WASHINGTON -- As the community relations officer at Fort Irwin, California, Renita Wickes was teleworking in her home in late July when her phone rang. The National Training Center had just returned to adjusted operations after the COVID-19 pandemic paused training for nearly three months.
Wickes, a former Soldier with close to 25 years of Army civilian experience, was used to receiving all types of requests in support of the Army, NTC, or Fort Irwin mission, she said.
Nevertheless, this call was different once she realized that the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, Western Region, was on the other line. OCPA-West serves as the Army's liaison to the entertainment industry.
"They requested support for a movie called 'A Journal for Jordan' on Fort Irwin," she said.
Wickes froze as a wave of emotions fell upon her.
The movie's script came from Dana Canedy's memoir about her late fiance, 1st Sgt. Charles Monroe King. The title refers to an unfinished 200-page, block-letter style journal King wrote to his infant son, Jordan, before he died in Iraq on Oct. 14, 2006.
Wickes and King became close friends during the years he worked as an NTC observer, trainer and controller, before being assigned to 1st Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2004.
"Charles was absolutely one of my best friends in the world," said Wickes, who shared the same information with OCPA-West. "It was unbelievable, just hearing that we were going to get to work on this amazing project."
The movie is directed by Denzel Washington and features Michael B. Jordan and Chante Adams as King and Canedy, respectively.
"Charles was a 'Soldier's Soldier,'" Wickes added. "He loved the uniform and the military. You could see him in each of the Army's values -- that was just the type of person he was."
King attended the Art Institute of Chicago and spent several years working as an illustrator in Alabama before joining the Army in 1987. He was always remembered as a soft-spoken, shy and compassionate individual, often choosing to help others before acting on his own self interests.
He married shortly after joining the Army and became a father after his daughter, Christina, was born. King did all he could to be a good father despite his struggling marriage, according to Canedy's book. He and his wife later divorced, which was one of the most painful moments in his life.
Canedy and King eventually crossed paths at her old home in Radcliff, close to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he was stationed. King had dropped by to deliver a pointillism art piece to her father, which she described as a collage of black-and-white images created with thousands of tiny inked dots.
Canedy chose the word "gorgeous" to describe King during their first encounter, the book said, although, she was apprehensive to date a military man due to her upbringing as an Army dependent and uneasy relationship with her father, a former drill sergeant.
King was nothing like the alpha men she had previously met, she wrote. Charles was different in all the right ways as the couple grew close and their career aspirations took priority, keeping them geographically separated.
Career-driven, Canedy blossomed as an award-winning journalist for the New York Times, while King pushed hard in his career to retire as a sergeant major. Their relationship grew through daily phone calls, letters, and email conversations. King did his best to reserve breaks in training, long weekends, or blocks of leave, to fly and see the woman he loved.
For eight years, their love thrived with some bumps along the way. King dedicated all he could to support his Soldiers and local community, which created some friction between the loving couple.
"He always labeled his Soldiers as 'his kids,'" Wickes said. "He took care of people and lived by the golden rule."
Shortly after the twin towers fell, King was reassigned to the NTC operations group’s "Cobra Team."
Under the call sign Cobra 07T, King ran units through drills at mock operating bases and Iraqi villages to certify their tactics, techniques and procedures before being deployed overseas, Wickes said.
King was the epitome of a tank noncommissioned officer and considered an undisputed master of the Cobra tactical analysis feedback facility, retired Lt. Col. R.J. Bashista shared on King's obituary webpage, adding the team was amongst the best due to his commitment and oversight.
As a member of the operations group’s video department, Wickes often provided video clips of the training area to Cobra team leaders.
"I was trying to figure out something to get my brother for his birthday when Charles said, 'I'm an artist if you want me to draw something for him,'" she said. "We were best friends ever since."
Wickes recalled the passion King had for the Sgt. Audie Murphy Club. As an active member, he often dedicated his free time to help the local community. The first sergeant even offered up his artistic skills to paint the club's crest on a wall in what is now the NTC headquarters.
To this day, the illustration reminds Wickes of his steadfast commitment to helping others.
"He pushed the Audie Murphy club to be actively involved and to stick to the group's bylaws to represent what Sgt. Audie Murphy stood for," she said.
Wickes also recalled all the fun excursions she went on with King and his daughter, as she visited during summer vacations. The two families became close as they explored parts of California and other nearby states.
"A memory I have is when Charles volunteered to do something with his daughter at a local veterans' home. It was one of the first times Christina got to see her dad in action while he was in his dress uniform," Wickes said. "You could see the pride she had for him, and the happiness Charles had to share that moment with her."
Upon his arrival to Fort Hood, King received orders to Iraq, where he would serve as the first sergeant in charge of over 100 Soldiers. Around the same time, Canedy divulged her desire to start a family with him, as the couple started to discuss marriage.
The two ultimately set a wedding date for June 9, 2007, the day between their birthdays.
Weeks before King's deployment, Canedy presented her fiance with a gift -- a journal for fathers with questions on each page. The present started as a simple means to write down a few thoughts and later turned into a fervent scramble while he tried to finish most of it before he departed.
King consumed himself in his writings and poured his heart into each page as he deployed to Iraq. He told Jordan that it was OK for men to cry, and shared his favorite Bible verses while emphasizing the power of prayer. King also expressed his love for Canedy and his expectations of how Jordan should treat a woman.
The first sergeant voiced his admiration and devotion to duty, honor, and selfless service. Above all, King wanted to be the best example he could of a strong black man -- spiritually, mentally and physically, he wrote in his journal.
As he expressed his deepest feelings on paper, he also tried to shroud the war's tumultuous nature during his sparse communications with his fiance.
The dedication he had to his Soldiers became apparent as he begrudgingly told Canedy that he could not take leave to come home for Jordan's birth. As the first sergeant, he couldn't forgive himself if one of his Soldiers got injured or killed during his absence, the book said.
King was a member of Charlie Company, one of the best companies in the battalion due to the strong leadership of King and then-Capt. Stefan McFarland, said Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Donahoe, commander of the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning, Georgia.
"First Sgt. King was a leader who led by example," said Donahoe, his former battalion commander. "He wasn't going ask anybody to do anything he wasn't willing to do himself. That is the kind of Soldier the Army looks for in both noncommissioned and commissioned senior leaders."
Nicknamed the "Carnivores," Charlie Company was one of two tank companies within the battalion operating in the highly contentious area of Jurf As Sakhir near Baghdad, Donahoe explained. Time and time again, the company proved its ability to maneuver through the complex and restrictive terrain to take the fight to the enemy.
"Charlie Company and 1st Sgt. King were in the fight, every day," he said. "There was a little panache with the company," corresponding with their unofficial motto -- "'Stay alive and kill [stuff].' They were combat-hardened and the most lethal company we had."
King was in Iraq for close to eight months before returning home during his mid-deployment leave. Outside the many pictures Canedy mailed, this was the first time he would see his infant son.
Over the two weeks, King spent most of his time gazing at his son while he held him and danced around the living room. He would jump up out of bed during the evenings to change his diaper and watched over him as he slept.
All the while, King did his best to suppress his inner feelings of anxiety -- the mental scars he carried with him from his time overseas, the book said.
During his last hours back home, the first sergeant donned his uniform before carrying Jordan to his crib. King kissed him softly as his son looked up at him and smile at his father for one last time.
He then stood in the doorway and embraced the love of his life as he spoke of their plans for marriage. And with one remaining kiss, King stepped away for what would be his final trip to Iraq.
One month before his scheduled return home, Staff Sgt. Joseph M. Kane, Cpl. Timothy J. Lauer and the first sergeant were all killed after an improvised explosive device detonated under their Humvee while on a convoy outside of Baghdad.
When Canedy received word of her fiance's death, she was shattered with grief. Pain, anger and denial overcame her as she returned to what she knows best, the book said. It was never her intention to write a best-selling novel about the man she fell deeply in love with, or share the journal he composed for their son.
Sharing their story
News about the movie spread quickly around Fort Irwin, especially after the lead actors and film production crew arrived in late December. As the on-post liaison, Wickes joined the director and staff as they scouted out filming locations.
The desert-like terrain, mock villages, and forward operating bases throughout NTC made it a prime location to reenact Charlie Company's actions during the war. Washington finally selected an area around one of the largest mock operating bases in the area, known as FOB King.
"I was there when they dedicated the FOB in Charles' name," Wickes said. "It just made everything so surreal."
According to Wickes, many Soldiers canceled their holiday block leave to take part in the production process. She stood by to provide support during filming, but she couldn't bring herself to watch the final Humvee attack.
"I waited on the other side of a van, but I could still hear everything as everyone went through their lines. It was torture," she said. "I was definitely going through an emotional roller coaster of sadness and excitement knowing that Charles and Dana's story will be told on the big screen."
Wickes recalled the day she found out about King's death. She was at work in the operations group building when her supervisor pulled her aside to share the tragic news.
"He wanted to warn me before news of his death made the papers. That is when he said, 'Cobra 07T -- 1st Sgt. King -- was killed,'" Wickes said. "He was part of our family, which made it hard to accept. I never thought that I would hear someone's name that I knew."
“[A] Journal for Jordan” serves as a solemn reminder of the human cost of war from a family's perspective,” Donahoe said.
"As a combat leader associated with what happened in Iraq, the book was an incredible window into the other side of warfare we don't often witness," he said.
"To be able to understand the loss and impact that Dana experienced, and how she viewed the impact on Jordan as he would grow up, was truly insightful. It was helpful for me to have a better understanding of the totality of losing a Soldier in combat."
King was a brave and well-trained Soldier -- a true professional -- who was willing to lead from the front, Donahoe added.
Washington voiced his respect for the military, as he recalled a visit to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, around 2003. In an interview last year, he said he was honored to direct a movie that paid respect to the sacrifice of all service members and their families.
“[Canedy] suffered a tremendous loss,” Washington said. “She loved this man, deeply, [and] understood the need to share this story.”
The first sergeant also presented himself as an incredible artist, loving fiance, and compassionate father, willing to share the lessons he learned in life with his family, Wickes said.
"Hopefully, this movie will remind the American people of all the Gold Star families out there in the world," she added. "There are a lot of children like Jordan [and Christina]. Kids who don't get to know who their parent is, because they paid the ultimate sacrifice."