WELLSVILLE, Kan.—Twice before, Army Sgt. Jake Butler had been to Kuwait and returned home safely. But several weeks before shipping out in March on his third trip to the Persian Gulf, there was something making him edgy about this mission. "Jake had an idea he wasn't coming back," Butler's father, Jim, said as he recounted a dream his son had before leaving.
On Tuesday, the premonition became real for the Butler family.
A cavalry scout with the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, based at Fort Riley, Butler became Kansas' first combat casualty Tuesday when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his vehicle in southern Iraq.
Butler's family spent Thursday at their 110-year-old rural home just north of Wellsville with family and friends. Many visitors wore yellow and black ribbons in observance of Jake's death.
Some brought casseroles. Others brought meat trays. Others simply stopped by to check in on the grieving family. On a table were a couple dozen yellow and red roses, along with a cards expressing condolences.
On a wall nearby was a picture of Jake Butler in his Army uniform and standing in front of a Christmas tree. There were other pictures of him in his combat gear in the desert.
Hung from the walls were a handful of Army commendations, some from his days serving at Fort Hood in Texas. One framed letter from the Army recognized Butler as a "dedicated and professional soldier" who had a "positive outlook, high standards and competence."
"Jake is a beautiful person," his father said. "He is a great person.
He'd give you the shirt off his back."
One of five brothers, the 24-year-old Butler was recalled as a skinny, happy-go-lucky guy who gave his best at whatever he undertook.
His father talked about his son's affection for his three nephews and nieces. He pulled out pictures from his son's last night at Fort Riley.
The photos showed Jake with his 2-year-old nephew, dressed in his uncle's combat helmet and flak jacket.
They said he had a knack for car repair. His father recalled how his son bought a beat up all-terrain vehicle, refurbished it with a couple new tires and new fenders, and turned a $400 profit.
"He could pull a motor out of a vehicle and put it back together. You name it, he could do it," his dad said.
Family members also recalled Butler's passion for the military. A quick glance at DVDs left behind at his family's home reveal such titles as "Men of Honor," "The Thin Red Line" and "Apocalypse Now."
They said he even talked of one day wanting to join the Central Intelligence Agency or the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"He loved what he was doing. He loved being in the Army," said Butler's mother, Cindy, noting that her son re-enlisted last year. "He enjoyed his work. He enjoyed what he had been trained to do."
Butler was killed at a time when he was enjoying life, his father said. Butler wasn't married and didn't have kids, but he did tell his dad how he wanted to start a family of his own.
Butler spent his early years in the Johnson County suburb of Merriam before the family moved to Wellsville in 1990 to give the kids a country environment to grow up in.
A 1996 graduate of Wellsville High School, Butler, like most kids, didn't necessarily know what he wanted to do.
Family members talked of how he worked constantly, whether it was bucking hay bales on a neighbor's farm, managing a local grocery store, working at a greenhouse or tending cattle. Before joining the Army, Butler talked of one day buying land and raising cattle, his father said.
"He always had to be doing something," Butler's father said.
Eventually, Butler started to look for something different. And with some friends already in the military, the Army loomed like a career possibility.
"He came home one day, and we talked, and he said, `I think I want to join the reserves,'" Jim Butler remembered. "About three days later, he shows up and says, `Well, Dad, I joined up full time.' I was kind of shocked.'"
Butler didn't fight his son's decision. He said it was up to his sons to make up their own minds about their career paths. "I stood by him."
The last time the Butlers heard from their son was when he called from a satellite phone at 3 a.m. three days before he was killed. They told him they loved him and to return safe.
They learned of his death late Tuesday night.
Jake's mom, Cindy, had gone to bed with a headache. His father had settled in to watch some television. Then Butler said he heard a car outside the house. Immediately, he was alarmed.
"I heard two car doors shut, and I knew," he said.
On Wednesday, the day after the Butlers were notified of Jake's death, they received a letter from their son.
"It was hard opening that one," Jim Butler said of the letter postmarked March 16.
In it, Butler told his parents he was doing fine and that he was in an area that was relatively safe, his father said. He asked for more cigarettes.
Jim Butler tears up when telling the story of his son's foreboding dream before leaving for the Middle East.
In the dream, a friend who died in a car crash came to Jake Butler. The friend told him that it was time to come and be with him.
The elder Butler told his son to put the dream aside. He told him to use his training and common sense. "Keep your head down and chin up, and you'll do all right."
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