Sunday, November 14, 2010

Army Spc. Nathan E. Lillard

Remember Our Heroes

Army Spc. Nathan E. Lillard, 26, of Knoxville, Tenn.

Spc. Lillard was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Ky.; died Nov. 14, 2010 in Kunar province, Afghanistan, when insurgents attacked his unit with small arms fire.

Friends said Nathan Lillard put his life on hold for a second turn at military service. "He'd been in once before, and he always talked about going back," said Derrick Rubush, a former Knox County co-worker. "He never actually went overseas the first time, and he was pretty adamant about wanting to go. He stayed single, because he said he didn't feel right getting married before he went over there."

Lillard gave his life in that service this week. The 26-year-old Army specialist and East Tennessee native died Sunday in a shootout with rebel forces in the Watahpur district of Afghanistan's Kunar province, according to the Department of Defense.

Lillard grew up in Southeast Tennessee's McMinn County but spent his junior and senior years at Lenoir City High School, where he graduated in 2003, Principal Steve Millsaps said. His death made him the school's first graduate killed in the Afghan conflict, the principal said.

Lenoir City High School Principal Steve Millsaps said records confirm that Lillard graduated LCHS May 17, 2003, having transferred from McMinn County.

From all reports, Lillard was not here long before he found close friends. “He moved here from Athens my sophomore year, and his junior year,” said Jamie Petter, of Lenoir City. “We met in school and hit it off and were good buddies. He was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet — always cutting up and everything.”

Lillard lived with Petter’s family for a couple of years. “When he was out of high school, he stayed at our house all the time anyway and he just kind of come over and we never let him leave. We shared a room a long time,” Petter recalled. “The last time we talked, he had come in on leave before he deployed. It was around Christmas, almost a year ago. I went to see him when he left for Afghanistan. He had to go back to Fort Campbell where he was stationed to be deployed.”

Petter and Lillard communicated on Facebook while he was in Afghanistan. “On his birthday, Aug. 17, I told him to hurry up and get home so we could hang out. I didn’t want him to come home this way. I am going to miss him. It has been hard.”

Friends said Lillard had talked of a military career even a teenager. His former teachers remember him as a big, burly boy, quick with a smile, who loved to work with his hands.

"Whenever somebody mentions Nathan, I think of a huge guy like a teddy bear," said David Widby, who taught Lillard in graphic design. "He was an excellent kid, very respectful and soft-spoken. He was a mechanically inclined, hands-on student, really more interested in building and working with machines than in computers. He joined the military while he was still in school. He didn't say a lot, but he did say he wanted to serve his country, even in high school."

Lillard later lived in Knoxville and worked in the warehouse at Modern Supply on Lovell Road. He left to rejoin the Army and finish what he'd begun, friends said.

"If you met him once, you wouldn't forget him," said Rubush, who met Lillard on the job five years ago. "He made it so much easier to come to work, because he always made everybody else smile."

Lillard re-enlisted in November 2006 and arrived at Fort Campbell, Ky., in August 2009. He stayed in touch with friends and family through Facebook and came home on leave this spring. "It was like he'd never left," Rubush said. "He was like he'd always been. He didn't really talk much about what was going on over there, but he was never negative."

Word of Lillard's death began spreading Monday night. A plane returned his body Tuesday to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Lillard's mother, Helen Hyatt of Athens, Tenn., had gone to claim the body Wednesday. Funeral arrangements remained incomplete.

Helen Hyatt had presents under her Christmas tree for her son and was waiting for him to come back home.

"I sent a letter to him saying, 'I have your Kasey Kahne stocking hanging up,'" Hyatt said. "'I have your gifts under the tree, and I'm so ready for Christmas.'

One of them was a conversation the two had in her living room when Lillard was on leave for fifteen days in July.

"If something should happen, I'm going to a better place," Hyatt remembered her son said. "Please understand that. He said, 'I'm ready to fight for our freedom. We need to fight to keep our country free.' He said after 9-11 we need to fight harder."

A few days after that conversation, she said goodbye to her son at McGhee Tyson Airport.

Last week, as she prepared to fly to Dover, Delaware for the arrival of her son's body, Hyatt passed by the spot where she last hugged him. "Nathan had turned and waved," she said. "It was my last sight of him."

Hyatt said what she'll miss most about Lillard is a man who loved everyone and would not only give the shirt off his back to his friends but to the whole country.

"He was one of those people that just did not want anybody else to hurt or feel sorrow or pain, and he would literally lay his life down for anybody," Hyatt said.

She still thinks her son will be watching over her. "He always said, 'Mom, I will be watching out that window and watching what's going on,'" she said.

"Today is one of the hardest and happiest days of my life because we didn't know we were going to be able to say goodbye in this way. We are blessed to be able to look at his uniform and his medals and him laying there," said Lillard's mother, Helen Hyatt.

Army Spc. Nathan E. Lillard was killed in action on 11/14/10.

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