By Tom Philpott
Even as the war in Afghanistan is featured less often on evening newscasts or front pages of our newspapers, Americans still involved in the fight continue to die there, deepening the pool of Memorial Day remembrances with new heroes and fresh heartbreak.
To glimpse what’s still being sacrificed on Afghan soil, Courtney Knox, the 24-year-old widow of Army Sgt. JaBraun Knox, of Auburn, Ind., agreed to tell us about her husband and how he died May 18 at a forward operating base near Asadabad, Afghanistan. We could have contacted more than a dozen other families who also lost loved ones in Afghanistan just this month, part of the steady, little noticed stream of casualties this war produces.
The first thing to understand about JaBraun, Courtney said after finalizing his funeral arrangements, is that he “loved making people smile.” Also no one was more important to him than Braylon, his 6-month-old son.
Courtney and JaBraun began dating her senior year at DeKalb High School in Auburn. A year older than JaBraun, Courtney was a basketball star who went on to score more than 1,000 points for Huntington University. JaBraun, a three-sport athlete himself, had hoped to play college football. As that dream passed, he took community college courses but didn’t enjoy them.
“He had absolutely no plans of ever joining the Army,” Courtney said. But by late 2008, the economy had tanked and JaBraun got laid off from his factory job. Suddenly the military alone seemed to offer options.
“He had no idea what he wanted to do and just felt he was stuck,” Courtney said. So JaBraun visited a joint-service recruiting office at a mall to learn about becoming a Marine. He would joke that he ended up a soldier because every other recruiter except Army that day had gone to lunch.
He entered boot camp in January 2009 and by summer was deployed to Iraq, two days after his 21st birthday. Courtney was surprised but supported his decision. Iraq, however, was dangerous.
“He never told me too much because I’m a worrier,” Courtney said. “He did say there were always a lot of close calls, closer ones than he had imagined. He had a hard time talking about it, too, when he was home. He would always get kind of choked up and never gave me specific details.”
During leave halfway through his year in Iraq, JaBraun proposed to Courtney. They agreed on a courthouse wedding before he returned to Iraq.
JaBraun explained to Courtney’s parents, Matt and Kim Beerbower, how their daughter was the “love of my life” and that if something happened to him, marrying now would ensure that she was taken care of financially, through his military life insurance and death gratuity.
He promised later to fulfill their expectation of a traditional church wedding and reception for their daughter. And he kept that promise. The couple returned to Indiana to make their vows “before God,” Courtney said, in November 2010. They both wanted children. Braylon was born in October 2011, two weeks before JaBraun left for Afghanistan. JaBraun was a cannon crewman with 1st Battalion (Air Assault), 377th Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Fires Brigade out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
JaBraun’s crew fired howitzers on enemy positions to protect forces on patrol and to answer enemy rocket attacks on their mountain base. The attacks occurred daily, he soon learned. In fact, as Courtney traveled home to Indiana, and JaBraun arrived at his forward operating base, enemy rockets landed that day inside their perimeter.
“They were new and didn’t know where things were,” Courtney recalled JaBraun telling her about his scramble to find shelter. “He said some guy actually pushed him out of the way (of a rocket) and the guy who did ended up losing his leg. He called me and he was upset about that. He knew then how serious it was over there.”
With warmer weather, the rocket attacks intensified, to six or eight a day, he told her. They were connected through Skype multiple times a day. Courtney also sent perhaps 20 photos a day of Braylon via email. JaBraun watched their son grow even as the danger around him intensified.
On a surprise visit home in April, JaBraun said Skype failed to capture how his son had gotten so much bigger and how alert he was. He spent every possible hour there at home with him, Courtney said, while she continued to substitute teach for school staff on maternity leave.
After getting ready for bed JaBraun’s last night home, Courtney found him on the floor beside Braylon’s crib, holding the sleeping infant’s hand.
“He did that for about 20 minutes. It was really emotional. I just let him be, let him have his time with him before he left.”
JaBraun insisted on leaving his wedding ring home this time, telling Courtney he didn’t want it damaged or lost. But in saying goodbye he reminded Courtney that his year tour had just been cut to nine months. So he was more than half way through his final deployment.
JaBraun agreed he would leave the Army when his enlistment was up next May. He wanted a career in law enforcement or, like his father, in firefighting, Courtney said. He never complained about joining the Army.
“He did say it definitely changed him for the better,” Courtney recalled. “I know what he meant by it, but it’s hard to explain. He had a greater appreciation of family and friends and freedom and life, and an understanding how important his job was.”
With him back in Afghanistan, the couple resumed multiple Skype sessions every day. By May 16 JaBraun had an important message to deliver.
“He just started telling me how much he loved me and how proud he was and what a good mom I was. He was going on and on and on. I said ‘What is this about?’
“‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I just don’t tell you enough how much you mean to me, how much I love you. I need to start doing that more.”
Two days later, Courtney’s dad, a school guidance counselor, found her in her classroom. He said they had to go home.
“I asked why. He said he just had to drive me home. I kind of stared at him. He said, ‘Braylon is fine. But we need to go.’ I instantly knew something had happened to JaBraun.”
A soldier and chaplain waited at her parent’s home. They said JaBraun had been killed. His base had been receiving incoming fire when a round hit an ammunition pile in his gun pit.
“They said at the time he was unidentifiable,” Courtney said, although DNA testing was done to confirm her loss. JaBraun had died with his friend, Sgt. Michael J. Knapp, 28, of Overland Park, Kan. Mike had brought his own 6-month-old child to the base hospital in Washington after Braylon was born.
JaBraun’s funeral, to be held soon after Memorial Day, is expected to be well attended and exceed the funeral home’s capacity of 300 mourners, Courtney said. So it’s been moved to the World War II Museum in Auburn where she and JaBraun had hosted their wedding reception not so long ago.
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