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First Lt. Christopher Goeke was scheduled to return home from Afghanistan to Apple Valley next month. A star student who graduated sixth in his class at West Point and married his wife, Kelsey, 18 months ago, Goeke planned to attend captains' school in Colorado. He shared his big plans for the future with his dad on his last call home on Father's Day last month.
"He knew how much I loved Colorado and woodworking and building," Randy Goeke recalled Friday from his home in Apple Valley. "He said, 'Dad, you and I and Kelsey's dad are going to build a cabin together in the mountains.' That's the part that wrenches my gut."
Goeke, 23, was one of two Minnesota soldiers killed this week in separate attacks in Afghanistan. The Defense Department said Specialist Matthew J. Johnson, 21, of Maplewood, died Wednesday with three other soldiers from wounds suffered when insurgents attacked their military vehicle with an improvised explosive device in Zabul Province.
Goeke was responding to a Taliban attack on an Afghanistan national Army facility in Kandahar City on Tuesday. He and two staff sergeants died from wounds suffered in the insurgent attack that included small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, the Defense Department said.
Goeke and Johnson are the 14th and 15th soldiers with Minnesota connections killed in Afghanistan in the last five years. Their deaths came just days before the first anniversary of the missile strike that killed three Minnesota National Guard troops last July 16 is Basra, Iraq.
Goeke's father said Chris' voice was "shaky as heck but all proud" when he called on Father's Day. His platoon was among the first into Kandahar.
"He said they'd finally get some support -- obviously it was not soon enough," his father said. "He loved the Army and would do whatever they told him."
But Goeke shared his doubts with his dad about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
"He said: 'It doesn't matter what we do over here, when we get pulled out, it's going to go back to the same way it was -- it's just useless,' " Randy Goeke said.
As the mission grinds on, the slain soldier's father said he hopes political and military leaders reassess the U.S. role in Afghanistan before other families have to make funeral arrangements.
"These guys are scared out of their wits, knowing that it's not going to do any good anyway -- and they're getting killed," he said. "Something has to change. I don't understand why we are there; this makes no sense. These guys aren't defending our country. Why don't they bring the boys home to work with Homeland Security if there's such a threat?"
'Very proud to serve'
Johnson graduated from North St. Paul High School and joined the Army in 2008. His family in Maplewood requested privacy and didn't return phone calls but said in a statement released by the Army that he enjoyed hunting, fishing, snowboarding, skateboarding, basketball and "was very proud to serve in the military."
Six years ago, Goeke granted a 10-question interview with the Star Tribune as he was graduating from Apple Valley High School and heading to West Point.
Asked where he'd like to be stationed, he said in 2004: "There still might be something going on in Iraq or Afghanistan. I wouldn't mind seeing those cultures, I don't feel cultured enough. I feel like I'm from Suburbia, U.S.A."
At Apple Valley High, Goeke captained the mock trial team that finished second in the state tournament and was an accomplished drummer and percussionist. His grandfather served in the military in World War II, but no one else in his family opted for the armed services, his father said.
"He was playing soldier since he was kid, planting booby traps in the backyard," Randy Goeke said, adding that his son had grown into a religious person.
"He was a God-loving man and he brought a lot of people to God, including his soldiers," Randy Goeke said. "He led church services that anyone in his platoon who wanted to could attend. Talk to anyone at West Point and they'll tell you what a great leader he was.
"He'd listen to people, he was empathetic and he'd push them," said his father, who posted these words on his Facebook.com page: "Know you are here with us Chris. When I said, 'I love you, Bud,' I heard the answer. Thank you for being part of my life. I will miss our talks. I will miss your hugs. I will do what I can to honor your short time here with us. Rest easy."
Goeke's widow, Kelsey, lives near Fort Bragg, N.C., where both Goeke and Johnson were based. Goeke was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. Johnson was assigned to the 27th Engineer Battalion, 20th Engineer Brigade of the 18th Airborne Corps.
Funeral arrangement for Johnson and Goeke are pending, but both are expected to be buried in Minnesota.
Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this report.
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767