Columnist Pays Tribute to Nephew Who Fell in Iraq

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By: Judy Halone

I?ve seen them thousands of times ? their photos laid out across the pages of our dailies and broadcast a world away on the evening news. I bet you have, too. But it took a photo recently e-mailed my way to make me finally notice them: The hands of soldiers who aren?t afraid to make the diving catch.

In this case, those hands belonged to my 23-year-old nephew, Army Spc. Jeremiah Johnson, who lay motionless in a hospital bed too far from home.

Maybe I noticed them because Jeremiah is not only family, but my son?s age. Or perhaps it?s because my heart ached for helpless family members confronted with tragedy. But I think the underlying reason I finally noticed a soldier?s hands ? my soldier?s hands ? is because of what they represent: Strength. Guts. Hope. Freedom. Commitment. Sacrifice.

Jeremiah was critically injured in Iraq in an accident in Iraq on Dec. 26 after his Humvee rolled over into a canal of dirty water, killing one of his buddies. After being submerged for 10 minutes, Jeremiah was rescued and airlifted to Germany for medical attention. While enroute he lost his best friend, also injured in the accident.

The hands that aimed to make diving catches from his childhood love of baseball now lay weak and motionless, aiming instead to grasp on to the thread of life.

?I always encouraged him to play with all his heart ? to make the diving catch,? said his father, David Johnson.

From the moment Jeremiah could walk, he explained, baseball became his passion. ?I taught him how to bat, catch, and throw,? David said. Their father-son relationship grew as David coached Jeremiah?s teams from ages five through 15: ?He played through high school, then centerfield in Sr. Babe Ruth for Ryder Construction during the summers. His dream was to make the major leagues.?

Jeremiah?s hands batted a thousand when he married and became the devoted father of two children. ?He has been teaching my four-year-old grandson, Isaiah, how to play baseball,? David solemnly said.

But since Dec. 26, his teaching hands lay still in a critical care unit on a continent far from home.

?We rubbed lotion on his fingers and palms,? said his mother, Elizabeth, who together with husband David and Jeremiah?s wife, Gale, were able to spend time at his bedside. ?We do it for us as much as for him.?

Jeremiah’s hands will no longer swing a bat with Isaiah. He lost his battle on Jan. 5.

I wonder how many other Jeremiahs are out there ? soldiers critically injured whose numbers don?t make it to front-page coverage; soldiers who stood in centerfield and took the diving catch on my behalf? I can picture them ? along with tens of thousands of other soldiers ? kneeling down eye-level with their children upon deployment.

?Let’s play ball when I return,? they might say, while tussling their hair.

I can see the hands of those who?ve patrolled in unsafe areas, who offer comfort to an injured and frightened orphan, and who salute the flag-draped caskets of those who?ve made the ultimate diving catch for their country.

There are other hands too that offer hope, sacrifice, and strength: They quiet the battles of sibling squabbles from the home-front; manage to pay bills, take the dog to the vet, and do a load of late-night laundry after offering help on forgotten homework assignments ? due, of course, the next day.

That’s making the diving catch, too, if you ask me.

So here are a few words of encouragement for the gravely-injured ?Jeremiahs? out there, along with your loved ones — including the families of the 3000-plus troops we mourn, those serving active duty, and families on the home front: Thanks for taking the diving catch on my behalf.

Because, as David Johnson explained in the last hour’s of Jeremiah’s life, ?When you make the diving catch, you?re giving all you?ve got.?

E&P Editor Greg Mitchell wrote about Johnson last week in his Pressing Issues column.

(copyright 2007 Judy Halone)

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