HARTLAND, Maine — Pfc. Tyler Springmann was exactly where he wanted to be when he died Sunday in Afghanistan: leading a dangerous patrol and following in the footsteps of his father.
Army Staff Sgt. Robert Springmann said his 19-year-old son always wanted to take “the point” of any patrol, mostly to protect fellow soldiers from snipers, ambushes and bombs buried in their path.
“He tried to do what I do,” said Springmann, who as a 14-year Army veteran handles a military dog trained to sniff out the improvised explosive devices that are the bane of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as well as the Afghan populace.
“He always tried to take the point, just like I do. He wanted to emulate that and always be out in front,” said Springmann. “His views were like mine. Nobody’s going to go in front of me.”
Though Springmann doesn’t know exactly where his son was patrolling Sunday, he knows well the insidious challenge he faced. Outmatched and outgunned, insurgents and Taliban fighters resort to sneak attacks, including burying explosives in the ground that detonate remotely or when they are stepped on.
Tyler Springmann was part of a foot patrol Sunday in southern Afghanistan. As the point man, said his father, he would have been scouring the ground in front of him for subtle signs of a bomb: a suspicious mound, a couple of rocks stacked together, a concentration of footprints. Springmann had been on point before and had found at least two bombs, said his father, which means he undoubtedly saved some of his brothers-in-arms, and maybe civilians.
But on Sunday, Springmann stepped on a pressure plate that his father said had probably been in the ground for days, if not weeks — meaning there was no visible warning. A battery pack linked to a detonator and probably a mass of fertilizer-based explosive erupted with a deafening crash and killed the gregarious 19-year-old Nokomis Regional High School graduate.
Tyler Springmann lived with his father in Texas for about two years before Robert Springmann was deployed to Iraq. Tyler came to Hartland to live with his mother, Tina Webber, when he was about 16 years old. A full three years passed before father and son saw each other again. Their reunion was this past April in Afghanistan. Robert Springmann entered a vast building containing more than 150 bunk beds and yelled, “Where’s PFC Springmann?”
“He came over and I threw my arms around him,” said Springmann. “We spent about three days together.”
The father and son talked mostly about their roles in the war, but also were able to mend some old emotional wounds between them, which Springmann said in retrospect were never that serious to begin with. Gone was the goofing-around teenager, replaced by a soldier who every day stared at death and destruction and didn’t look away.
“He had a real sense of duty and responsibility,” said Springmann. “I let him know how much more mature he was and how proud I was of him. He said, ‘I probably should have listened to you about some things, but I’m learning. I’m making mistakes.’ He’d done a lot of growing and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Springmann said his tour in Afghanistan was wrapping up Sunday. He was having his dog, a Belgian malinois named Frieda, checked by a veterinarian so she could be cleared to fly home. A special forces commander brought the terrible news that his son had died about eight hours earlier. Springmann left the dog and all his equipment behind so he could go to his son’s remains, which by that time had been taken to Germany. Springmann accompanied the coffin to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where a solemn ceremony reserved for fallen soldiers took place Tuesday.
“Honestly, I always thought it would be the other way around,” said Springmann. “This was my sixth deployment. I thought he’d be bringing me home in a box.”
The night before Tyler Springmann’s death, the father and son chatted on Facebook. Tyler told his father that his base was being shot at from time to time, but that he felt safe.
“I told him I loved him and that I was proud of him,” said Springmann. “He said the same thing back. Him saying that to me was pretty special.”
As it typically goes on Facebook, the conversation ended abruptly. Tyler Springmann’s final words to his father were “hey, I gotta go.”
Today, Robert Springmann finds himself torn between two emotions: intense pride that only a soldier can understand tempered by the empty sorrow of a grieving father.
“There’s so much I wanted to see him do and I will not be able to,” he said. “I wanted to see him have a family and raise his own kids. I wanted grandchildren. That’s all been stolen away from me by some coward in Afghanistan.”
Springmann said Tyler’s funeral will be sometime in the next few days, likely in the Newport area. The services have not yet been arranged. Asked if he regrets his and Tyler’s always wanting to be the point man on patrol, Springmann said no way.
“I’m going to go out there and find as many IEDs as I can, until one finds me,” he said. “I’m not going to let another kid go home without legs, or worse. I’m not going to stop doing that until we get out of there.”