11/11/09 — Finishing Jeremy's mission

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Finishing Jeremy's mission

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 11, 2009 1:46 PM

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Jeremy Hodge poses with his gun in Iraq. The young man was deployed with the Ohio Army National Guard 612th Engineer Battalion's Bravo Company.

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U.S. Air Force photo courtesy of Maj. Shannon Mann

Michele Norris talks about the experience of losing a son to war. Her 20-year-old son, Jeremy, was killed in Iraq Oct. 10, 2005, when an Improvised Explosive Device erupted underneath the vehicle he was driving at the front of a convoy.

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Mrs. Norris is sworn in at a re-enlistment ceremony in Quantico, Va., by U.S. Marine Corps Col. Rich Anderson. She said she is re-enlisting, in part, because of the example set by her son, Jeremy, who was killed in combat.

SPOTSYLVANIA, Va. -- Michele Norris can still see her son, Jeremy, sitting on the couch with his sisters -- laughing as the siblings constantly quote whichever comedy they happen to be watching.

She can hear him say, "Hollywood out" at the end of phone calls from the desert -- after listening to the avid NASCAR fan boast about his role as lead driver on missions involving seeking out Improvised Explosive Devices just outside Baghdad.

She is affected by the charm he was known for by those with whom he was the closest -- cracking a smile while remembering a joke he told years ago or welling up with pride at that mention of the military decorations he earned, of the lives he changed for the better.

But the mother also remembers the ceremony meant to be her son's homecoming from a tour at war -- how Jeremy wasn't there with arms extended.

"They had a chair with the rifle and the gun and the boots," she said, wiping tears from her eyes. "That was hard. Yeah. That was a hard one."

More than four years after Jeremy was killed when an IED erupted underneath the vehicle he was commanding at the front of a convoy, Michele still talks about him as if he never fell.

And the man he was -- at 20 -- still drives her to be something more than ordinary.

So on the eve of the anniversary of his death, she lifted the hand donning a black killed in action bracelet that bears his name to swear her commitment to the cause of freedom he gave his life for.

And within the next few weeks, she will report to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base to begin her mission as a member of the 916th Air Refueling Wing.

"As he got older, this is what he wanted to do. He wanted to serve his country. He wanted to make a footprint on the world," Michele said. "He wanted to be out there -- out front. He wanted to be able to change something. He said, 'Change the world.'"


Michele would tell you Jeremy always had to be in the "center of everything" -- high school football and baseball, even show choir.

So when he decided to put off college for a stint in the military, she wasn't surprised.

He didn't seem rattled by the notion that if he took that oath, he would likely join the war effort mounting in the Middle East.

And neither were his parents, as both once wore the uniform.

But Michele still made a push for her former branch for peace of mind.

"We talked about it and I had told him, 'Come on, Jeremy. Come into the Air Force," she said. "But he was always the kind of kid who wanted to do things his way, so, of course, he said, 'No, Mom. I'm not going to do it.'"

Jeremy joined the Ohio Army National Guard in February 2004 and was assigned to the 612th Engineer Battalion's Bravo Company.

"I explained to him what could happen, where he could go, but we knew probably one of the first things he was going to do was go over to Iraq," Michele said. "But I'm extremely proud that he decided to go into the military. I mean, he knew the responsibilities. ... He knew what the chances were ... that he would have to go to war."

And those instincts turned out to be right, as in February 2005, Jeremy and his comrades were deployed to Baghdad.

Michele tried to be an optimist, but often failed to keep her eyes off nightly news reports about the rising U.S. death toll in Iraq.

"You talk about trepidation, I think you would be foolish if you didn't have that when there is mortar going off, when there are car bombs going off. There is always a chance of something happening, whether it's friendly fire or whether they are actually engaged in something," she said. "Jeremy's mission was to seek out IEDs. So trepidation? Absolutely. Was I concerned? Absolutely. Yes as a mother. Yes as an airman."

So she would often find herself in a car on the side of the road, phone in hand, taking calls from the desert just to hear his voice.

But when she would ask about the mission, he could do little to calm her fears.

"He kept me informed as much as he possibly could, but a lot of the conversations I had with him were more along the lines of, 'How are you doing, Jeremy? How are things? Can I send you something?'" Michele said. "And when I tried to delicately sway the conversation to, 'How are things over there?,' he would right away say, 'Mom, I can't talk about it.'"

Even now, long after his death, the mother knows little about what her son went through during his tour.

Her prior service did not include a combat deployment, so all she can say for sure is that he was likely comforted by the camaraderie that comes with being a part of the military.

And she knows, through conversations with his comrades, that his commitment was unwavering.

"He never took a day off. In fact, the day he was killed, he wasn't supposed to be in the convoy. It was just his continued drive that put him in that seat," Michele said, choking up. "He was supposed to be off, but one of the guys said, 'Hey Hodge. You can lead the convoy if you want.' Jeremy was like, 'I'm there.'"

Michele walks out of the room when she realizes the story she is telling about her son has reached his final day.

Four years later, she still can't find the words to recount the circumstances under which he died.

She didn't even ask members of Jeremy's battalion about all he accomplished on his tour during that welcome home celebration back in January 2006.

Despite her loss, she simply didn't feel it was right to make them relive the tragedy of his death.

"When everybody was coming home, it was still very, very fresh. You kind of don't know how to ask the questions," she said. "So it was kind of one of those things where I didn't want to open the wounds back up."


A cabinet meant for china in the family dining room is filled with Jeremy's effects instead.

"He was always very proud of things he did so I think this is a way for him to say, 'Look, Mom. Look what I've done. Don't forget it. It's right here,'" Michele said. "He only had 20 years on this Earth and look at the things that he achieved. Look what's behind me. Just imagine what he could have done."

On one end of the display is a picture he e-mailed home from Iraq -- a framed shot of a body armor-clad Jeremy driving a military vehicle through the desert.

And there is a Bronze Star -- one he earned during another IED blast.

His vehicle had been hit and badly damaged, his comrades told Michele.

And one of the soldiers was wounded.

So Jeremy did what he became known for amongst other members of the 612th: He got behind the wheel, putting others' interests above his own.

"They said they had no idea how Jeremy got that Humvee as far as he did, but he got that other soldier to a medic to get care," Michele said. "And to this day, he is still alive."


Michele will carry with her the loss of a son always.

But unlike some who have had a loved one fall at war, she tries to avoid feeling bitter and angry about the way his life came to an end.

So when she reports to Seymour Johnson and resumes, to some extent, the service Jeremy never got to retire from, she will do so with a sense of duty to promote the positive things that have been accomplished by the U.S. in Iraq and beyond.

"I lost a son, but yet I still get out there and try to shine a positive light on things. He did good and there are so many things our military is doing well," she said. "There is a lot of negativity out there and I think that's what frustrates me the most. When you hear the parents out there who have there children over there saying, 'Why are they over there?' I just don't understand. ... When you take that oath, you realize that you're over there for a reason. It's not about your opinion. ... You are over there because you took an oath and they know what they are getting themselves into.

"So it's not all negative. Not all parents are sitting here saying, 'Oh my goodness. My son or daughter was killed over in Iraq. Now I'm bitter at everybody.' But unfortunately, it's those parents who are bitter who get that attention from the media. So I want people to understand that there are parents out there who are very proud of what their children have done in Iraq. It's not just for Jeremy. It's for all the service members out there."


Michele's husband, Steve, struggled at first when his wife got more serious about rejoining the Air Force.

"It's difficult. It would be real difficult if she deployed," he said. "But we know, as a family, it is something that she wants to do. And we won't hold her back because she wouldn't hold us back."

So when she, again, swore her committment to her country, it was a bittersweet moment for the family.

"You don't want that phone call. You don't want those people at your door. And having been through that once, you definitly don't want to see it happen again," Steve said. "But we're proud of her. We're going to support her."

Just as they supported Jeremy despite their fears.

Just as they will always support the cause he died for.

"Without all these people who died in our wars, we wouldn't have what we have, and we need to remember that," Steve said. "To us Jeremy is a hero, and we're proud of him, but it's not just about him. It's about all those kids. ... and none of them should be forgotten. None of them."

"You know, I lost a son but it seems like most people just have such short memories," Michele added. "The thousands of people who died, they think, 'That's yesterday's news.' So I welcome the opportunity to make a difference, to make an impact by re-enlisting. This is what (Jeremy) would want, I think."