Thanksgiving has always been a special time for our family. Melissa would start out early the night before preparing for our Thanksgiving feast for the next day. The boys were especially fond of Thanksgiving. Melissa would have special rolls for the boys, Ashton, Chandler and Heath as they watched the Macy’s Day parade. Our family had our own traditions just like any other family in America. We were a close, happy family of five and we looked forward to spending time with each other and our other relatives. It was going to be hard to not to have Heath with us this Thanksgiving or Christmas, but we were still looking forward to this special time of year. We had packaged his Christmas gifts and sent them to him in early November so he would have them in time for Christmas. We knew he would celebrate Thanksgiving with his Marine unit as we were with our family here at home.
It was Wednesday, November 22, 2006 and Melissa and I had dropped the boys off to school and Melissa and I looked forward to our day together as we began shopping for our Thanksgiving dinner on the next day. We stopped for breakfast at Bob Evans and were off shopping. We were having a great time together and our conversation would drift to thoughts of Heath. I was really hoping to receive a letter from him to share with our family and friends at our Thanksgiving table. You could not help but wonder how he was holding up. We were on our drive back home and it was a beautiful late fall day the temperatures were in the 60’s and it was sunny. Little did we know that as we were driving to our home, another vehicle was also traveling to our home and had been waiting for us.
We arrived home around noon and the first thing Melissa did was check the mail box. “No letter Scott”, I was bummed. I really wanted to hear from Heath. I was in the house for but a moment and Melissa was outside bringing in groceries when I heard her scream. I almost panicked as I knew something was terribly wrong. I thought some one was attacking her outside of our house and I began to run down the stairs. As I reached the bottom of the stairs Melissa was crying and saying the Marines were here. I could not make sense of what was happening as three Marines were standing in our front room. My head was spinning as I tried to make sense of the situation. One of the Marines, calmly asked me to sit down but I could not. I knew instantly and directly asked them is Heath dead. They said yes. The scream was these Marines approaching Melissa. For a split second she thought Heath was surprising us and was coming home for Thanksgiving, but Heath wasn’t with them and they said, please tell us you are not the mother of Pvt. Heath Warner. It was at that point that she screamed and collapsed dropping the groceries she had in hand. It was not just a scream, it was a scream that only comes from a heart being ripped apart….a scream deep within soul that would never stop.
In a flash our world as we had known it, stopped and our family was forever changed. I remember in my heart just crying out to God , No.
You cannot take our son. I had said to God over the years, I can handle anything but please do not take any of my children. But that fear had become my reality. A level of numbness and at the same time of heart wrenching pain that I could never imagine set in. Melissa and I were sitting in our front room crying, trying to make sense out of this, but all we could do was look at each other and say what do we do now. This new reality was hard. Our casualty support officers had paperwork we needed to complete and we were left to tell our other sons Ashton,7, and Chandler, 14, that their brother had been killed in the war. How do you do that? How do you break your child’s heart, knowing they will enter a level of pain that grief can only bring. A pain we have no control over that each of us would have to bear. But we had no choice, we had to do this. We decided we would let the boys finish the day out and we would tell them when they came home from school.
We went to pick up Ashton at Worley Elementary. He was in first grade and his teacher Mrs. Clevenger was a good friend of ours. As we entered the school, we notified the principal of our loss and we went to get Ashton. Their look of shock was the beginning of a community meeting the reality of war in a personal way. I had Ashton and Melissa told Mrs. Clevenger. I am sure Ashton sensed something was wrong, but we could not say it. We drove home as if nothing had happened and asked him how his day was. But as we pulled in the driveway and sat there for few minutes, we had to tell him as the Marines were in the house and family had begun to arrive. Melissa took over, and said “honey we need to talk to you about something before we go into the house”. You could see that look of dread on his face as Melissa told him, “We have bad news to tell you. Your brother was killed today in Iraq”. His response caught me off guard, as he responded by asking Melissa, “Is my brother an American Hero”, which she said “Yes, honey, your brother is an American Hero”. With that we went into the house and we began to receive guests as family, friends and neighbors came by to visit.
While we were waiting to go get Chandler, we received a phone call from our good friend Lynne Weisel. She said we needed to get to the middle school and pick Chandler up as Heath and Chandler’s friends had begun to receive the news and were texting each other. That was the last way I wanted Chandler to hear this. We arrived at the middle school and were met by the school principal and guidance counselor. Fortunately for us, the elementary school had called over and prepared them for what was happening. They took us over to the nursing station were we waited for Chandler. A few minutes later, Chandler came in and had the strangest look on his face as he was trying to figure out what was going on. Melissa shared the tragic news and he began to pound on the wall. We tried to comfort him the best we could but his heart was broken and long term sadness set in. He decided to stay for his wrestling practice, but I told his coach not to let him wrestle anyone because he would hurt them because he was so angry. Let me share some thoughts from brother Chandler who was an 8th grader.
“I’ll never forget the day my brother died. I woke up and had a normal morning and to tell you the truth my day seemed to be going better than usual. When I was eating breakfast, my mom and I were talking about my brother Heath…wondering what he was doing because he was in the United States Marine Corp and was in Iraq. So I came to school and was having a great day, but little did I know that was going to be my last good day for a very long time. It was the last period of the day and they called me to the office, so I knew something was going on. The school attendance lady told me to follow her to the nurse’s office. I walked in and saw my Mom and Dad standing there. A few seconds later my Mom said, “ Chandler something terrible happened to your brother. He was killed in Iraq today.” To tell you the truth, I cannot even remember what I did. I felt numb. That is all I really remember.”
The impact on Heath’s brother Ashton was also tremendous. He thinks of his brother all the time as we found a picture that Ashton drew. It is a picture of a grave marker and on it says…Heath Warner, my brother my hero was brave and strong.
I hung the American flag and the Marine Corp flag out on the front porch as I had done everyday we had good weather since Heath had left. I was proud of my son, his courage and honor and I told Melissa from that moment on Heath would receive a hero’s honor to the utmost that we could provide for him. November 22, 2006 was the saddest day of our lives.