COLUMBUS, Ga. — Every morning, Phyllis Bailey whispers a prayer and lights a candle at her Fort Mitchell home in memory of her daughter, Lakeshia, an Army sergeant who died in 2010 while serving in Iraq.
“I find peace within that candle, I don’t know why,” she said softly while reflecting on her life without her daughter. “It just helps me.”
For survivors like Bailey, Kim Benford Weaver and Dr. John Henderson, this week’s 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion is another reminder of the toll war took on their families.
Weaver, a nurse, lost her husband, Staff Sgt. Jason A. Benford, during his second deployment to Iraq in 2005. Henderson, a family doctor in Columbus and former military surgeon, lost his son, John Jr., in Afghanistan in August 2005. John Jr. became a Ranger, in part, because he was inspired by the Iraq War.
While she has remarried, Weaver said her late husband is still a significant part of her life, and it hasn’t been easy moving on.
“There’s not a day that goes by that you don’t think about him,” she said. “But I’ve tried to think about it in a positive manner so I’m not always sad and negative.”
For Henderson there is little distinction between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When his son died, Henderson thought he was deployed to Iraq, but later found out he was on a high-security mission in Afghanistan.
“In the military,” Henderson said, “both of these wars are collectively called ‘The Long War’ because it’s taken so damn long.”
Staff Sgt. Jason A. Benford
When Weaver met Jason Benford in 1996, she was drawn to his blue eyes, dark hair and 6-foot-4-inch frame. Already three years into his Army career, he had recently returned from a tour in Korea. Weaver, who stands 5 feet tall, was a Columbus girl who hadn’t seen much of the world. Benford was from Toledo, Ohio, and a huge Ohio State Buckeye fan. He brought excitement to her life.
In January 1998, the couple married, and Benford adopted Weaver’s 1-year-old son, Lane. A few months later, Benford was deployed to Germany, where the family lived for three years.
“I had never left Columbus before,” said Weaver. “It was the best thing ever. You learn to adapt, overcome and make the best decisions. We traveled and had an amazing time.”
In 2001, the family returned to Fort Benning, where they bought their first house. Weaver gave birth to their second son, Jacob, and life was good, Weaver recalled.
Then in 2003, Benford received orders for Iraq as a member of the 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 3rd Brigade, which led the initial invasion. She knew her husband was in danger but tried to stay positive.
“You worry, but you can’t let that consume you,” she said. “You focus on day-to-day tasks, everyday things you have to do. You just don’t think about worse-case scenarios. I tried not to even allow myself to go there. I just had peace that he was safe, he’s smart and gonna be fine — and he’ll come home.”
When he returned to Fort Benning in 2004, everything seemed fine. His only complaint was that there were no showers or hot meals over there and they practically lived in the back of a Bradley fighting vehicle.
“Sticky, nasty, hungry, but at that point they really felt they were on a mission,” Weaver said of her husband and his fellow soldiers. “They were focused, knew what the target was, and they all did very well. He came back, and he was just the same guy.”
In 2005, Benford received orders for a second deployment to Iraq. On Sept. 25, he called his wife and told her he would be patrolling a dangerous area. Two days later, on Sept. 27, Weaver’s mother had just come over for dinner and her sons were playing when the family heard a knock on the door. There was an Army casualty assistance officer, chaplain and another Army spouse waiting to come in.
Weaver’s son, Lane, then 11 years old, grabbed his 4-year-old brother and took him outside to play on the trampoline. It was something his father told him to do if soldiers ever came to the house, which probably meant something bad had happened.
“And pretty much everything is a blur after that,” Weaver said, recalling the day she learned of her husband’s death. “It was just very hard to accept.”
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Benford was killed by a sniper, according to media reports. A month before he died, Weaver had registered for nursing school at Columbus Technical College. Her first class began four days after his death, and she threw herself into her schoolwork.
“I just wanted to make him proud, and let him know I could take care of myself and take care of the kids,” she said.
Now Weaver is a registered nurse. She remarried in 2009 to Joshua Weaver, and they have a 2-year-old daughter.
“My husband now, he has the biggest heart,” she said. “He stepped into our home, saw all the pictures and embraced it because it’s a part of who we are.”
A couple Saturdays ago, her youngest son, Jacob, stood in for Benford at the American Little League opening ceremony, where military people were honored. He also got to catch the opening pitch.
“Our community and our support group, they’re amazing,” Weaver said. “They have gone above and beyond on so many different occasions to make my kids feel special and to honor their dad. I’m so grateful for that.”
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Sgt. Lakeshia M. Bailey
Lakeshia Bailey, affectionately called “Sha” by friends and family, was a fun-loving military brat who wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father, Sgt. 1st Class Tony Bailey.
A native of Greenville, Ala., Bailey grew up traveling the world with her military family. She graduated from Spencer High School in 2004 and began pursuing an early childhood education degree at Columbus State University. But she soon decided she wanted to travel abroad. So she joined the Army in February 2006 and was stationed at Fort Benning. Her parents were supportive. But Tony Bailey, who served in Bosnia and Desert Storm, warned his daughter of the potential dangers.
“I pretty much knew the things she would face over there and I tried to get her to understand that we were a country at war and if she joined, chances of her fighting in the war were real high,” Tony Bailey said. “She told me in so many words, ‘Well, Dad, if I lose my life, then I will lose my life fighting for what I believe.’”
Lakeshia was deployed to Iraq for the first time in 2007 as part of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. She returned to Fort Benning in 2008 and was redeployed to Iraq in 2009. A month before she left she married Harrison Bateman, a high school friend.
In a phone conversation with her mother just a couple of days before she died, she said she would be driving to another military base in Iraq.
“I said, ‘OK, well, just call us to let us know once you make it back,’ ” Phyllis Bailey said before passing the phone to her husband. “ ‘Always remember, keep God first and I love you.’ ”
On March 8, Phyllis Bailey was on her job as an administrative assistant at Fort Benning. Her younger daughter, Candace, called to say she saw “RIP Lakeshia” posts on Facebook. Bailey called her husband and he assured her that there would be casualty assistance officers at the door if Lakeshia had been killed. Bailey called Candace to check, and she said there were some men in the driveway. And that’s when Bailey began to scream. She found out later that her daughter had died in a vehicle rollover crash.
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Now, the Baileys honor Lakeshia with daily rituals and annual events. On the anniversary of her death, they visit her gravesite and release balloons. The family also named a driveway at their home “Keshia Drive.” And they painted her Grand Prix pink and gray because she always wanted a pink car.
“It gets better with God,” her mother said. “We keep praying to stay strong.”
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Pvt. John M. Henderson Jr.
John Henderson Jr. grew up in Columbus and graduated from Pacelli High School in 2002. From there, he went to Truett-McConnell College and Gainesville College. One day, he called his father and said he wanted more out of life.
On the day that the U.S. invaded Baghdad, the two men were building a footbridge at their home when they had a philosophical discussion about war and man’s responsibility to his fellow man.
“It was a couple hours before the invasion, and I can remember on Rock 103, they were playing this AC/DC Song: “For those about to rock, we salute you,” Henderson said. “And it was just a wonderful time where I felt we were bonding and that it finally clicked in his head that you do things for a higher purpose rather than to be continually selfish through your life.”
So, in December 2004, John Henderson Jr. joined the military. He completed One Stop Training and then went to the U.S. Army Airborne School. After graduating, he volunteered for the Ranger Indoctrination Program and was later assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
John Jr. was deployed to Afghanistan in July of 2005. The day before he left, he went to dinner with his father, mother and sister. “We said we loved each other,” Henderson said.
Ten days later, Henderson got a call from his son in the middle of the night. He asked his son where he was, and he said he couldn’t tell him. He received a couple more phone calls over the next few days, then never heard from his son again.
On Aug. 5, Henderson’s wife, Sue, from whom he was separated, called and said there were soldiers at her front door.
“I said, ‘Invite them in and sit them down. I’m on my way,’ ” he said. And he got there as fast as he could.
That’s when he found out that John Jr. had died on a combat mission in Kunar province. He was killed when the vehicle in which he was traveling ran off the road in rough terrain.
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Henderson said he knew his son wasn’t coming home when they said goodbye for the last time at the restaurant.
“When we hugged, I knew it was the last time I’d ever hold him. Sometimes you just know stuff,” Henderson said. “I would never tell people that, but that’s the way I felt.”
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Henderson’s office on Manchester Expressway in Columbus is decorated with pictures of John Jr. Every year, on the anniversary of his son’s death, he runs 13-15 miles from Parkhill Cemetery to the Fort Benning Ranger Compound. He wears his son’s ID tag and medals around his neck every day. And on the 4th and 13th of each month, Henderson collects pebbles from near his son’s grave to commemorate his death and burial.
“We do these things because we don’t want people to forget our sons,” he said. “I guess it’s important for parents to feel it was a worthwhile sacrifice. Because when a country spends treasure, you can rebuild the treasure but you can’t recoup the blood you spilled.”
©2013 Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, Ga.)
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