Friday, May 22, 2009

The story behind the picture

I try not to repeat my "day job" posts, but this one is about an aviator killed in the first Gulf War, the son of another aviator. And I think it's appropriate for this weekend.

This is a two-part post. The first part below was written on Friday afternoon. I asked people on Twitter and Facebook to help me track down the family below. Within an hour, I found information I've been searching for for several years. That story is the second part of the post.

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This picture of the family of one of the first soldiers killed in the first Gulf War is tattered because it's been folded up and put in and taken out of my wallet occasionally for the last 18 years.

I cut it out of a Newsweek magazine in 1991 for personal and professional reasons. At the time, the news media described the cost of the war as "light." Few soldiers were killed. I cut it out to remind me -- as a writer of news -- that there's no such thing as "light casualties" when it comes to reporting on war.

I also kept it in case my then-young children ever expressed a cavalier attitude toward war. They never did.

The problem is I don't know who these people are. I didn't cut out the accompanying caption. The photographer, John Ficara, didn't remember taking the picture when I contacted him a couple of years ago, and every now and then, he drops me an email to see if I've made any progress. I haven't.

Every few months, someone writing a paper for school stumbles across a post I made on my personal blog two years ago and also asks if I've been successful in locating the family, to find out whatever happened to them? I tell them I'm still looking.

One of these days, what with Twitter and Facebook and the viral nature of the Internet, I'm hoping someone will recognize them. It's impossible to look at their faces on this day, and not hope for the best.

Update - Thanks to the power of Twitter and Jodie Gustafson (via comment below) we've found the name -- Gayle Edwards and her sons, at the funeral for Marine Capt. Jonathan 'Jack' Edwards. Armed with that, I've been able to find that he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on February 15, 1991. They were from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was killed Feb. 2 when his AH-1 Cobra helicopter crashed in the desert near the Saudi border with Kuwait as it escorted another helicopter with injured. He was the first Marine killed in the war. His mother is Sally Marsh Edwards of Williamstown, KY.

THE STORY

When Sally Marsh Edwards said "freedom is not free" to me when I talked to her on the phone this evening, it didn't sound like a bumper sticker slogan. It sounded like the truth; it cost her her son, Captain Jonathan "Jack" Edwards, the first Marine killed in the Gulf War of 1991.

Once I found out the name of the family in the photo above, some minor investigating found the name of Capt. Edwards' mother, and some campaign contribution records revealed her address and city. The phone book did the rest.

"Jack is our hero," she told me when I called. He graduated from high school as a junior. He did so well on his ACTs that "the principal called and said 'please let me graduate him now.' He did and not longer thereafter, Jack walked into her house with a uniform on. He'd enlisted.

He'd actually left active duty when the Gulf war known as "Desert Storm" -- more recently referred to by some as "the good war " -- broke out, but was recalled to fly helicopters.

On the day he was buried (above) at Arlington National Cemetery, the wind chill was 16 below zero. "Gayle has a flag on her lap (in the photo) and the general gave me one and I remember that his tears were frozen on his cheeks," she said.

"I got my miracle that day," she said. As befits the military, graves are dug in proper order. One area fills up, they move on to the next area. As she paused at her son's grave that day, however, she realized he had been buried -- apparently by chance -- head to toe to her own aunt, a secretary during World War II to Dwight Eisenhower, and Generals Bradley and Marshall. "There shouldn't have been an open space available" there, she said. But there was.

The picture above, she says, "was on the cover of every newspaper in the country" the next day. She and her husband, who was severely handicapped by Multiple Sclerosis, were driving home and stopped at a rest area restaurant on the way home to Cincinnati. "I screamed when I saw it," she said.

She's not in the picture. She was in a van nearby with her husband. But another grandchild -- a girl -- is being held on the lap of her sister in the second row.

The youngest son, Ben, is wearing his father's jacket. He spent some time in college after receiving a full scholarship to study art, and now owns a tattoo parlor in Virginia Beach. Older brother, Spencer, is in the sales business.

"Cincinnati was very good to us," she said. The community raised money for Captain Edwards children.

He was the first killed in Kuwait. But someone had to be the last. "I wrote to the family of a soldier who died on the last day of the war," she told me. "And we became the best of friends."

Her husband died in 2000. He, too, was an historic figure in the battles of the Mideast. He was a pilot for Pan Am Airlines. In September 1970, he piloted Pan Am Flight 93, hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Three other planes were hijacked that day, with intentions to fly them to an airstrip in Jordan. But the 747 was too big to land there, so it flew to Cairo, where it was emptied, and then blown up.

Mrs. Edwards is 75 now, and still working as a lawyer. She helps disabled people get the Social Security benefits to which they're entitled. Many are disabled veterans.

She visited her son's grave early this year. Out of the glare of the media that consumed her family's privacy in 1991, a ceremony each year remembers those who died in the Gulf war. It's mostly underwritten by the government of Kuwait.

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