When their only child became a U.S. Marine, David and Debbie Owens put a flagpole in their yard and began flying the Stars and Stripes and the Marine Corps flag. This week, they lowered the flags to half-staff as they mourned his death in battle.
Marine Lance Cpl. David E. Owens Jr., 20, was shot on Saturday in Iraq, and two days later, his family got word that he had died. Here, in his Shenandoah Valley town, family and friends are honoring the soldier by remembering the carefree and thoughtful young man who left for boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., three years ago.
They talk about the David who wrestled and played football at James Wood High School. The David who loved to go hunting and fishing with his dad. The David who was always cracking jokes.
"For right now it's very hard to believe he's gone," said Chris Bulley, who has known Owens since they attended elementary school together. "I think of him the way I knew him back in high school, all the great times. He's a hero in my book."
Military officials released few details about the circumstances of Owens's death, saying only that he was wounded in action Saturday. His parents got a call that day from a platoon leader at Camp Pendleton, Calif., who told them their son had been injured, said Owens's uncle, Steve Scroggins. Then, Monday afternoon, a chaplain and a Marine lieutenant colonel knocked on their door.
More than 100 American families, including seven others in the Washington region, have received similar visits since the war in Iraq began last month.
This week at the Owens house, on a winding country road just west of the center of town, friends streamed in offering food and flowers and memories. Neighbors the family never met sent cards. A limousine company called and offered free services for the funeral. Around town, flags were lowered.
"It's terrible, it really is. We're all shocked," said Larry Holliday, who remembered Owens as the polite young man in uniform who bought a pickup truck from his used-car dealership. "He was all shined up in his uniform -- a nice, nice guy."
Owens graduated from high school in 2000 and wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do next, friends said. He decided college wasn't for him and started to consider a military career, possibly as preparation to become a Virginia state trooper. He looked into several branches before heading to South Carolina that November.
"He choose the Marines because it was the most challenging," Scroggins said. "He liked being a Marine because it gave him structure. It gave him discipline."
Jaye Copp, Owens's wrestling coach, said Owens always came by to see him when he was home to visit. They would catch up on the latest news about the school's wrestling program, and Owens would stop in the school cafeteria at lunchtime to recruit.
"He came back, and he looked real good," Copp said. "He was very excited. He said, 'Yeah coach, I enjoy it.' "
Copp said Owens was never one of his top athletes, but he never missed practice and he never lost his drive. As the second-biggest wrestler on the team, he always had to practice with the biggest wrestler, Bulley, who happened to be a state champion and all-American. Owens would get trounced again and again and happily come back for more.
"Chris would just maul him, and David would stick with it," Copp said. "He was a very good boy. He was just a good kid."
Bulley, who remembers those matches well, said, "That's just how David was, he was a real great guy." One night, he said, when one of their friends was hurt during a football game, Owens dragged Bulley back to the stadium and insisted on driving the friend's car home so the family wouldn't have to worry about it.
Matt McHale, another high school classmate, said the town's parents were especially fond of Owens because he always took the time to say hello. "My parents really liked him," McHale said. "If he saw my mother at the grocery store he would say, 'Hi, Mrs. McHale.' "
Scroggins said the family knew Owens as "little David," the nickname he got because he was a "junior." "He was 200 pounds, six-foot little David. We always laughed about that," Scroggins said. "He was really a happy-go-lucky guy. . . . a 20-year-old boy."
The Owenses are planning a funeral tomorrow in Berryville, Va. They could have chosen to bury their son in Arlington National Cemetery, but instead they have decided to lay him to rest in Shenandoah Memorial Park in Winchester.
"His parents want to be with him when it's their time," Scroggins said. "They want him home."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.