Even as the war in Afghanistan is featured less often on evening newscasts or front pages of our newspapers, Americans still involved in the fight continue to die there, deepening the pool of Memorial Day remembrances with new heroes and fresh heartbreak.
To glimpse what's still being sacrificed on Afghan soil, Courtney Knox, the 24-year-old widow of Army Sgt. JaBraun Knox, of Auburn, Ind., agreed to tell us about her husband and how he died May 18 at a forward operating base near Asadabad, Afghanistan.
The first thing to understand about JaBraun, Courtney said after finalizing his funeral arrangements, is that he "loved making people smile." Also no one was more important to him than Braylon, his 6-month-old son.
Courtney and JaBraun began dating her senior year at DeKalb High School in Auburn. A year older than JaBraun, Courtney was a basketball star who went on to score more than 1,000 points for Huntington University.
JaBraun, a three-sport athlete himself, had hoped to play college football. As that dream passed, he took community college courses but didn't enjoy them.
"He had absolutely no plans of ever joining the Army," Courtney said. But by late 2008, the economy had tanked and JaBraun got laid off from his factory job. Suddenly the military alone seemed to offer options.
"He had no idea what he wanted to do and just felt he was stuck," Courtney said. So JaBraun visited a joint-service recruiting office at the mall to learn about becoming a Marine. He would quip he ended up a soldier because every other recruiter except Army that day had gone to lunch.
During leave halfway through his year in Iraq, JaBraun proposed to Courtney. They agreed on a courthouse wedding before he returned to Iraq.
Braylon was born in October 2011, two weeks before JaBraun left for Afghanistan. He was a cannon crewman with 1st Battalion (Air Assault), 377th Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Fires Brigade out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
JaBraun's crew fired howitzers on enemy positions to protect forces on patrol and to answer enemy rocket attacks on their mountain base. The attacks occurred daily, he soon learned.
With warmer weather, the rocket attacks intensified, to six or eight a day, he told her. They were connected through Skype — live teleconferencing — multiple times a day. Courtney also sent perhaps 20 photos a day of Braylon via email. JaBraun watched their son grow even as the danger around him intensified.
JaBraun agreed he would leave the Army when his enlistment was up next May. He wanted a career in law enforcement or, like his father, in firefighting, Courtney said.
Back in Afghanistan, the couple resumed multiple Skype sessions every day. By May 16 JaBraun had an important message to deliver.
"He just started telling me how much he loved me and how proud he was and what a good mom I was. He was going on and on and on. I said 'What is this about?'
"'I don't know,' he said. 'I just don't tell you enough how much you mean to me, how much I love you. I need to start doing that more."
Two days later, Courtney's dad, a school guidance counselor, found her in her classroom. He said they had to go home.
A soldier and chaplain waited at her parent's home. They said JaBraun had been killed. His base had been receiving incoming fire when a round hit an ammunition pile in his gun pit.
JaBraun's funeral, to be held soon after Memorial Day, is expected to be well attended and exceed the funeral home's capacity of 300 mourners, Courtney said. So it's been moved to the World War II Museum in Auburn where she and JaBraun had hosted their wedding reception not so long ago.
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: email@example.com