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FALLEN SOLDIER CONSIDERED THE ULTIMATE TEAM PLAYER

It was his senior year in high school, early in 2000, and David Roustum, captain of the Orchard Park High School club hockey team, knew his team wasn't playing well in the mid-winter lull before the playoffs.

Roustum took it personally and called a players-only meeting behind closed doors.

"There wasn't any physical violence, but there were a lot of heated exchanges," coach Rocco Della Neve remembered. "He got things back on track."

Spc. David L. Roustum, 22, from West Seneca, was killed Saturday in Baghdad. A member of the Army National Guard, he was deployed with the 108th Infantry Regiment.

Roustum, the son of Russ and Jennifer Roustum, wasn't the most gifted athlete, as a defensive back and backup quarterback on the Orchard Park High School football team and a hockey defenseman.

But he was a fiery leader with a burning competitive streak.

That's why he called the players-only meeting, and why it worked.

"He knew life was short," Della Neve said Monday. "He knew his opportunity to be a champion was short, and he wanted to make the most out of it."

Roustum was the ultimate team player -- on the football field, the hockey rink or the battlefield.

When called to active duty last spring in his senior year of college, he rejected his Syrian-born father's offer to avoid combat by going to Syria, rather than Iraq. As a friend, he faithfully attended his high school buddies' lacrosse games, even driving to Long Island for the state championship game.

His leadership skills, as captain his senior year and alternate captain the year before, helped Orchard Park become Southtowns Club Hockey League champions both seasons. And he flashed a patriotic side, proudly wearing a bandanna with stars and stripes under his hockey helmet.

Always the loyal team player.

"As empty as we all feel -- I feel like my heart, soul and guts have been ripped out -- I feel an overwhelming sense of pride that he was part of something that people will remember for a long time," his brother, Daniel G. Roustum, said Monday.

David Roustum enlisted in the military after graduating from Orchard Park High School in 2000.

As the war in Iraq has proven time and again, the local soldiers heading off to Iraq -- and dying there -- aren't the dropouts or the bottom feeders from high school classes. They tend to be decent or strong students, with many wanting something other than college right after high school.

David Roustum didn't have to enlist in the military. He was a solid B student at Orchard Park before majoring in accounting at the University at Buffalo.

Jonathan Wolf, his counselor at Orchard Park and now one of the principals there, remembered Roustum talking about the opportunity to save some money for college.

"But he also had a strong desire to go in (the military)," Wolf said. "He wanted to be part of that. He saw it as a way to be a leader and part of a team in a nationalism sort of way."

In high school, David Roustum knew he wanted to join the military and carried around a military persona, leading by example, according to Della Neve, the hockey coach. He also wore the stars-and-stripes bandanna, unusual for a kid that age.

"He joined the military because he wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself," Daniel Roustum said.

Daniel Roustum turned 28 Saturday, the same day his younger brother was killed in combat.

Daniel's having a tough time reconciling that tragic coincidence. As an older brother, he wanted to do everything he could to protect his younger brother. But David was the type who could take care of himself -- and those around him.

"David had a strong back and a strong mind," his brother said. "Whenever people were with him, they felt safe."

Teachers, counselors and coaches Monday remembered how his smile lit up the classroom and the locker room. But they also remembered how serious he could be.

He also had a great internal barometer, as Wolf put it, knowing which side to flash, the joking or the serious side.

Everyone who knew him was convinced he would have been great in any combat crisis, reassuring and doing what he could to help fellow soldiers.

"My impression is that he would have been the guy watching their back," Wolf said.

Late Monday, the Defense Department still had not confirmed his death on its Web site. Relatives did not know whether he was the U.S. soldier reported killed Saturday in an ambush in central Baghdad that wounded nine others.

As family members grieved Monday -- fielding all the media calls, trying to learn exactly how David died and waiting for word on his body being returned -- Daniel Roustum's thoughts turned back to his brother's buddies in Iraq.

"Our family's thoughts and prayers are with all the boys still over there," he said. "David would want all of them to come home safely."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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