Two Soldiers

Kris Walker and George Obourn Jr. grew up best friends In central Illinois. They played brass in the high-school band, got into the usual teenage scrapes, and Enlisted in the army together. In a span of hours, both were killed in action in Iraq—binding them in death, and adding layers of sadness and solace for two grieving families.

Photograph: Courtesy of Deiters Funeral Home
kris walker

Kris Walker
 

Photograph: Courtesy of the Obourn Family
george obourn jr.
George Obourn Jr.

Kevin and Beth Walker had already gone to bed when the knock came, a rap meek as a supplicant tapping on a confession booth. It was about 10:30 on a damp October evening and the couple, accustomed to rising early-usually around 5 a.m.-had turned in long before. Now they waited, hoping the sound might be a branch tapping against the house. Knock Knock Knock. No. There was no mistake. Someone was at the door, but who? And why so late? The mother and father began to stir.

Set back amid a forest of towering pines and baleful oaks, their sprawling ranch house didn’t exactly encourage visitors, much less unannounced strangers. The Walkers were generous and gracious people, but they also cherished their privacy.

The inclination explained, in part, why Creve Coeur, a town of about 5,500 people some three hours southwest of Chicago, suited them so well and why their home-a parlor of ceramic sculptures and overstuffed furniture, complete with a small grandfather clock ticking off the seconds-fit so perfectly. Fortunately, on this night, their eldest son, Chad, 23, was still up. They heard him answer. Muffled voices gave way to a soft “I’ll tell them.” A moment later, the son poked his head in the bedroom.

“Dad,” he said, “there’s a guy out there. He wants to talk to you.”

“Who is it that can’t wait till the morning?”

“He says he needs to talk to you now.” The father threw back the covers, pulled on some clothes and headed down the hallway alone. His son stopped him. His voice sounded strange. “You and mom,” he said. The couple, dressed now, headed toward the front door together.

They froze when they saw the stranger. He stood awkwardly at the door, his face a pale mask. From the front of his rich green coat, a row of brass buttons gleamed, along with captain’s bars. No, God. No. Please,  God, no. He wore a dark tie with a four-in-hand knot. The black patent leather of his shoes shone against the dark green carpet. The clock ticked. The man cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to bother you,” he said, removing his hat. “But are you the parents of Kristofer Carl Walker, with the Seventh Squadron, Tenth Calvary Regiment, First Brigade, Fourth Infantry Division in Iraq?” In a voice somber as a tomb, in a rite as old as war, he told them that their son was dead. The father’s face grew rigid. The mother, her eyes brimming, retreated into the bedroom, surrendering to five terrible words that stabbed at her heart like a bayonet: My little boy is gone.

 

Twelve hours later and nearly 150 miles away, in a modest apartment in Naperville, George and Debbie Obourn greeted the fall morning with the sort of high spirits they always felt when a visit from their son was near. Thanksgiving loomed a few short weeks away, which meant that their 20-year-old son, Junior-George R. Obourn Jr.-would be returning from his second tour patrolling Taji, Iraq, as an army specialist with the Fourth Infantry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas. His mother was preparing a box for her son and his soldier pals: a bunch of camouflage bandannas to protect them from the grit and sand that was forever stinging their faces. Recent e-mails from Junior had brought fresh reminders of
the anticipated delights-fishing, football games, and, of course, eating. Turkey. Stuffing. Cranberry sauce. Gravy. Biscuits. Ham. Pumpkin pie. The kinds of things that didn’t come in a pouch or require a microwave. Adding to the parents’ joy was word that Junior’s best friend, Kris, who had joined the army with Junior in high school under the army’s “buddy system,” would be coming, too.

That morning, the Obourns busied themselves with their regular routine. George worked at his computer; Debbie straightened the apartment. When the door buzzer rang, she stiffened. Two men on the building’s intercom asked to be let in. They were from the army, they said.

Even before the men had made their way to the second-floor apartment, Debbie Obourn knew, in that way a mother knows whether her child has washed behind the ears, knows how much salt to put in soup. Like Kris’s parents, she prayed. Please let him be wounded, just wounded. I’ll do anything you say, just let him be only wounded. The parents stood in their living room. The footsteps drew near. Let this cup pass us by, dear God. Let this be a mistake. A dream! Perhaps it was a dream. Perhaps he wasn’t dead. He couldn’t be dead. God would not let him be dead. Of course God might let him be dead. God, give me the strength to accept Thy will.

The door opened. Two officers stood stiffly in their dark green Class A dress uniforms. Polished shoes. Dark tie. Gleaming buttons. Berets tucked under their arms. “We’re sorry to bother you,” one began. “But are you the parents of George Obourn Jr.?” The father set his jaw. “We are.” The mother staggered to the bathroom. She lifted the toilet seat, bent over the basin, and vomited.

 

Photograph: Courtesy of the Obourn Family
the soldiers with family pictures
From top: Junior and Kris, who enlisted together under the army’s “buddy system,” at Fort Knox on the day of their graduation from boot camp; Junior with his parents, George Sr. and Debbie; a school photo of Junior around the time of sixth grade

Thoseboys. Those boys! Kind, thoughtful, earnest boys. Not perfect. Occasionally troublesome, like all boys. Nothing terrible. A fender-bender here. A mediocre grade there. Best friends. Kris and Junior, Junior and Kris. “Thick as thieves,” as George Obourn Sr. put it. Pals through high school, through basic training, over to Iraq. Both headed home now, young men forever bound in life and now, in death.

At first, neither set of parents knew of the other’s loss, knew that the deaths had occurred within hours of each other, but in different locations, on different missions. Kris died first. Then George. The parents would learn the truth within hours of the terrible coincidence. When they did, the horror, the disbelief, the numbness shattered them afresh.

Just like all over the country, the knocks have come, and are still coming-nearly 3,000 U.S. soldiers killed and tens of thousands wounded as of this writing. The eternal aching tragedy of war. The Bible says that the Lord will not test people of faith with more than they can handle. The Obourns and the Walkers still believed that. In God’s country, they had to. Still, the grief and anguish of losing not only a son, but also the best friend of that son, fell upon them with the weight of biblical tribulation.

The army?
Yes, Mom, the army.
No.
But, Mom.
No.

Debbie Obourn wasn’t angry that her son Junior had asked. She wasn’t even surprised. The family knew he had wanted to join the military since middle school. Now here was Junior, 17 and a high-school senior, asking her at a moment when joining the service meant a ticket to war. Junior had expected resistance. Yet something in his mother’s voice also left a door open in Junior’s mind. This was something he wanted, really wanted. What’s more, he and Kris had already discussed it, and Kris was going. And where Kris went, Junior went. He would find a way. He would have to find a way.

Kris had a different hurdle to overcome. He had known since he was a child that he wanted to be a soldier. He staged skirmishes that sent battalions of plastic army men hurtling over battlefields of stone and dirt and pebble. His older brother by three years, Chad, operated the toy army tractors while Kris plotted strategies to subdue imagined enemies. Rock bombs and pinecone grenades and firecracker explosions rocked the sandlot near home.

But Kris suffered from a joint disorder in his hip, which required three surgically implanted screws. That, he figured, spelled the end of his army dreams-until a recruiter came to his high school, East Peoria High, and assured him that, in an age in which recruiters were missing quotas right and left, hell, yes, they’d take him. He came home that day with his hair on fire. “Well, that did it,” Kris’s mother says. “He was all in after that.”

 

The village of Creve Coeur sits hard on the east bank of the Illinois River, a bedroom community to Peoria that sprang out of Fort Crevecoeur, a French fur trading post built in 1680. Too small to offer a downtown proper, the village nonetheless contains nine churches, a part-time firefighting force, and two full-time police officers. Main Street features the Lucky Break tavern, Hometown Pharmacy, Minnie’s Kitchen, a VFW, an American Legion hall, and the Creve Coeur Flea Market. “It’s the kind of town where if someone sneezes on one side, a rumor about it starts on the other,” says George Sr.

Kevin Walker provided for his family of four working as a contract manager for a construction company, while Beth stayed home with the two boys. George Obourn worked as a consultant for an information technology company while Debbie tended to the couple’s three boys, Rodney, David, and Junior, and a daughter, Leanne. The Obourns attended Good Shepherd Church in Naperville, where Junior was confirmed with a reading from John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son . . .” The Walkers, also deeply spiritual, practiced their faith at Glad Tidings Assembly of God in East Peoria.

Growing up across town from each other, Kris and Junior had yet to become buddies. But the two shared so many likes and dislikes that when they did meet at Parkview Junior High School they were all but destined to become fast friends. Both, for instance, loved to hunt and fish with their dads. Once, at Reelfoot Lake in West Tennessee, Kris broke his pole trying to haul in what he thought was a monster slab of spring crappie. “His bobber went down and he was sure he had a big one,” his father recalls. “He gave it a yank and the rod bent over. He said, ‘Man, that’s a big fish.’ All of a sudden his rod just broke off.” The big fish turned out to be an underwater stump. “He was standing there with nothing but the handle and a little grin on his face, like, Oops.”

Junior, the youngest of the Obourn children, was gentle and a little shy around strangers. Like Kris, he played basketball and video games as a boy. In second grade, he took a shine to martial arts. Once, when his mother jokingly told him he would have to protect her honor during an upcoming sparring match, he took her words so seriously that he continued to fight, red faced and puffing, until the instructor yanked him off.

In some ways, the two boys even looked alike, both growing tall and skinny into their high-school years until Junior sprouted a couple of inches taller than his friend. In pictures before they were sheared by the military, Junior wore his hair in dark, lanky bangs. A fuzzy mustache and a wisp of a soul patch gave him the look of a lead singer for an alternative rock band. Kris, with his slightly shorter hair, sincere eyes, and guileless, almost shy smile, bore a faint resemblance to the actor Tobey Maguire.

They grew close playing in the brass section of the high-school band, Junior on trumpet, Kris on trombone. Robert Sheldon, the band instructor at the time, remembers watching their friendship flourish. “I met them when they were in eighth grade,” recalls Sheldon. “The band kids were almost like a family.” Soon the band room had become a second home for Junior and Kris. “They would be there from early morning to late at night. Everyone would kind of go home, but they would still be there-they would bring in pizza and play cards and just sort of hang out.”

“They were basically inseparable,” agrees Keith Wilfinger, a friend and a member of the trumpet line with Junior. “The band room was the hangout and I cannot remember one time when you saw one without the other. . . . There was a lot of goofin’ on each other, a lot of joking around"-like the time just before the homecoming game when Junior got all the way down to the field before he realized he had forgotten his mouthpiece. “We were all like, ‘Dude, how do you forget your mouthpiece? The thing only has two parts!’”

Kris was first to gain access to wheels, his parents’ beat-up Crown Victoria. Accordingly, wherever the red car appeared, friends could count on seeing not one but both buddies piling out. Once, pulling across a four-lane highway, they drove into the path of another car. “Kris called me at work and said, ‘We had a wreck,’” Kevin Walker recalls. “I said, ‘Well, was anybody hurt?’

“‘No . . . the car isn’t that bad-I can drive it home.’

“‘How about the other car?’ ‘No, they took that one away on a truck.’

“‘Wait-you can drive the Crown Vic, but the other car was taken away on a truck?’” As he would do later in writing home about his Iraq duty, Kris had tried to minimize the ordeal.

 

Photograph: Courtesy of Deiters Funeral Home
the soldiers with family pictures
From top: the two soldiers at Fort Hood in 2005, awaiting deployment to Iraq; Kris as a toddler; at home with his mother, Beth Walker

Despite the occasional mishap, both boys seemed mature for their ages. Each had his career mapped out. Junior planned to serve his hitch, then return and get a degree in criminal justice. Eventually he would wind up as either a police officer, an FBI agent-or perhaps a helicopter pilot, like his dad’s friend. Kris, too, was drawn to the FBI, and planned to use his military service as the building block to get there.

At school, the boys rarely discussed their plans with others. And neither teen showed signs of the aggressive, shoot-’em-up stereotype of the gung-ho soldier wannabe. If anything, teachers and friends were impressed by their empathy, especially for students who fell prey to the cruelties of high school. Junior, in particular, “was pretty quick to stand up for someone he felt was being picked on,” recalls Robin Goff, his biology teacher during his freshman year. In one instance, other students were picking on a smallish boy. “They were calling him Peewee and Short Stuff and things like that,” Goff recalls. “Well, [Junior] was pretty tall, and he just walked over and stood by him and let the others know that he was there to protect him. He just had that presence. If he had somebody’s back, you knew he was going to protect them.”

Goff has taught at the 1,250-student East Peoria High School for 14 years and is now dean of students. “Any time you lose a student-or a former student-you’re taken aback,” she says. “But these kids . . . it was just so heartbreaking.”

When word eventually spread that Kris and George were planning to join the army, their friends were surprised. “I would say it was pretty rare for someone to want to do that,” says Jeremy Bell, a friend and fellow band member who is now a junior at Bradley University in Peoria. “Most were just thinking about trying to get a job or, more commonly, where they were going to go to college.”

By their senior year in 2003, however, Kris and Junior were agreed: they would sign up as soon as possible if they could join under the army’s buddy system, which promised that they could go through basic and advanced training together and serve together on their first active duty assignment. Because they were 17, however, they needed their parents’ permission-not easy to come by in a time of war, with nightly reports of soldiers being killed.

Kris approached his mother and father first. They were reluctant and skeptical, but didn’t turn him down flat. To start, Kris’s father wanted to make sure that the buddy system was all that the army made it out to be. So he had a recruiter visit their home, where the parents grilled him. “The guy came over and he was pretty much a straight shooter,” Kevin Walker recalls. “He didn’t try to buffalo us.” They discussed basic training-where it would be and how long. They discussed whether Kris and Junior would really be allowed to join together and serve their first hitch in the same place. They did not discuss the dangers much, the parents’ primary concern. But both father and mother seemed satisfied.

With his parents, Junior faced a more daunting task. His mother had all but refused. Determined, Junior sought advice from his father and his sister, Leanne, for an approach that might sway her. “Well, you know your mother,” the father recalls telling his boy. “Arguing isn’t going to do it. That will just make her mad. Just sit down and explain to her what you want and why you want it.” His sister advised, “Just tell her what she said when we were kids: that you always told us that we could do whatever we wanted to do.”

By then, the Obourns had moved to Naperville, but Junior was living with his grandfather in Creve Coeur while finishing his senior year. One day, in Naperville, Junior approached his mother just as she returned from the grocery store. “I was hollering at him to help me carry some of the stuff up, and he asked me to sit down and said he wanted to talk,” she recalls. “And we talked. He said he was going into the army and that he wanted to go with my blessing. He also said that if I really threw a fit and wouldn’t let him, he wouldn’t go. But he did not know if he could forgive me for not letting him go.”

Her instincts screamed, No. She had refused her daughter when she wanted to enlist, and would later do the same with her eldest son. But there was something different about Junior’s approach. The advice he had gotten from his dad and sister was working. “He’s the only one who really came to me,” Debbie Obourn says. “But not just that. It was the way he came to me. I knew from what he was saying that this was what he really wanted. It wasn’t a whim. It wasn’t just something to get away from home. He wanted it real bad. He knew I was worried. One thing I can say with Junior: I always came first with him.” Finally, she recalls, he said, “Mom, you don’t have to worry, Mom. I will have somebody with me.”

She was leaning toward relenting. But before she would give her final approval, she insisted that Junior and Kris accompany her to a recruiter’s office. “I took them both in,” she recalls. “That’s when I made the recruiter come out and tell the whole ugly truth of things and made him tell them that they were going to Iraq, so that I knew that [Junior] knew. He still wanted to go.”

That sealed it. The mother pauses as she recalls the moment. “That was when,” she says, her lip trembling, her voice lowering to a whisper, “I told him, ‘Yes. You can go.’”

 

In August 2004, three months after the boys graduated from high school, they left for basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Sixteen weeks of marching, drills, standing in formation, and ceremonies culminated in their class picture. In it, Kris grips an American flag in front. George stands in the top row, left.

The parents still marvel at how similar the soldiers look. Young. Buzz cuts. Smiles. Kris, who wore glasses at the time, sported the army’s standard issue BCGs-basic combat glasses. George and Kris referred to the thick horn-rims as birth control glasses for their lack of stylishness.

More training followed, at Fort Hood, Texas. Then deployment orders came through for Iraq, where they would be driving Humvees and searching houses for insurgents in some of the most dangerous areas in and around Baghdad. Both families traveled to Texas to see their sons off. Kris’s parents had to return home right away. But Junior’s parents spent an extra few days playing tourists with their son, visiting caverns, going to the Alamo. “We had a little vacation with him. It was a wonderful week,” George Sr. says. On December 10th, when it came time for Junior to catch his plane, he hugged his dad at the airport.

“You take care of yourself,” the father told him. “We were men and trying to be tough,” he says today. Worry, sadness, and heartache, however, overwhelmed the mother. She hugged her son, weeping, and waited until the plane bearing him away roared down the runway and lifted into the afternoon sky, away from Texas, to war.

 

Photograph: Courtesy of Deiters Funeral Home
kris and kevin walker
Kris and Kevin Walker

In the beginning, both parents felt the typical worries. They pored over newspaper accounts. They kept the televisions tuned to cable news channels. They cringed with each report of a casualty or death. They obsessed. Then gradually they realized: if they were going to survive their sons’ two-year hitches without completely going to pieces, they would have to find a way to cope with their new reality. They had other children to take care of. And it wouldn’t help the young men for their parents to appear constantly wracked by fear.

The Walkers and the Obourns had always relied on their faith. Now more than ever they sought solace in their beliefs. They prayed constantly. They asked members of their churches to do the same. Meanwhile, they tried their best to ignore the dire reports from a war that appeared to be worsening with each passing day.

Both sets of parents felt alone. So few people, it seemed, actually had sons or daughters in Iraq. Through e-mails, phone calls, and instant messaging, the soldiers told of their mind-numbing routines, the fruitless house searches, and the heat, the awful heat. “Junior once said they had a thermometer in the Humvee-an air-conditioned Humvee-and it generally read about 130 degrees,” George Sr. recalls. The younger Obourn told his sister that he could set a bowl of microwavable soup atop the tank and it would be done in 20 minutes.

Occasionally the families would receive a message that one of the boys had gone out on a mission. “Some secret thing,” George Sr. recalls. “He’d say, ‘I’ll be back in a couple of days.’” When his parents didn’t receive an
e-mail within five or six days, however, the worrying would return. An e-mail would turn up eventually, but by then the parents would be at wits’ end. Meanwhile, the buddy system was not working out quite as George and Kris had planned. They were often sent out on different missions and would sometimes go for days without seeing each other. “Usually when Junior was out, Kris was in. And when he’d come in, Kris would go out,” George Sr. says.

The parents accepted that their sons couldn’t share details. They knew the boys were in Taji, a former Iraqi Republican Guard base during Saddam Hussein’s reign, about 20 miles north of Baghdad. The army forbade soldiers to be too specific. But neither the Walkers nor the Obourns needed graphic descriptions or precise locations to know that something bad could happen in a heartbeat. “If we were supposed to get an
e-mail and it was late coming, I would be counting those days,” says Debbie Obourn. “Then we’d get home and there would be a letter from [Junior] apologizing for being so late. He’d say there was a communication blackout or that the mission took longer than they thought.”

Gradually the parents began to trust that their sons were safe. Both young men were so persuasive about the lack of peril. Then something would slip. Kevin Walker recalls, “I was on the phone with Kris and he was in the garage working on the Humvee. He said, ‘The guys are supposed to come in and put a new windshield on it.’ I said, ‘Why would it need a new windshield?’

“‘Oh, it got some scratches.’

“‘How did it get scratches?’

“‘Well, they apparently had gotten close to an IED [improvised explosive device]-close enough that it blew out the tires and damaged the windshield.’”

Junior had an even closer call. On one mission, a roadside bomb detonated under a Bradley tank just in front of his Humvee. “It basically split it in two,” says George Sr. “Two of the gentlemen who bunked with Junior died.”

Even Junior couldn’t minimize the seriousness of the encounter. “It was the first time I knew Junior was shaken up,” says Leanne. “He didn’t say he was, but you just knew by the way he worded it that he was shaken up by that.”

“The only thing he asked when it happened,” recalls his mom, “was ‘Please, please, Mom, pray for these guys.’”

Adds Leanne, “He had never asked us to pray for anyone before-ever. That tells you something about how he was feeling.”

 

After their first several months in Iraq, Kris and Junior were each granted leave last summer. Both parents noticed changes in their sons when they came home. Where they once had been excited to be in the middle of the action, they were now reluctant to talk about the war. “Kris had a lot of things he wanted to do,” Kevin Walker recalls. “Talking about the war wasn’t one of them. Fishing, golfing. We went to a Cardinals game. He wanted to get away from it for a while, talk about other things.”

Even so, Kris stunned his mother one day while he was home. “He told me not to be surprised if an officer comes to the house late at night someday. ‘If that happens,’ he said, ‘You’ll know why. I was probably killed.’” Why would he say that, she wondered, if he wasn’t in any danger? Hurt, terrified, Beth Walker shook her head. “That’s not going to be happening,” she told her son. But, of course, she didn’t know that for sure. No one did.

During his leave, meanwhile, Junior shared some pictures-of him torching some brush, of the inside of his Humvee, of a group of smiling Iraqi children standing around him. “He told me not to believe everything they were saying on TV,” George Sr. says. Still, the tall, dark-haired soldier could no longer hide his concern. The IED explosion that had killed his bunkmates “did affect him,” George Sr. says. “He’d show us some pictures of his buddies. Then he might pause and say, ‘Well, he’s dead now.’”

The boys returned to Iraq. Months passed, and with them the sense that Junior and Kris were relatively safe. In fact, soon after returning, Junior had e-mailed about an ominous development: “He said that while he had been on leave, insurgents had retaken the town,” recalls Leanne. “He said things were really chaos out there again.” Both sets of parents watched television reports with growing apprehension. Day after day on tenterhooks left the Obourns and the Walkers rattled.

Then came wonderful news. Kris and George would be coming home for Thanksgiving-not simply on leave but maybe for good. Their second tour of duty was scheduled to end in early December. There was a chance that one or both would re-up. But whatever their decision, for now the families were ecstatic-and relieved that their loved ones had survived.

Kris, barely able to keep the excitement out of his voice, called in late September to say he would be sending some boxes home. On September 30th, he called again to wish his older brother, Chad, a happy birthday. Kris also e-mailed Junior’s mother: Kris
said he would “swing in for cookies when he
got home,” Debbie Obourn recalls. Both mothers began planning. Kris and George, back together! A home-cooked meal. The Christmas tree up. A day doubly blessed. Their boys, coming home.

 

Photograph: Courtesy of The Obourn Family
george obourn jr.
Junior enjoying some personal time between patrols in Taji, Iraq

The two friends were killed separately, within a day and a half of each other. Kris died first, then George. Neither would know the other was dead. Kris’s parents found out the night of Tuesday, October 3rd; Junior’s learned the next morning. “They didn’t give us a whole lot of detail,” Kevin Walker recalls in reconstructing that night. “Just that [Kris’s] Humvee had struck an IED that morning and that everyone in the Humvee had been killed.” George Sr. recalls that when he got the call on the intercom, “I didn’t want to buzz them in because as soon as they said who they were, I knew what they were here for. You just know.” Even so, the parents clung to the slim chance that there might have been a mistake. Initially, the father recalls, one of the officers said that Junior had been killed in Taji, Afghanistan. “Afghanistan?” the father said in a desperate voice. “No, my son was stationed in Iraq.” The officers quickly apologized. “Iraq,” they corrected. George Sr. was told his son had died from a gunshot wound to the leg. But later, when he saw his son’s body, he wondered why there was so much makeup on his face. He would learn from an army autopsy report that there was more to the story.

At around 11 a.m. on October 3rd, Junior had been on a mission to scout out a Sunni mortar base that had been shelling the area. Junior’s unit came under attack and took cover in a building, which was hit by mortar fire, then attacked by insurgents. Junior was shot four times, including once in the head, the wound that killed him. Of the six soldiers on the mission, four were killed. Beyond those scant details, says George Sr., he knows little. “Until I talk to one of his friends who was over there, I probably won’t know exactly what happened,” he says. “I want to know everything, even if it will upset me.”

The rest of that morning and early afternoon, Debbie Obourn lay on her bed, in shock, alternately weeping and praying. That afternoon the phone rang. A family friend was on the line. The mother listened for a few moments. Then “she came out of the bedroom,” George Sr. recalls, “and said, ‘Kris has been killed, too.’”

“Well, I just lost it,” George Sr. says. “I’ll admit: I was throwing things. My whole thought was, One is bad enough, but not both of them. I thought that if Kris were still OK, at least there would be some comfort there. Of course, it was just more devastating.”

A little later, members of the Obourn family showed up at the Walker house. “We thought they were coming to pay respects,” Kevin Walker says. “They just said, ‘Junior’s gone.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ Then they told us.”

Camera crews began to arrive. George Sr. patiently answered reporters’ questions. He expressed pride in his son and told the reporters that Junior had died doing something he believed in. He spoke of the way his son described being greeted by many Iraqis-with smiles and tea. He spoke of the affection his son had developed for numerous Iraqi children. He did not blame anyone, did not inject politics into his son’s death. All that mattered, he told them, was that his son was a good boy. And now he was gone. “We know he went to heaven,” George Sr. said. “And that is the main thing.”

 

On an early October evening, Debbie and George and Kevin and Beth met at the home of Debbie’s father on their way to the East Peoria High School football game, where a memorial to the boys would be held. Since their sons’ deaths, a parade of condolences had rolled in. The couples had nodded, shaken hands, wept, and wondered: Why is it so difficult to hear the words “I’m so sorry for your loss"? As they talked with each other, the parents got their answer. In their suddenly changed universe, they were the only people who could really understand the terrible anguish of losing a son to war.

That evening they talked about Kris and Junior. They told stories. Discussed funeral arrangements. They even managed to laugh. And they looked into each other’s eyes. All four were people of faith. And in that moment of deepest tragedy, bound by feelings beyond words, beyond condolences, they could truly say that they felt blessed not to be alone.

They also turned to their churches. As he had at the service commemorating Junior’s confirmation, the pastor again read from John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believe in him shall not perish but shall have life everlasting.”

Later, in the October twilight, the Obourns and the Walkers settled into the football field bleachers and awaited the national anthem. Before the first note, the principal called for a moment of silence. “That stadium was so quiet,” says Paul Whittington, principal of East Peoria High School. “No one, not even little kids, made a sound.”

Members of the marching band solemnly approached the two sets of parents and presented each with a white hat of the marching band wrapped by a sash in burgundy, the school colors. In the silence, Keith Wilfinger, the friend and bandmate, then stepped forward. Under darkening skies, Wilfinger lifted the trumpet to his lips. The people in the stands rose. Some put their hands on their hearts. The marching band stood at attention on the same field where Junior and Kris had once high-stepped, Junior on trumpet, Kris on trombone.

Wilfinger closed his eyes. And as family and friends watched and wept, the sound of “Taps” soared into the dark night.

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