Marine's Death Has Deep Impact on Ohio Town
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
US Marines in dress uniform, carrying flag-draped coffins. In Ohio last week, that image was on the front page of almost every day's newspaper. Sixteen Marines from Ohio had died in Iraq over a period of nine days.
SIEGEL: Lance Corporal Brett Wightman was among those killed inside an amphibious assault vehicle incinerated by a massive explosion from the road underneath. Wightman was 22, a Marine Reservist called to duty from the village of Sabina in southwestern Ohio. NPR's Noah Adams has this profile of the Marine's hometown, where no one was untouched by his death.
NOAH ADAMS reporting:
Brett Wightman's funeral was last Saturday at 10 AM, and at 2:00 that same afternoon, the town of Sabina celebrated its annual heritage day: music and ice cream and history and a salute to veterans of all the wars. I talked with a married couple who'd come early to get a seat in the shade.
Mrs. BETTY M PAULEY (Sabina Resident): Betty M. Pauley, P-A-U-L-E-Y.
Mr. ARTHUR L. PAULEY (Sabina Resident): Arthur L. Pauley.
ADAMS: Mr. Pauley, at 87, is the oldest veteran in Sabina. It is Betty who proudly tells me this.
Mrs. PAULEY: My husband was in the Second World War. He was in France, Germany, and he come home on--he had to go to England to get a ship to come home on. He rode home on the Queen Mary, and he's been everywhere and done everything. That's the reason we tried so hard to come today. He's been sick. He's terminal with cancer. They gave him a year last July '04. He's got a good nurse. He's gonna make it. I'm the nurse.
ADAMS: The village of Sabina has 2,700 people, a few factories. The long fields of corn and soybeans come up close to the houses. You could ride a 10-speed bike out in the country and only shift one gear. The town last week seemed hushed, expectant. I went into a place called the Crowe Bar. And when I told somebody what I was doing, he pointed to a shelf and a can of Bud Light with a sign: This beer is for Brett.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) ...you don't say a thing. The smile on your face lets me know that you...
ADAMS: In Sabina, you will find some disillusionment about the war in Iraq, but last week belonged to Brett Wightman, a young man with a lovely smile, a high school football captain. His death would be mourned, his family supported. At McCarty's florist, four women sit at a table making bows. Somebody said, `We should have some yellow ribbons.'
(Soundbite of ribbon-making)
Ms. STEPHANIE SEAMAN(ph) (McCarty's): We use a bolt that's a hundred yards. It takes about three to four yards to make a ribbon. You just kind of hold it in your hand and do the loops, and you got to twist them around and add some tails to it to, you know, blow in the wind.
ADAMS: Stephanie Seaman of McCarty's. Timothy Larek(ph) is a floral designer at the shop.
Mr. TIMOTHY LAREK (McCarty's): I grew up here, and everybody that comes in--most everybody; I won't say everybody, but most everybody that comes in, I have known probably my whole life. We have to deal with them when they're in tears at the front counter, you know, talking about funeral flowers. And we get to deal with them when they're talking about weddings and, you know, they're coming in to pick out their bridal bouquets.
ADAMS: The yellow ribbons from McCarty's were available all around the town for a $5 donation to an athletic fund. I stopped by Uhl's IGA Foodliner, and the first person I spoke with who'd bought a ribbon turned out to be close to Brett Wightman's family. Rosalie Thomas(ph) even works with Brett's dad.
Ms. ROSALIE THOMAS (Wightman Family Friend): Brett was our neighbor for several years when he was young, and I know all of his parents and grandma and stuff that just recently passed away. He's just a good kid.
(Soundbite of construction)
ADAMS: It is hot, fast, almost athletic labor making modular homes in August in Sabina, Ohio. The men wear running shoes and often no shirts. Brett Wightman worked here. He was on a shingling crew at Palm Harbor Industries when he was called to active duty status by the Marines. Duane Poole(ph) was a co-worker.
Mr. DUANE POOLE (Co-worker, Palm Harbor Industries): He used to come over and hang out and got real close to me and my kids. The thing I remember about him is we had a bet, 'cause I'm a Michigan fan and he's an Ohio State fan, and we was watching the game, and the bet was if I lost, they would burn my Michigan shirt on the grill, and which--he got a kick out of doing that. He was turning it over with tongs and, you know, just--he's just a wonderful person.
Mr. JOE KOWALSKI(ph) (High School Classmate): Our class, the 2002 class here, we didn't lose anybody. We really didn't lose anybody in a car wreck, or we didn't lose anybody until now.
ADAMS: Joe Kowalski, Brett Wightman's high school classmate, talking with us at the school after he and some friends had planted an ash tree in Brett's memory. Joe Kowalski said they always knew, even back when they were little, little, that Brett would be in the Marines. That was going to be his job. Another classmate, Jessica Beam(ph), said perhaps the difficult time for them will come when the class holds its five-year reunion.
Ms. JESSICA BEAM (High School Classmate): You'll have it listed there where everyone's--you know, most people will be graduating from college, starting families, you know, getting married and all that stuff. I think for me, that'll be one of the big things is that when we're all expected to be together and you're reading everyone else's accomplishments, I mean, granted, he has a greater accomplishment than I'll ever have in my life, being over there, but, I mean, I think that's when it'll hit home for a lot of people, even though that's down the road.
Mr. KOWALSKI: She just mentioned that, you know, Brett accomplished something that she'll--you know, something as great and honorable that she'll never accomplish, and I'd like to say that that's not true, because--(whispering) I got it. It's not coming out--what Brett did was what he wanted to do, and everybody's got something in life that they're going to do. Brett wanted to be in the military. He wanted to be a soldier. He wanted to fight and die. Maybe not wanted to die, but he wanted to fight and be honored for that, and that's what happened.
You know, we're all going to have those things in life. You may be a mother, you're going to be a mother. You know, that might be your path, and it's our jobs now, seeing what can happen when you go out and get what you want that should empower us, to know that we've all got a niche like that. Brett found his niche, and he hit it in the sweet spot. We've all got to find our sweet spot. We've all got that, and that's not to say what Brett did is--to belittle what Brett did, because that's not what I mean at all. But that's your goal in life. You go out and do what you're meant to do, and that's what he did. And that's--we've got to find ourselves.
And after we're done being upset and crying and stuff--and I'm obviously not done doing that. After we're done with that, we got to pick up the pieces and say, `What is it that I'm here for?' you know, `What am I meant to do? What's going to be my major contribution? How are they going to remember me?' I remember Brett just awesomely, you know, and when I go, that's the way I want to be remembered, like Brett's remembered now.
ADAMS: Joe Kowalski of the 2002 East Clinton High School graduating class.
Unidentified Man #2: (Via projected acoustics) Lance Corporal William Brett Wightman, 22, of Sabina was killed in action August the 3rd, 2005, during a roadside bombing in Barwanah, Iraq.
ADAMS: Brett Wightman's funeral was Saturday morning at the football field.
Unidentified Man #2: (Via projected acoustics) We ask now, Lord, that you would give comfort to this family, not only today but in the days to come.
ADAMS: Eight hundred people came to sit in the stands. The flag-covered coffin at the 50-yard line, the grass watered for the season opener. The coach had brought this year's players. They wore their white and red Astros jerseys and waited as a team until everyone had left the stands and the hearse had pulled away, leading a procession to the cemetery. Noah Adams, NPR News.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing via projected acoustics) ...but now I'm found, was blind, but now I see. 'Twas grace that taught my heart... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.