Paul Finken - Lieutenant Colonel
Paul John Finken grew up in the small Iowa town of Earling in Shelby County. He was the youngest of Charles and Edna Finken’s 10 children, and a twin. He graduated in 1984 from Harlan High School where he was on the wrestling team and ran cross country track and became an Eagle Scout.
A fellow scout from Troop 142 remembered this: “As a troop we took many trips. Most memorable was the trip to Cimmeron, New Mexico where we hiked for several days. All of us respected Paul and tried to follow his leadership. It is not surprising to me that Paul became a great leader.”
A classmate at Harlan High School, says "He was the best. Even if I sat here all day, I couldn’t think of a bad thing to say about him."
After finishing high school, Paul came to Ames and attended Iowa State University from Fall 1984 to Spring 1985.
Karl “Whitey” Kalsch knew Paul when he attended ISU and was his roommate the second semester he was here. Karl remembers him as a funny and caring person that loved to have a good time. Another friend, Jeff Van Gundy, recalled that he always talked about wanting to go to West Point. Later, whenever those college friends got together and traded stories, Paul was always included in the tales.
Paul’s wife Jackie agrees with the part about having a good time – adding that while he was at Iowa State, he spent a lot of time at The Library – which was the name of a certain after-hours establishment located on Welch Avenue. Given his rather casual attitude toward classes, Jackie thinks he would find great irony in being recognized at Iowa State and greet the news with his characteristic humor.
For Paul, Iowa State turned out to be a way-station that helped him decide that his true calling and career was in the United States Army. He followed his twin brother, Pete, to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in 1989 and received his commission as a second lieutenant.
This was the start of his 18-year career in the Army.
Paul loved the Army and loved being a soldier. Men who served with him said, “He was a soldier’s soldier, ” and “…he made everyone feel valuable and important. He could talk to anyone and had a smile for everyone.” Another said, “He always lead from the front and was not above doing the tasks that other men in his position would have just left up to his soldiers.” He was described as “…honorable, humorous and loving. He always had a joke, and he made everybody laugh and feel comfortable. His smile could light up a room.” Paul trained and nurtured thousands of enlisted men and junior officers.
He was an infantry officer assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and was based in Fort Campbell, KY.
In Iraq, he commanded a military team that trained the fledgling Iraqi army. He told USA Today that training Iraqis was a "Catch 22" because they knew the neighborhoods well but were hesitant to fight with people they knew. A soldier said, “I saw LTC Finken handle great adversity with great professionalism.” Paul’s sister, Sharon, said, “That’s the heroism of him, right there. He would want to be remembered as a peacekeeper.”
Finken was ending his second tour of duty in Iraq and was due to come home around November 15, 2006. On November 2, he was orienting his replacement officer in Baghdad and their humvee encountered an improvised explosive device that detonated.
Paul was 40 years old and married to an Iowa girl that he met in New York. They married in 1992 and have three daughters.
Not long after Paul came home to Earling for the final time, Dave Charles, of Plattsmouth. NE wrote an editorial to the local paper. Dave was one of the ones assigned to accompany Paul on this last journey. His words were as follows:
“When I was growing up, it was instilled in me what great men were. They were conquerors, artists, philosophers, inventors and the like whose memories lived on through their accomplishments. As time went on in my life, these things gradually changed.
This weekend, those prerequisites for greatness taught to me were shattered.
I and a baker's dozen of others escorted Lt Col Paul Finken home to Earling from Omaha's airport. I stayed for the next two days for the visitation and funeral and what I witnessed is what changed my definition of greatness.
I watched hundreds of people stream by me on both of those days, each with a mission to pay their last respects and say goodbye to someone special. In each of those faces, I saw someone touched by the actions and the life of this man.
In a town of 450 or so, I saw hundreds at the church waiting for Paul's arrival Friday evening. They stood in the freezing cold, absolutely silently, waiting to enter the church. You could have heard a pin drop on that frosty night, even though we were outside. Not a whisper, not even a baby crying, all their minds focused on one thing, Paul J. Finken.
This was when my mind changed about greatness. Those things taught to me are forever erased as a requirement for such a distinction. You see, I never knew George Washington or Aristotle or an Emperor and I didn’t even know Paul Finken before Friday.
But through the thousands of eyes, the words and the tears, he has touched me as well. This is the new threshold for my "greatness" pedestal. Earling, Iowa has its own hero, one who has changed the lives of many well past its own. I am honored to have been among those asked to pay our respects and to honor this great man.”
An Army comrade said, “After the funeral in Earling, those who were gathered retired to a local bar because Paul had stated that if he fell, he wanted to buy everyone a drink to toast him. Classy and soldierly. So that's what we all did. We had one on him.”