DLA civilian killed in Afghanistan left legacy of service, friendship

By Beth Reece DLA Public Affairs

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Valerie Byus already knew how to weather long months apart from her husband, Steve, when he deployed to a war zone for the third time in 10 years. As a Navy reservist, he had little choice about leaving his family behind for two separate tours in Iraq. But his deployment to Afghanistan in 2014 as a Defense Logistics Agency civilian was a choice the couple made together.
 
“He wanted to volunteer and asked me if it was OK. We talked about it, and he knew I didn’t want him to leave us this time,” Valerie said. “But I also didn’t want to be the person to hold him back from what he really wanted to do, so I supported him.”
 
Byus left for Kabul in July, certain he could help the Afghan military improve its maintenance and supply systems, both so inadequate that units lacked basic things like engine oil and winter uniforms. On Sept. 16, he was heading downtown to brief the Afghan minister of defense for logistics when he became the first DLA employee killed in the decade-long war.
 
It was Byus’ first time off the U.S. compound, a decision made by then Navy Capt. James Liberko, the leader of six DLA employees who’d deployed for the Department of Defense-led mission. The team had been struggling to make Afghan army leaders understand the new supply system they wanted to put in place.
 
“Steve came up with a briefing that I thought was truly brilliant. He compared the supply system to a gas gauge and how it tells you how much gas you have, how many miles you’ve driven and when you’ll need to fill up again. We were positive the Afghans could relate to it,” Liberko said.
 
He was proud of Byus’ work and offered him the chance to brief dignitaries at the Afghan Ministry of Defense, a task Liberko always did himself. But as they headed downtown during morning rush hour in a two-vehicle convoy, a red Toyota Corolla started following them. At a crowded intersection, the driver pulled between them and detonated 250 pounds of explosives. Byus died instantly, one day after his 12th wedding anniversary. He was 39 years old and a father of two: 9-year-old Alexandria and 6-year-old Jacob.
 
Valerie was on the phone with her husband that morning when the line suddenly cut out. She isn’t sure if they were just disconnected or if he was on the phone at the time of the attack.
 
“I blamed myself for a long time,” she said. “But if I’d told him, ‘No, don’t go,’ he would have convinced me everything would be fine. That’s just how he was. He was determined he could make a difference.”
 
Byus joined DLA Land and Maritime as an intern in 2008 and had worked his way up to GS-12 by the time he deployed to Afghanistan. He had also served with a DLA Disposition Services expeditionary disposal remediation team, part of the DLA Joint Reserve Force, since 2002, first as an enlisted sailor, then as a Navy officer.
 
“He had the air about him, and the intelligence and foresight, of a very seasoned GS-15. It was obvious why he volunteered; he was a go-getter, someone you could give things to and forget about, because he got them done and did them the right way,” said Liberko, who retired from the military and DLA Logistics Operations in May.
 
Byus will be inducted into the DLA Hall of Fame during a ceremony at McNamara Headquarters Complex July 14. He is already a member of the DLA Land and Maritime Hall of Fame. The attention and praise would have humbled her husband, Valerie said.
 
“To him, serving his country was the best thing he ever did,” she said. “It made him who he was.”
 
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 triggered Byus’ interest in the military. He and Valerie had been dating for four years and worked together assembling frozen Totino’s pizzas at a Pillbury plant in Wellston, Ohio, when he joined the Navy in July 2002. Two months later they married, and in late 2004, Byus went on his first deployment to what was then called the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office at Camp Anaconda, Iraq, where he helped take in surplus and damaged property from warfighters.
 
Back home, Valerie carried their firstborn, fearful her husband wouldn’t make it home in time for the birth. Doctors had to induce labor three weeks early, but Byus returned 11 days before their baby girl was born.
 
Byus’ second deployment, in 2010, was to Al Asad airbase, Iraq. It was there that he left an enduring impression on then 22-year-old Bryan Brumfield, a newbie to the Joint Reserve Force and the disposal team.
 
“Steve was probably the first person in DLA to introduce himself to me. He was a very likable person, and I instantly connected with him,” said Brumsfield, who is still part of the team and works full-time as a material examiner and identifier for a DLA Disposition Services sub-site in Columbus, Ohio.
 
Byus was a petty officer first class with aspirations of becoming an officer in the Navy Supply Corps when the two deployed together. He easily slipped into the role of Brumfield’s mentor, schooling him on the methods of property disposal and basic military knowledge.
 
“Throughout our deployment together, Steve tried to make me a better sailor and taught me how to become the subject matter expert that he was,” Brumfield said.
 
His leadership style was patient and nurturing, but Byus could also be demanding. Brumfield remembers one hot morning when he was told to clean the shabby Ford truck they’d been using to get around the base. Brumfield removed some trash from the back of the extended cab and called the job “done,” thinking not much could improve the vehicle’s condition. Byus wasn’t pleased when he inspected the vehicle later that morning. He made Brumfield clean it again.
 
“I had to spend two hours detailing that truck, washing it, cleaning the rims, the whole 9 yards. It looked brand new by the time I was done, and he wouldn’t let me go to lunch until I’d done the job right.”
 
The two were so close by the end of the deployment that Brumfield became a mainstay in the Byus family home, attending weekend parties or sleeping there on drill weekends. Even Brumfield’s civilian career was influenced by Byus, after he helped Brumfield build a civilian resume and sang his praises to prospective employers.
 
“Steve was just always there for me,” he said.
 
At a cookout in early summer 2014, Byus told Brumfield that he’d volunteered to deploy to Kabul to help improve the Afghan military’s logistics system.
 
“He told me he was going as a civilian this time but decided to sign a waiver allowing him to carry an M4 and 9Mil. It was in the news that a general officer had recently been killed there, and it scared Valerie,” Brumfield said.
 
Disbelief so consumed Brumfield when he learned about Byus’ death on Sept. 17 that he looked to news reports for confirmation. He found it on CNN, which aired footage of the attack scene with three bodies lying on the ground.
 
Valerie was at work when officials delivered the news. By then, she’d received several text messages from acquaintances at DLA Land and Maritime asking if they could come see her.
 
“I knew before they got there. It was such a sick feeling, but I knew inside that he was gone,” she said.
 
As Byus’ remains made the journey from Kabul to mortuary affairs at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, friends and neighbors in his hometown of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, planted more than 8,000 miniature U.S. flags along the 20-mile stretch of road to be taken by the funeral procession.
 
Brumfield presented the American flag to Valerie during the funeral on Sept. 28, vowing to keep his friend and mentor’s memory alive. Knowing Byus hoped to put away some of the money he earned in Afghanistan for his kids’ college education, Brumfield started a fund at http://www.gofundme.com for just that.
 
Valerie has kept her husband’s memory alive by placing pictures of her husband in every room of the house so she and the kids can see his face whenever they need to. Talking about him is still hard, and every time her heart starts to heal, another flashback of their happy marriage brings back the pain.
 
“It’s hard to go on some days,” she said.
 
Liberko, who suffered injuries to his left arm during the attack, stayed in Afghanistan to honor Byus’ dedication to the mission. Out of respect, he has not contacted Valerie. Things he’d say if he did: Steve was the guy I could always count on. No one believed in the mission more than he did.
 
“And Steve talked about Valerie and the kids all the time. He truly, deeply loved his family,” he said.