By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneFebruary 28, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- There are times when Julie Nethery can't face the truth.
There are times when this mom of three has convinced herself that her youngest son is still coming home from his deployment.
And there are times, now more than four years later, when Nethery can't get out of bed because the memory of her loss is just too painful to cope with.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Nethery visited Redstone Arsenal's Survivor Outreach Services facility with her daughter, Jessica Worsham, her brother Mike Lawrence, who works at the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center, and two granddaughters.
During their visit, mother, daughter and uncle took the time to reach out to tell the story of Pfc. Kevin Ellenburg. No matter how much it hurts, Ellenburg's story is one they feel compelled to share.
"I want to let people know about him," Nethery said. "I want people to know he had the sweetest heart and best personality. He was not shy. He was personable. I want people to know he was my son."
Ellenburg was killed on Nov. 1, 2006, just 14 days before his 21st birthday, when the Bradley armored fighting vehicle he was driving ran over two buried 500-pound improvised explosive devices as they were being detonated by remote control by the enemy in Baghdad, Iraq.
"Two other guys were in the turret and they were OK," Nethery said. "But it killed Kevin instantly. He was sitting right over where they detonated."
"His body came back wrapped like a mummy," Worsham added.
Ellenburg's death affected his entire family. His older brother, Andrew, who also served in the Army, still can't talk openly about it. His sister has dealt with the loss by helping others and is now the one who keeps the family together.
His uncle yearns to work on engineering projects at AMRDEC that will help protect Soldiers in the field so that other families don't have to endure what his family has been forced to accept. And there are now two granddaughters - Jessica's 2-year-old daughter Capri and Andrew's 19-month-old daughter Avery - who will never know their uncle Kevin.
Ellenburg and his siblings grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., where the family was based while their father served 30 years with the Navy. After a divorce, their mother moved to Birmingham.
Ellenburg graduated from high school in Pace, Fla., in 2004, following his brother into military service. Eventually, Ellenburg's brother and sister relocated to the Birmingham. Ala. area and his mother, who works for Brookwood Medical Center, remarried and moved to Cullman.
"Kevin loved his older brother Andrew and wanted to follow in his footsteps," Nethery said. "He wanted to join the Navy like his dad. But he also wanted to be like his brother. Andrew had joined the Reserves and served in Iraq in 2003-04 with the 3rd Infantry Division.
"Kevin decided to follow his brother's footsteps completely as far as being in a Bradley and driving a Bradley, everything. I was not encouraged by either of the boys going into the military because I didn't want them to follow in their dad's footsteps. I didn't want ... "
"Military life was hard on my family," Worsham interjected.
Ellenburg joined the Army in 2005. Even though their father's Navy service made growing up tough, Ellenburg was proud of being in the Army, his sister said.
"He was proud even though I pushed against it," Nethery added. "I told him 'I'll support you in whatever you do. But it doesn't make me happy.' As a mother, you support them no matter what. And he was very proud of that uniform."
"He was in the Army for the long haul," Worsham said. "He went in with the decision that he would someday retire from the Army. He was going all the way, and he was proud to be able to wear the uniform and serve his country. When he was home, he wanted to wear the uniform so people would know how proud he was. He never regretted it."
After training, Ellenburg was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. It wasn't long before he was shipped to Iraq with the 4th ID.
"I wasn't happy at all about him being sent straight over there," Nethery said.
Worsham had the power of attorney for her brother during his deployment. As such, she took care of his business affairs and communicated with him regularly. The family sent care packages for Ellenburg to share with his friends.
"Whenever I talked to him, he would say 'Tell everyone I love them and I'm fine,'" Worsham said.
Ellenburg did come home on leave in September 2006. Though the visit was happy with trips to Six Flags and Pensacola, Fla., it ended with an ominous feeling.
"When we took him to the airport to leave, we knew he wouldn't be back," Nethery said. "It was a horrible, gut feeling. Kevin was crying and shaking."
"He was scared, but he wanted to go back because he was committed to what they were doing in Iraq," Worsham said.
"I knew the last time we said goodbye that it would be the last," Nethery added, with conviction in her voice. "In a strange way, I think God brought him home to have a last goodbye."
Nethery was on her way home from work when Soldiers drove up to her house to notify her of her son's death. At about the same time, Nethery's nephew drove into the driveway.
"He called my husband Darryl to tell him who was at our house. Darryl told our nephew to have the Soldiers leave for a few minutes so that he could get home and be there when they returned," Nethery recalled. "I got home and my nephew was there. Then, my husband came in and his face was white. He told my nephew he could leave. I asked him 'What's wrong'' He wouldn't tell me, but he kept looking out the window. Then, I heard the car drive up."
The news she received that day still brings tears to Nethery's eyes.
"I told them 'You're crazy. You have the wrong person. There are many other people over there and you've got this wrong.' It's still not true to me. I may sit here and cry. But it's still not true to me," she said.
The funeral was on Veterans Day 2006, and Kevin was buried in a cemetery in Pelham, near Oak Mountain State Park in an Army-issued casket.
"We had purchased an awesome casket for him because that was the kind of guy he was. He always wanted to look nice. He was showy," Worsham said. "We picked out the best casket we could afford. But the Army wouldn't let us transfer him to our coffin because his body was in such bad shape. He was wrapped like a mummy."
The days - and years -- after the funeral were hard for Nethery and her family. Nethery still has a hard time participating in family celebrations and finding happiness in life. Her granddaughters, though, have helped her rekindle some of her previous joy.
"Before these grandkids, she just wasn't there. She wouldn't come to holidays. She wouldn't get involved in anything," Worsham said.
"Kevin will never have kids. He will never have a family," Nethery said. "But these girls look like him. I see a lot of him in our girls."
Nethery has tried to go to counseling through Veterans Affairs. And she does appreciate the programs the Army has established to provide counseling and other support services for the families of fallen Soldiers. But she is not yet ready to join in on those programs.
"It honestly was too hard for me," she said of the counseling. "When I get upset sometimes it goes way beyond being upset and my husband just has to stick me in bed to sleep and get over it. Maybe one day I will be able to."
Time has helped in the healing, but only a little.
"There are many days when I put on a huge front to get through the day. There's not a day that's ever fine, that the hurt stops, that you forget about it," Nethery said. "After time goes by, you don't cry every second of the day anymore. You cry less, but you still cry.
"I have to stay busy. I am the type that would crawl back in bed and stay home all day and not talk to anybody if I didn't have somewhere to go and something to do."
The family is still in touch with some of Ellenburg's Army friends through Facebook and occasional visits.
Though life is busy, Nethery tries to visit Ellenburg's gravesite at least once a month. The visits make her feel closer to her son.
"Sometimes I've got to be there. And sometimes I can't go," she said.