d put it there.
“For my daddy in heaven,” he replied.
Father-to-be to sergeant-to-be
Born on Fort Stewart in Georgia and raised in Central Illinois, Douglas Riney was in his early 20s and hadn’t begun dating his future wife when he decided to join the Army. His father, a Gulf War veteran, had been a sergeant, his grandfather, too, and he was committed to serve at least until reaching the same rank.
By the time he reported for basic training in 2012, the couple were together and expecting a child. He was in training as a fueler when his daughter was born, the first of many moments he would miss for the Army.
His wife and newborn joined him in December of that year, when he was assigned to Fort Hood, Texas. His son was 4 months old in July 2014, when he deployed to Afghanistan with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment.
Cindy Chacon, a platoon mate sent with Douglas Riney to Logar province’s Forward Operating Base Shank, said his face would light up when he spoke about his wife and children.
“His pride and joy,” she said Friday. “That’s what kept a smile on his face every single day, all day long.”
He was the most motivated person she knew and a selfless leader, she said.
The deployment boded well for his career when he was promoted to corporal and saw sergeant within reach, his wife said. After returning home in early 2015, he worked toward the promotion, doing any coursework he could and taking on responsibilities.
His former platoon sergeant, retired Master Sgt. Christopher Key, said that he had aced an arms room course that was a challenge just to pass, officials with the cavalry regiment said this week.
“The plan was he was making it a career,” his wife said. “Everything was working out great.”
He expected to remain in the rear during the 3rd Cavalry Regiment Support Squadron’s Afghanistan rotation in June 2016, but was later told he’d be shipping out in someone else’s place, his wife said. Once in Afghanistan, he hoped to quickly pin on his third chevron.
“All he was waiting on was for (the promotion scores) to be posted,” she said. “Then he was killed.”
‘He went out as a sergeant’
He was providing “guardian angel” security for a team checking on an ammunition supply point at Camp Morehead, outside the Afghan capital, on Oct. 19, 2016. His wife said she was fully briefed on the events that day earlier this summer.
The three U.S. soldiers and three U.S. civilians ventured outside the coalition side of base, not aware that their mission had been scrubbed, she said. As they were getting into their vehicles after being turned away at the supply point gate, a man in an Afghan army uniform opened fire on them.
Civilian Rick Alford, a 20-year Army veteran who was shot, said on Facebook in the days after that he thought he might die. Despite being wounded, Army Capt. Scott Rankin crawled over and dragged him to another vehicle so they could “get the hell out of Dodge,” Alford said.
The attacker was chased, but killed himself before he could be caught, Kylie Riney was told.
Riney and Michael G. Sauro, a 40-year-old Army civilian, died. A third civilian, Rodney Henderson, was wounded but survived.
Riney was posthumously promoted to sergeant. Days later, the promotion scores came out, and he had made the cut. Had he lived, he likely would have been promoted within about a month.
“No matter what, he went out as a sergeant,” his widow said.
Capt. Jason Welch, a spokesman for the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, said “he absolutely earned it” by laying down his life. “We see him as a hero.”
A soldier remembered
At a memorial service at Fort Hood, soldiers eulogized Riney from a podium beside a battlefield cross. A similar cross was displayed at a service in the church he attended off-base, his widow said.
There were more ceremonies. Bystanders on flag-lined streets saluted or held hands to heart during a hometown funeral procession with police cars, fire trucks and motorcycles.
Months later, officials gathered the family and dedicated part of Illinois Route 78 near Douglas Riney’s hometown of Fairview in his honor, and last month another ceremony marked the official renaming of the village post office for him.
Such scenes have left their impressions on his children, who only partially understand their significance.
James sometimes randomly salutes people, occasionally with the wrong hand, his mother said. He and his sister don’t quite know right from left, but they know to stand for the national anthem and hold one of those hands over their hearts.
“They know if they want to talk to him, we go to the cemetery,” she said. “They know he died a hero.”
When the community raised $1,200 for the family, she donated it to the local library, partly to buy 55 books to help spouses and children cope with military life or a parent’s death, said Rebecca Seaborn, the library’s assistant director.
It’s just one way the family tries to aid the community in the name of a young soldier they said lived his life for others. There are annual memorial motorcycle rides to benefit area fire departments and a yearly 5K run that funds a local scholarship.
“We’re trying to do a lot of things to keep his name and memory alive,” said Pamela Boland, his mother.
Kylie Riney hopes to use donated uniform patches not just as decoration for her son’s “hero bedroom” but as a memorial to those whose deaths have left holes in other families, too.
“In our eyes, they’re all heroes,” she said.
To contribute patches:
Send to James Riney, 362 E. Court St., Farmington, Ill. 61531
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