Drew Pope, 24

Navy Ensign Jerry “Buck” Pope II, 35

Died Oct. 17, 2002

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An e-mail arrived in Drew Pope’s inbox one morning last fall that he was afraid to open.

“YOUR MIDTERM GRADES HAVE BEEN POSTED,” read the subject line.

Never had a message like this brought good news. Never had he made much progress in previous attempts at school, at adulthood, at getting past the pain of burying his father and the years of depression that followed.

Drew was making another run at a degree. At 24, he was barely a freshman at Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire, Wis. Anything would be better than the F’s and incompletes that ended his first try at college. Anything was progress over the bleakness that marked middle and high school.

Walking had been his only solace back then, logging miles to nowhere, insulated from the deadness by the metal bands screaming into his headphones. “When I walked, I could think,” Drew said. “I was alone, but I wasn’t.”

The despair would return at home, or in class — anywhere he was supposed to connect with others, but couldn’t. He needed “angry music.” That’s what spoke to the sadness that had slowly overwhelmed him since Oct. 17, 2002. He was 11 on the day he got home from school and his mother told him his dad, Ensign Jerry “Buck” Pope II, had been killed. That night, through some Internet quirk, he got an e-mail from his father. “I’m proud of you,” it said.

“I was in a pretty dark place.”

Pope, a 15-year Navy SEAL, had always been away a lot. Drew got used to the homecomings — once his dad had returned with a mustache that made him look completely different —and to the constant moves: Virginia, Texas, North Carolina, California, Virginia again. But Pope was still a “supersized influence” on his oldest son. They studied martial arts together. As Pope trained for marathons, Drew rode his mountain bike alongside.

Besides, the deployments were supposed to be over. His father, a physician assistant, had landed a stable posting at Quantico in Northern Virginia. Pope could make it home to dinner with Drew and his mother, Andrea, and the younger kids, Jack, now 13, and Leah, now 20. Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Within months, his dad was heading overseas. By the fall of 2002, he had been killed in a truck crash in Yemen.

Drew didn’t think losing his dad explained everything about the deep pit he had slowly tumbled into. He is an anxious person by nature, he said. But he wouldn’t have fallen as far if his dad had been alive to “explain things.”

They moved to Minnesota to be near his mom’s family, and he began seventh grade as a stranger. He started talking back to his mother. He stopped trying in class. Sadness became depression. At the very worst of it, he found relief in cutting himself.

“I was in a pretty dark place,” he said.

Left: Drew Pope, right, with his dad, Jerry “Buck” Pope, and siblings Leah, left, and Jack. Right: Drew with his dad. (Family photos)

To break bad patterns, his mom sent Drew to a Utah boarding school to finish high school. He started college at 17 and quickly foundered. It looked to those who loved him that he was lost for years, working at telemarketing jobs and Wal-Mart and spending hours on the computer.

But Drew said he has been learning, mostly about himself: “I was trying to figure out what was depression and what was Drew.”

Things got brighter. He learned to be comfortable being an introvert, which has put him more at ease with family and friends. He’s patient and likes problem solving, and he can imagine a career in network management. With encouragement from his mother and advice from the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, he sorted out his survivor benefits and re-enrolled.

He cooked part time at a Pizza Hut when he wasn’t in class. He felt like he was doing fine. He hoped so. He opened the e-mail from school.

Network Diagraming: A. Network Infrastructure: A. Network Concepts: A. Cisco Certification: A. Ethics: A. Twelve credits in all, a 4.0 grade-point average.

For the first time in years, Drew Pope was connecting.

Faces of the Fallen

Find out more about the service members who have died in Afghanistan since 2001.