Not many people, including her parents, considered Sam W. Huff to be obvious Army material. She was petite—just over 5 feet tall—didn’t play any major sports and was best known at Tucson’s Mountain View High School for her striking beauty and sharp fashion sense.
But the marching band drum major was also feisty and persistent, a conductor with a loud voice and commanding presence. With relatives who had served in the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, the 18-year-old had precise career goals: a tour of duty in the military, a college degree in psychology and a job at the FBI profiling criminals. After graduating from high school last year, Huff completed the grueling months of basic training and then, around Christmas, visited her old stomping grounds before being deployed to Iraq.
“She told me basic training was really hard, how she was having problems with her knee and that they tried talking her out of the Army,” said Ellen Kirkbride, band director at Mountain View. “But she pleaded with them to stay. She would have felt as if she failed. She was tough.”
On April 18, 2005, Private First Class Huff died in Baghdad from injuries she received the night before when the Humvee she was driving was hit by a roadside bomb, according to the Army. Yesterday, she became the 130th soldier killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. She was a member of the 170th Military Police Company, 504th Military Police Battalion, 42nd Military Police Brigade, based at Fort Lewis, Washington.
Her parents, Robert Huff, 50, a retired police detective-turned-musician, and Margaret Williams, 52, a former Marine and communications supervisor for a suburban Tucson police department, accepted the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Good Conduct Medal on her behalf during the service.
Robert Huff, who spoke with Army officials about the circumstances of his daughter’s death, said that she had spent the night of April 17 guarding an Iraqi police station. She and others in her unit were headed back to their base on the outskirts of Baghdad when an improvised explosive devise detonated next to the Humvee’s driver’s side. Huff was the only one seriously injured, according to Major Elizabeth Robbins, an Army spokeswoman.
The blast severed Huff’s leg, and “there was nothing anyone could do and she bled to death,” Robert Huff said. Huff was supposed to operate the machine gun on the top of the Humvee, he said, but she was not strong enough to load the weapon quickly. So, the petite soldier with a penchant for Disney ballads learned how to pilot the monstrous Humvee.
Teachers at Mountain View High said the community has been crushed by her death. At a recent memorial service at Casas Adobes Baptist Church in Tucson, the marching band played two of her favorite ballads, Kirkbride said: one from “Beauty and the Beast,” another from “The Little Mermaid.” On the stage, a black marching band hat—adorned with a plume of black and silver feathers—sat next to her combat helmet, Kirkbride said.
Robert Huff said he’ll never forget what an Army official told him about his daughter’s last moments. As she was bleeding, she told a sergeant next to her that she wanted him to pass along a message to her parents. “He said, ‘No, you’ll be able to make the call yourself.’ Then she said: ‘No, I don’t think I can make it. Tell my mom I love her, and tell my Dad good luck with his album.’ ”
Sam Williams Huff was barely a year out of her drum major’s uniform, prom dress and high school graduation cap and gown in April when she was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
Her father remembers the 18-year-old Fort Lewis military policewoman as a “girlie girl and a soldier’s soldier.” In 10 months, she journeyed from the teenage dramas of high school to the real life drama of Iraq, where her sergeant cradled her in his arms after a bomb exploded by her Humvee.
“She couldn’t have turned out any better,” said her father, Bob, 51, a retired Tucson police officer. “I’m prejudiced as hell, but she was as close to perfect as anyone could have been. She was just beautiful inside and out.”
Sam Huff is one of the 2,000 men and women in uniform who have died in Iraq and one of 107 with ties to Washington, reflecting in part this state’s strong military presence in the war. In the last two years, 8,000 soldiers from two Fort Lewis Stryker brigades and 4,000 Washington National Guardsmen with the 81st Combat Brigade Combat Team have been in Iraq. Those units have returned, but smaller units from Washington bases, as well as the state’s National Guard and Reserve segments, continue to deploy. Perhaps more than 2,000 are there now.
Many who died were like Huff, young, committed and willing to serve. They left behind families who alternately worried and waited and now grieve and search for answers. “I don’t know what 2,000 means to me other than it’s too damn many,” Bob Huff said. The Huffs feel for such parents as Cindy Sheehan who channel their grief into efforts against the war, but they think such protests are misplaced. “You can’t blame anybody but the enemy for what happens,” Bob Huff said.
Bob Huff served 25 years as a Tucson police officer before retiring last year to make his longtime passion, the guitar, a career. His wife, Maggie Williams, who served with the Marine Corps in Vietnam 35 years ago, works for the Oro Valley (Ariz.) Police Department. She is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
They called their daughter Sam. It was her name, not her nickname.
“In school when she wanted to do something, she excelled,” Huff’s father said, recalling her performance in a dance group. “She had a smile as big as (the grill of) an Edsel.”
Huff surprised her parents when she made up her mind to join the Army. It was a means to an education and a future in the FBI, but “she and her fellow soldiers have embraced an ideal of duty, honor and country in a big way,” he said.
Despite 12- to 15-hour days at war, she was enrolled in online college courses. “She was definitely a girlie girl but was tough and driven. She had a great heart,” her father said.
“When it happened to Sam there were a lot of broken hearts over there,” Huff recalled. “She was known to everyone from the colonel on down. She just was a go-getter and stuck out in a crowd. They called her an ‘exceptional soldier.’ ”
When she was laid to rest at Arlington, Huff’s mother had her own Marine Corps dress blues put into Sam’s coffin. She said, “Bury them with her because I have no one to give them to now.”
We honor you, Sam Huff.