Monday, August 27, 2007

Army Pfc. Thomas R. Wilson

Remember Our Heroes

Army Pfc. Thomas R. Wilson, 21, of Maurertown, Va.

Pfc. Wilson was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, Vicenza, Italy; died Aug. 27, 2007 in Paktika, Afghanistan, of wounds sustained when insurgents attacked his unit during combat operations.

Remembering A Fallen Son
‘You Could Be Sure You Were Protected’
By Jimmy LaRoue

Maurertown - It’s a long way from Mount Zion Lutheran Church near Maurertown, where Pfc. Thomas R. Wilson was baptized, to a lone tower in the cool Afghanistan darkness where the only voices filling the air were Wilson and Pfc. Derek Hill of Galax.

The two Virginia men formed a close bond when they first met in Italy as part of the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. They grew even closer over the eight months they spent together.

On those lonely nights of tower duty, they would talk about home, about life, about dreams – and a lot about faith.

Wilson was always an encourager, and gave some of that to Hill, a former youth pastor who had been shaken somewhat in his faith. Wilson told him to stay with it.

Whenever possible, the two would go to chapel with a couple other platoon members.

Wilson also talked up his love of home, where kids run barefoot and build forts and where adults leave their doors unlocked.

He was tall, lean and fast, but he also had steady hands – ones equally adept at hunting and fishing, sketching and taking pictures. He was also laid back, yet quick with a joke or to partake in a prank.

Still, the 2004 Central High School graduate worked hard and earned good grades. He put his speed and good hands to use at the high school, running track and playing basketball.

And he tried, but failed, to win the goat competition at the county fair every year.

Wilson had hopes of going back to West Virginia University to finish his degree in wildlife and fishery management and work in the outdoors. He wanted to get married and have children. And he and Hills hoped to hike the Appalachian Trail after their tours of duty were over.

Wilson had less than two weeks left before coming home on leave. His buddy hoped he would be able to see the home Wilson talked so much of.

The home where he ran loose in the woods – hunting and fishing and camping.

The home where he played pranks on his two sisters, brother and mom.

The home he depicted so well in drawings and photographs – and no doubt had embedded in his soul.

The home to which he never made it back alive.

Word comes

Wilson’s aunt, Kathy, was the first to learn.

She and her husband, Jim Hepner Jr., were watching Wilson’s younger brother Ethan at the soldier’s lifelong home.

Julie Hepner, Thomas’s mother, had driven down to Lynchburg to drop off his younger sister Chelsea at the Virginia School for the Arts, where she will spend the year studying ballet. His older sister, Chloe, was living in South Carolina.

Jim and Ethan were on the way to the fair preparing for the goat competition when two men in Army dress uniforms approached the house.

Kathy called her husband and told him to come home immediately. She didn’t want to tell him over the phone, but by the tone in her voice, he knew it was something serious, so he gathered Ethan and left.

On the way home, Jim told Ethan they were going back home because his mom wanted to talk to him before taking Chelsea to DMV, since it was the day she was to get her driver’s license. Chelsea and Julie were supposed to be on their way back from Lynchburg.

Jim pulled up, and soon after, he and Kathy were on their way to Lynchburg.

The two couldn’t tell anyone yet.

Julie didn’t know.

The Army broke the news to the soldier’s mother in a Lynchburg hotel at 7:30 a.m., Tuesday morning. Within an hour, she had called Chloe to tell her.

By 9 a.m., she had picked up Chelsea for the trip back home, now for a much different reason.

Life in Afghanistan

Wilson wasn’t able to write extensive letters while in Afghanistan.

“In one of his last letters, he told me about Derek and how much he was like his best friend,” Julie said.

He wouldn’t lie to her, she said, if things weren’t going well.

Julie would write her son 16-page letters about her family and what they were up to.

“I love getting details from home,” he told his mom.

Wilson frequently talked of home to Hill and to anyone who would listen.

The conditions in Afghanistan weren’t that bad, Hill said. Their space was a square concrete room about the size of Wilson’s porch at home.

“We managed to scrounge up some carpet, so we laid some carpet on the concrete floor,” Hill said.

While temperatures would get over 100 degrees during the day, it’d fall below 50 at night.

Wilson bugged his new friend about going to chapel when they had the chance. It wasn’t an option not to go, Hill said.

Wilson liked to laugh, and he was fun to be around.

Hill is going to miss having Wilson waking him up the most, walking up in the middle of the night, looking for food.

“He’d walk over and say, ‘Hey, Hill, you sleeping?’ ” Hill recalled.

“Yeah, yeah I am,” Hill would answer.

“You got anything to eat?” would come Wilson’s response.

He’d always ask Hill if he had any snacks.

“We’re in Afghanistan, where money really doesn’t matter, and he’s like, ‘I’ll give you some money if you’ll give me something to eat.’”

“I don’t want your money, man,” Hill would tell him. “I’ve got a box over there, go and get what you want.”

Growing Up

“If you were his friend, you could be sure you were protected, right Marty?” the soldier’s mother said, turning to his best friend, Marty French.

Wilson never met someone he didn’t get along with.

Growing up, Wilson was always protective of his sisters and younger brother.

He could also tell the best stories, his mother said.

“We were really looking forward to his stories when he came home,” she said.

Wilson often went out into the fields behind the house, and if he didn’t come back with a creature to scare someone in his house, he’d have a drawing or photograph, many of which could be found in numerous sketchbooks and on photographs inside the Hepner home.

At the funeral home, numerous pieces of art were on display, showcasing a range of skills, from his work with ceramics, to sketching, paintings and taking pictures.

The soldier loved hunting, fishing, going on rides with his friends. He was up for fun – for pranks and jokes.

“He’d always be laughing,” French said. “The favorite thing we used to do is just jump in the car and go.”

They’d listen to hard rock, country, bluegrass whatever, and he had the same goofy dance for every song.

Faith – and Prayers Answered

Wilson also had a very strong faith.

He went to church and Sunday school weekly at the church his great-grandfather started. It’s where Wilson was baptized and confirmed.

“It was a part of our life,” his mother said.

He was the first person to serve on the church council as a youth.

She believes her son took his faith in everything he did. Hill can attest to that.

“He definitely knew whose he was, what he was supposed to be doing,” Julie said. “He might not have been a minister ordained, but he definitely spreads God’s love in service.”

In the week since the Army men came to Wilson’s home, his family has taken solace in several events.

After the interrupted trip to the goats at the fair, the family talked to Wilson’s younger brother, Ethan, about whether he should continue with the goat competition. He felt his older brother would have wanted him to continue, and so he did.

Ethan competed and won his class – something that Wilson was never able to do. Then Ethan got a bigger surprise. His goat won best in show, bringing a loud cheer from the hundreds in attendance.

“What a bright spot in our day – Thomas was just right there with you,” Julie told her youngest son.

It got a little brighter when Hill showed up escorting Wilson’s body – another prayer of Julie’s answered. No deceased soldier had ever come back to his family faster, according to Wilson’s uncle.

Hill Arrives

Hill went home with Wilson, but not the way either had envisioned.

During a firefight in Paktika, Afghanistan, Wilson was killed instantly, and another in his platoon was injured.

The Army turned over Wilson’s body and allowed Hill to represent the company in escorting him home.

Home was everything Wilson had told Hill it would be.

The surroundings felt familiar, as he had long since known everybody’s name.

Hill walked out behind the modest house to see the 120-acre farm of Wilson’s grandfather, James Hepner Sr. And he saw the church his mom had Wilson go to every Sunday.

Scores of people streamed in and out of the house, some bringing food and drinks while kids ran barefoot outside and played on the swing set.

Family and friends poured over photographs and shared memories of Thomas.

Hill had thought his friend – a friend of many – would be helping make new memories with him.

He didn’t imagine hopping over the electric fence out back to see where his friend would be buried.

The Future

Hill plans to carry on with his friend’s dream. He’ll walk the Appalachian Trail, but with Ethan and a few of Wilson’s friends instead. He also plans to go back into youth ministry.

But first, he’ll have to board a plane Sept. 8 from Dulles taking him back to Afghanistan.

He’ll tell his battalion about the person his family and many friends knew Thomas to be, but they’re likely to know the story by heart.

Wilson loved God, he loved his family, he loved his friends and he loved the country – and his country.

He believed in what he was doing, and yet he looked forward to coming back and treading the ground of his youth.

And even if he’ll no longer get that chance, he’ll be present in the fields where he grew up.

Country roads took him home.

Army Pfc. Thomas R. Wilson was killed in action on 8/27/07.


Krissy Hudgins said...

This made me so sad yet so happy to look back and remember my good friend Thomas Wilson. Thomas was the kind of guy I always went to for advice or just someone to talk to. I grew up with him and have been good friends with him since kindergarten, and it's just so hard to believe that I'll no longer see him in person, but forver in my dreams he is in my heart and helps me through each and everyday. When he desided to goin the army I was nervous about it, but I knew he knew what he wanted to do, and that was to serve not only God, but God and his country, which he did so well. I'm so very proud of the little boy i became friends with so long ago, became this wonderful man who gave the ultimate sacrafice for me, my family, our county and the entire united states. Everytime I think of Thomas I think of the song, "All gave some, and some gave all" That's what Thomas did, he gave all, and now he is with the one person who made him the happiest in his life and that person is Jesus Christ. I'm so happy that he is happy with the one he loves the most, looking down on his family, friends and me, helping us through each and everyday. Thomas is FORVEVER IN OUR HEARTS!

jackie jordan said...

This is sad but true...I am a combat medic about to be stationed with 3rd id mechianized infantry division in ft stewart in 1 month then deployed in 6. It is reality..I hope every one prays for all of the troops..we don't know what will happen 1 min from the and prayers to all family and friends...pfc jackie jordan...ft sam houston tx