A Promise Tucked In A Bag

January 21, 2009

Death of a loved one is very hard for any of us to handle. Anytime one deals with the death of a loved one, it’s often difficult to find closure and move on with life, without that person. When a parent has to bury their child, it’s often very difficult, as under most circumstances, our children will outlive us. When our loved ones die as a result of a traumatic event, such as a traffic accident or in combat, we’re often left with many unanswered questions.

For one Michigan woman, some of her answers were finally answered on Saturday, when she met the medic who was present when her son, 29 year old Carl Thomas was killed as a result of an IED in Iraq on September 13, 2004. While the pain of the loss of her son remains and will remain with her for the remainder of her life, and she’ll never have full closure, being able to have her questions answered about her son’s death, provided Alfeeria Johnson with some measure of comfort.

Saturday, Johnson met Jeffrey Ward, the former Army medic who was one of the last persons to see her son alive. She had many questions for Thomas. For Ward, being able to meet Mr. Johnson and fulfill a promise that he made to Thomas during their deployment, provided some closure to him as well.

Jeffrey Ward served in the Army with Alfeeria Johnson's son, Carl Thomas. Ward brought Johnson news of her son's last moments. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

Jeffrey Ward served in the Army with Alfeeria Johnson's son, Carl Thomas. Ward brought Johnson news of her son's last moments. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

“I get to finally fulfill this promise I made,” Ward said. “I finally get to get rid of this burden.”1

Thomas and Ward met when both were assigned to 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. They met about 5 weeks prior to their deployment in March 2004. They became fast friends, as they faced the horrors of combat together, deployed to Camp War Eagle in the northeast part of Baghdad. According to Ward, Thomas wasn’t the typical Soldiers. He was competent and patient. He wasn’t one to yell or cuss when he became angry. Instead he remained calm and steadfast in his fatih in God. He kept Psalm 91 tucked away in his boot for protection.

“There wasn’t any drama there, just a solid dude. Unshakeable,” Ward said.2

Life at Camp War Eagle was tough. Daily mortars and grenades were commonplace. It was often said that if you made it back from the DFAC with all of your limbs intact, that was a victory. When Soldiers went out on patrol, they faced even greater dangers, IEDs and engagement with the enemy. Because of the dangers they faced, many of the Soldiers in the unit, including Thomas asked Ward to return at least the bands from their helmets to their families in the event that they were killed. That was a promise that Ward intended to keep, no matter what.

“I did it for guys that I knew were not going to have open casket funerals,” Ward said. Ward returned two bands to other Soldier’s families.3

Saturday he carried out his promise to Thomas as well. Inside a small, dusty plastic bag, was the band from Thomas’s helmet. He returned it to Johnson. That bag hadn’t been opened since he placed the band inside on September 13, 2004. With tears streaming down her face, Johnson closely examined the band that was imprinted with her son’s last name, his code number and his blood type.4

The band is the only thing that her son was wearing that day, that Mrs. Johnson has received. The remainder of his personal effects were given to his wife Lanea who resides in Arizona.

According to Army Spokesman Lt. Col. Richard McNorton with Human Resources Command, Army officials make painstaking attempts to gather, clean and return all personal effects of fallen Soldiers. Even down to the contents of their pockets. Great care is taken to preserving these mementos for the families. Things that are personalized, such as the Soldier’s helmet bands, dog tags, jewelry and watches are carefully cleaned and returned to the families. Sometimes however, items aren’t returned, as they may be too tattered or bloodstained.

Ward had attempted to return the helmet band to Thomas’s widow, but learned that she didn’t wish to have contact with him. Finally after some searching for other family members, he was able to contact Mrs. Johnson through a reporter who had written about Thomas in the Detroit News. The meeting would be the change for him to fulfill the promise he made to Thomas, and would bring some much needed closure to him as well. He knew that by meeting Thomas, he would have to relive that painful event again, answering her questions about her son’s death. Ward answered her questions with the detail she craved.

Ward himself was injured as a result of a car bomb. He returned from Iraq with a Purple Heart, fighting the demons that come along with combat injuries and watching your friends die. Once he returned home, life quickly unraveled for him. He was discharged from the Army in March 2005. He was diagnosed with PTSD and struggled fiercely with guilt over surviving combat when others didn’t. He began self medicating with cocaine and soon became addicted, eventually serving 6 months in jail. According to Ward, jail saved his life. He was able to break his addiction, as well as reconnect with his Christian faith.

The weekend was a time of closure and healing for Ward and to some extent Johnson, though her pain at losing her son will never fully heal. Ward spoke with Johnson and family friends, as well as Thomas’s sister, herself a Soldier stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas. He attended church with Johnson and listened as the minister said something that had special meaning for him. “God has spared you another year. Make good on your promises.” For Ward, he was finally able to fulfill that promise that he had tucked away in a bag, four years before.

“I’m grateful that Ward was there and he made it,” said Johnson. “He made it enough to come and tell me what happened. It took four years, but he made it.”5

  1. http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090119/METRO/901190369/1410/METRO01 []
  2. http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090119/METRO/901190369/1410/METRO01 []
  3. http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090119/METRO/901190369/1410/METRO01 []
  4. http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090119/METRO/901190369/1410/METRO01 []
  5. http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090119/METRO/901190369/1410/METRO01 []


One Response to “A Promise Tucked In A Bag”

  1. David M on January 22nd, 2009 1:24 pm

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 01/22/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

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