Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Army Sgt. Rickey E. Jones

Remember Our Heroes

Army Sgt. Rickey E. Jones, 21, of Kokomo, Indiana

Sgt Jones was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky.; killed Feb. 22 when an improvised explosive device detonated near his Humvee during patrol operations in Hawijah, Iraq. Also killed were Staff Sgt. Gregson G. Gourley, Pfc. Christopher L. Marion and Pfc. Allan A. Morr.

Tribune staff writer

After the mourners had filed out of the Crossroads Community Church sanctuary Monday, a gray-bearded veteran stood alone, lost in reflection.

The casket bearing the body of Sgt. Rickey Jones had been wheeled out, flanked by an honor guard of six soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. The 30-foot American flag, the majestic backdrop for the service, still hung from the rafters, almost reaching the floor.

In front of the flag, just to the right of where Jones’ casket had stood, his boots, helmet, rifle and dogtags bore silent witness to a life of service and sacrifice.

Thirty minutes earlier during services for the fallen soldier, Jones’ brother Michael had stood before those gathered, fighting his emotions as he read from a letter the paratrooper sent home shortly before his Feb. 22 death in Iraq.

“It’s crazy man, it’s not anything like it was the first time I was here,” Jones wrote. His unit had encountered sniper fire, he said, but they felt protected by the armor plating of their patrol vehicle.

The realization that the vehicle wasn’t enough protection against an insurgent’s roadside bomb was too much for Michael, who choked back tears.

“I would never have thought in a million years I’d be doing the things I’m doing right now ... Stay strong, go to college and be a good person for Mom and the family,” Michael read, before reserving the letters remaining contents for the family.

Up on large screens hanging from either side of the church sanctuary, a slide show of family and military snapshots showed Rickey Jones’ growth from a smiling baby to a shy-looking, bespectacled boy to a large, handsome man, standing inches above his fellow soldiers in Iraq.

Numerous snapshots showed the side of the soldier remembered most fondly by his family, the inner boy who loved doing what he could to help Iraqi children.

“What can’t you say about Rickey? He had a good heart. And he was young, but he was a man ... My brother played with action figures, and he was 21! He liked to watch cartoons ... But he was a role model for a lot of us because [staying young is] what we should do,” Michael reflected.

“There was nothing bad about Rickey ... If you remember anything about him, remember that he was a fun-loving, kind, caring person for his family and his country.”

A number of dignitaries were on hand for the service, including Gov. Mitch Daniels, two congressmen, two state legislators, the mayor of Kokomo, high-ranking military officers and representatives from the Pentagon, but none spoke.

Everyone in the room stood and saluted Jones’ flag-covered casket, however, at Michael’s prompting.

Pastor Charles Riley said Jones’ death was not in vain. Despite his youth, Jones found a calling in life in the Army.

“He gave the greatest thing he could ever give, just like Jesus did,” Riley said.

The words of the martyr, St. Joan of Arc, were never more appropriate, he said.

“Some men live their entire lives and have nothing really to live for. I thank God I have a cause in my heart that’s not just worth living for, it’s worth dying for.”

Conversations with the soldier’s mother, Tenia Rogers, revealed more about the 2002 Kokomo graduate, Riley said. Of particular charm was the story of a care package Jones received in Iraq, containing a small radio-controlled car.

“That became the entertainment for everyone around him. I’m sure that in Baghdad that wasn’t a common thing to have,” Riley said.

Even small things can reveal something great about a person, the pastor said, praising Jones as a “gentle warrior,” who loved his brothers and sisters in the military.

“Your greatest friend is your brother standing beside you. You promise, if I go down, I’m gonna do my best to get you out too ...

“This was a real man, with a real heart, who believed in a real God, and fought for a real country ... He didn’t go the other way — he laid his life down, and he’s with God.”

Riley began by thanking Daniels for signing legislation late last week making disorderly conduct a felony charge if committed within 500 feet of a funeral.

While the governor and an estimated crowd of 450 at the service joined with more than 100 motorcyclists (who remained outside) in thanking Jones for his service, the controversial group targeted by the funeral protest legislation never showed up.

At several points during his address, however, Riley repudiated one of the Westboro Baptist Church’s central tenants — that the soldiers killed in Iraq were denied God’s saving grace.

“I didn’t come here to preach and I didn’t come here to protest. I came here to proclaim. Thank you, Rickey. You gave your life so we can have the freedom to do what we do here in these awesome United States of America,” Riley said.

“Rickey, even though he’s separated from us, he’s not dead. He’s more alive now than when he was on the earth.”

Riley finished by reading from a tribute authored by one of Jones’ friends.

“American liberties come with a price. I was one willing to make the sacrifice.

“An American hero with a great big heart, I served my country and I did my part.”

Then it was time for Sgt. Rickey Jones to begin his slow journey to his final resting place. Outside the sanctuary, Harley-Davidson motorcycle engines began rumbling.

Inside, the only sounds came from the boots of honor guard members as they marched to take their place beside the casket, and a mother’s inconsolable grieving.

The gray-bearded veteran, leaning on his cane, lost in thought after the service, looked as if he might have heard those sounds before.

Army Sgt. Rickey E. Jones was killed in action on 02/22/06.

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