|Saturday, 21-Oct-2006 12:00
An Annivesary of Life!
The Tribute Book is still open for Gray Cockerham. Cpt Swisher, Doc Thompson, Cpl Cockerham, and LCpl Butler KIA Oct 21, 2005. LCpl Szwydek, LCpl Russoli, and SSgt Pummil KIA Oct 20, 2005. The week that ripped our hearts right out of our chests!
Posted on Sat, Oct. 21, 2006
"THE ARMED FORCES ... AFFORD US THE LUXURY TO SQUABBLE, SIT HERE AND LIVE EVERYDAY LIVES. MY SON GAVE HIS LIFE SO THAT EVERYONE ELSE COULD HAVE THAT TRIVIAL EXISTENCE." BEN COCKERHAM FATHER OF GRAY COCKERHAM, WHO WAS KILLED IN IRAQ OCT. 21, 2005
Grieving family views life in shades of Gray
Beloved son. Brave fighter. One of 2,787 dead.
Today, Gray Cockerham's family will visit him at the only place they can, the address etched in their memory: Section 60, headstone 8290, Arlington National Cemetery.
Exactly one year has passed since the Hickory Marine was killed outside of Fallujah, Iraq. He was 21.
One year, and Ben and Jill Cockerham say they still think of their oldest son every minute. In the morning, at night before they go to sleep, with each meal they eat. The death they didn't want to believe has become something they cannot let fade.
Three and a half years into the Iraq war, at least 2,787 American troops have died. This month is on track to be the third deadliest for U.S. forces since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003.
War is inevitable, and there has to be someone with the guts to fight it, said Ben, 46, a former Marine himself. The Cockerhams didn't want to discuss their politics. Marines, he said, fight for their country, not a political party.
Cpl. Benny Gray Cockerham III, known to everyone as Gray, was in constant motion from the time he was a baby, never able to sit still, always ready to throw himself into outdoor activity, the more challenging the better.
He snowboarded, wakeboarded, Jet Skied, hunted, fished, played paintball and ran and dove across the field as an all-region forward on the St. Stephens High School soccer team.
For Gray, his father says, it was never a matter of "no," but "how."
He was good at anything he put his mind to, Ben said, but needed to find what he was interested in. He wanted his parents to tell him. Figure it out on your own, they said. So he did.
In March 2003, Ben came home from work and his younger son, Adam, greeted him at the door. "Guess what Gray did today?" he said.
Gray had joined the Marines.
There, he won friends as a jokester and earned respect with his smarts and loyalty, said his two best friends from the Corps, Cpl. Gary Bell and Lance Cpl. Jim Faleris.
But he returned from his first tour of duty a different man. Wounded by a mortar round in the battle of Fallujah in April 2004, and awarded a Purple Heart, he seemed older in appearance, outlook and demeanor.
He became closer to his family, more patient and easygoing. One day, Jill noticed Gray standing in the driveway, staring at the sky. "What are you doing?" she asked. "Looking at the clouds," he replied. "You don't see clouds in Iraq."
The night before Gray left for his second tour of duty, in July 2005, he planned his own funeral. I want it done exactly like I said, he told his father.
"Tell everyone in the family I love them," Gray said when he phoned Jill on Oct. 18, 2005, promising to call back the following Sunday.
Three days later, at about 9:30 p.m., Ben and Jill were coming home from a Hickory restaurant and noticed a white van in their driveway. "Who drives a white van?" they wondered.
When Ben and Jill parked, the occupants of the white van opened their doors. As they did, the van's dome light came on, illuminating two Marines in dress blues.
The Marines stepped from the van. "We regret to inform you there was an explosion," they said. Gray was missing. Recovery operations were under way.
Ben knew what the military language meant. Jill held out hope. If anyone could have made it, she thought, Gray would have.
On Monday night, the Marines phoned. Gray had been found in a canal next to the road.
In the months that followed, Ben and Jill learned the full story of Gray's death: He and four other men were headed to a rural area to discuss security issues with tribal leaders. Gray sat in the front, navigating.
At about 2:30 p.m., they rolled over a 500-pound bomb that had been buried since at least the summer, somersaulting the Humvee.
Gray's body was flown to Arlington, outside Washington, from Charlotte/Douglas airport. "The hardest thing I've ever had to do," Ben said, "is watch my child lifted on a forklift, in a crane, and put on an airplane."
Living with it
Jill, 45, travels to Arlington every month; Ben visits almost as much. They expect to do so the rest of their lives.
There are times they want to block out what happened, Jill said, but Arlington makes it real. There, they run into Marines who knew or knew of their son, and they see others going through the same thing. It's almost, Jill said, like they become your family.
Each time they make the trip, they notice that the rows of tombstones have grown.
Gray was killed that October day with three other men, two of whom -- Chris Thompson, 25, of Millers Creek, outside Wilkesboro, and Kenneth Butler, 19, of Landis -- were from N.C. towns about an hour apart.
Staff Sgt. Jason Ramseyer, 28, of Lenoir, who was killed by a roadside bomb in April, lies about 10 graves away. His birthday: Oct. 21.
Ben is both proud and remorseful about the way his son died. Jill feels differently but declines to elaborate.
They realize life goes on.
In this country, we concern ourselves with who won the football game, Ben said. We drive down the road talking on our cell phones. We have televisions and cars and nice homes. We worry about the lyrics to rap songs.
"All this other stuff seems so trivial, and the reason it feels trivial is that the armed forces let it be trivial, afford us the luxury to squabble, sit here and live everyday lives," Ben said. "My son gave his life so that everyone else could have that trivial existence."
Jill rarely watches television these days. She doesn't bother reading Better Homes and Gardens. Instead, she sought out a recent issue of Soldier of Fortune, which ran an article and photo about Gray's unit, the Warlords -- 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment.
Earlier this month, Ben was in a restaurant where the TV was tuned to CNN. The announcer mentioned that three Marines had been killed in Iraq. "No one even stopped their conversations," Ben said. "It's a non-event for them. It's like there was a train wreck in Siberia."
In early October, Ben and Jill moved to Winston-Salem, a change they had been planning for years but delayed until Adam graduated from high school.
Before they left Hickory, Jill planned to take the flag they flew at their home to the 90-year-old veteran across the street who, rain or shine, would walk over with help from his wife and salute. Instead, the man came over himself to pick it up. "For the rest of my life," he told Jill, "I will salute that flag."
At their new home, the Cockerhams no longer imagine seeing the white van in the driveway, as they had every day since last Oct. 21. They do not run into people in town who look at them like they don't know what to say.
But reminders remain. Framed photos of Gray and Adam rest on the leather couch, waiting to be hung. Propped above the fireplace is a giant oil painting of an Iraqi woman, her eyes downcast, her back turned -- a birthday present from Gray to Ben.
The woman in the picture is scantily clad, but Gray bought it because he admired the artist's work. It arrived in Hickory about a week before Gray's death, and Jill didn't know what to do with such a thing. Now, she wants to display it, because her son saved up for it and told her to appreciate it as art.
Adam, now 18 and a college freshman, has asked, "How much longer before our house gets back to normal?"
Jill has a reply. "I don't think it ever will."