October 2008 Archives

Cathy Williams talks about her Air Force service. Dennis Grundman/Daily


Cathy Williams

  • Hometown: Voluntown, Conn.
  • Current residence: Browntown
  • Birth date: Oct. 28, 1973
  • Branch of service: U.S. Air Force
  • Time period of service:
  • Date enlisted: Nov. 8, 1991
  • Dates overseas: Periodically between July 1994 and Nov. 1996
  • Date service ended: Nov. 28, 1996
  • Rank: Senior airman
  • Conflict served in: Operation Southern Watch
  • Locations of military service: Lackland Air Force Base, Texas; Griffiths Air Force Base, N.Y.; Travis Air Force Base, Calif.; Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates
  • Medals or service pins: Air Force Achievement Medal, with one device; Air Force Longevity Service Award; Air Force Training Ribbon; Southwest Asia Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; Air Force Commendation Medal; Armed Forces Service Medal
  • Special duties: Nationally registered EMT

Cathy Williams served in the U.S. Air Force in the Persian Gulf as a medic. COURTESY PHOTO

By Jessica Wiant -- Daily Staff Writer

On Cathy Williams' front porch in Browntown, potted flowers hung uniformly between each post, and by the steps an American flag rippled in the breeze.

Hers looked like so many other homes donning a red, white and blue flag or a yellow ribbon. But for Williams, patriotism isn't just a decorative theme.

Originally from Connecticut, she graduated high school in 1991, the year of Operation Desert Storm.

She came from a family with a proud military tradition. Her grandfathers both served in the Navy, as did her father and uncle. Her oldest sister signed up for the Army.

Even knowing what had been happening in the Middle East, Williams joined the Air Force that fall.

"I'm very patriotic. I just wanted to be a part of everything," she said. "I was excited. I was ready for something awesome, and I got it."

Her sister, having been through the ropes in the Army, recommended the Air Force for the best food, cleanest housing and nicest facilities.

When the recruiter came to Williams' home, she already knew she wanted to be a part of the medical field. From a book of possible Air Force jobs, she chose the one she wanted: aeromedical technician.

After basic and technical training, Williams' stateside job became performing physicals on other airmen and answering sick calls. She and her team also were on call to be the first to respond during in-flight emergencies. If an aircraft was having difficulty, her team was ready on the ground in case of a crash landing to save anyone they could or "bag and tag" the wreckage.

A few years later, the U.S. still had a job to do in the Persian Gulf. Williams was stationed at Travis Air Force Base in California when duty called.

She was a member of the Squadron Medical Element for the 9th Air Refueling Squadron. She didn't know where she was going until she'd boarded the plane: They were on their way to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates as part of Operation Southern Watch.

Williams would have the same duties: sick calls, physicals and being on call to respond to emergencies. But everything she and her squadron did would be part of the U.S. effort to enforce a no-fly zone over southern Iraq, she said.

For Williams, that included everything from treating kidney stones and food poisoning to assisting in minor surgical procedures, like cyst removal, with her three-person crew, which included another aeromedical technician and a doctor.

A lot of heavy lifting was required, including large plastic tubs that contained items necessary to set up a clinic.

"I knew what to expect. As a matter of fact, it was better than what I expected," she said.

In the end, however, it wasn't a plane crash that put Williams' training to the test.

Early one morning when Williams was on call, a bus full of her fellow airmen was on its way back from Abu Dhabi when the driver fell asleep and the bus rolled multiple times.

Williams was first at the scene and coordinated the care of 13 injured.

"I've responded a million times. You train for this stuff all this time ... but this was real," she said.

No one was killed, and everyone came out OK.

Williams received an Air Force Commendation Medal for her service on the 9th Air Refueling Squadron -- it cited her response to the bus crash, among other accomplishments.

The hard part of the incident though, was arriving at the local hospital, where native male employees had problems working with a woman.

It was one of multiple times that, Williams said, she experienced the culture shock of being in the United Arab Emirates.

On off-duty days, she could go to the city of Abu Dhabi, where she never saw other women out. Even she could never be alone as a woman. Men she worked with served as escorts.

Once she saw a woman in the back seat of a car; a man was driving and a goat was in the front passenger seat.

On one occasion, she and a group were off duty and going to dinner. Williams was wearing a full-length skirt and a sleeveless sweater, and when the Arabic men saw her bare arms, they hurled rocks at her.

On duty with fellow Americans, however, being a woman was never an impediment.

"We were treated just like anybody else," she said. "I'm no different than any other airman ... man or woman we all do the same job."

After serving her four-year enlistment, plus another year, Williams left the Air Force for civilian life and attended culinary school in San Francisco.

That heavy lifting she'd done while in the Air Force, however, would come back to haunt her.

Plagued by back problems, Williams has undergone two surgeries and was awaiting the results of another MRI.

She suffers pain in her legs and can't sit, stand or walk for any length of time. She no longer is able to work.

She said she had no regrets, though.

"I'd do it again. I'd do it yesterday. Physically, I can't," she said.

The most rewarding part has been serving her country.

"I'm here and have this freedom because of what [other veterans] did in Korea, Vietnam. I'm so grateful to be American, free. To be a part of that whether it's big or small, makes me very proud."

Of course, there were other benefits, too.

Williams wanted to travel and wasn't looking for more school just yet, but she knew the G.I. Bill would afford her the opportunity later.

"I wanted to get out of my small town," she said. And she did. Williams also made trips and served in England, Italy, Spain and Germany during her time in the Air Force.

"Whenever you deploy and you're not working, you have so much fun," she said. She said she doesn't want people to think it was a bad experience.

"I got it all and then some. That's just priceless, as they say."

To this day Williams does more to be patriotic than just hang a flag.

She is active in the Front Royal Veterans of Foreign Wars and volunteers as a service officer helping fellow veterans get copies of medical records, fill out forms and whatever else is necessary to receive assistance. It's something that she knows all too well, having gone through it herself.

"That I find very rewarding," she said.

NEXT WEEK: A career Marine officer reflects on "the dichotomy of beauty and death" in Vietnam.

* Contact Jessica Wiant at jwiant@nvdaily.com

Mike Connelly in pictured in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. Courtesy photo

connely.jpg Persian Gulf War veteran Mike Connelly now lives in Mt. Jackson. Rich Cooley/Daily


Michael Connelly

  • Hometown: Fairfax
  • Current residence: Mt. Jackson
  • Birth date: July 31, 1966
  • Branch of service: U.S. Army
  • Time period of service:
  • Date enlisted: Jan. 2, 1990
  • Dates overseas: Sept. 1990 to Dec. 1993
  • Date service ended: Jan. 2, 1994
  • Rank: Sergeant
  • Conflict served in: Operation Desert Shield, Operation Desert Storm
  • Locations of military service: Fort Jackson, S.C.; Huachuca, Ariz.; Germany; Saudi Arabia; Iraq; Kuwait
  • Battles/campaigns involved in: Tawakalna and Medina against divisions of the Iraq Republican Guard
  • Medals or service pins: Kuwaiti Liberation Medal; Arcam/Army Commendation Medal
  • Special duties: Intelligence analyst

By Josette Keelor -- Daily Staff Writer

Even though he grew up in a military family, Michael Connelly never really intended to join the service.

Two of his uncles were World War II Army veterans, other uncles had been in the Marines, Navy and Air Force, and his father was an Army medic, but Connelly planned on a civilian life -- at least until the fall of 1989.

"I was bored," he said, recalling the day he left for his lunch break at his job at AT&T in Herndon and enlisted in the Army's delayed entry program. He was 23 years old. Five weeks later, on Jan. 2, 1990, he reported to the processing station at Linthicum Heights, Md., and then headed to basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C.

"[I] just wanted to do it," he said of joining the Army. "I didn't want a career or anything."

Connelly, now 42, of Mt. Jackson, did not know when he signed up for the Army that he would soon end up in the middle of a war.

On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq's army stunned the world by invading neighboring Kuwait.

"It wasn't in the news [beforehand]," he said, but the military could see a conflict coming. "I think everybody was excited and keyed up."

In September, after taking classes in Huachuca, Ariz., to prepare for his job as an intelligence analyst, Connelly flew to Germany for a field rotation. He was stationed at Kirchgoens, Germany, for about eight weeks before his battalion was ordered to participate in Operation Desert Shield, the American deployment to defend Saudi Arabia from a possible Iraqi invasion. After loading their equipment onto multiple trains and barges, Connelly and the members of his battalion flew to Saudi Arabia in C-130 transport planes.

One vivid memory he has of his short time there is living in water up to his knees. His battalion of about 400 troops set up camp in a runoff zone, he said.

"When it rained it was like being in a big drainage ditch," he said.

They were stationed in Saudi Arabia en route to Iraq. After about two weeks of waiting for their equipment to arrive and painting their vehicles camouflage to blend in with the desert, they were on their way.

Connelly compares the adventure to descriptions in the book "Iron Soldiers," by Tom Carhart, which tells the story of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division during Operation Desert Storm. Connelly was in the 3rd Armored "Spearhead" Division, 1st Brigade. His unit was the 3rd Battalion, 5th Cavalry.

"They put us on school buses," he said. "Drove us out into the desert and set us up."

In addition to working as an intelligence analyst, Connelly was the battalion's noncommissioned safety officer and map custodian. As intelligence analyst, he kept the colonel up to date on the battlefield.

His area of expertise was reading "reports we get from units, from recon units, from our guys -- intelligence," he said.

He studied enemy weaponry to determine how the Iraqi military would most likely use their weapons, as well as the area's weather and terrain.

"I drove an M577," he said, referring to a vehicle used as a mobile command post. The name "Killer Angels" was printed on the vehicle -- a term inspired by the historical novel of the same title about the Civil War, which Connelly said is recommended reading during officer training.

Although on the verge of war, it was boring for the soldiers waiting on the border of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Connelly said.

The food was bad, and there wasn't enough of it, he said. The sand ruined every piece of equipment, too. The troops would wait for days before moving their vehicles, which would break down when needed. Soldiers then had to make speedy repairs.

Once in Iraq, though, the soldiers were there for one thing -- to fight.

While Iraqi troops were expecting the Americans to attack from the south through Kuwait, the division crossed the Saudi border as part of a surprise attack from the west on the Saddam Hussein's army.

It worked and the war was over within three days.

"It was pretty quick," Connelly said.

He remembers his first combat as "a really short, lopsided battle."

"Our tanks and Bradleys [infantry fighting vehicles] can see through rain and dust and everything," he said, which is good because it rained through their first battle. The weather helped American troops, he said, because it cleared away some of the dust.

"It was a nice rain for our first battle," he said. Then they fought their second battle, helping defeat Iraq's elite Republican Guard, and within a couple of days, Connelly and his unit had pushed through Iraq and settled at Camp Doha, Kuwait.

"The ground war only lasted 100 hours," Connelly said. Fortunately his unit lost no soldiers during the conflict, although some casualties were sustained after the conflict from accidents involving land mines, he said.

Connelly spent the next few months in Kuwait, offering aid to refugees from Safwan, Iraq, and quelling problems with the different elements in Kuwait, he said.

The 3rd Armored Division returned to Germany in May, and Connelly remained there until his four years were up. He returned to the United States in December 1993, and left the Army on Jan. 2, 1994.

Afterward, the Army paid for the majority of his education at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown.

The brief Gulf War was a lot for a soldier to process.

"I think for everyone it was a big disappointment ... and it was kind of confusing," Connelly said. After many weeks of planning, the conflict was over within three days. "That was just two battles my unit was in."

Nonetheless, it was a very straightforward conflict, he said.

"The one [war] I was in, they were on one side of the line in the sand, and we were on the other," he said.

Connelly has no regrets of his time in the military, and said that he would do it all again if given the opportunity, even knowing now he would go to war.

"You make friends there and become a unit. You're a soldier and want to do a ... job," he said. "I don't think anyone can expect it to be anything. You just have to experience it. You can't describe it to anyone. It's a great experience for anybody."

NEXT WEEK: Air Force was ticket to adventure for Browntown woman

* Contact Josette Keelor at jkeelor@nvdaily.com

In this photo released by the U.S. Army, then-Maj. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, left, talks about the status of Bagram Air Base to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, center, and others at the air base in Afghanistan on Jan. 17, 2007. COURTESY PHOTO


Freakley speaks at a meeting at Forward Operating Base Lumberyard in Afghanistan on May 7, 2006. COURTESY PHOTO

Benjamin C. Freakley

  • Hometown: Woodstock
  • Current/Most recent residence: Fort Monroe
  • Birthdate: Aug. 21, 1953
  • Branch of service: U.S. Army
  • Time period of service:
  • Date commissioned: 1975
  • Dates overseas: 1990-91, 2002-03, 2006-07
  • Date service ended: Active
  • Rank: Lieutenant general
  • Conflict served in: First Gulf War; Operation Iraqi Freedom; Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan)
  • Locations of military service: Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Irwin, Calif.; Fort Drum, N.Y.; Germany; Iraq; Afghanistan
  • Battles/campaigns involved in: First Gulf War, initial assault; Operation Iraqi Freedom, initial assault
  • Medals or service pins: Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster; Defense Superior Service Medal with oak leaf cluster; Legion of Merit with two oak leaf clusters; Bronze Star with "V" device; Bronze Star with oak leaf cluster; Meritorious Service Medal with nine oak leaf clusters; Army Commendation Medal with "V" device; Army Achievement Medal; State Department Meritorious Honor Award; NATO Meritorious Service Medal
  • Special duties/highlights/achievements: Commanding general, U.S. Army Infantry Center, 2003-05; Commanding general, 10th Mountain Division, 2005-07; Commanding general, Joint Task Force 76, Afghanistan 2006-07; Commanding general, U.S. Accessions Command, 2007-present

Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, right, talks with Maj. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley on board a C-130 cargo plane as they approach Kabul International Airport, Afghanistan, on July 28, 2006. COURTESY PHOTO

By Garren Shipley -- Daily Staff Writer

It's a long way from Central High School to Kabul, Afghanistan.

But for Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, it's a journey that began with a desire to serve and continues to this day.

Freakley, now the commanding general of the U.S. Army's Accessions Command, became interested in military service at an early age.

"I just fell in love with being a soldier," he said. That early interest led him to West Point, where he received his commission in 1975.

It's a decision that his time overseas — in places from Germany to Afghanistan — has reinforced.

"I love our country," he said. "I think anybody that's ever been a day or two out of America in any other country [has more] respect for what America stands for — for the opportunities that our founding fathers created, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution."

The U.S. "really gives all people who live on our shores the phenomenal opportunity to achieve their potential as a human being," he said.

That liberty and opportunity is something Freakley has fought for in three separate campaigns.

During the first Gulf War in 1991, Freakley was a major responsible in part for drafting the war plan that saw coalition ground forces sweep Iraqi troops from Kuwait in just 100 hours.

"I wrote the battle plan, and during the attack I was coordinating the activities between ... artillery and armor units," he said. "It was four days, and then we stayed up in Iraq for 10 more days."

But it wasn't all flash and action. Operation Desert Storm was preceded by Operation Desert Shield. Coalition forces sat for more than half a year in the Saudi desert waiting on the order to head north.

"We were in the desert for seven months. It was very hard on the soldiers to be in 130-degree heat, eating the same food" day after day, he said.

Victory in 1991 is one of Freakley's enduring memories of war.

"We started marching out of Iraq back to Kuwait. We had a couple of thousand vehicles in our brigade. I don't know where the soldiers got them, but they tied American flags to the antennas," he said.

The job was done, and they were all going home.

"It was a sea of American flags, it was an enormously emotional experience to see all that," he said.

Freakley wasn't done in Iraq, though.

In 2003, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division as assistant division commander and assistant to Maj. Gen. David Petraeus — who would later be the architect of the successful "surge" strategy in Iraq.

This time, U.S. forces faced not isolated desert warfare among the dunes, but street-to-street fighting in dense urban settings.

"We started fighting in Najaf, then we fought in Hillah, then we fought in Baghdad," he said. "We went across the breadth of Iraq."

After spending two years as the commandant of the U.S. Army Infantry School, Freakley was placed in command of the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan in 2005.

Then in February 2006, he was the commander on the ground of all U.S. and coalition forces operating in the country, a post he held for a year before being promoted and placed in charge of Accessions Command.

Generals don't often pull triggers or drop bombs, but they carry the burden of knowing that if they make a mistake, a large number of the soldiers under their command may not come back at the end of the day.

"It's a huge responsibility. Any commander knows that the decision he's making will affect the lives of his own soldiers, and it'll affect the lives of the people where you're fighting," he said. "Taking a life is an enormous responsibility, and most soldiers don't take it lightly when they fight the enemy."

Sending fellow soldiers into harm's way is another enduring memory of war.

"In combat, one night we put in about 2,500 soldiers on a mission in Afghanistan," he said. "That was a long night."

"The next morning, to realize everybody was on their objective, all the helicopters put in" was a great relief, Freakley said.

Even for the generals standing over the maps and computer screens, there's nothing glamorous or glorious about combat.

"[Civil War Gen. William T.] Sherman had it right — war is hell," Freakley said. "There's nothing romantic about fighting. It's hard work."

That's what makes the men and women who have served under his command so extraordinary, he added.

"They're resilient in the fight. They're strong physically, they're strong emotionally, they're strong spiritually. The American solider is a very strong human being, that woman or man out there."

Freakley credits that to the support they get back home.

"They come from strong families," he said. That's something Freakley has seen in his own hometown.

Following the death of fellow Central High School graduate Pfc. Thomas Wilson, of Woodstock, in Afghanistan in 2007, Freakley met his family and friends.

Meeting these "these incredibly strong families that stand behind their soldiers" was a moving experience.

It also underscores the burden of command.

"In combat as a commander you have to try and be as good as you can possibly be," Freakley said. "There's no day not to be your very best."

It's not a burden that commanders bear alone. From other generals all the way down to the lieutenants, sergeants and corporals, leadership is a team effort.

"Yes, it's challenge, and it's an enormous responsibility, but you also know that you have a terrific team that's undertaking this challenge with you," he said.

"I know that I have to be as good as I can be, I have to work hard, study our profession. Listen to my superiors, and to my subordinates, think hard about the problems that face us," he said.

"What's at stake is a life," he said.

NEXT WEEK: A Mt. Jackson man follows his family into the military.

* Contact Garren Shipley at gshipley@nvdaily.com

Julie Hepner, of Maurertown, sits with her daughter, Chelsea, and son, Ethan, in their living room, where a wall is decorated with memories of her son, Pfc. Thomas R. Wilson, who was 21 years old when he was killed last August in Afghanistan. Hepner holds Wilson's Purple Heart while Ethan holds a Bronze Star. Rich Cooley/Daily


Pfc. Thomas R. Wilson, 21, attended airborne school in Fort Benning, GA. Courtesy photo

Thomas R. Wilson

  • Hometown: Maurertown
  • Birth date: June 18, 1986
  • Date enlisted: Spring 2006
  • Dates overseas: May-August 007
  • Killed in battle: Aug. 27, 2007
  • Rank: Private first class
  • Conflict served in: Afghanistan
  • Location of military service: Fort Benning, Ga.; Italy; Afghanistan
  • Medals or service pins: Bronze Star; Purple Heart; Combat INfantryman's Badge; Afghanistan Campaign Medal; NATO medal
  • Special duties: Armorer, in charge of keeping all the weapons clean; infantryman

Chloe Wilson looks over photos of her brother, Pfc. Thomas R. Wilson, the week after he was killed in combat in August 2007. Rich Cooley/Daily file

By Sally Voth -- Daily Staff Writer

MAURERTOWN--The year since Thomas Wilson was killed fighting for his country in Afghanistan has turned his family into reluctant soldiers.

They've had to bury and live without their "airborne country boy," soldiering on through their own grief and pain.

During that same time, they've received comfort and support from the community, the military and total strangers.

The Army paratrooper, a private first class, was killed at age 21 by enemy gunfire as he defended his fellow soldiers on Aug. 27, 2007. He was 10 days away from a few weeks' leave back in Shenandoah County.

A week later, he was buried in one of his favorite places on his grandfather James Allen Hepner's farm.

"It has been hard," Wilson's mother, Julie Hepner, said of the 13 months since then. "It still doesn't seem real to me that he's not here. For me, it's the worst thing that's ever happened."

"Your normal is not normal anymore," Hepner said. "I just feel bad every day."

She said she wakes up thinking of Wilson, thinks of him throughout the day and goes to bed with the same thoughts.

"You just change," Hepner said. "You're not who you were."

A frequent comment Hepner hears is at least she has three surviving children — Ethan, 15, Chelsea, 17, and Chloe, 23.

"Yeah, and I love them as much as I always did, but Thomas is not here," she said. "Just because you have other children doesn't mean they can replace the one that you lost.
"It feels like a huge hole has been ripped in my heart."
Wilson's absence isn't just evident in the minds of his survivors. His house, and even his mother's car, pays homage to his sacrifice.

Sitting in her family room with two of her three surviving children, Hepner is surrounded by memories of her fallen son, who was company armorer for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry, as well as a .50-caliber machine gunner on his first sergeant's truck. The 1st Battalion is part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.

A boxed flag on a table was given to the family by a local retired Army officer.

"He was actually in Iraq when Thomas was killed, and then on 9/11 he had them fly the American flag over the American Embassy in Baghdad for Thomas," Hepner said.

Also on the table are medals Wilson was awarded, a box with coins left by officers as they passed his casket, and a picture of Wilson as a baby, as well as a pewter ornament that says "Always in our hearts," given to Hepner by her children this past Mother's Day.

On the wall are two separate portraits done of Thomas as part of Project Compassion, a nonprofit that has artists paint oil portraits of soldiers who have died in active service since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Also on the family room walls are resolutions from various government bodies — the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors, the U.S. Senate, the General Assembly.

One of the tributes to Wilson is out of this world: A friend's child has registered a star through the International Star Registry and called it Airborne Country Boy.

"For a couple months [after Wilson's death], I got cards from people just asking how I was doing and telling me they were thinking about me," Hepner said. "Just recently, I got a prayer shawl that a group of ladies from a Lutheran church in Ohio [sent]."

Hepner, Chelsea and Ethan were wearing camouflage bracelets with Wilson's name, birthday and death dates, and "Airborne Country Boy."

Hepner has "Remember the fallen" license plates personalized to read "PFC TRW."

Chloe, Ethan and their mother had another chance to feel a connection with Wilson when they traveled to Italy recently for a brigade and battalion memorial ceremony in honor of the 42 soldiers with the 173rd Airborne who have been killed in Afghanistan.

There was an emotional meeting with the medic who continued working on Wilson even though he knew it was likely in vain.

"It was kind of hard being on the base where Thomas had been, but it was really awesome meeting members of his platoon and his commanding officers," Hepner said. "I just kind of left feeling like there's still a part of him there [in Italy], and there's still a part of him in Afghanistan.

"Everybody just had something really awesome to say about Thomas. Those kind of things are what kind of help you get through one day to the next."

Just a little over a year ago, Army notification officers arrived at an empty house. Chloe was living in South Carolina, and Hepner was with her daughter in Lynchburg. She is grateful Ethan was at the county fair, rather than at home.

"On Monday [Aug. 27], I just felt like something's wrong," Hepner recalled. "Something just did not feel right in my psyche."

A notification officer from Virginia Military Institute found Hepner at her hotel.

"I just kept telling the notification officer, 'You've got the wrong person, my son is coming home in 10 days,'" she remembered.

"The four hardest things I had to do through that whole thing was [tell] each of my children and tell them individually," Hepner said. "I just said, 'Chloe,' and then I couldn't talk."

She went to Chelsea's school to tell her. Chelsea was waiting for her mother in the guidance office.

"As soon as she came around the desk, she just collapsed on the floor," Hepner said. "Then, the other hard thing was seeing his body."

Wilson had spoken to his mother about what she should do if he didn't make it home alive.

"I have to ask you something — don't get upset," Hepner remembered him saying.

Her son asked her to handle his funeral arrangements if necessary, and told her he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered along the mountain where he enjoyed hiking. Wilson also told his mother he wanted pastor George Bowers to give his eulogy.

"As a mother, I just couldn't [have him cremated]," Hepner said.

Rather, she buried her child at a favorite spot on his grandfather's farm, a decision with which she's at peace.

"I really think that Thomas would love to be buried there," Hepner said. "Thomas loved the wetlands [his grandfather created]. Turkeys and bear prints [are] all over the top of his grave."

Family friends are raising money for a bench to put by Wilson's grave.

"They wanted to put a bench down there for us to have something to sit on when we go to visit Thomas," Hepner said.

Her father has put some old church pews by the grave for them to sit on now, and has mowed a path down the hill from Hepner's house to her son's burial spot.

Then, there's the support Hepner and her other three children have received from members of the military.

"From what I've found out, once you become a member of a military service family, you're a family for life, and they really look out for you," Hepner said. "I find that for me, when you lose someone like that, especially since we hadn't seen him for a year, I feel like I'm drawn more to people in the military, or his friends."

And, they've gotten solace through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS.

"For me, I like to talk about it, I like to talk about Thomas and what happened and what he did," Hepner said.

That is encouraged by TAPS, which urges her to focus on Wilson's life and not just his death.

"I think as a parent, especially of a young person, you don't want them to ever be forgotten," Hepner said.

Ethan attended the Good Grief Camp offered by TAPS.

"We each had our own mentors," he said. "We would get in big groups and talk about who we lost. It's easier to communicate [with] people that know what you're going through."

Like his mother, Ethan, who wants to attend the Citadel or VMI, thinks about his big brother often.

"Really just whenever I go to do something, I think of Thomas, and that just helps me get through it, if it's school or sports or whatever," Ethan said. "Ever since he's been gone, I just feel he's right there with me, doing what I'm doing. Sometimes I have dreams of us like out in the woods camping and stuff."

Chloe has had a rougher year than she's let on, her mother thinks. She took a trip to Italy — the trip she planned to take to visit her brother when he returned to his home base there. She went to the Colosseum, Hepner said. Wilson had visited the outside of the famous structure, but was waiting for his sister to arrive before going inside.

Chelsea, who boards at the Virginia School of the Arts, said the past year has been the hardest one of her life.

"[I was] never to the point where I was like I want to quit [the arts school] completely," she said. "It's hard because it's my dream, and I've been dreaming it since I was a little girl, and I couldn't just stop. So, I was being pulled in a lot of different directions. Just kind of did it without thinking most of the time. I couldn't have done it without the people there."

Chelsea connected with a new ballet teacher at her school who had recently lost her daughter. She thinks it was no coincidence they came to the school at the same time.

Chelsea and a male dancer were paired for an end-of-year performance choreographed by her teacher and done in honor of the teacher's daughter and Wilson.

"Obviously, Thomas and her daughter were there," Chelsea said.

Only recently has Hepner felt able to return to church services. They have greater meaning for her now.

"He's where we're talking about," Hepner said. "I've never had a doubt in my mind about that from the time he was killed. That's the main thing that has gotten me through."

Hepner takes comfort in her son's strong faith and knowing he died surrounded by his comrades.

"I know that when he died, the people around him loved him so much," she said. "The guy whose arms Thomas fell into, he sent me an e-mail. I asked him about Thomas suffering. He said no."

Wilson's fellow soldier believes he died instantly, but with the knowledge that his buddies were there with him.

"He had people around him," Hepner said. "They were there to protect each other. He literally saved his whole platoon that day."

NEXT WEEK: From Woodstock to Afghanistan with Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley.
* Contact Sally Voth at svoth@nvdaily.com