‘I die with honor’: Mother picking up the pieces after son killed in action
The Top Story by Chris Graham
Her son was due home from the front lines of Iraq next week.
Could you believe it?
It might as well have been five minutes from now, she had been anticipating the moment so.
She could already see him walking up to the door.
“He would have said, ‘Howdy.’ With a cowboy hat on,” said Rhonda Winfield, speaking of her son, Jason Redifer, 19, who had shoved off for the war last July 4, a date whose irony wasn’t lost on anybody.
Jason was “a walking contradiction in terms,” his mother said, forcing a smile as she reminisced in the living room of her Stuarts Draft home about the good times.
“He never would have had an inkling of the power of the positive force that he emitted and that he gave to everybody. He would have told you he was just one of the guys. ‘I’m not the smartest,’ although he was so sharp. ‘You can dress me up every now and then, but … but I’m still just a cowboy.’ He refused to say ‘pretty.’ It was always ‘pur-r-r-rty.’ Sometimes I felt like we ought to black out a couple of his teeth and put a hillbilly hat on him, and he would have done just fine,” Winfield said.
Winfield was awakened early on Monday morning to hear his voice on the other end of the phone line.
“He slipped away and was making a phone call when he shouldn’t have been. Just because he needed to let me know that the elections had gone well, and he was well. And that he was leaving for his final mission,” she said.
“He would be coming home in nine days. This mission would only last three days, which was much shorter than the majority of ones that he had gone on.”
As he spoke, mom picked up on something going on beneath the small talk.
“He had a very guarded tone,” Winfield said. “He said all the things that he always said. He tried to have the same sense of humor. He tried to give me the words of encouragement that I wanted to hear. But he also, I could tell by his tone, knew that this was not a feeling that, ‘I’m in the home stretch.’ This was going to be increasingly dangerous.
“He was making sure that he had all his bases covered with everybody,” Winfield said. “He e-mailed friends, and called friends, and said things that he thought everybody needed to know. But if you knew Jason, he made sure that you knew those things all the time. So it wasn’t like he said anything shocking.
“We chatted a little bit. He told me he could not wait to get off that bus coming home and get his boys (his little brothers, Courtland, 8, and Carter, 6) in his arms. And he was just looking forward to getting this behind him, and looking forward to being able to call me and tell me that this part was done.”
Two hours later, Jason was dead.
“He would have been furious with me for allowing any sort of pomp and circumstance,” said Winfield, who has busied herself making plans for Jason’s funeral and consoling friends and family members who are themselves having a hard time believing that the light of their lives is gone forever.
And that’s not overstating what Jason Redifer was to everyone who knew him – as unassuming as he was.
“If you would have heard what other people had said about him, and looked at a lineup of 10 people, he would have been the very last person that you would have pegged to have been the owner of that personality,” Winfield said. “He never met anybody that was uncomfortable. He never met anybody that he would have judged or wouldn’t have liked. If he could find one glimmer of redeeming light in you, he would have defended you to the end.”
Jason was the world’s defender long before he signed up for the United States Marine Corps, to hear his mother tell it.
“I cannot tell you how many times he would come home and would have been in a confrontation with somebody. And that was so unlike him. He wouldn’t ever want to be negative to anybody,” Winfield said.
“I would say, ‘What on Earth happened?’ ‘Well, I was just walking through the Wal-Mart, and the next thing, I heard this ruckus over in produce.’ And then he would go on, and somebody would have done something unjust to somebody else, and he didn’t have a phone booth, so he just jumped into his cowboy boots instead of his Superman cape, and he made it his responsibility to save the day,” she said.
“Sometimes it panned out, sometimes not, but it never slowed him down from keeping on.”
The reluctant rifleman
That he ended up being the sniper for his Marine Corps unit is an accident of life – one of those things that will never be explained.
“It was the most bizarre thing about that. His older brother (Justin, an Army reserve) has always been the sportsman. He’s always been the rifleman, enjoyed hunting. Jason went one time. He shot a squirrel, and couldn’t wait to rub it in his brother’s face. He got it on the first shot, first shot. But then the gravity of having taken the life of something overwhelmed him. And he was so upset by it when he came home. And while he liked to target shoot, he said, ‘I will never take a life again.’ So it was a very strange turn of events that this was his occupation,” his mother said.
“He was just so skilled with the rifle, and he just said, ‘As it turns out, who would have thought, but I’m very good at my job. And if that’s where my talent lies, and that’s where my contribution has to be to make a difference, then that’s what I’ll do. And as long as I can look into the eyes and see some hope in some children here, then that’s going to wipe out the look in the eyes that I see at the end of the scope.’
“That’s what he had to cling to.”
Winfield got home from work a little after four Monday afternoon to find an unmarked van with government tags parked in the driveway.
“And your first thought is, ‘Gosh. There’s no way,’ ” she said.
“Part of me thought quickly, ‘Well, we’re dairy farmers. It could be someone checking water quality.’ I picked up my cellphone to dial his number to get some affirmation that he was OK.
“As I was dialing the number, Scott (her husband) and two Marines in full dress blues came around the corner. And you know when you’re a Marine mom that when they come to your door, it’s not to tell you, ‘Hey, the mission went well, and your son is going to come home in nine days.’
“The shock, that first moment of denial, you think that you can backpedal a few steps, not get out of the car, or you can make it go away,” Winfield said.
“I got out of the car, and they had the we’ve-come-to-tell-you-about-a-death look on their face. And so I took the I’m-going-to-yell-at-them-and-tell-them-they-cannot-tell-me-any-sort-of-bad-news-about-my-son-and-scare-the-Marines-away approach.
“They were Marines. It didn’t work.”
The soldiers were patient, Winfield said, “while I came unglued.”
“Somehow, you change channels in the midst of all of it, and you realize that you have to hear them say the words, you’ve got to hear every single detail that they can give you. Because you’re going to need it later. And then you’ve got to figure out where you go, and what you need to do.
“And if you let yourself fall down then, I don’t know that you can get back up.”
Jason had often warned his mother not to watch the evening news – not because of what she would see, she said, but because of what she could not see.
” ‘Because you know what you don’t get to see?’ He told me this once, and it put it all in perspective,” Winfield said. ” ‘You don’t get to see the woman who lives in a house with 15 other people that has nothing, and as you walk in in the middle of the night, and they see nothing but you and your full battle gear, and your rifles, and rather than revealing that you’re there, or that they’re angry, it may be one house in a thousand, but that one time that people look at you like you’re the cavalry coming in to give them promise, and that one person who will want you to sit down and have tea with them, and give you what little they have, you can’t see that, and you can’t know what that feels like.’ ”
“After the initial shock, after hearing it out loud, I took a breath. And then you go to the business end of things that you’ve done in your mind since your child left for boot camp,” Winfield said.
Before Jason had left for Iraq last summer, he had laid out plans for what the family should do in the event that something happened to him in the Middle East.
“I knew what he expected to be done in honor of the situation. I knew what he would want me to do,” Winfield said. “I also knew what he looked like in those dress blues. And I could envision what he would look like if he came home in a casket.”
Against Jason’s wishes, she found herself watching the television news regularly.
“And every time you ever heard of a horror on the news, involving a soldier, you have that thought in your mind, and that movie in your mind telling you what to do when something happens starts to play,” Winfield said. “And then, of course, when you hear something, and you realize you’re OK, everything’s OK, it’s ‘OK, rewind.’ ”
The movie telling her what to do when something happens is playing full time in her head now.
“That first night, trying to make yourself realize that you’re living the movie now, that it’s not a replay, that was hard. You can’t rewind now. You can’t rewind,” Winfield said.
“I know that as difficult as that first night was and that all of this has been, it’s when all the people go home, and you’re left with just your thoughts, and your realization of ‘here we are,’ this at least I’ve practiced. The hard part starts after he’s been laid to rest, and I have to figure out how to live life without Jason,” Winfield said.
“People can tell you what to expect in this process, what you should do in this process, how grand a burial at Arlington will be. They can say all those things, and help you fill in the gaps, and help you steer yourself through whatever is coming,” Winfield said.
“But there’s not another person in this world who has ever been Jason’s mother, or has lost him, or has any kind of clue how I am going to live without him. That’s when the hard part comes. This part, we just do.”
‘I die with honor’
“You couldn’t feel anything else. You couldn’t feel anything other than so proud,” Winfield said, her eyes glistening.
“They had heard me boast about God and country since they hit the ground running. Who could I be to stand up and say it, if I thought, gee, it was OK for everybody else to send their child, and not let yours go? So … I know he’s pretty ticked off at this minute because he didn’t get to get home and square things with his brothers. But aside from that, he’s feeling he wrapped things up in a pretty good way,” she said.
As for mom …
“I’ve never claimed to understand many of the things that Jason has gotten notions to do. Nor have I supported many of the things that he had gotten the notion to do. But he was so proud of this. And he felt like he was laying down a legacy for his brothers that would be something that he could be proud of,” Winfield said.
He said, ‘We lose people every single day. Statistically speaking,’ and if I heard that one more time, I’d have throttled him myself, ‘if I don’t come home, I die with honor doing something they can be proud of, and not everybody can say that.’ ”