Malibu honors MHS graduate killed in Iraq

Sgt. Robert T. Ayres III

Sgt. Robert T. Ayres III was inspired to join the military because of the Sept. 11 terroist attacks. He was on his second tour of duty when he was killed. Friends and family said he enjoyed helping the Iraqi people.

By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor

The first known Malibu High School graduate killed in military combat was remembered on Sunday as a mischievous boy who transformed into a leader. Army Sgt. Robert T. Ayres III, who was killed on Sept. 29 in Iraq at age 23, was honored at the eighth annual Veterans Day ceremony at City Hall as friends and family shared their memories of him.

Ayres, who graduated from Malibu High in 2003, realized he wanted to join the military while watching the events on television unfold on Sept. 11, 2001. Nancy Schellkopf, a teacher at Malibu High who helped raise Ayres, said he would often talk about his desire.

“He wanted to make a difference,” she said. “He really felt he had a calling in Iraq.”

Ayres joined the Army not long after graduating from high school. When he was killed, he was on his second tour of duty. Schellkopf, who spoke with Ayres on the telephone regularly while he was in Iraq, said that in one of her final conversations with him, Ayres talked about how proud he was of the men under his command.

“He really did understand and had grown to realize what it is to be a leader, to be responsible and make the right decisions,” Schellkopf said.

Ayres had come a long way from the boy who, on his first day at Malibu High, ran away from the school, requiring Schellkopf to go search for him while then-school principal Mike Matthews watched over her class. Matthews said he had many fond memories of Ayres.

“I got to know students who got into trouble quite a bit,” a smiling Matthews said. “And Robert was in my office more than a couple times. But that’s the very cool thing about being a high school principal, because the ones who get into trouble are the ones who grow the most.”

Matthews said he enjoyed hearing about Ayres’ progression after high school.

“He reminded me that we should never give up on any child,” Matthews said. “He reminded me that anyone among us can go forth and lead us, and protect the freedoms that we all hold so dearly. And he reminded me that all veterans… keep this dream alive for us all.”

Ayres’ older sister, Dorothy, spoke about seeing her brother’s growth into a leader.

“When he joined the Army, I watched him grow from a follower into a leader,” she said. “Such a boy would become a man. He went from being my annoying, obnoxious little brother into a man I was honored and proud to call my brother.”

Ayres was killed during an ambush. While he and his men were taking heavy fire, Ayres pushed them into a doorway and turned around to return fire and cover the soldiers as they moved. He was then hit. Dorothy Ayres said several people have told her that her brother died needlessly because the war in Iraq is a wrong one.

“To these people I have only one thing to say, it would be easy for me to be angry just as it would have been easy for him not to go back to Iraq and not to protect his men that day,” Dorothy Ayres said. “But very few people have the courage to stand up for what they believe in. Even fewer would die for that belief. My brother wasn’t fighting for oil or past vendettas. He saw their [Iraqis] needs and he was fighting for freedom, not just the freedom of the men and women in this room and in this country. But he had been to hell and he chose to go back. It was a personal mission. He gave his life so others could have hope, hope that some day the people of Iraq could have some of the freedoms that we so easily take for granted.”

Ayres’ girlfriend, Geralyn Kreiger, talked about communicating with Ayres while he was in Iraq. She said in his letters and e-mails he wrote about the excitement of getting to help the people in Iraq. Ayres did a variety of things, including dismantling bombs.

“That is why Bobby was there,” she said. “He loved the people of Iraq. He loved the children. He loved playing with them.”

Ayres’ friend, Jennifer Niebergall, talked about her high school memories of him, calling Ayres “a true friend.”

“He was always there, ready to enjoy all the success with you or to hold your hand when you fell,” Niebergall said.

This American hero who was remembered so fondly by all who spoke was perhaps summed up best by the final comments from his sister.

“Sgt. Robert T. Ayres was my brother,” she said. “He lived his life with honor and dignity. His selflessness made him a hero. But he never wanted you to call him a hero. Because for him, it was just business as usual.”