Dulles, Virginia – It was 15 years ago today, and the hour was nearing 8:00pm. Sixteen-year-old Maria James stood at her father’s bedside at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and said goodbye to her dad for the last time. After difficult discussions, a lot of prayer, and consultation with the doctors, the life support that was keeping Maria’s father from his eternal rest would be discontinued. The injuries inflicted on Leon James were too grave, and the promise of God’s Kingdom was too close, to continue the fight.
LTC Leon James had been in Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 314th Field Artillery Regiment out of Fort Drum. It was September 26, 2005, and he and his team were driving south on a stretch of road known as Route Pluto. Leon was in the passenger’s seat when his Humvee was hit on the driver’s side by an IED. The damage was devastating, instantly claiming the lives of the driver, SFC Casey Howe, and gunner, MSGT Tulsa Tuliau.
Leon took a great deal of shrapnel, lost a lot blood, and his head was badly injured. But he managed to pull himself from the wreckage to the side of the road. Once help arrived, he was taken to a local hospital for surgery to repair his severed carotid artery. From there, he was taken to Germany and a few days later flown to Walter Reed where his family could see him.
As her father was being flown back to the United States, Maria left her friends at Sackets Harbor Central School in New York, where she was an excellent and active student, to make her way to the nation’s capital with her family. At the hospital, she was reunited with a father who was badly wounded, unconscious, and fighting to hang on.
It’s not what she was used to seeing. Maria’s father had a big personality and was full of life. He was smart and funny. He was an elder at his church and the person from whom the other congregants wanted to hear. Leon James loved the outdoors, trucks, and fishing. Maria told me her father tried to interest his three daughters in the activities he loved, but at times it proved challenging. “When dad took me fishing,” Maria joked, “my line spent as much time tangled in the tree as it did in the water.”
It didn’t matter. Leon was patient and loving. Time with his family was precious. He loved his wife Sylvia, and he adored each of his three girls, Maria, Rachael, and Kathryn. Maria explained that while he was fun-loving, he was also a disciplinarian who wanted the best for his daughters. He admonished when needed and imparted lessons that would help them get ahead in a competitive world.
But LTC James also had a deep and abiding sense of patriotism which called him to serve his country. He had the opportunity to retire from the military, having served 23 years. He had put in his time. But his country was at war; he was a soldier, and he was needed. Though he didn’t expect to, Leon James was willing to give his life for the country he loved.
Before he left for Iraq, Leon promised he would return home. He did, though not in the way his family had hoped. Before he was wounded, Leon penned a letter to Maria apologizing that he would not be home for her 16th birthday celebration explaining, “The world was just not cooperating.”
Leon felt an obligation to make the world a safer place. That sense of duty required the rest of the James family, like all military families, to sacrifice as well. Maria and her sisters had to share their father with their country. And now, 15 years later, their loss is still raw.
Maria fought back tears as we spoke and said very simply, “I still miss him.” She went on to confide, “I always wanted my dad’s approval, and I miss the discipline he brought to my life. It would be nice to hear his advice and know that he was proud of me.”
When she was younger, Maria had visited Arlington National Cemetery with her father and watched the changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. She remembers being impressed, knowing it was a special place. Now her hero rests there, in Section 60. I asked about her dad’s place in Arlington and she said, “It’s the greatest honor you can give a family.”
That’s a beautiful sentiment, but Maria and her family have given more to their fellow Americans than we could ever give to them. Tonight, they will join family and friends to raise a glass in memory of a loving husband and father. I ask readers of this column to do the same in honor of an American hero, Leon James.
Tom Kilgannon is the President of Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit organization that provides support to America’s military families and advocates for a strong national defense. Maria and her sisters Rachael and Kathryn each received college scholarships from Freedom Alliance. Follow him on Twitter @TomKilgannon3.