Farewell LetterThe handwritten farewell letter Julia Hepner found in her son's belongings about a year after he was killed in combat:
"If you are reading this then I am no longer with you. Hopefully I died with honor. Don't be sad, just remember, only the good die young. My life has been filled with so many wonderful experiences and people. I have seen the most beautiful places on earth, met the most interesting people and tested life and myself every chance I could, oh and how could I forget "the food was good!" I love you all and don't forget all the times that were good because I know we often tend to do that. My love is always with you all. Forever alive in your hearts, Thomas the friend, the brother, the son, the soldier."
By Sally Voth -- firstname.lastname@example.org
As the community marks the fifth Memorial Day since the death of Maurertown native Thomas Randolph Wilson in Afghanistan, his younger brother, Ethan, prepares for deployment to the war-torn nation.
Wilson, who served as a private first class with the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, was killed Aug. 27, 2007. He was 21, and was reloading a can of .50-caliber ammunition after having already fired three cans when enemy fire took him down.
As Wilson had hoped, he died with honor.
The 2004 Central High School graduate's commanding officer told his mother, Julie Hepner, her son's actions saved many of his comrades.
A year after his death, Hepner came across a letter in a binder while looking for some of Wilson's sketches.
"If you are reading this," the letter begins. "then I am no longer with you. Hopefully I died with honor."
The letter exhorts his family and friends to not be sad, and know that he had lived a full, rich life and reminds them "my love is always with you all." It also includes an inside joke -- "He would always say, 'And the food was good,'" Hepner said.
While she's extremely proud of her son and his heroism, Wilson's death remains a raw wound for his mother.
"It seems like it just happened still," Hepner said while sitting at her kitchen table recently. "I guess a lot of that has to do with still being here in the same place. In the five years, it's just taken me time [to figure out] how am I going to move forward."
Until nearly two years ago, she still had her youngest son, Ethan, living at home with her.
"That helped, having him around," Hepner said.
In October 2010, Ethan, now 19, joined the Army.
Sisters, Chelsea, 21, and Chloe Consolo, 27, are both out of state. Chelsea attends Boston University, and Chloe lives in Charleston, S.C., with her new husband, Philip Consolo, who is a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force.
Ethan is also part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, but is in the I-91 Cavalry. The cavalry scout is stationed in Germany, but scheduled to ship out to Afghanistan next month.
"I always knew I wanted to go in [the Army]," said Ethan in a phone interview from Germany. "It was just whether I wanted to go [the] enlisted or officer route. Finally, after I graduated [from Central in 2010], I just knew I wanted to go straight in."
His proud mother explained that Ethan decided to enlist even though he'd been accepted to both The Citadel and West Virginia University, the latter of which his brother attended for two years before going into the military.
"Two days before he graduated from Central, he sends me a text message saying, 'Mom, I'm enlisting in the Army, you need to sign for me,'" she said. "I knew from the very day that Thomas got killed that Ethan would eventually make that decision to go in the Army. Thomas was his hero. It did not surprise me at all."
Ethan didn't mention that he was given the 5th Squadron 15th U.S. Cavalry Draper Leadership Award in March 2011. The award states he was chosen for the honor because of his "commitment and superb leadership combined with your competence, enthusiasm and devotion to duty."
It now hangs in his family's home.
At a squadron ball earlier this month, the commander talked about the Wilson brothers.
"They gave him and Thomas a standing ovation," Hepner said. "It gives me chills when I think about it."
Ethan wears a wristband in honor of his brother.
"I think of him everyday," he said. "Definitely people here and back home are still remembering and honoring him. That helps me continue to do what I do, and love and honor my brother everyday. I was a sophomore in high school [when Thomas was killed], and it's crazy just to think of where I'm at and what I've done in that time.
"I know he would be very proud. That's what keeps me going."
If he has any trepidation about his upcoming tour in Afghanistan, Ethan didn't show it.
"I'm ready," he said. "I know the guys I'm with are ready, and as a whole we're prepared. Definitely, it will be a successful mission."
His impending deployment is tough on his mother, though.
"I'm trying to be strong, but it's going to be hard," she said.
Hepner broke into tears as she continued, "All I can say with Ethan is that if it happens again, I just don't know if I can survive. I love my girls. I just don't know. The pain is so raw. It's just so raw and so real."
She believes her son "was a blessing" because he saved so many others in his platoon.
"He was where he needed to be that day," Hepner said. "For me, a piece of my heart has just been broken. It's just been ripped out. You're not the same person."
Her family room and kitchen are full of pictures of her children, with large paintings and photos of Thomas dominating one wall. Some of his medals are on display, as are resolutions from the General Assembly, the U.S. House of Representatives, the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors and even a star named in his honor -- Airborne Country Boy -- in the International Star Registry.
But, pictures don't fill a void.
"You can't hold them anymore," Hepner said of losing a child. "You can't kiss him. You can't tell him you love him. He's not suffering. He's definitely in a much better place. We're the ones that are suffering."
Chloe had wanted him to walk her down the aisle. At her wedding earlier this spring, Ethan did the honors.
"The consolation for me is the fact he was a soldier and he is remembered," Hepner said. "Thomas is remembered on Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Armed Forces Day. His brothers will always remember him. His commanders will always remember him. That helps. A parent doesn't want their child to be forgotten because we live with it everyday."
Wilson's many friends and relatives now have an easier time visiting his resting place. His mother had his grave moved from a less-accessible location on his grandfather James Allen Hepner's farmland to a site beside her home on Alonzaville Road.
His headstone and a carved granite bench were moved to his new gravesite shortly before Easter. The new site is easier to maintain, Hepner said, and simpler for people to visit.
"He wanted to be cremated and he wanted his ashes to be spread up there," she said, pointing to Great North Mountain. "I'm always like, 'Sorry, Thomas, you can look at it.'"
Hepner thinks her son, who loved the outdoors and wildlife, would enjoy the clearing where his body now lays. Birds could be heard chirping and calling, and several butterflies fluttered by. Hepner has seen deer, foxes, eagles, snakes and squirrels visit the site.
"It's so peaceful down here," she said. "You can hear the birds. I just love it. I need for people to be able to come here. He's home."