Pr. George's soldier killed in 1st week in Iraq

Mourning family recalls a phone call before patrol

March 16, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

TEMPLE HILLS - Spc. Jason C. Ford was nervous. His father could hear the anxiety over the phone the last time he called home a week ago. While Ford was out on his first patrol in Iraq, a nearby unit had been ambushed and gunfire erupted.

On his second patrol last week, Ford was injured by a roadside bomb. He died Saturday in Tikrit after spending less than a week in Iraq, family members said.

"I could hear it in his voice," said Joseph C. Ford, 57, sitting in the kitchen of his Temple Hills home in Prince George's County yesterday. His stepmother, Irene R. Ford, 54, said, "he was nervous, he was scared."

Now, the Fords, along with a large, extended family in the area, are mourning the death of the 21-year-old whom they still regarded as the "baby" in the family.

A group of American civilians, meanwhile, working for a nongovernmental organization, were attacked yesterday by drive-by shooters in the northern Iraq city of Mosul. Three were killed and two injured, according to a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, who did not release names of the victims.

Ford, who stood more than 6 feet tall and walked ramrod-straight, joined the Army after he got his high-school equivalency diploma two years ago in Laurel. He soon began thinking about a long-term career in the military.

Another possible career path also beckoned: law enforcement. When he was younger, his father - a Washington police officer for 27 years - would occasionally take him along in the patrol car to show him the job.

But he stayed in the Army, which sent him first to Germany and then to Iraq in the 1st Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry regiment.

After two years in the military, his family sensed it had changed him forever.

"He matured a lot," said Irene Ford. "I could tell because he wasn't smiling as much as he used to. I could see it in his face - he looked more serious."

Yesterday morning, Ford's father and stepmother went to visit Jason's mother - who lives in Washington and couldn't be reached for comment - to begin making funeral plans.

They returned home in the afternoon to continue their agonizing wait, with some of Jason's siblings by their side. His remains, which are in Germany, are expected to arrive at Dover Air Force Base, Del., in the next few days, his father said.

Asked for their feelings about the war in Iraq, Ford and his wife diverged in their opinions. Ford, a Vietnam veteran, said he didn't see a need for the United States to be in Iraq. But he said his son had a duty to go.

"It was his job to serve his country," Ford said. "I felt that way when I went to Vietnam."

His wife said she can't understand the rationale for the war, though she was proud of his service. Her eyes welled with tears as she spoke. "I'm still questioning [the war]," she said. "Why is this going on? I thought the war is over. Why are our children getting killed?"

Both described the past few days as a nightmare.

Though an adult and a soldier, Ford was considered the baby in the family. He was the youngest of 11 children, including several stepbrothers, stepsisters and half-siblings. He attended elementary school in Bladensburg and junior high school in Washington.

Ford earned a high-school equivalency diploma and studied computer repair at the Woodland Job Corps Center in Laurel, which provides free skills training for young adults, mostly high school dropouts.

"He was a real leader on our campus," said director Greg Weber. "In many ways, he became kind of a mentor for newer students as they came in."

Ford continued to mentor young entrants even after his January 2002 graduation. From boot camp in Fort Benning, Ga., he wrote to Weber, asking him to encourage the others - most about 18 - to stick with the program.

"I read excerpts of that letter to the student body" during an assembly, Weber said. "He wanted to make sure that the students knew they could really handle this."

The letter described Ford's early days in the Army, when he awoke at 4:30 a.m. and did 300 push-ups and sit-ups a day, making Job Corps seem like a cake walk in comparison.

And just before leaving for Germany, Ford came back to the Woodland campus to talk to his old class and show them what they could become.

"He came in his dress uniform, just looking good," Weber said. "He was so proud of himself, and of course we were proud of him, too."

While in school, Ford enjoyed playing basketball and baseball, his father said. Bowling, too.

"He was a dynamite bowler," said sister Thleia Hamrick, 35, sitting in the Fords' kitchen yesterday. "He loved to play the game with my sons."

Neighbors said the young man cut a dashing figure whenever he came by dressed in his military uniform.

"He was such a proud, polite young man," said Alice Drew, 60, who lives next door to the Fords. "He was just what you'd want your son to grow up to be."

Sun Staff writer Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.

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