A Pennsylvania family copes with airman's death
Erie Times-News, Pa.
ERIE, Pa. — Kim Bell saw two small rental cars pull into her driveway.
A sick feeling settled in her stomach. She hollered for her husband and ran upstairs.
Rick Bell opened the door and saw three colonels, two in dress uniform, one in camouflage, walking toward him. It was just after 7 p.m. on Jan. 5.
"Please tell me no," Rick Bell said.
One of the colonels slowly shook his head, opened a satchel, and handed him a sheet of paper.
Seven months since the death of 23-year-old U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Bryan Richard Bell, his family is still learning what it means to live without the son, brother and husband who knitted them all together, and is still coping with that loss in different ways.
Rick Bell examined every piece of information he could about what happened at 3:29 p.m., local time, on Jan. 5, when his son and two other explosive-ordnance disposal technicians were killed as they tried to clear a route in Shir Ghazi, Afghanistan.
Donna and Dave Aldrich, Bryan Bell's mother and stepfather, chose a different path, joining local events honoring veterans and service members and taking solace in signs that his spirit lives on.
Candice Bell, the sister who had followed her big brother into the Air Force and then eulogized him in front of hundreds of mourners, found deeper meaning in the uniform she wears and in his philosophy of living with no regrets.
And Alaina Bell, who would have celebrated her four-year anniversary with her husband on Thursday, prepared to move from the home they'd created at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to a new home and a new life, much different from the one she had imagined.
Rick Bell can still see the scared look in his eyes.
"He told me he was going into the worst part of Afghanistan," he said. "He knew he was going into harm's way. But he didn't cry. His voice didn't crack."
Bryan Bell didn't say goodbye. Instead, he hugged his dad, told him he would see him later, and hoisted himself into his truck.
"I watched him drive down the road," Rick Bell said. "The thought goes through your mind: Is this the last time I'm going to see him?"
Rick Bell started asking questions the moment the world shifted under his feet, before the dignified transfer of his son's body first to Dover Air Force Base and then back home to Erie, before the funeral with full military honors.
He wrote to generals and congressmen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Barack Obama: What happened? What is the purpose of this mission? Why are we there?
"Anyone that knows Rick knows that's him," Kim Bell, Bryan Bell's stepmother, said. "He has to know answers."
He got them. A thick blue binder holds a report from the U.S. Air Force outlining the details of Bryan Bell's death. An autopsy report catalogs his injuries.
Kim Bell won't read either, preferring instead to remember her stepson as he lived: a gentle giant who swept her off her feet in big bear hugs. A lovable, easygoing jokester who laughed the hardest when the joke was on him.
"It's too much sometimes," she said. "It's too traumatic."
Both believe that Americans have lost sight of the true human toll this war has taken and continues to take on families, friends, neighbors, entire communities.
"I want people to think twice about the consequences of their decisions," Rick Bell said. "You have the power to make decisions through voting, and by voting we elect people to represent us. Are we really holding them accountable?"
He thinks about a life cut short, a future taken away.
He thinks about how his son, a man who loved children, will never have any of his own.
"I'll never have grandkids from Bryan," Rick Bell said. "I'll never get to take them to the zoo, I'll never get to go fishing. I lost my hero that day."
Donna Aldrich remembers her son playing with a 3-foot-long aircraft carrier in the tub, landing toy airplanes. The Easter bunny filled plastic eggs with miniature tanks.
"I can't tell you how many pair of camouflage pants he went through growing up," she said, and laughed.
It was a Tuesday when she sent a package of corn bread mix and a bag of chocolate chips to her son, ingredients for a treat he and his fellow airmen could make in the bread maker they took with them on missions.
He was killed two days later. The U.S. Air Force asked the Aldriches if they wanted the unopened package returned.
"I never thought he would get hurt because he was so big," Donna Aldrich said. "He was always protecting everyone else."
In the months since his death, Donna and Dave Aldrich have been surrounded by an outpouring of support from family, friends and a community who claimed Bryan Bell as their own.
Cards from across the nation. Quilts made by volunteers. Visits and phone calls and e-mails. Hundreds of people lining the streets, waving American flags, for the funeral procession.
"Someday, we're going to have to do that" for another fallen service member, Donna Aldrich said. "We're going to have to relive it all over again, and that's what I fear."
The support is humbling. But it's also a double-edged sword, every kind card or letter a reminder that he's never coming back. Donna Aldrich can't walk through the grocery store without someone asking her, in a hushed tone, how she's doing. Every day is hard, some days worse than others.
"Nothing's the same," Dave Aldrich said.
They cope by returning some of the support they've been giving, helping military causes when they can. They visit Bryan Bell's grave in Wintergreen Gorge Cemetery every weekend to water the flowers. And they take solace in little signs that his spirit is still around, like the time when the radio mysteriously turned on during a somber discussion.
Bryan Bell — the prankster, the life of the party — didn't do somber.
They keep his memory alive in his bedroom, where they display his Purple Heart, photos and the flag they received at his funeral.
"It hurts too much" to think about his death, Donna Aldrich said. "We decided to focus on the positive. He's not coming back, no matter what."
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Candice Bell faces constant reminders of what she's lost.
At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, where she is stationed, one morning a month is dedicated to training.
"It is hard to sit there without getting emotional with my 'triggers,'" she said.
IED training, how to deal with death, deployment readiness — they're all topics that bring her brother to the forefront of her mind.
Her military family, the people she works with, help her cope.
"I could not have been more blessed with the bunch of people I work with," she said. "They have been so understanding with my feelings."
On her desk she keeps a picture of her brother and her, taken when she graduated from basic training. His death has given her a new perspective on life, she said.
When she enlisted in the Air Force, she expected to spend her entire career in the military. Now, she takes each day at a time, with no definite plans for the future.
"You have to ensure that you are enjoying life and every conversation ends on a good note," she said. "Bryan had lived by a quote, 'No regrets,' and I have changed my life to live that way now. I want to be able to go to sleep every night knowing I do not regret anything that has happened within that day."
Alaina Bell would have celebrated four years of marriage on Thursday.
Instead, she prepared to move from Barksdale Air Force Base to a new house in Lawrence Park Township, close to a support system of family and friends.
To the public, Bryan Bell was a selfless native son deserving of honor and respect. To Alaina Bell, he was that and more: a humble man with an infectious laugh who wanted to live life to the fullest.
They did just that, together, marrying only a year after they met through a mutual friend. They dreamed about what the future might hold.
"It didn't matter to us," she said. "As long as we were together, we were fine."
It's been almost a year since she last saw her husband.
"Every time one of the boys would come home you'd think, 'He'll be on the next plane. He'll be on the next plane.' In your head, it still feels like he's still overseas. It's no different from losing a loved one not in the military," she said.
"You still have to remember that he's not the only one that's there. ... You have to keep respecting and keep loving every other member of the military that's still serving. If they come back safe, it makes you feel good that they're coming home safe. Sometimes it gives you a tiny twinge: I wish that would have been him."
They liked watching sunsets together. She thinks about him then, every time the sun goes down, and when she sees something that she knows he would have loved — a commercial for a new PlayStation 3 game, maybe.
"As far as I'm concerned, I have to live double" now, she said. "I have to live for him, too. He would want me to continue, to move forward and keep learning and keep experiencing new things.
"To me, he wasn't just a serviceman," she said. "He was my best friend, he was my partner, he was my equal. He was my pal. And it's really hard to lose that."