PALMER - Mae Woods sat up tall Monday in a chair inside St. John's Lutheran Church, both hands gripping a silver-colored thermal coffee mug.
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The mug belonged to her son, Shane Woods, a 23-year-old Army specialist. She has held onto the mug since learning of her son's death Wednesday in Iraq.
"This was Shane's cup, it belonged to him," she said.
Mae and her husband, Wayne, were at the church to field reporters' questions after the U.S. Department of Defense released news of Woods' death Monday morning. Woods and two other soldiers from the Army's 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, 1st Armored Division were killed in Ar Ramadi when an improvised explosive device detonated near their Humvee, according to the release.
In addition to his parents, Woods is survived by a sister, Stephanie, a freshman at Palmer High School.
Woods, a 2003 Palmer High School graduate, loved the Iraqi people and believed in the mission, Mae Woods said. He served as a tank loader gunner and as a driver for his company's first sergeant and commanding officer, his father said. He was stationed in Friedberg, Germany, when he was deployed first to Kuwait in January and then to Iraq on Feb. 1.
Though his unit had been engaged in heavy combat every day for the past several weeks, Woods was not afraid, his mother said. His Christian faith, she said, gave him strength.
"He always said, 'Mommy, no matter what, you don't have to worry. I'm in God's hands and no matter what happens, I'm OK,'" Mae Woods said.
As she spoke, Wayne Woods thumbed through a folder full of photographs. One featured Woods at the family's bear camp in Cordova, another standing atop Bodenburg Butte. He loved Alaska, his parents said. He especially loved the Taylor Mountains in Western Alaska and the Chugach Mountains in Southcentral.
Woods spent the better part of his youth in those mountains, helping the family run its guided-hunting service, Woods Outfitting in Wasilla, Wayne Woods said. Over the years, he said, his son amassed friends from across the country through the family business.
And he amassed friends in Iraq, he said.
"He was a beacon of strength to everyone who knew him," Wayne Woods said.
Woods is the second young man from Palmer to die in Iraq. Sgt. Kurtis Arcala, 22, died Sept. 11, 2005, also the victim of an improvised explosive device.
Mary Ann Probasco's grandson Peter Isackson was a lifelong friend of Woods. Isackson, his grandmother said, is also stationed at an Army post in Germany, and visited Woods a few times before he was deployed to Iraq.
Isackson reported that Woods' enthusiasm for his mission was infectious, Probasco said. People couldn't help but like him, a report that came as no surprise, she said.
"You never saw him without a smile. He was virtually bubbling about his opportunity to do things there," Probasco said.
Woods knew from the time that he was a small boy that he wanted to be a soldier, his father said.
As a freshman he joined the Junior ROTC program at Colony High School. The move changed his life, Wayne Woods said.
"He was a real difficult kid just to keep up with," he said.
Woods had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which made it tough for him to keep up in school, his father said. But membership in JROTC gave the teen a newfound focus, he said.
"He was able to overcome that," Wayne Woods said. When Shane graduated in 2003 he was earning almost all A's, his father said.
Gov. Frank Murkowski has ordered all flags to be flown at half-staff in Woods' honor until Friday.
A memorial for Shane Woods is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at the First Baptist Church in Palmer.
Joe Geraci, a former Palmer High School teacher who now lives in Colorado, said Shane Woods was a student he wouldn't forget. Geraci said Woods and a few of his friends ate lunch in his classroom nearly every day during Woods' sophomore year.
"They just hung out and talked. They were good kids, hard-working," he said. Shane's enthusiasm and his respect for everyone around him made him easy to like, Geraci said.
He said he developed a relationship with Woods and his family that's lasted through the years since Woods' graduation.
"We always, in education, talk about how kids are impacted by teachers so much. Very seldom do teachers talk about the impact kids make on their lives," Geraci said. "Shane was one of those kids who touched me, and he touched everyone around him."