By Danielle OzbatMarch 12, 2014
PRINCE GEORGE COUNTY, Va. (March 13, 2014) -- Elijah Ozbat is used to hearing that he is his older brother Jesse's twin despite their 16-year age difference. The comparison stems from their shared affinity for video games, knack for mathematics, love of animals and other similarities. Aside from that, though, the 13-year-old views his older brother as a role model … someone to emulate in his future endeavors.
Unfortunately, Jesse's influence on Elijah's life is now relegated to memory. He was killed almost two years ago by a suicide bomber in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. For Elijah, the youngest member of the Ozbat family, the news of the Army captain's violent death was both painful and life-changing.
"It just took a big tear at my heart," he said. "I felt like there was this big piece inside of me, and it was him; and when I found out he died, that left me. It was like this (loss of) happiness, this joy that I don't really feel anymore because he's not here on earth with us."
Elijah was 12 years old when his father broke the tragic news to him in May 2012 that Jesse, 28, was dead. He said the impact of what that meant sank in immediately, and he initially felt anger toward the people who took his brother's life.
"I was really sad," Elijah recalled. "We were up most of the night, but I didn't really cry too much after that … (aside from) the viewing before the funeral, but I mean that's it. I've never really shown those sad emotions, but I don't feel like I'm holding them in either."
Recalling the reason why Jesse joined the Army in the first place, Aaron Ozbat repeated his son's words, "I wear the uniform so my brother doesn't have to." That level of dedication and sense of sacrifice is a source of pride for Elijah, and he said it has given him a greater appreciation of the military services.
"Life is definitely a privilege because it's so easy to take away," Elijah said. "So, I definitely appreciate the willingness and sacrifice that people in the military make so that we can be free in this country."
Even though Aaron, 51, was in the military for two decades, Elijah did not grow up as an Army brat because his father retired when he was 4 years old. However, his brother and sister, Marisa, 27, experienced the hustle and bustle of military life, which led to them being very close as they grew up. When Jesse died, that bond was transferred to Elijah, and now he feels like he has an equally close relationship with his sister despite their 14-year age gap.
"(Marisa) and Jesse are a lot older than me, so I feel like this is something we can relate to (with each other)," he said. "We're going through this together (and) we can just hold each other up and be stronger and understand each other."
With the death of his brother came inclusion in the military's Gold Star program, which is an organization for those who have lost a family member in combat or while serving honorably on active duty. Being a part of this group has given Elijah and his family comfort and support -- especially his mother, Cynthia, 49, who he said is still having a hard time accepting his brother's death.
"I know she's still having a really tough time with it because she gave birth to him, nurtured him, so it's obviously gonna be very tough for her," Elijah said. "She's still really sad about it but … I feel like she'll eventually get to a point where she can accept it and move (forward)."
In the meantime, events such as Fort Lee's Run for the Fallen and last year's butterfly release at the Army Community Service's Memorial Garden have helped Elijah to cope with Jesse's death, and he said it has given him strength through the grieving process.
"I think it's great … like with (Run for the Fallen), all these people were willing to run at least one mile to show support for people who are serving in the Army, and it's just really great to see that," he said. "(And at) the butterfly release, it was nice to see people showing their thoughtfulness and their honor for those who served in the military and who've given their life for the sake of freedom."
Despite the emptiness he feels in his heart, Elijah said this experience has taught him that he can get through anything and to never take things for granted. Losing his brother has not deterred him from doing well in school or following his dreams.
"My number one goal is to be a marine animal trainer, and I just ultimately want to get good grades and study hard for it so I can be prepared for the future," he said. "(Jesse's death was) a big obstacle, but I don't think it should completely stop me from what I'm trying to achieve. I feel like I've done a good job of that, and I'm still trying to follow my passions."
Though Elijah -- who has Jesse's two basset hounds living with him -- misses his brother, he said he is at the acceptance stage of grief.
"When he died, I really wanted him back so that we could have more good times together," Elijah said. "But there's nothing I can do to change it, so eventually, we just have to come to a point where we accept that he's gone and continue in life.
"You don't forget about him, you still remember him, but you just accept that he's gone and you feel better about it. I feel like that's where I am right now."