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
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
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.
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