LOVELAND, Colo. -- The worst day of her life. That’s how U.S. Army Spc. Gabriel Conde’s mom, Donna, described the day she learned of her 22-year old son’s death.
Bob and Donna Conde knew Gabe was destined to enlist, but they thought he would come home from Afghanistan.
Gabe was killed in a combat operation April 30th from small arms fire. He was part of the 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division based in Alaska and his team was supposed to return to Alaska on May 20. They had just one last mission.
Gabe was born in Missouri and his family moved to Colorado when he entered the 8th grade in Berthoud. From the time he was a little boy, he went nowhere without his white hat. It was his trademark Colorado look. That, along with his cowboy boots.
His parents proudly stand next to a display of photos of Gabe, showing him from the time he was a chubby-faced happy baby, to his stern military look in his boot camp photo. Bob and Donna chuckle as they look at a photo of Gabe and his two younger sisters, Olivia and Priscilla, with Gabe wearing that hat.
“If he didn’t have to be in his military gear, he would have on his boots and hat, even if he had shorts on, he wore his cowboy boots.”
Gabe loved the outdoors his dad says.
“He loved hunting and camping. Not fishing necessarily. Just outside, chopping wood, one of those kind of guys.”
He was also athletic, running cross country at Berthoud High School and the 400 meters. Gabe was also smart. His mom describes him as a stellar student who attended Colorado School of Mines. He left Mines because he wanted to be in the Army.
“I’d say it was his passion, most of his life” says Bob. “We raised him to be a true gentleman and he believed it, and that was always good. We taught him, you never hit girls, your fiercely protect your sisters anytime. And he took that to heart. And love your family, love your country and love God most of all. And he lived it, to his very last day.”
Gabe’s unit had been in Alaska since September, part of Operation Freedom Sentinel. He was a sawgunner and was sent out on missions. He texted his parents just before his final mission:
"We are about to embark on a quest, please pray that it is lively and God is glorified."
That was the last time they heard from Gabe.
“I heard the heavy tread of footsteps across the deck, I saw the silhouette, I felt devastated before I even opened it and saw who I knew it was.”
Donna was home alone when there was a knock at her door and she saw a chaplain and a captain from Fort Carson.
“I was like, 'no, no, no, no, no, this is not supposed to happen, he was going to come home alive, he told me he would come home alive.'”
Bob was at work when his phone started buzzing. “And the text just said, 'emergency, come home now.'”
And so began the heartbreaking rituals for a heartbroken military family.
They were at Dover Air Base on May 4 for Gabe’s arrival on U.S. soil, to witness the dignified transfer ceremony, the careful ritual of bringing our war dead home.
And they came back to Colorado to wait for Gabe. They found comfort in a gesture from their neighbors, many of whom they don’t know, who had lined their Loveland neighborhood with small U.S. flags. Dozens of flags - and trees - wrapped in red, white and blue ribbon.
Donna says, “it made me cry when I saw them first.” “Me too,” says Bob.
“We knew we raised a young man that would give his life for another and that’s why it is so hard to say good-bye to him. But I also believe he would do it again and he thinks it was worth it all. I know he thinks that.”
They describe how Gabe had found his purpose in Afghanistan, noticing a change in his voice last November.
He was working alongside Afghan soldiers fighting the Taliban and made friends. He liked Afghanistan, the country, the people.
“He talked about the people and how oppressed they were, he got the reason they were helping these people.” Donna says.
Their son was particularly interested in helping victims of human trafficking, something he had witnessed and wanted to go back and do someday.
“God was calling him to this mission. Physically, he wanted to pull them out. He has a fierce, keen sense of justice. You don’t mess with his sisters and if he’s around you, you don’t mess with any kids," Bob says. "We raised him that way and he definitely became that man.”
Bob says Gabe’s rescue plan for Afghan children was more like a business plan, not just high hopes of someday going back.
When asked about the thought of our troops still fighting in Afghanistan, Bob says, “a year I ago, I was there. Why? I know now. I know Gabe was sent there by God to be there at that time to do the work he was doing, protecting innocent people in Afghanistan. Training the Afghan people, the warriors of Afghanistan - to be able to protect their own people, to do things that’s in their heart. They don’t have the resources.”
You might think Gabe knew all along what his future held. Growing up, he was a prolific writer and his dad proudly reads aloud one of his favorite poems Gabe wrote in 2014 when he was still a student at Colorado School of Mines:
"To snatch the young from the jaws of death not caring if people adore me… the reward from saving just one life… to fill the gentle rush would fuel my hope to save another until my breath is hushed."
Gabriel David Conde, the boy in the white hat who became a man in uniform, is a true Colorado hero.
The Conde family has decided to start a Gabe Conde Memorial Fund. Checks can be mailed or dropped off at Howe Mortuary in Longmont, or at any FirstBank location. The family wants to continue Gabe’s dream of helping rescue victims of human trafficking in Afghanistan.