Fallen but not forgotten: US remembers its war dead today, but kin remember every day
This is how she remembers her soldier.
In letters and emails that still come five years later thanking her for the man he was.
In random phone calls that end in tears.
In the man and woman their children have become.
Donna Blair stands among 6,808 families and counting whose losses in Iraq and Afghanistan ensure that every day is Memorial Day.
Though the holiday was conceived to honor all of the nation's war dead, the closing of our involvement in the war in Afghanistan, marked by the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops later this year, raises anew the question of whether and how people will remember the fallen.
Five years ago, Donna Blair and her husband, U.S. Army 1st Sgt. John D. Blair, bought a 12-acre spread in Plainville, Ga., a few miles outside Calhoun. The place didn't even have a driveway, and there was a lot of work to do to turn the two-story cabin into a home.
Donna and John made it a home for 22 days.
Then John had to go.
He'd been slated to retire. More than two decades in the Army National Guard and a combat tour in Iraq in 2004 had earned him that right.
But a unit needed a first sergeant. They called. John answered.
As John prepared young soldiers for their first deployments, many were scared. They doubted themselves.
"I'm going to take care of you," the 38-year-old sergeant told them. "I'll be right there with you."
"No, you won't, you'll be in some office somewhere," the boys would say.
"I'll be with you every day or I'll be in some casket somewhere but I won't be sitting in no office," John replied.
Company A of the Georgia Guard's 48th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Division had been in Afghanistan a short time but had actually been conducting missions with Afghan troops for maybe a few weeks, Donna recalled.
On June 20, 2009, soldiers of the 121st were driving in a vehicle patrol with Afghan soldiers. They arrived at a dangerous bottleneck. The trucks halted on a remote road, slanting steeply down, hills on both sides, a bridge in front of them.
John was in the turret, manning a .50-caliber machine gun. This was an unlikely spot for a first sergeant, most of whom have the luxury of working out of command bunkers or combat tents far from the fighting.
But not John.
Taliban fighters fired. He fired back, killing some of the attackers in the 45-minute gun battle until a rocket-propelled grenade streaked through the sky and hit him directly.
John and Donna met in 1999 at the American Legion Post 47 in Calhoun, where she worked. Soon they were spending more time together. He met her daughter, Georgia, and son, Dallas.
Things got serious and eventually they moved in together. John wanted to get married. Donna held him off. She'd had bad luck in marriage. Her first husband, Georgia's father, had been hit by a train and died. Her second husband, Dallas' father, had died from cancer.
Life moved along. John worked with the Gordon County Sheriff's Office locally and on a statewide drug task force. He kept going off to Army training. He was in Army Ranger school when planes struck the twin towers.
In a shaky phone call, Donna told John that the country was at war.
He was ready.
But before he left for overseas, they said their vows at his insistence.
John worked in a reconnaissance unit for a year at the start of the Iraq war.
It was the first time most of his men had been in a combat zone. They were under fire regularly, often alone, lacking the established bases and reliable supply lines that would come later in the fighting.
When his unit came home after that demanding deployment there were no welcoming crowds lining the streets.
No one stood waving flags on their route to a gymnasium with family and friends. The community didn't know who was in those buses.
Donna vowed that would not happen again.
So in 2006, when members of the 108th Cavalry with units out of both Dalton and Calhoun returned from Iraq, Donna got to it.
She enlisted her son and his friends to hang ribbons. She went door to door at nearly every business in Calhoun, telling them that they needed to pitch in for these boys when they came back.
She got lowboy trailers hitched to semi-trucks carpeted and festooned with wreaths for the boys to ride open for all to see, wave and cheer on.
At the end of the parade the soldiers' voices quaked and they spoke their thanks through tears. Their community hadn't forgotten them, they said. The homecoming was proof.
"I think that's their biggest fear, being forgotten," Donna said.
On the dais, near the mayor and the returning soldiers, John said he was proud of her and he just hoped someone would do that for his boys if he deployed again.
"I said, if you're deployed anywhere, I'll be in charge of your homecoming," Donna said.
There was always a phone call from Afghanistan, each Friday. Always.
That Friday, June 19, Donna didn't hear the phone ring. But her cellphone battery was low. Maybe he got busy. No, that's not like John.
The next morning she went to get another charger. The store was out of stock.
She stopped by an ice cream place near the house to talk with a friend. The girl at the counter offered her a free ice cream, asked her to stay, wouldn't say why.
The counter girl had seen the uniforms. Calhoun is a small town. Plainville's even smaller.
Donna and Dallas got home. She went inside first. Seconds later Dallas came in behind with a message. "There are some men outside to see you."
The day John came home, on June 29, 2009, mourners crowded the airport, the route and the church service.
It wasn't political. It wasn't about the war. It was about John, what he believed, his sacrifice.
There wasn't room for them all at her church. So they went to Trinity Baptist, the one with the most parking.
The bugle call played and John's body was lowered into the ground a half-hour away at Georgia National Cemetery.
In the days that followed, boxes arrived with a military escort.
Donna unpacked John's things, some still dusted with Afghan dirt.
Then, as the weeks rolled on, she found other things at his office, in nooks of their home, boxes and boxes containing glimpses of an Army life. Certificates, commendations, letters, photos, the accumulation of years of service that John rarely talked about.
Once again, Donna got to work.
As if in amber, framed pieces of John's life fill the den of their cabin home. On each wall rests an item -- a memento, a uniform, a photograph, a sketch of the battle he fought. His boots, his helmet, the dog tags that touched his skin are all at her fingertips.
This is hallowed ground. But it is no place for mourning.
"Don't think I go in that room and sit and cry, because I don't," Donna, 49, said.
The room is for stories, happy ones. Because without those stories, John will fade.
It is in the people John touched that his memory ripples onward, five years later.
On a number of her visits to John's grave she has found something someone left there. A uniform patch, dog tags, one business card that had a message. It read, "You gave so much and you are a good man. My son Britton McCann was with you. Your memory is with us."
One time Donna encountered a young man in dress clothes, on his knees and rubbing John's headstone clean. He started crying when she told him who she was.
"I come here every year on this day and wash this grave," the man said. "I just don't understand why it was John. He taught us all."
When a group of troops returned in the years after John died, a woman asked Donna, "Don't you wish it were one of them instead of John?"
She wouldn't wish her grief on anyone. John knew what he was doing. If he had known he was going to die that day, Donna says, he'd have gone out anyway, for his men. Through her two families -- one born of blood, the other of service -- John will live.
"I won't let Afghanistan or the Taliban end my life," Donna said.