Friday, March 19, 2004

Pride mixes with pain of losing a son

By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer

the Wrights
Barbara and Ed Wright remember their son Jimmy who was killed in Irag this past Spetember. They fly the flag daily outside their Delhi home. Another son, Eddie, recently gave them a statue of an infantryman in honor of Jimmy.
(Photos by Michael E. Keating/The
Cincinnati Enquirer)
A picture of Jamison Edward Wright, Jimmy's son, displayed in the home of his grandparents.
DELHI TWP. - Edward Wright knows he shouldn't keep replaying those telephone messages.

But he can't stop himself from listening one more time to the voice recorded nearly a year ago now, shortly before Spc. James Christopher Wright, his son, was killed in Iraq.

"They're nice to hear, but they bring tears," Edward says, his hand resting on wife Barbara's knee. "Sometimes on Sundays, I'm home by myself, and I'll listen to it. Anything to hang on."

He pauses; his lip quivers. "I know I shouldn't do that, but ... anything to hold onto him."

At their home, remembrances of Jimmy linger everywhere. A 2-foot-tall statue of a soldier at the foot of an American flag. T-shirts and cars emblazoned with his image and his name. Dozens of photographs here and at their eldest son's house next door - one of ruddy-faced Uncle Jimmy holding his gun in an Iraqi palace; another of his military buddies' guns stuck in the ground, helmets resting atop, in memorial to Jimmy.

It's as if, a year after Jimmy went to war, six months after the 27-year-old west-sider was ambushed and killed, this family tries to keep him always in sight.

"We have good days, and we have bad days," his father says. "When the emotions hit you, you cry a little. Then you try and feel better. It's a healing process. You just have to pick up the pieces."

'I love you and I miss you'

Here's what it feels like when the boy you gave birth to dies at war halfway across the world:

You cry for hours. You don't acknowledge the military men at your house. You can't talk with reporters knocking on your door; you can't talk with anyone. You hardly eat.


• Army Sgt. Stephen D. Conover, 21 of Wilmington, Ohio, died Nov. 2 when a Chinook helicopter was downed by a missile as it flew toward Baghdad. Fifteen other soldiers died in the attack.

• Army Sgt. Chad Keith, 21, of Batesville, died July 7 when a roadside bomb exploded as his unit patrolled Baghdad.

• Army Pfc. Marlin T. Rockhold, 23, of Hamilton, was fatally shot by a sniper on May 8 while patrolling in Baghdad.

• Army Sgt. Benjamin Franklin Moore III, 25, of Hamilton, was accidentally fatally shot on Feb. 21, 2003, in Fort Hood, Texas, while training to be deployed in Iraq.

You ask your husband 20 times whether it's really true. And you keep forgetting what those soldiers said.

Months later, every day before work, you open the living room curtains to the morning sunshine, you touch your son's photo, the photo taken the night he left for Iraq, the photo that sat atop his casket at his funeral, and you say this: "I love you and I miss you."

You hear your husband in the computer room, listening again and again to two telephone messages from July and August when your son called from Iraq, messages you've taped and plan to play for your grandson when he's old enough to understand how, and why, his father died before he was born.

You hear on television about more soldiers killed in Iraq, and you start crying, an uncontrollable sort of cry, and your husband comes in from work and all he can do is hold you, and not say a thing.

Bad news arrives

It started at 7 a.m. on Sept. 19, 2003, as Barbara Wright was in the bathroom before breakfast. It was the day this family's pieces fell apart.

At his house across the shared asphalt driveway, the eldest of her three sons, Eddie, answered the phone. A neighbor, a close friend of the family, was crying. She said two uniformed soldiers - one a sergeant, the other a captain - were approaching his parents' house.

Life began to move in slow motion. Eddie threw on shorts and sprinted into the warm air of early autumn, hoping to reach Mom and Dad before the military men did.

"Let him just be injured," Eddie prayed.

From the bathroom, Barbara heard a knock at the front door. Her husband, a 20-year Army veteran, answered.

Eddie tore into the unlocked back door and past a package full of cans of Skyline chili, candy and magazines that Mom was about to send to Iraq.

"Oh my God!" her husband, Edward, said, opening the front door.

Eddie remembers the captain's words clearly: "I'm sorry to inform you that your son, Specialist James Christopher Wright, was killed in Tikrit last night between 22:00 and 24:00."

"Don't tell me my son is dead!" Barbara yelled at the soldiers. "You can't take my son!"

Barbara was hysterical, Edward in shock. Eddie, the 30-year-old brother, put the American flag in the front yard at half staff..

That night, Edward walked outside. The father took down the yellow ribbon that had embraced the tree in their front yard since their son left Fort Hood, Texas, with his 4th Infantry Division.

From military reports and from talking with soldiers who were with Jimmy, the Wright family pieced together how their son was killed.

It was just after dusk in Tikrit, 100 miles northwest of Baghdad, on Sept. 18.

Jimmy manned a .50-caliber machine gun in the turret of his Army Humvee.

His vehicle led a convoy of a half-dozen Humvees to look for a weapons depot. The vehicles crept near the Tigris River, and soldiers walked alongside, scouting.

Then a rocket-propelled grenade hit the rear vehicle. Two men were wounded.

Jimmy wheeled around, the first to return fire. A firefight ensued for at least a half-hour. An ambusher fired an AK-47 assault rifle.

One 7.62mm X 39mm round tore through his jaw and struck him in the brain. He died instantly.

'It's my duty'

Military service runs in this family's blood.

In 1968, Barbara and Edward had just married when Edward left for his first of two two-year stints in Vietnam.

The boys grew up military brats. They were always together, and usually making trouble.

When they lived in Clarksville, Tenn., with the 101st Airborne Division, Barbara remembers the brothers sliding down the red clay hills in the rain. Then they'd track clay into the house. Eddie and Jimmy - nicknamed "Dawg" - would pick tomatoes from gardens near Fort Campbell and have tomato fights with neighbors.

After moving to Delhi, Jimmy followed his older brother's lead, going to Diamond Oaks Vocational School. Eddie studied automotive technology, Jimmy construction technology.

But by the summer of 1996, 20-year-old Jimmy was restless with landscaping and bricklaying jobs. He enlisted in the Marines.

"Dawg, why you gotta leave me?" Eddie remembers asking him when Jimmy came to say goodbye. "Can't you back out or something?"

"I'm sick of being Eddie's little brother," Jimmy told his big brother. "I want to be me. I want to do something so people recognize me."

Today, this conversation lingers.

"He wanted to show everybody he could do it," says Eddie, who has a wife, two young children and a steady job painting cars. "He wanted to show everybody he can be a hero. It's no use, now, wishing he didn't join the military. ... But I can't get it out of my head ..."

Jimmy finished his four years of service after stints in Bosnia, Italy and Greece on a Navy ship. Out of the Marines, he moved to Texas in May 2001 with his new wife, Alina, whom he met in the Marines at Fort Bragg, N.C. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was driving a bulldozer at a Waco landfill.

He called his dad. Jimmy and Alina both joined the Army.

It's my duty, he told his parents. By October, he was on active duty.

Always in their hearts

There's a picture atop the dresser beside Eddie Wright's bed.

It shows two brothers, ages 2 and 4, wrestling on a bed. Laughing.

Beside that childhood picture sit Jimmy's military memorabilia: a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, spent machine gun casings, and a sharpshooter award.

For the public, these fallen American heroes fade from view after the first days after the news.

But not here.

"People have forgotten about 9-11, but we don't want to forget," says Edward, who wears his "Jimmy T-shirt" every Friday. "The president made the decision to send troops, but that's immaterial. We have to support our troops. We. Have. To."

Eddie gets angry a lot. He gets angry at Arabs. He gets angry at Saddam. He gets angry at the media for showing what's gone wrong in Iraq instead of what's gone right.

A new life in Texas

The January day that would have been Jimmy's 28th birthday, Barbara was in Texas, visiting Alina and the widow's first child, born Dec. 16, three months after Jimmy was killed.

Alina named her son Jameson to honor Jimmy. He's 3 months old now, just starting to babble and smile. Every time she gets a bottle from the refrigerator, Alina carries Jameson over and points at the pictures of Jimmy, stuck there with a magnet: "Daddy!"

Some day, Alina will tell him about Iraq, show him a scrapbook compiled by Jimmy's military buddies, read him articles about his father's death.

Eddie plans to visit Texas in April when Jimmy's unit returns. His father, Edward, can't wait to meet the white-haired baby.

"If none of this hits home for you, listen to this one thing: Don't ever take nothing for granted," Edward says. "Don't be afraid to say that you love someone. Hug them. Hold them. Every time I talk with my 30-year-old son, now I'll say, 'I love you.' You can't take nothing for granted. Life is so short."

And every time he sees his new grandson, he will tell him how much he loves him.


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