By Kari Hawkins, USAG Redstone November 6, 2013
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- The tears fall gently down Kelli Skalberg's cheeks.
They cloud this mom's normally sunny disposition, coming unannounced with the memories of her son, Sgt. James "Jamie" Lyn Skalberg Jr.
Skalberg's son was killed in Afghanistan just 17 short months ago. Since then, she and her
husband, James, have clung to those memories while slowly emerging from their personal pain as new members of the military's Gold Star community, a community of families who have lost a loved one during war.
Throughout the nation, Gold Star families are surrounded by communities of supporters -- often led by the Army Community Service's Survivor Outreach Services -- who want to express the nation's gratitude for their sacrifice. At Redstone Arsenal, Skalberg recently attended an SOS-sponsored Gold Star parent luncheon and on Nov. 11 she will represent her family at a Veterans Day breakfast that will honor Gold Star families. She may even participate in the Veterans Day Parade, which will include a parade float for Gold Star families.
But, for Skalberg, there's a catch to being part of such events. She understands the need of communities to provide comfort, encouragement and appreciation to the families of the nation's fallen service members. Yet, she doesn't feel she deserves the recognition that comes with her son's sacrifice.
"Jamie Lyn is our family's hero. He put his life on the line every day defending our freedom and for that I am so thankful," she said during an afternoon interview at the family's home in Good Hope.
"But I still feel guilty and uncomfortable for being a part of all this. I am so extremely proud of Jamie Lyn but I feel so guilty that it's me being a part of luncheons and parades. I realize that I am there to represent him and I will be until my dying day, but it should be him there seeing how grateful the people are for all of his sacrifices, not me. I was fortunate enough to see my son grow into a husband, father, Soldier, but he will never have the same honor. I guess that's where my guilt comes from. It should be him reaping the benefits of his sacrifices, not me."
Skalberg's son was 25 when he was killed June 27, 2012, only a week shy of returning from Afghanistan. He and another Soldier were killed when enemy forces attacked their vehicle with an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan's Maidan Shahr, Warrdak province. Jamie Lyn was assigned to the 4th Battalion, 1st Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, Fort Bliss, Texas. He was buried in Emerson, Iowa.
Skalberg, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, had just arrived in Iowa to visit family when a knock on the door brought the news that Jamie Lyn had been killed.
"It really was kind of a freak thing. I had gotten there 15 minutes earlier and then my daughter-in-law was there and the Soldiers told us the news," she recalled.
"My husband had been in the Army during the Gulf War, so you learn to prepare yourself for the possibility. When they told us, I had a strange feeling, almost a feeling of peace. I know he died doing what he wanted to do. There are times when I sit down and just cry. But I also know the Army was the best thing for him."
On the day of the funeral, Freedom Riders lined the roads between Red Oak, Iowa, where the funeral was held, and the cemetery in Emerson with flags. People waving flags and holding signs of sympathy were everywhere. At home in Good Hope, neighbors took care of the Skalberg home while they were in Iowa and took up a collection to offset the family's expenses. There was also a memorial service at Fort Bliss.
Jamie Lyn was born at Fort Hood, Texas, where his father was a tanker serving in the Army. As a boy, he lived in Germany, then Iowa and then Alabama, where the family settled after his dad left the Army to be an over-the-road truck driver. Wherever they lived, Jamie Lyn always found a way to play his favorite boyhood games and have a good time.
"There was always a toy sword or a toy gun and, if there wasn't, there were sticks. He loved anything that involved weapons, attacking something, fighting the bad guys," Skalberg said.
Although he grew up in the Good Hope area just southwest of Cullman, Jamie Lyn spent his last two years of high school with his extended family in Emerson, Iowa. He was popular among his school mates, being voted to both the homecoming and prom courts during his senior year. He played forward on his school's basketball team and wide receiver on its football team.
"He was such an awesome person. Everyone loved him. He just had one of those personalities. He had such a fantastic sense of humor. We could sit and talk, and he and his sister Spring would have me laughing so hard I couldn't catch my breath and was crying a river," Skalberg recalled.
"I'm not saying he was perfect, he had his faults just like anybody else. But I was proud to call him my son. My husband and I are so proud of the man he became."
In the Skalberg household, Jamie Lyn could be head strong and he had a rebellious streak. Teen issues at home caused him to move from Alabama back to Iowa, where he lived with his grandmother.
"Even though there were some problems, it doesn't mean I didn't love him any less. He always will be my son," Skalberg said.
After a few years of college, Jamie Lyn returned to Alabama, where he worked with a Cullman recruiter to join the Army in February 2007. During his five years of service, he deployed to Iraq in 2008-09, and married later in 2009 when he returned and then had a son in 2011. Through it all, he remained connected to his mom, no matter how far from home he traveled.
"Jamie Lyn, whether stateside or deployed, used to call me in the middle of the night. That was our time. Neither of us slept much and he always knew I'd be awake. I miss those calls and hearing, 'Hey, Momma' on the other end," Skalberg said.
"I was privileged to have been there at the birth of his baby boy, Carter James. I don't think I've ever seen a man so proud. He just couldn't keep his hands off of that baby. I don't think he ever put him down."
Skalberg does little things to remember her son. On his birthday in December, she made his favorite food -- fried bologna biscuits. There are pictures in their home that recall happy times with Jamie Lyn.
"Most people would tell you at this time, after we've lost our son, that it was the worst thing to join the Army during war," Skalberg said. "But I still stand by my belief that it was the best thing for him. He needed the structure. It made him into the man he was going to be and that we all were so proud of.
"His dad and I find comfort in knowing he was doing what he loved and that he was just about ready to re-enlist. He loved fighting for our country and being a Soldier."