Childhood friends recall slain Austin soldier’s big smile, bigger heart


Highlights

Army Master Sgt. Jonathan Dunbar of Austin died Friday after being injured by a bomb in northern Syria.

‘People were able to go home to their families because of him. He was a hero,’ friend Brian Powell said.

When Jonathan Dunbar was growing up in Austin, he was a little guy with big Coke-bottle glasses but always stood up for his sister, Crystal, and his friends if anyone picked on them, recalled Dunbar’s best friend since grade school, Brian Powell.

“As an adult he’s always had that same mentality,” Powell said, adding that Dunbar was a very strong-willed person even in his military career, which took him to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dunbar, a decorated Army special operations master sergeant, died Friday after being injured by a bomb while on patrol in northern Syria, where U.S. troops are fighting Islamic State militants.

“The man told me some stories about where he was and what he has done, and there’s a lot of people alive today because he did what he did,” Powell said. “A lot of people were able to go home to their families because of him. He was a hero.”

The American-Statesman reached out to members of Dunbar’s family, but they have declined to comment for now.

Dunbar, was born on July 15, 1981, in International Falls, Minn., before his family moved to Central Texas, according to the Army.

Powell and Dunbar grew up in the same North Austin neighborhood near Walnut Creek and became friends at Parmer Lane Elementary School. Powell’s and Dunbar’s parents also became close friends.

“He and his sister and me and my sister grew up together,” said Powell, who now lives in Leander. “We were more like brothers than friends. We did everything together.”

Powell’s sister, Jessica, said she remembered how “Jon was always the sweet, shy kid with this big smile.”

“I remember the year my family got a video camera in probably the late ’80s,” Jessica Powell said. “The four of us starred in our own productions like we were movie stars, with Jon and Brian playing army and running up and down the street.”

She recalled another time when her brother would pretend to be Johnny Carson with Dunbar as his guest.

“I remember Jon’s dimpled smile as he pulled at his ear nervously and said, ‘I don’t know what to say,’ when the camera was pointed at him,” said Jessica, who now lives in Denton.

“He grew into such a wonderful, brilliant man who loved his family and friends more than anything,” she said. “He was the kind of person who would always be there when you needed him, with a kind word. He became a proud father and a husband. He was so much more than just a soldier.”

Dunbar, who graduated from Connally High School in 1999, followed Brian Powell into the Army, and both served in the 82nd Airborne Division, headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C. Powell eventually left the military and started a family.

But Dunbar believed he was doing the right thing by staying in the Army and was there for a greater purpose, Powell said.

“A lot of troops and policemen are our heroes, but this man honestly believed in what he was doing,” he said. “He truly believed in fighting against evil to the point of sacrificing his own life.”

Dunbar, 36, had earned three Bronze Star medals, four Army Commendation Medals, six Army Achievement Medals, five Good Conduct Medals, the National Defense Service Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal with two Bronze Service Stars, the Iraq Campaign Medal with two Bronze Service Stars, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, among other honors, Army officials said.

Powell said Dunbar — who is survived by his wife, teenage son and two young daughters — told him a few months ago he was considering leaving the military and was looking for other opportunities.

“He wanted to spend time to be with his family more,” he said. “He knew if he passed away it would be horrible for them. He had done his duty and was ready to move on to a new chapter in his life.”

Powell said Dunbar loved to camp, fish and be outdoors but also liked a good beer. But he really wants Dunbar to be remembered for the vibrant and caring person that he was and as someone who always stood up for others and did the right thing.

“The photo that was released of him does not express the happy person that he was,” Powell said. “He was a good person, cheerful, and he loved his children and his family.”



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