Before falling asleep at night in their Army barracks in Iraq, Craig E. Lehner and his roommate would review the day’s activities.
What went right?
What went wrong?
How could they improve?
That dedication to his military job matched his dedication as a Buffalo police officer, and both lives will be celebrated Wednesday at his funeral in the KeyBank Center.
Lehner disappeared underwater Oct. 13 during a training exercise in the Niagara River with the Buffalo Police Underwater Rescue team and his body was found five days later.
“Craig was our superman,” said Michael F. Albanese, the Army National Guard military policeman who bunked with Lehner in Mosul.
Lehner, a sergeant, knew the lives of the soldiers in his unit depended on vigilance. The Iraq War was winding down when he was there with 105th Military Police Company but improvised explosive devices were a constant hazard.
“Just the amount of confidence he gave off gave you confidence that everything was going to be good,” said Albanese, whose friendship with Lehner had begun in 2008 when he entered the National Guard.
Lehner, 34, joined the 105th Military Police Company, in 2000 when he was in his late teens. It was a step toward his goal of joining a local police force.
Then the terrorist attacks occurred in 2001, and he was headed to Iraq in 2003. But an injury during training forced him to remain stateside.
In March 2011, the 105th returned to Iraq, and Lehner was ready to go.
"We did a lot [of] security escorts to bring our majors, colonels and captains out to Iraqi police stations where they conducted advisements with high ranking Iraqi police officials," Sgt. Matthew McCabe said.
The company also served as a "Quick Response Force" when a convoy came under attack, Albanese said. "That involved improvised explosive devices."
Lehner headed a four-member unit that operated a Caiman MRAP vehicle able to withstand explosions.
Yet even in the midst of war, Lehner and his soldiers maintained a sense of humor.
"We called ourselves 'The A-Team.' Craig was 'Hannibal.' I was 'Murdock.' Kyle Orlando was 'Face' and Davon Ottey was 'Baracus,' " Albanese said of the nicknames they gave each from the popular television series and movie of the same name.
At the end of each day before falling asleep, Lehner and Albanese went over what went right and what went wrong.
“We’d discuss anything from procedures to communication skills. Then he’d say, ‘Goodnight Mike,’ and I’d say, ‘Goodnight Craig.’ When we’d wake up in the morning, we’d walk out of our room and tap our motivation board.
“It was piece of cardboard duct-taped above our door with inspirational mom-like quotes, ‘Don’t forget to take your sweater,’ or ‘Make sure you’re wearing clean underwear,’ and ‘Momma loves you and watch out for each other.’ Every day we’d tap it, walk out and get to our truck and conquer another day.”
Albanese said he wants to keep his memories of Lehner “lighthearted,” because they had so many happy times together — the cruise to the Caribbean, playing football in a local league and going to movies.
“We’d talked about going back to Iraq someday and doing a reunion tour there, we had so much fun. It was never so much about rank. It was like we were brothers, and I feel like I’ve lost my older brother,” said Albanese, who had served as a military police specialist and has since transferred to the Air Force Reserve.
McCabe remembers how other soldiers approached Lehner if they had a question, even if it had nothing to do with military operations.
“I remember when we were in Iraq and I saw his tattoos. I said, ‘My God, this guy has some really good ink.’ He referred me to tattoo artist Dustin Lovell,” McCabe said.
He also recalled how he also was impressed with the approximately 6-foot-tall Lehner’s physical condition.
Inspired by Lehner, McCabe started going to the base gym in Mosul and working out under Lehner’s tutelage.
“He was a weight lifter, and I learned a lot from him,” McCabe said.
The 105th, which holds the distinction of being the first and last Guard unit from New York State to serve in Iraq, returned home on Thanksgiving 2011.
Four years later, the 105th was deployed to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. It was there in his free hours that Lehner took up SCUBA diving, which ultimately led to him joining the Buffalo Police underwater recovery team.
In 2016, when Lehner resigned from the Guard to focus more on his Buffalo police career, his fellow MPs threw him a going-away party. But he frequently visited the 105th at the Masten Avenue Armory, and even spoke about rejoining, members of the 105th said.
“I remember he came by the armory in August after we got back from Fort Drum for our annual two weeks of training. He wanted to see how we were doing,” Sgt. 1st Class Thomas E. Cashman said. “We’ve lost a member of our family, and it is terrible, just devastating.”
Albanese said that while he and Lehner shared some gentle humor about mothers' comments on their "motivation board" above the door to their barrack room in Mosul, it remains a precious memory. Albanese's mother said Lehner's friendship with her son made all the difference for her son.
"My son Mike joined the military to find himself, and he said he finally found a friend as weird as him and with the same quirky humor. Craig accepted Mike and he never felt alone," Kim Albanese said.
Describing a photograph on her son's Facebook page, the mother said it showed Mike and Craig in civilian clothes sitting in an empty movie theater wearing 3-dimensional glasses. Beneath the image, her son had written these words in social media shorthand:
"When u join to find urself and u find a friend just as weird and makes u feel accepted and not alone even in an empty theater."