JEFFERSON, Iowa—The Sunday in January when Ben Carman's friends and family saw him for the last time, he stood at the altar of First Assembly of God church. More than 450 people surrounded him with prayer.
He didn't wear his dress blues that day. He knew there would be lots of hugging, and he wanted to hug back. Marines in uniform aren't supposed to show emotion, he told his parents.
There were hugs and tears and heartfelt goodbyes.
That image of Ben standing shyly at the church altar is forever embedded in the minds of those who love him.
The Rev. Rod Block, who'd known Ben since he was a toddler, talked with him the day before he left Iowa. Ben said he was ready to face whatever happened.
"There was quite a concern in his heart, naturally, knowing that it could cost him his life," Block remembered. "But Ben had a real assurance of who he was and what he was, and being a Christian, knowing that if this was his time, he was ready.
"I think he wanted us to know that."
Ben's family struggles with losing a son and brother. With so many people praying for his safety in Iraq, his mother, Marie, was certain that her son would be protected from harm. His death April 6 at age 20 jolted her faith, but it hasn't crushed it.
Whenever Marie hears political discussions about Iraq, the arguments unsettle her. She knows that no one's found weapons of mass destruction, and she knows that some people think President Bush was deceitful in using Iraq's alleged nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs as a justification for war.
"Then I think, `Are they saying my son died for nothing?' But look at all the people Saddam Hussein was killing and maiming. These people still needed someone to come in there and help them.
"And in war, there are casualties. I'm sorry it was my son, but both Nelson and I feel like somebody needed to step in there to do something."
"We did not choose this war; the enemy brought it to us," said Nelson Carman, Ben's father. "The enemy brought it to us when they created 9-11. The enemy brought it to us when they bombed the Navy ship in Yemen, or the first bombing of the World Trade Center. . . ."
"A lot of Americans feel because we didn't find weapons of mass destruction or the strong connection between al-Qaida and Hussein that we shouldn't have went to war in Iraq," he said. "But this war was going to be fought either now or later. I'd rather it be on their turf than have our children or grandchildren fighting it in America. ... This issue goes higher than just being a Republican or Democrat problem."
Ben's death has shaken Jefferson, population 4,000, a town not big enough for a McDonald's or Wal-Mart. For many people here, Iraq seems about as far away and as different as the moon.
People here know one another—and have for generations. Ben Carman was the towheaded little boy who loved playing soldier and building forts. He was the third of four children in Nelson and Marie Carman's family. He played in the woods of their 280-acre farm, hunting deer, trapping raccoons and fishing for catfish, walleye and large-mouthed bass in the North Raccoon River.
He once landed a bass that, at nearly 10 pounds, almost broke the Iowa record. Another summer, he and his friends caught and skinned 150 raccoons.
His tracks are all over their farm.
Marie first hiked with him when he was an infant strapped to her back. His favorite spot on Earth was an overlook on their property where the North Raccoon River flows at the base of cliffs 60 feet high, a place now sacred to his family.
Eagles soar here, and deer roam. The children camped here in the summer and fall. Ben and his friends fished the rivers, hunted in the woods and kept an eye out for arrowheads.
Last December, he built a treehouse for his nephew. He painted the outside with a camouflage design. Inside are the cans of spray paint he planned to use when he came home in the fall.
Ben, a 2002 graduate, played football for Jefferson-Scranton High School. Although he never started, he left a legacy at his alma mater.
The offensive line coach, Mark Sawhill, remembered Ben as the kid who'd get knocked down but jump back up and say, "Let's go."
"He was one of the hardest-working football players I've ever had," the coach said.
In a field near the high school, Sawhill walked over to five large tires. Four are for tractors, the largest for a combine. Upright, it's 5 feet tall, and it weighs 80 pounds. As part of their daily workout, football players must flip each tire 10 times, Sawhill said. Most of the boys, even the biggest ones, didn't look forward to the combine tire.
But much to the amusement of the first-string players, medium-sized Ben Carman ran straight to it every day, Sawhill remembered. He didn't flip it 10 times. He flipped it 12.
Ben was quiet, shy and polite almost to a fault, whether he was asking farmers before hunting on their land or asking a girl's parents for permission to date her.
Dee Herbers' daughter, Liz, now 16, dated Ben for two years. Herbers herself can barely talk about Ben without crying. She feels that her family lost a future son-in-law.
"He was a very principled young man. Very respectful. Very protective" of Liz, she said.
Liz broke off their relationship days before Ben left for Iraq. It was too much to deal with thinking about him fighting in a war, she said.
"I wish I had been older and that I had one baby by Ben that I could call my own," she said, breaking down in tears. "God didn't want it that way."
The last time Ben called Liz was in March, the day before his unit left Kuwait for Iraq. She wasn't home.
"I could just hear the boy's heart fall to the floor," Dee Herbers said. Liz's father, Tom Herbers, talked with Ben instead.
Ben "told Tom he'd pray for us," Dee Herbers said.
After Ben's death, the Herberses learned that their names were scrawled inside his Bible, with verses next to each. Even in Iraq, he was praying for people he loved, Dee Herbers said.
Ben's family struggles with losing a son and brother. With so many people praying for his safety in Iraq, his mother, Marie, was certain that her son would be protected from harm. His death jolted her faith, but it hasn't crushed it.
Marie Carman smiled when she was asked to remember her best day with her son. There were many, many best days, she said.
One was in December 2002, when she and her husband watched Ben graduate from boot camp. He was all muscle and square-jawed seriousness. When she saw her son in the sea of dress blues that California day, she whistled her special ear-piercing whistle, the one that brings the horses around from the pasture. The one she used to call her children when they were little.
Nelson Carman was embarrassed, but Ben looked up into the crowd and smiled. Marie smiled as she remembered, then the tears came.
"What he could have been ... what he would have been, you just don't know," she said.
Nelson tries not to grieve in front of his family. He often visits his son's grave by himself.
Since Ben's funeral, tiny American flags have sprouted in the dirt. Someone stuck a fishing pole in the ground, and there's a tiny replica of a hunting rifle. Some days, a glass of brandy appears next to a cigar butt. It's a Marine brotherhood thing, someone told Nelson.
Visiting here, feeling the presence of so many others who were touched by his son's life, comforts him, Nelson said. It also drives home the finality that Ben no longer will walk in the door or call him some afternoon. His son often called from California, then from the USS Essex, then from Kuwait. He sent few e-mails and even fewer letters.
But he called so often they'd run out of things to talk about, Nelson said with a laugh. I think he wanted to hear my voice, he said.
Nelson often wears his "My son is a Marine" baseball cap, which he bought at Ben's boot camp-graduation ceremony. Recently, a stranger who saw the cap asked Nelson whether his son was home from the war.
Nelson smiled and told him yes, he's home.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.