Family grieves for local soldier killed in Iraq

When Capt. Jason Hamill was in Baghdad, he used to show the local Iraqis a picture of his nephew, a toddler whom he’d promised to teach baseball when he got a little older. He would say the boy was his son because he knew how much children were valued in Iraqi culture. While Jason had a wife in Texas, he didn’t want to have kids until he could be there to watch them grow up.

When Hamill, 31, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq on Nov. 26 of last year, he was just six hours away from going home. Another six hours and he would have been out of the Army forever, after 12 years of service and missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. His wife had already started planning a homecoming party for him.

That same day, two soldiers came to his parents’ door in Salem, Conn., a small town about an hour’s drive away from New Haven.

“I never expected to see them at my front door,” his mother Sharon Hamill said. “I thought it was Jason coming home early.”

Jason Hamill is one of 3,351 American soldiers, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, who have been killed since the Iraq war began over four years ago. He grew up as anonymously as anyone else in Salem. But last year, Gov M. Jodi Rell lowered flags across the state just for him, as she has done for 30 other Connecticut soldiers since the beginning of the war. His story, and that of the family he left behind, is proof of war’s dual nature: how it can be so universal and so tragically personal at the same time.

Family recollections

It is all in the details, the anecdotes that pour out from family members seated around the table in the Hamill home. It is a big table, inviting, like the swing set that rests outside. On this Sunday morning in April, Jason’s parents and his sister, who did not wish to be identified for this article, sat around the table and traded memories, while Jason’s nephew, the one whose photo he used to show off, babbled happily.

“He was mischievous,” Sharon said. “He didn’t always know the trouble he was getting into.”

When Jason was still a student at East Lyme High School, he was a member of the wrestling team and the school band, and a high-energy wise guy who was always joking.

“I work on cars a lot. He wore combat boots, and one day I find them underneath the car,” his father Richard Hamill said. “And I go to him and ask him why they’re there. And he says, ‘We were out cow-tipping last night.’ They wanted to find out if cows didn’t wake up. So I asked him what happened. He said, ‘They chased me all over!’”

Richard started laughing, and then the stories came flooding out, the family talking to each other like no one else was there.

What about the time when Jason and his friends got back at a practical joker by removing all the tires from his car? His parents woke up at two in the morning to the sound of wreckage. Jason told them they didn’t want to know what he was doing.

What about the time when the Hamill parents went away and Jason threw a party? He systematically removed all the furniture from the living room — even put tape down to mark where it was, his sister said — and would have gotten away with the whole thing, except that he stored all the empty beer cans in the closet, just waiting to be found.

That was the Jason they knew. Sharon said Jason “always used to be real wise with me” — he was not someone who often displayed his serious side. But when Jason married his wife in 2005, the family saw that part of him.

“When he toasted her at the wedding, he had everybody in tears,” Richard said. “He openly expressed that he was dedicating himself to his wife. Everybody was shocked. He did share that side, but not very often. It means something when he does it.”

The Army

There is a blue binder that the Hamills have used to store the condolence letters they received after Jason died. It was initially sent to Sharon by the Blue Star Mothers, a group that provides support for the mothers of those in the armed forces. Their letters, from mothers all over the country, take up the first half of the binder; Sharon has used the remaining space to keep letters from military buddies, family and friends. They too are filled with memories and grief and help tell the story of Jason’s time in the Army.

“I really think it was [Jason’s] sense of adventure that led him to the Army,” Richard said. “That was the way he was. He was an adventurous person, and he wanted to channel that in some sort of direction.”

Jason had enlisted when he was in college at the University of Connecticut. One of the letters talks about his time in the ROTC program there.

“He had an energy that made people want to be around him,” it says. “The social life on the floor revolved around him. He was so witty … the life of the party.”

After graduation, Jason joined the National Guard, and then the Army.

When Jason was stationed in Germany in a little village just outside of Frankfurt, his whole family went to see him. His sister recounted a story about her brother’s time in Germany, when he ran into an American in a bar who was singing American songs that no one else could understand. Jason jumped up there with him, and soon everyone in the bar was singing along.

Kosovo was his first major military campaign. Richard remembers his astonishment at being able to talk to his son while he was actually in the field.

“I would say, ‘What’s all that noise?’” he said. “And he would say, ‘I’m in the middle of a battle, Dad!’ But of course Kosovo was more peacekeeping. Iraq was actual war.”

Baghdad

Jason’s nickname in Baghdad was “Dude 6,” according to his sister’s favorite letter. He had 130 soldiers serving underneath him, whom he “thought the world of,” his father said. He tried to teach them to be respectful and sensitive to local Iraqi culture. Eventually, the Iraqis started asking for him when they wanted help, his sister said.

Of course, life there was difficult, and his family said Jason was often hazy about the details. Richard said he knew that Jason had been tasked with clearing roads in Baghdad and keeping them safe. Another letter describes his duties more specifically, saying Jason and his team had to “cut trees, clear roads of debris, build bridges, blow up bridges, tear down bridges, build checkpoints, tear down checkpoints.” Sometimes, another letter said, Jason had to be a “jerk” with the Iraqis as he could not give them what they wanted.

But there were lighter moments in Iraq as well. Jason loved “Seinfeld,” Sharon said, and she would try to get episodes to him in Baghdad.

“I would tape all the shows and send them to him,” she said. “I thought he would like that.”

Eventually, they sent him a DVD player so he could watch the show that way.

In e-mails home, Jason told his family that he thought the media was getting the story of the Iraq war wrong, that what he was doing was right. Even when he wrote an e-mail home to say, “There’s going to be a civil war. There has to be,” he thought this did not tell the whole story.

“As I talk to soldiers around Iraq, they overwhelmingly believe in what they are doing and why they are doing it,” he said in the e-mail.

If he read something he agreed with, he would send that along too. But he usually wouldn’t discuss the political situation unless someone had asked him first.

“He would assume you weren’t interested,” Sharon said.

Sharon said she was eventually able to shut out the constant stream of news about Iraq that reached American newspapers and television.

“I used to watch the news nightly,” she said. “But when he went over there, I couldn’t watch it. You purposely remove yourself. We don’t have any control. He would email home and say ‘Life is just grandiose.’”

His sister said she would do the same thing, although sometimes she would run into CNN, catch a glimpse of a soldier and think it was Jason.

Richard said he did not need the news to feel on edge about his son.

“I was in a constant state of worry,” he said. “And he wouldn’t tell us not to worry. I don’t know if the news brought more or less attention to it. The news probably affects me more now. I do feel the American public was misled. There are some scoundrels in Washington who should’ve been taken down a long time ago.”

By the end of Jason’s tour in Baghdad, Sharon said, “you could tell he was exhausted.” By November, the war was more unpopular than ever. The Republicans had been driven out of Congress. The violence in Baghdad was terrifyingly relentless. They were all anxious for him to come back.

On November 26, 2006, “he was flying out,” Sharon said. “He was leaving for good.”

Homecoming

There was a memorial service in Iraq before Jason’s body was flown home. Then there was a funeral in Texas and and a memorial service in Connecticut. It was all over the news. Fred Phelps and his virulently homophobic Westboro Baptist Church were planning to turn up to protest the funeral — the church has been protesting military funerals because they maintain that homosexuality brought the war in Iraq upon America — so the family did not publish the address.

The blue binder offers a glimpse of the political response to the deaths of soldiers. The letters from some of the highest state and military officials in the country fill page after page: handwritten notes from Gov. M. Jodi Rell, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’74 — both of whom attended the memorial service — and General George Casey. Politicians from Texas, where Jason’s wife lives, sent their condolences too.

His sister said his wife has had a hard time with coping with the attention that Jason’s death has brought her. Richard nodded in agreement.

“People are like, jeez, how is it?” Richard said. “How do you think it is?”

But the three Hamills said most people have been sensitive, not assuming they want to talk about what happened, and the family still receives letters from all over the country.

But ultimately, Richard said, nothing helps.

“I appreciate people trying to make a difference, but nothing makes it worthwhile. Losing Jason — there’s nothing that could make me feel better,” he said. “What I miss the most is knowing that I won’t see Jason anymore. Knowing that he won’t be around.”

Jason Hamill will not be able to teach his nephew to play baseball as he promised. He will not be able to go back home and have children of his own. As of Wednesday, there are 3,351 similar holes in lives all across the country.

Buried in his e-mail home are words that underscore the tragedy of what happened to Jason and his family.

“I can’t be the mightiest for long,” he wrote, eight months before he died. “I ain’t staying here forever.”

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