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Soldier's bravery, generous spirit celebrated by family, friends

Memorial service draws 1,000 who remember Sunset alum John Pelham for his drive, contribution to family


by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Military honor guard pallbearers carry U.S. Army Spc. John Alexander Pelham's casket to a hearse Monday afternoon for burial at Willamette National Cemetery.John Alexander Pelham made his mark on the world in the highly disciplined, tough-as-nails grind of a U.S. Army Special Forces unit.

Lurking beneath the stone-faced bravery depicted in his military photos, however, was an eager-to-entertain free spirit — one who, as his 15-year-old younger brother recalled on Monday morning, liked to spend leisure hours in orange-colored Crocs.by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Spc. John 'Alex' Pelham grew up in Beaverton. This photo captures a moment with his sister, Lyndsey Lederer.

“My brother and I always made fun of him for wearing them, but he told me it didn’t matter because he liked them,” said Dylan Pelham of his older sibling’s fondness for foam footwear. “We asked him what you could do in Crocs, and he said, ‘You can do anything you want in Crocs,’ and started running laps around the property.

“He was always willing to make us happy.”

Dylan was among those who lovingly shared stories about the son, brother, nephew, friend and fiancé they knew as “Alex” — sometimes even “Jalex” — at a memorial service for him at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 4195 S.W. 99th Ave., in Beaverton. Nearly 1,000 relatives, friends, military veterans and community members turned out for the 90-minute service honoring U.S. Army Spc. Pelham.

The 2010 Sunset High School graduate was killed in action on Feb. 12, in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan. Serving his second “Operation Enduring Freedom” tour of duty with the 2nd Batallion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), Pelham, 22, was struck and killed by enemy small-arms gunfire. Sgt. First Class Roberto C. Skelt, 41, of York, Fla., also died in the onslaught.by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Wendall Pelham, the father of U.S. Army Spc. John Alexander Pelham, speaks to the media following his son's funeral on Monday afternoon in Beaverton.

A name to remember

In addition to those who packed the church’s sanctuary and adjacent gymnasium, dozens more lined the flag-marked funeral procession route along Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway near the church. Standing in a steady rain, mourners paid their respects as Pelham’s flag-draped casket was transported to Willamette National Cemetery in Southeast Portland, where the solider was buried on Monday afternoon with full military honors.

A Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue truck hoisted a large American flag from a ladder in the church parking lot. Members of the Patriot Guard Riders lined the driveway and parking lot, each manning a flag and standing at attention.

Flags flew at half-staff not only at Beaverton-area public buildings, but across the state after an order from Gov. John Kitzhaber on Friday, Feb. 21, to honor Pelham’s sacrifice to his country.

Bishop Stuart Harris of the church’s West Hills Stake led the memorial service, which featured touching musical interludes including the hymns “Have I Done Any Good?” and “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and family friend John Peterson singing “Oh That I Were an Angel,” accompanied by JaneAnne Peterson. Applause followed a heartrending version of the “Star Spangled Banner” sung by Halle Lederer, Alex’s 5-year-old niece.

“Anyone want to follow that?” asked Alex’s father Wendall, who followed his granddaughter to the podium, adding “my heart is extremely full of love and compassion.”

Explaining Alex’s decision while at Sunset High School to go by the first name “John” to honor his grandfather and other family members with the name, Wendall noted the family’s proud military lineage.

“The Pelhams are very blessed,” he said. “We come from a very long line of distinguished service men and women ... We were blessed to have numbers of soldiers fight in the Civil War ... It’s in our family blood. It’s part of our tree.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jeff Keller, the father of Pfc. Andrew Keller who was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2012, gives his condolences to Wendall Pelham, the father of U.S. Army Spc. John Alexander Pelham.

Bigger than life ... and death

Alex enlisted in the Army in 2011, following in the footsteps of his uncle and U.S. Army colonel grandfather, John, for whom John Alex Pelham was named.

The younger Pelham grew up in Tigard and Beaverton, where he attended Cedar Park Middle School. He temporarily left Sunset High to enroll in the Bend-based Oregon National Guard’s Youth Challenge Program.

Wendall praised his son’s accomplishments, generosity and willingness to help those in need.

“John Alexander Pelham ... was bigger than life, and God bless him, he’s even bigger than death,” he said. “Everything he did was big. John had a heart as big as his life. Those who were considered downtrodden or not popular, or just different, he’d be the one to go take care of ‘em. He’d be the one to step up and go, ‘Really, you want to pick on this guy? How about me? Go ahead, take your best shot.’”

“We were so blessed to have him in our lives,” Wendall added.

Alex’s fiancé, Laura Graue, admitted reservations about hitching her wagon to a dedicated, determined soldier, but looked forward to a long, happy life with the young man she unconditionally loved.

“Being in a relationship with a military man is never easy,” she said. “But as long as I was with him, I was the happiest girl in the world ... John came into my life for a reason. His work will not be forgotten.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The Pelham family stands outside the Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints after the casket of U.S. Army Spc. John Alexander Pelham is placed in a hearse.

A mother’s love

Fighting back tears, Alex’s mother Dawn spoke of her son’s big smile, infectious laugh and affinity for engaging stories. One of his favorites involved a fellow young soldier who’d gone through some basic training classes in Alex’s wake.

“When they were introducing him, the (soldier) just said, ‘No way!’” Dawn shared from the podium. “He said, ‘Yep, I’m John Pelham.’”

Incredulous at the fellow’s head-shaking amazement, Alex finally asked what he was thinking.

“The guy said, ‘We thought they made you up, man!’” Dawn said to hearty laughter from the audience. “(Alex) is like, ‘No. Here I am. I did it all.’

“He had to be the best at what he did,” his mother added. “We’re grateful that he lived the way he wanted to live, that he accomplished what he wanted to, and we’re so grateful to know he’ll forever be part of our family.

“Alex, I love you so much. I miss you so much. I can’t wait to see you again,” she said. “Thank you for being my son.”

The Pelham family asks those wishing to donate to the National Guard’s Oregon Youth Challenge Program on Alex’s behalf to contact Karen Rawnsley, at 541-317-9623, ext. 226, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or mail a check to Oregon Youth Challenge, 23861 Dodds Road, Bend 97701.by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber ordered American flags to be flown at half staff on Monday in honor of the life and service of U.S. Army Spc. John A. Pelham.by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Patriot Guard Riders and veterans Roy DuVal, left, and Harold 'Butch' Scott walk back to their post as guests arrive at the Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints for the funeral of U.S. Army Spc. John Pelham, who was killed in combat in Afghanistan.by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Patriot Guard Rider James Allensworth of Beaverton stands at attention prior to Monday morning's funeral service for U.S. Army Spc. John A. Pelham at the Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints in Beaverton.by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Patriot Guard Rider and veteran Harold 'Butch' Scott unrolls an American flag before joining other veterans lining the entrance to the funeral service for 2010 Sunset High School graduate Spc. John A. Pelham.by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Hundreds of community members lined Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway in a show of support to the family of Spc. John A. Pelham as they traveled to Willamette National Cemetery, where the Beaverton soldier was laid to rest with full military honors.