A regular day job couldn’t quench Staff Sgt. Orion Sparks' thirst for life.
The Army staff sergeant and Gig Harbor native yearned for adventure. It’s why he enlisted in 2003.
Assigned to 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team out of Schweinfurt, Germany, he was an expert at parachuting.
Check that, he was a parachute-jumping master. He became so good he taught other soldiers how to do it.
When on leave from duty, he snowboarded and loved off-roading in his Jeep.
Last Wednesday, Sparks’ adventure was cut short when he and another soldier died from a suicide bomber who detonated a vest near their patrol in Pul-E Alam, Afghanistan. Sparks was 29.
On Monday, his mother, Jan Hurnblad Sparks, spoke with Patch over the phone from her Gig Harbor home, at times fighting back tears describing her son.
“I felt honored that he was my son and that I was able to be part of his life for 29 years,” she said.
According to the standard issue notification from the Department of Defense, Sparks’ connection to the South Sound is almost non-existent. He was assigned overseas, and his hometown is listed as Tucson, AZ. That’s where he lived when he joined the Army.
But to anyone who knew him, Sparks was a Gig Harbor native. Born in Tacoma, he attended Purdy Elementary, Harbor Ridge Middle School and finally Peninsula High, where he ran track, wrestled and played football. He, his brown hair and his brown eyes moved to Spokane his junior year, where he got his GED, then to Arizona to live with his father, Garry. He tried junior college for a bit, but he needed something different. He needed something with more adventure.
“Orion, from a young child, was somebody who wanted to go out and have an adventure. He just couldn’t wait to get up and go,” said Hurnblad Sparks, a traveling massage therapist who works at a hospice house in University Place. “He wasn’t ready for college and just wanted to get out. He tried a few jobs that are available, and they didn’t really give him much adventure. He checked into the Army and he liked what he saw.”
He had served almost a decade in the Army. He had done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and had re-enlisted twice.
“She let me cry”
The two uniformed military personnel didn’t have to say anything when Hurnblad Sparks opened her door last Wednesday.
Retelling her experience to Patch, she recalled a man and woman getting out of a royal blue van, straightening their uniforms and walking in unison to her front doorstep. Their job was to deliver the news of her son’s death.
She opened the door and looked at the woman’s face. She immediately broke down.
“I knew this was real bad,” Hurnblad Sparks recalled. “I started crying. I just hoped she was going to tell me he was injured. But she didn’t. She knew I knew. She let me cry.”
That same day, she and Sparks’ two brothers – Eric, 31, and Zack, 26 – got on a plane to Dover, DE, where his flag-draped casket would be transferred from a plane. During a layover, she met the family of the other soldier who was killed - Sgt. Jonathan A. Gollnitz.
A few hours after arriving in Dover, Hurnblad Sparks, her two sons, as well as Sparks’ father and his wife, got on a bus and arrived at the plane.
A high-ranking officer greeted them and shook her hand: “I looked into your son’s record. He is very well-respected and quite a soldier.”
Then they saw the flag-covered casket.
“We observed his casket up on the lift as it was taken out of his transport,” she said. “They did quite a ceremony and lowered the lift. They hand-carried the casket to a white van waiting for it.”
Throughout the trip, all she could do was think about Orion. She remembered him as a little boy, his spark, his sense of humor. It all made her smile.
Afterward, once they got back to their rooms, the family would cry, take a break from crying, then cry again.
On Monday, Jan Hurnblad Sparks was back in Gig Harbor still processing her loss. She is waiting for her son’s casket to return via Joint Base Lewis-McChord. She doesn’t know when or where he’ll be buried, just that he will be back home.
And as we ended our discussion, all she could do is express how proud she was of her son.
“He turned into a man that was loved and for 29 years that he lived, he lived a good life. He didn’t shirk any of his years.”
“That’s what I’m most proud of.”