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‘He just had a lot of heart’

Sgt. Wade Wilson’s heroic death two years ago stunned everyone who knew him. Yet it surprised almost no one.

Who else would charge out of an armored vehicle with just an M9 pistol to take on an enemy spraying bullets with an AK-47? Almost no one.

“The average man would seek cover to protect his own life,” noted Lt. Col. Tim Bairstow, at last year’s Camp Pendleton ceremony to present Wilson’s posthumous Silver Star.

“But Sgt. Wilson was not an average man, nor was he an average Marine.”

Wilson, 22, was dashing, daring and absolutely fearless, his family said. Always had been.

“He wasn’t afraid of anything,” said his mother, Cindy Easterling. “He had a very high pain threshold. He just had a lot of heart.”

He was self-sufficient from a young age, she said, brash and funny and he liked to make people laugh, especially when that could ease a tense situation.

A small-town Texan from a family of cattle ranchers and builders, Wilson loved everything you might expect he would: Texas, guns, hunting, fishing, Jack Daniels and Taylor Swift, who sent flowers to his funeral after she received a video request from one of Wilson’s friends.

“He was one hell of a patriot,” his father, Mitchell Wilson, said. “He couldn’t wait to get out of high school and join the Marines.”

Wilson turned 18 in boot camp, two weeks after his high school graduation in 2007.

“I didn’t want to sign the paper,” Easterling said. “He just sat me down at the dining room table, and he said, ‘Mom, if every guy didn’t sign up because his mom was afraid, what would it be like?’ ”

No one in his family had been in the military. But the 9-11 terrorist attacks had made a huge impact on the then 12-year-old Wilson. “He talked about it so much,” his mother said. “I thought it would pass.”

Wilson never liked school, never cracked a book, his mother said, but made As and Bs anyway.

“He was so smart,” his father said. “He could pick up on things. He could run any piece of equipment. It was second nature.”

In the Marines, he excelled from the start. When he attended the machine-gunners’ course, he got the highest grades in the class. He achieved a goal he’d set even before boot camp: being a squad leader. Three times, he was “meritoriously” promoted. Already a sergeant just a year after he’d reached legal drinking age, he was about to be promoted to staff sergeant.

He was on his second deployment to Afghanistan, in Musa Qal’eh district, Helmand province, with Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, when, on May 11, 2012, during a mission to clear insurgents and weapons caches, he was riddled with bullets from his legs to his neck and bled to death.

According to his Silver Star citation, Wilson was providing security for his vehicle after it was hit by an IED before the actions that would earn him the military’s third highest award for valor.

“An insurgent posing as a civilian retrieved an AK-47 from a poppy field 20 meters away and opened fire on four Marines in the vicinity of the downed vehicle, critically wounding the Marine in the rear of the vehicle,” the citation states.

“Sergeant Wilson immediately drew his M9 pistol and, leaving the safety of his armored vehicle, fearlessly closed with the insurgent, placing himself between the critically wounded Marine and the insurgent’s barrage of fire. Sustaining multiple gunshot wounds, he continued moving against the enemy until falling mortally wounded. Sergeant Wilson’s advance forced the insurgent to flee toward an element of Marines who subsequently engaged and killed him before he could inflict additional casualties.”

But why did he do it?

“I’ve pictured it a hundred times in my head. I can see Wade doing it,” his father said. “Just grabbed his sidearm to kill (the insurgent) first. That was Wade. He would have done that for anybody. He was just like that. He wasn’t afraid of anything.”

Not a single day, hardly a single hour goes by, he said, that he doesn’t think about his son. “I do a lot of driving, and you’ll see something, hear something. It’s always about Wade.”

And some questions remain.

“To this day I don’t know what possessed him,” his father said. “I’ve thought about it a thousand times: Why didn’t he take cover?”

Sometimes, his father wonders why he shot back at the insurgent with a pistol, not an M-16. No one has mentioned a reason. And why was the Afghan allowed into the poppy field after an IED had exploded?

His father said he was told that the man was one of two Afghans already detained by the Marines. They frisked them, then one wanted to step off to the side to relieve himself.

“He reached down, then turned around … and started shooting up everything,” Mitchell Wilson said.

His mother has become close with several Marines who’ve shared in her grief and helped her try to accept her loss. She’s adamant that the Marines on the mission that day must not feel guilt that they lived and her son died.

“A lot of us wonder why we were born,” she said. “Wade was born to be a friend. That’s how he died – being a friend. I know for a fact that if God had come to Wade” and asked him how he wanted to die, “that is the way he would have chosen.”

“His selfless decision to place himself directly in the line of fire demonstrated tremendous courage and protected his fellow Marines from further harm,” his citation reads. “By his extraordinary guidance, zealous initiative and total dedication to duty, Sergeant Wilson reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”

Said his mother, “This is the way he’ll always be remembered.”

montgomery.nancy@stripes.com

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