Nancy Hecker - Travel Consultant/Travel Writer
THOUGHTS FROM THE MOTHER OF A FALLEN SOLDIER
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THOUGHTS FROM THE MOTHER OF A FALLEN SOLDIER:

 

I have a home-based business, and was upstairs in my office working on Thursday, January 5th. Late afternoon started to turn to evening. It had become dark outside and I was still doing some research on the computer. I hadn't yet been downstairs to turn on the lights. The doorbell rang about 6:00 pm and interrupted my concentration. It was time to quit for the day anyway, as my husband would be home soon and I needed to think about getting dinner started. I jumped up from my desk and headed down stairs to answer the door, turning on the hallway lights as I went. I thought it was probably the UPS driver delivering a package or perhaps my next-door neighbor stopping by. But when I threw open the front door, our lives were to be changed forever.

 

You see, our oldest son, Major William F. Hecker III, a West Point graduate and career Army officer, had deployed to Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division the day after Thanksgiving. He had wanted to be in the Army, just like his dad, since he was in the third grade. He was a proud soldier who loved his country. He served in the artillery at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, in Germany and in Bosnia. He was also a scholar who earned a Masters degree and taught English at West Point. He edited a book on Edgar Allen Poe, and presented papers on subjects as diverse as Mark Twain or the Army, Baseball and Patriotism. Although he was the S-3 for his battalion, and was busy conducting operations and training Iraqi forces since his arrival in country, his passion for literature remained with him. He took Shakespeare and a poetry anthology into the desert. He wrote to his friend and fellow Poe scholar, Daniel Hoffman:  Learning their {the Iraqi's} literary heritage has marked me as a 'soldier-adib' . . . my attempts engender belief about my respect for their culture and help me establish quick rapport with educated Iraqi leaders-just the sort of liaison essential for the success of our military effort. He understood the long-term ideological struggle we are up against. He believed in our mission and hoped to make a difference. He was one of America's best and brightest.

 

But the two people who were standing at my front door that evening were dressed in military uniform, one a chaplain and the other a highly decorated Army Major from the Old Guard. It took a brief second or two before it registered with me why these two soldiers were at my door. Then my heart sunk and I had to catch my breath. As I let them in, I asked them in a weak voice to please tell me that my son was only wounded. Their expressions didn't change, so I knew they were bringing the worst possible news. Apparently Bill had been out that morning in a convoy conducting operations near the holy city of Najaf when his humvee was hit by an explosive device. He and four other soldiers from his unit were killed. I reached for the phone to call my husband, who left work immediately and headed for home. The next call was to a dear friend, who could notify our other friends and begin to gather a support group for us. Then, with a broken heart, I called my daughter-in-law at Ft. Hood, Texas. The Army had notified her first and we were grateful that a support network of her friends and fellow Army wives already surrounded her.

 

Our first thoughts were to get to Ft. Hood as quickly as possible to be with our daughter-in-law and four precious grandchildren. We needed to be together to hug and to hold. We also had to reach our younger son, a Marine Corps pilot stationed in Okinawa, Japan. We knew he would be devastated by the news and would want to rush to be with us as soon as possible. With aching hearts and teary eyes, we were on the first flight out to Austin, Texas the next morning. The days that followed are a blur. There were a myriad of arrangements to make for the Memorial Service at Ft. Myer, Virginia and the Funeral Service and Burial at West Point. An obituary had to be written and turned in to newspapers in St. Louis, Missouri, Huntsville, Alabama and in northern Virginia because we are an Army family with roots in many places. So many friends had to be notified, and it seems that when they learned the news that they ached almost as much as we did. Bill's death in Iraq touched a nerve within the Army community and indeed with family and friends throughout the United States and around the world. It put a very personal face on a far off and distant war.

 

In spite of the fog that I was in, there are two things that seem to stand out most in my memory of the few days we spent at Ft. Hood before traveling back to Virginia to prepare for the Memorial Service. One was the pride that I felt in our military family. Those who have never had the privilege of serving might find this difficult to understand. My husband spent over twenty-eight years in the Army, including two tours in Vietnam. We raised our two sons while traveling from duty station to duty station, and they thrived in the adventures and opportunities that such a lifestyle provided. It is a testament that both sons chose a similar path of military service in their lives. To the uninitiated, it might seem to be bit wanderlust. But rest assured, there is an incredible bond that develops among military families and the shared sacrifices that they are called upon to make. I was pleased to see that this bond is every bit as strong today as it was during our years of service. To watch the young Army wives who were offering their love and friendship and support while we were there at Ft. Hood was so heart warming. These brave young ladies, most of whom had husbands in Iraq as well, were answering the door and fielding the phone calls, bringing meals, helping with the children, folding laundry, doing whatever was required to comfort and support our son's young family. All the while, I'm sure there was a frightening thought in the back of their minds that they could have been the ones on the receiving end of all this generosity. The Casualty Assistance Officer provided by the Army was extremely kind and helpful, coming every day to help with funeral arrangements, explain financial benefits and educate our daughter-in-law on the road that lies ahead. Good friends from previous assignments were a strength and mainstay for our daughter-in-law, and for us as well... as our shared loss reached across two West Point classes and many years of Army postings.

 

The second memory that stands out is bittersweet, and I struggle with the painful part of that memory yet today. It is of our precious young grandson, William F. Hecker IV. We call him Billy. He had just turned two years old a few weeks before his father was killed. When we arrived that day, he was awakening from his morning nap. I went in to his room to pick him up, and the look of sheer delight on his face at seeing his grandparents was priceless. Being only two, he could not comprehend what was happening. As he toddled around the house during the next few days, playing with Grandpa and Uncle John, he would call out to them adoringly: Dadee! His confusion was understandable. He knew that Dadee was someone he loved a lot...and who dearly loved him back. But he wasn't sure now just who Dadee was. Knowing that my son loved his family more than anything else in this world, my heart broke into even more pieces at the thought that his children would grow up without him. Our oldest granddaughter who just turned ten might remember her dad, and perhaps her seven-year-old sister will have some memory of him as well. But his third daughter is only four, and Billy just two. I cannot allow my thoughts to linger here long, as it is much too painful to do so. I know that I cannot change what has happened. Instead I must try to keep my focus on the job we have ahead of us. That is, to make sure that our grandchildren are surrounded by love... and that as they grow older that they come to know what a very special father that they had. He was a hero to us all.

 

We so enjoyed watching our son's family grow over the years, and seeing what wonderful parents he and our daughter-in-law were as they shared their love and responsibilities together. They didn't have a television in their home. They would get their news from the radio, the Internet and extensive reading of the New York Times. In the evenings, instead of putting the kids in front of the non-existent TV, Bill would gather them up on the sofa and read to them. They went through many classic books a few chapters at a time, one of their favorites being Little House on the Prairie.  He spent hours teaching his two oldest daughters how to read, carefully going through the Hooked on Phonics program with them when they were at the appropriate age. He was working with his third daughter on her letters when he left for Iraq. His Saturday morning ritual was to take each of his daughters out, in turn, for breakfast so each had their own special time with Dad. Billy was not old enough to enjoy this tradition yet, but Bill spent a lot of time in their back yard throwing balls back and forth with his young son. Billy couldn't really catch the ball at age two, but he developed a great left handed throw that someday he can attribute to time spent with his dad! Bill loved baseball, and he indoctrinated the whole family with his passion for the game, and in particular the St. Louis Cardinal's baseball team. When they were stationed at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas for a year, they made several trips back to St. Louis, to see our family there and to go to Cardinal's games. From Kansas they moved to Texas, which is a lot further drive to get to St. Louis. But the Cardinals made it into the World Series right after they moved, and Bill was able to get tickets to one of the games. So he loaded the whole family into their van and drove the twelve hours to St. Louis, spent two nights and then drove the twelve hours back! He had a zest for life, and lived it to the fullest.

 

Much of Bill's story was beautifully recounted in the Memorial Service at the Ft. Myer Chapel, and at the Funeral Service in the Cadet Chapel at West Point. We have recorded what was said, so that his children can someday listen and learn. There were close to four hundred people in attendance at the Memorial Service in Virginia, and even more than that at the service at West Point. Classmates from USMA 1991 and my husband's class of 1965 were there in force representing the Long Gray Line. Both services were moving and inspirational, filled with dignity and respect for a fallen soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. Staring at the West Point motto Duty, Honor, Country inscribed in the stained glass window above the alter in the Cadet Chapel gave an understanding to all who were there as to what Bill's sacrifice was about. But it was the words of the Alma Mater that kept rolling over and over again in my mind for days afterwards, particularly the lines:

And when our work is done,

Our course on earth is run,

May it be said, 'Well Done;

Be Thou At Peace.'

 

I am comforted by the fact that Bill's thirty seven years on this earth were well done, and I know that he is at peace. I can't second-guess what happened there in Iraq, or why. There would be no answer. I have to reach to my faith and believe that God called Bill home so early in his life for a reason. I will probably never know what that reason is, but I must try to accept it, and even to make something positive out of our loss. What I do know beyond a doubt is that our troops are well trained and well equipped and totally focused on successfully accomplishing their mission over there in Iraq. The casualty rates are relatively low and most of our soldiers come home safely. The percentages should have been in Bill's favor. The area his unit was covering had few incidents over the last several months. The problem is the randomness and destructiveness of the explosive devices used by the cowardly terrorists. They are only able to kill a small number of people with this tactic, whether it is our soldiers or innocent Iraqi civilians. But they hope it will demoralize our troops...and with the help of many in our mainstream media, they hope it will crush the will of the American people to succeed in our very important efforts over there. What the terrorists fail to understand is the strength of the American soldier. Bill's death made his brother's in arms all the more determined to complete their mission and to honor his sacrifice. They will carry on with great professionalism, as he would want them to do.

 

I believe the vast majority of the American people wish to see us succeed over there as well. Unfortunately, our mainstream media seems to have lost their way. For this military family, the incessant coverage of the Cindy Sheehan story was unbelievably disgusting. I'm not sure if they were exploiting Cindy Sheehan, or she was exploiting them? Either way it is harmful to our country and damaging to our troops who are over in Iraq in harms way. It moved me to make a sign that said: We support our troops. They are heroes, not victims. We need to thank them and their families for their service and sacrifice! And this past September 24th, my husband and I rode the metro down to the mall and went to our first ever protest march. Keep in mind this was before our son departed for Iraq. Except for the tourists who were watching this circus from the sidelines, we found ourselves to be the only ones there in support of the troops. The streets were filled with anarchists, aging hippies reliving their supposed glory days, and a few well meaning but misguided souls who just don't get that their presence there that day only encouraged the terrorists to continue with their violence.

 

We asked a policeman where the people were that supported the troops? He informed us that they would be meeting the next day. So we went back on September 25th. The numbers on the mall that day were much, much smaller. That was hardly surprising, because people like us don't normally go to marches on the mall. But for some reason, I was compelled to be there! Perhaps it was God's way of preparing me for what was to come? We listened to the Gold Star families who were on the podium speaking, and we felt such closeness to them. Each told their story of the loved one they lost in the Iraq war. They spoke with such dignity and such a sense of patriotism. The contrast with the group from the day before could not have been greater. These were the people that our mainstream media should have been holding up as an example for the American people. These were the people who were making the ultimate sacrifice, but still could stand tall in support of our country! We were proud to be standing there with them, never dreaming that we would soon become a Gold Star family ourselves!

 

Not long after this, the brouhaha over Congressman Murtha's irresponsible comments was being broadcast incessantly on the news. It moved me to write my first political letter, which follows:

 

November 18, 2005

 

The Honorable John Murtha

PO Box 780

Johnstown, PA 15907-0780

 

Dear Representative Murtha,

 

I am the wife of a retired Army officer who served this great country of ours for twenty-eight years, including two tours of duty in Vietnam. I am also the mother of two sons, both of whom chose to serve in our Armed Forces. Our older son is a Major in the 4th Infantry Division and will be departing for a year's tour of duty in Iraq in just a little over a week. Our younger son is a lLT in the Marine Corps currently stationed in Okinawa as a C-130 pilot. He could be detailed to Iraq as well.

 

I respect your service to country, as well as your right to speak your mind about the situation in Iraq. But I, too, have a right to an opinion and to make my voice known. Although I rarely if ever write a political letter, your recent statements have moved me to do so! I believe your comments about Iraq have harmed our chances for success, and will only serve to embolden the terrorists and encourage them to continue with their violence, hoping that it will hasten our retreat. Not only that, I believe it would be immoral to abandon the fledgling Iraqi government before they are ready to provide for their own security.

 

I have faith in our military leaders and believe that they are taking the necessary steps to train the Iraqi forces, and provide for our eventual withdrawal. I also have faith in our executive branch that they are taking the necessary steps to help the new Iraqi government get a democratic style government in place and to give them at least a chance of success. Although mistakes were made in the execution of the war and its aftermath, the goal itself is worthy. And in spite of all the negativity that we are constantly bombarded with, I believe that there have been some remarkable successes!

 

Although my son would surely prefer to stay home with his wife and four young children, he is both a soldier and a scholar. He understands that we are in a vital long-term struggle against a dangerous ideology, and he is willing to make the necessary sacrifices to defeat it. It is a difficult struggle that will require patience and fortitude, both on and off the battlefield. If we lose our will here at home, it makes the task for our soldiers all the more difficult. I believe your comments were irresponsible and are contributing to the loss of national will. If they were made to obtain political advantages, I would find that abhorrent and unworthy of a former Marine.

 

Please know that our soldiers are heroes, not victims. They are making great sacrifices on our behalf. They need to be supported and appreciated until their mission is over. I suggest you reconsider your comments and the effect they have on our soldiers and their families.

 

Sincerely,

 

Nancy Hecker

 

I emailed a copy of this letter to my son. When we were at Ft. Hood visiting with him at Thanksgiving, just before he left for Iraq, he was teasing me about it. He had a twinkle in his eye, and the grin on his face that was so endearing, and he said to me: Mom, you're becoming an activist! Then he said: Good for you, mom! Good for you! Go ahead and send it all the way to the White House if you want! I didn't do that, but I did share it with a number of our friends. Sadly, I never did receive the courtesy of a response from Representative Murtha.

 

Murtha's further comments to the media stating that he would not recommend military service to any young person today were even more offensive. We should all thank God for the dedicated young people we have in our Armed Forces, for their old fashioned values and understanding that the freedoms we enjoy in this great country of ours are not free. We should be thankful for their willingness to serve and to put their lives on the line for each of us...for without young people like this, our country will not long survive!

 

No doubt the cynical, blame America first crowd will mock this letter. My son died for their right to do so. I just wish the rest of our country could have been in the Cadet Chapel with us the afternoon of Bill's funeral service...to know and understand what a great soldier, husband, father, son, brother and friend that our nation lost. From the notes and cards that we received, I know many Americans were there with us in spirit. After the service, Bill was buried with full military honors in the cemetery at West Point. He loved this hallowed American institution and all it stood for. After his duty in Iraq, he had hoped to be selected to come back to West Point as a permanent professor in the English Department. If selected, the Army would have sent him for a PHD and he would have spent the remainder of his career there. He is there permanently now, albeit not in the way he envisioned before he departed for Iraq. We have established a Major William F Hecker III Memorial Fund. It's purposes are to offer an annual award in Bill's name through the English Department at West Point, to support established charities that aid children of our fallen soldiers, as well as to purchase rare books for the West Point Library. For those wishing to do so, contributions can be sent to the ?William F. Hecker III Memorial Fund, acct #3165552, First Command Bank, PO Box 901041, Ft. Worth, TX 76101-9778.

 

The night before Bill's funeral service at West Point, the wind was howling down the Hudson and the weather was rough and rainy. We awoke the next morning to learn that part of the roof had blown off the building that houses the English Department. Some of the shingles had landed on the baseball field. Those who knew Bill and understood his passions and his sense of humor are sure he had something to do with that. It was a true Shakespearean moment! It rained throughout that day, during the service and burial ceremonies. But by the time the reception at the Officers Club was in full swing, the sun came out. It will come out again for us one day, and we will laugh and remember our son with great love, affection, respect and pride. We will see him in our grandchildren, and he will live in our hearts forever. God Bless America! God Bless our brave soldiers who protect and defend!

 

 


It's all about the journey and the friends you make along the way!  
This website is dedicated to my best friends who have traveled with me on my many tours, and more importantly on my journey through life!  Each one of you is a treasure to me!