Monday, March 10, 2008

The last letter home ... when a soldier falls

"I wait to find the words, and they will come."
-- Lt. Col. Michael Fenzel
When PFC Thomas Wilson was killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom last fall, many in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia who were touched by this 21-year-old in life honored him in death.

On a beautiful autumn day, friends and strangers paid tribute to him as his body was returned to Woodstock in Shenandoah County ... standing on the side of the road as his cortage passed by ... American flags flying in the breeze ... Patriot Guard Riders escorting a fallen hero ... everyday citizens standing silently with hands over hearts ... a reminder of the price of freedom.

Who writes the last letter home to a grieving family who has lost that loved one? The Wall Street Journal talked with American commanders in Iraq who are left with that difficult task. Among them were PFC Wilson's leaders ... and their remembrance of a young man who died too soon.
Capt. Gibson, a West Point graduate whose cheeks are sunburned from the Afghan sun, commands a company of 180 or so of the soldiers in Lt. Col. Fenzel's 800-strong battalion.

Ever since he first saw combat in Iraq five years ago, Capt. Gibson says he has prayed that he would never have to write a condolence letter. In his fatigues he carries a piece of paper that reads: "A dead soldier who has given his life because of the failure of his leader is a dreadful sight before God."

His first and, so far, only such letter was sent to the mother of PFC Thomas Wilson, a quick-witted 21-year-old from Woodstock, Va., who dropped out of a college wildlife-and-fisheries program to enlist.

PFC Wilson was in charge of the armory at Orgun-E, maintaining the unit's rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and other weapons. It's a job that could keep a soldier in the relative safety of a well-defended base.

Instead, PFC Wilson talked his way onto patrols. On one occasion he asked his sergeant to go on a mission with the scouts. He started readying his gear even before he got a reply, pre-empting a possible "no" with a loud "Roger, first sergeant."

The paratroopers patrol along dried riverbeds and steep mountainsides, a landscape painted in every shade of brown. Just 20% of the 300,000 residents of Paktika province are thought to be literate, and most of those can only read verses of the Koran. The troops try to win good will by providing mosque-refurbishment kits that include solar-powered speakers and new prayer rugs for the mullahs.

But the Americans also engage in frequent firefights with insurgents who cross the border from nearby Pakistan.

Ambush Near Orgun-E

When PFC Wilson's convoy was ambushed near Orgun-E last summer, he was manning the turret machine gun in a Humvee. He fired off two cans of ammunition. When he bent over to grab a third, an insurgent's armor-piercing round drilled through the Humvee's protective metal and into his head.

The private died at the scene. His fellow soldiers placed a blue tarp over his body.

Capt. Gibson is keenly aware that his decisions carried PFC Wilson to the place where he died. He doesn't doubt his own orders. But the shock of losing his first man was sharp.

The captain recalls pulling back the tarp and putting his hand on PFC Wilson's forehead to gently close the private's eyes. "I feel like I've let you down," he remembers saying.

Later, he decided to write to PFC Wilson's mother, Julie Hepner. His intention was to describe what a fine soldier her son had been. Yet he wasn't comfortable describing the precise circumstances of his death.

"Do you include the little things? The smell?" he says. "Do I include that I still have a pair of gloves that have his blood on them?"

Capt. Gibson says he decided to leave those details out. Instead, he told Ms. Hepner, a single mother with four children, that the other paratroopers spent five days hunting down the insurgents responsible for the ambush.

Capt. Gibson says he read his letter aloud to himself, and crunched up two drafts before feeling he had struck the right tone.

Only later did he learn that Ms. Hepner had never received the letter from him. So, recently, Capt. Gibson sat down to write it again.

'Your Brave Son Thomas'

Meantime, last October, Lt. Col. Fenzel had written his own letter to Ms. Hepner, 47, who owns a small office- and house-cleaning business in Woodstock. "It has been almost a month since we lost your brave son Thomas to enemy fire," it began. "And the days that pass in between don't make it any easier to be without our brother, your son."

The colonel went on to describe how, during the fatal ambush, PFC Wilson manned his machine gun "bravely and brilliantly" in an intense, 30-minute firefight, before he was shot. His actions saved the lives of 10 other paratroopers, the colonel wrote.

"Please also know that you have gained nearly 800 of Thomas's brothers as your sons, if you'll have us," he wrote to Ms. Hepner.

It was the message she wanted to hear. "What more can a mother ask for," she says, "than knowing that he died in the arms of people who loved him?"
Freedom is not free.

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