17 years of war

Pressed flowers. Mint chocolate-chip ice cream. A first dance. A final phone call. As the United States marks 17 years of war, the families of 17 fallen service members share treasured memories.
Story by
     
Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph John Pycior Jr. He died in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon. (Robert Pycior)

Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph John Pycior Jr.

Navy

The weekend before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, my entire family went to Baltimore to tour a railroad museum. While in Baltimore, we trekked to Inner Harbor and went to a beautiful bookstore housed in an old industrial building. My father loved reading and always had a book within reach. When he deployed with the Navy, there were no smartphones, not even iPods, so he had books — from Tom Clancy to Homer.

Sept. 8, 2001, was a warm late-summer day, yet we made the mile walk to the bookstore because it was always time for a new book. My father’s friends would always say, “If you want to find Joe, go to the library.” I think I got my love of reading from him, and it has helped me through adolescence and into young adulthood.

— Robert Pycior, son

     
Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Haycock with his family. (Ashlynne Haycock)

Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Haycock

Army

You never forget the last conversation you have with a loved one before they pass. I was 10 years old when my father died in a training accident, and the morning before he died was the last real conversation we ever had. He drove me to school and used the time to grill me on my spelling words. It was the hardest spelling test I had that year. He promised me that if I got an A he would stop and pick up a gallon of mint chocolate chip ice cream on his way back from his trip.

On April 12, 2002, I skipped all the way home, knowing that I had gotten an A on the test he helped me study for. I arrived at the house the exact same time the casualty officers did. Instead of ice cream, I received the notification of my father, SFC Jeffrey Haycock’s, death.

— Ashlynne Haycock, daughter

     
Senior Airman Nichole Haycock with her daughter, Ashlynne Haycock. (Ashlynne Haycock)

Senior Airman Nichole Haycock

Air Force

When a loved one dies by suicide, the immense guilt over whether you could have prevented it never goes away. My mom, Senior Airman Nichole Haycock, served in the Air Force and had undocumented PTSD and depression. Some days she was the best mom ever, and others she couldn’t get out of bed.

The last time I saw her was not just a good day, it was one of the best. She came to visit me in D.C. to attend the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) gala. We spent the day getting our hair, makeup and nails done. We got dressed up and had the best night honoring my late father and being surrounded by people who had also lost a loved one in the military. We were both just so happy that night. I never imagined I would become a Gold Star child for the second time only two weeks later, in 2011.

— Ashlynne Haycock, daughter

     
Capt. Joshua Byers. (Lloyd Byers)

Capt. Joshua Byers

Army

Josh loved what he did, and from childhood he wanted to serve his country. His service began at West Point and continued until he was killed July 23, 2003, in Iraq. He was commander of Fox Company, 2/3 ACR [2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment] and was leading a convoy to Fallujah when an IED exploded. He was killed instantly, but before taking his last breath, he gave a command to his driver. Josh said, “Keep Moving Forward.” By obeying, the driver continued moving even though his vehicle was disabled, and lives were saved.

Since losing Josh, those words, “Keep Moving Forward,” help me daily to do my best to continue his legacy, which also encompasses what he always strove to do, serve others.

I also believe this is a message that he left for all of us as we struggle through the difficulties that life throws at us.

— Lloyd Byers, father

     
Lt. Lawrence David Hilton. (Carole Hilton)

Lt. Lawrence David Hilton

Navy

10 p.m., July 21, 2004: I was tired. It was a long, hot day as counselor at Girl Scout day camp, caring for three young kids and with parents visiting from out of town . . . and now a flat tire after a quick sightseeing trip to Providence, R.I., to see the WaterFire. I called you in your hotel in Norfolk while you were on TDY [temporary duty] attending a class, but you didn’t answer. I left an angry message — upset that I had to deal with all of this alone.

Around 12:30 a.m., July 22, 2004: You called and woke me up from a sound sleep after getting back and hearing my message. I don’t remember the conversation, only that you were sorry for our struggles. We exchanged “I love you” before hanging up.

I didn’t know that it was going to be the last conversation we would ever have, that you would collapse and die of a freak cardiac arrhythmia just a few hours later in class.

— Carole Hilton, spouse

   
Maj. John Ruocco and Kim Ruocco. He died in 2005. (Kim Ruocco)

Maj. John Ruocco

Marines

I have so many beautiful memories of my husband, John. We had been together for 23 years when he died, so of course the memories are many and often flood my mind. As a Marine Corps Cobra pilot, John traveled the world on combat or training tours. No matter where John was, he would pick a flower and press it in a book. He would then send me that flower with a beautiful letter about where he picked it and why it reminded him of me.

When John was deployed to Iraq in 2004, the letters slowed down. His mission was difficult and time-consuming. But I did get one letter that I will never forget. It said: “I’ve been searching for a flower to send you but I can find none. Everything is so dark and dry here. It’s hard to find beauty or anything that reminds me of you. I can’t wait to get home to you and the boys.”

John died by suicide, three months after he returned from that tour.

— Kim Ruocco, spouse

     
Master Sgt. Timothy French and Misti French. (Misti French)

Master Sgt. Timothy French

Army

His favorite saying, “Until the end,” sticks with me even today. I would always ask until the end, “What does that mean?” He would laugh and always reply, “I’ll love you and I’ll be here for you until the end of time.”

Several months after his death, I received a knock on the door. The flower delivery person exclaimed, “Happy birthday!” Still overwhelmed by grief, I tried to explain it must be some mistake. My husband had been killed. The man repeated my name, looked at the handwritten card and said, “No, I’m pretty sure he [came in] back in the spring, knowing he wouldn’t be here in October and [was] headed to Iraq.”

I still have that card. I read it often. It’s as if he’s right here saying it to me. It reads, “I know it’s October, and I’m not here, but no matter where I go, I’ll always remember your birthday and want you to know that I love you . . . always did . . . always will . . . until the end.”

For me and my son, the words “until the end” mean just that. Until the end of time, he will be in our hearts and us in his!

Tim was killed in a freak line-of-duty accident in 2008, right before he was supposed to leave for his final trip to Iraq.

— Misti French, spouse

     
Cpl. Daniel Lee O’Brien died in 2009. (Dana and Linda O’Brien)

Cpl. Daniel Lee O’Brien

Marines

“Grandma and Grandpa, I just wanted to thank you for being there for me no matter what happens. You all are one of the major reasons I’ve made it to where I am today. You all distilled the confidence in me that helped me put myself back together and make something of my life. Hope all goes well! Love Daniel.”

We have so many letters and notes. Daniel was a kind, loving young man. We flew along with his dad to his recruit graduation. That moment he received his Eagle, Globe and Anchor was one he had wanted since he was a small child. We were all so happy for him. After graduation, we got lost driving in San Diego. Daniel patiently guided us to our location at the beach. We miss his love, smile and hugs.

— Dana and Linda O’Brien, grandparents

     
Sgt. Nicholas Anthony Pansini died in 2010. (Angel Pansini)

Sgt. Nicholas Anthony Pansini

Marines

My brother, Sgt. Nicholas Pansini, gave the most excellent, spine-cracking hugs. They lingered as they released and endured when he had to leave. One hug, however, stands out as not so warming.

When I was shopping at an outdoor mall with my mom and sister shortly after Nick was honorably discharged from the Marines, Nick ran out of a restaurant he was at to hug me from behind. We did not know Nick was also at the mall, so I reacted in terror by digging my tiny nails into his hand. My mom was startled, then laughed. I was uneasy until I turned to see the face of who held me, then I relaxed, feeling relieved that it was my brother. Those dime-size nail marks will remain his most friendly scars, and that hug will remain the most shocking and comforting one I have received.

— Angel Pansini, sibling

     
Sgt. 1st Class Omar Forde and Megan Forde. (Megan Forde)

Sgt. 1st Class Omar Forde

Army

Omar was funny, charismatic and charming, but romance wasn’t something he did often. We eloped in Las Vegas in 2006, so we didn’t have a first dance. It wasn’t something that bothered me, but I would’ve liked to have had that memory with him.

One night in Fort Irwin, Calif., a few months after we got married, Omar made me get up, turned on “When You Say Nothing at All” by Alison Krauss and danced with me in our bedroom. He held me tight and told me this was the first dance we never had. It was a small romantic gesture that still keeps my heart warm when I think about it, even now almost five years after his death and over 12 years after that dance.

He was killed in action in December 2013.

— Megan Forde, spouse

     
Spec. Andrew M. Nourse with his family. (Caitlin Nourse)

Spec. Andrew M. Nourse

Army

The Fourth of July was always the best time of the year, from grilling with the whole family to the small-town-Wisconsin fireworks. The classic Old Navy or Faded Glory shirts were religiously worn each year by the whole family. Multiple years in a row in Tomahawk, Wis., firefighters would spray the streets to cool everyone down after the parade.

Being a teenager, I did not want to splash around in the water like the younger kids. That’s when Dad picked me up like a sack of potatoes and ran to the middle of the street and spun me around until we were both on the verge of puking. That was the last year I had with my other half by my side, and I would do anything to play like a child in the street with my daddy again.

He died by suicide in 2014 after deployments to the Persian Gulf and Bosnia.

— Caitlin Nourse, daughter

     
Capt. David S. Wilson with his daughters. He died in 2014. (Sara Wilson)

Capt. David S. Wilson (Ret.)

Navy

Dave had tears in his eyes when he told me, “I wish I knew how it was all going to turn out.” He was wistful, talking about our little girls. We had our daughters late, well into my 30s for me and into his 40s for him. He knew the odds were good he would miss out on some things. He probably wasn’t counting on missing out on so much, though. When he died suddenly and unexpectedly on that cold February morning, our daughters were 2 and 6.

Many years before, his grandfather, a two-star admiral in the Navy who in 1916 initiated what would turn into 102 unbroken years of family service to the U.S. Navy, lamented the same thing to Dave just before he died in the 1980s.

I, too, wonder how it will all turn out.

— Sara Procacci Wilson, spouse

     
Maj. Rick “Tracer” Schafer. (Ashley Schafer)

Maj. Rick “Tracer” Schafer

Air Force

Rick was always outgoing and upbeat, welcoming and service-oriented, but also a laid-back, even-keeled kind of guy and devoted to his wife and two daughters. He flew supersonic missions and broke the sound barrier many times, and he would go home to say that it was just another day at the office and that it was no big deal. Being surrounded by girls in the house, he got used to pink sparkles and became a master at putting their long hair into ponytails, but he also created a passion in his girls for football, airplanes and knowing their way around a toolbox. He is so very missed every single day. His “ladies” (as he would call them) are his Living Legacy.

He was killed in a terrible accident in the line of duty on Aug. 31, 2014.

— Ashley Schafer, spouse

     
Cpl. Christopher Carter. (Beth Zimmer Carter)

Cpl. Christopher Carter

Army

High winds chased all the other boats off the small lake when Chris, my husband and I decided to test our new racing catamaran sailboat just before Chris left for the Army. We were zooming when the boat cartwheeled, sending us flying. Wearing life jackets, we quickly righted the boat, which immediately took off without us. Chris was the first to catch the boat as a 20-pound carp jumped on board. It was hilarious watching Chris try to wrestle the slimy, smelly fish. Back under sail, we noticed the multiple emergency vehicles and a firemen rescue boat chasing us clad in full gear. Quite the entertainment for the large crowd gathered on shore. I will always smile at the memory of our first and last family sailboat-racing day.

Army Ranger Cpl. Christopher James Carter, 22, died by suicide in 2015 on active duty after serving four deployments to Afghanistan and losing a close buddy in combat.

— Beth Zimmer Carter, mother

     
Lt. Daniel Wade and his family. (Yasin Wade)

Lt. Daniel Wade

Navy

When we dropped him off, the ship was busier than usual. Our boys were always comfortable on a warship, and they proceeded to climb all over Daddy’s bunk. Their stress showed as they became increasingly hyper. Daniel and I stood together, arm in arm, watching our favorite little people. Soon we went to the brow for long hugs and kisses goodbye. On that cold and windy day, we stood on the pier searching for Daniel. When we found him on the bridge, we waved and yelled for him as the ship grew smaller in the distance. Although we knew we had videos and voice mails to look forward to, it was a tough day; two of our boys were wired while the other was somber. Our reunions had been better than birthdays and Christmas combined; sadly, the last reunion wasn’t to be. Instead, Daniel received dignified transfer home.

Daniel died while on deployment in the Mediterranean aboard the USS Jason Dunham in 2015 at the age of 37.

— Yasin Wade, spouse

     
Lt. Col. William A. Schroeder. (Abby Schroeder)

Lt. Col. William A. Schroeder

Air Force

During the 10 years we were married, I became accustomed to my Air Force husband missing birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions. My children and I always found our “military family” wherever we moved and were grateful to spend special days together. My husband was scheduled to be TDY [temporary duty] for two weeks over our 10th wedding anniversary, but at the last minute his travel was canceled. Opportunities like this didn’t happen often, so we quickly booked our dream trip: a week of scuba diving in Bonaire on the actual date of our anniversary.

My husband was my absolute best friend in this world, and we were so happily married. The week away without our boys provided us with that incredibly important alone time to just focus on each other. My husband was killed [in 2016] shortly after that trip, and I will always be grateful that we made a big deal of celebrating the milestone of our 10th anniversary.

— Abby Schroeder, spouse

     
Petty Officer 1st Class Brandon Slatton. He died in 2017. (Jenny Slatton)

Petty Officer 1st Class Brandon Slatton

Navy

My favorite memory of Brandon is our first date. We met online and had our first date on his 26th birthday. He joked that he’d never forget our anniversary. For our date, we went to a Cubs/Cardinals game at Wrigley Field. We were both Cardinals fans, so it was perfect. I remember him getting mad that I bought him a birthday beer because it isn’t right for a woman to pay on a first date. That’s when I knew he was a keeper. And the Cardinals won that game!

— Jenny Slatton, spouse

This project was produced with support from the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit organization that assists those grieving the loss of a loved one who died while serving in our Armed Forces or as a result of his or her service (www.TAPS.org or 800-959-8277). Stories compiled by Tiffany Harness.

Credits: Story by Washington Post Staff. Designed by Dwuan June. Photo Editing by Olivier Laurent.