News Journal - Published - December, 18, 2005
Overwhelmed by grief, lifted by a nation
A fallen Marine's family finds they're not mourning alone
The letters and the packages come from all over the country, sometimes in bundles and bags.
Some are addressed only to "The Spears Family, Molino, Fla."
A few weeks ago, a stranger left a Marine condolence album tucked behind the family's screen door.
Another week, a fourth-grade class at Gulf Breeze Elementary School sent letters of sympathy, the wobbly writing paired with hearts, flowers and other crayon art.
Letters, albums, Marine mementos -- they all find their way to the small home on Molino Road, where a family is overwhelmed by its grief.
Jonathan Ross "J.R." Spears, 21, was killed Oct. 23 in Ramadi, Iraq, by a single gunshot wound as he scrambled toward a buddy wounded by a grenade.
J.R. was the first-born of Marie and Tim Spears. Their only son.
Marie Spears, 43, often tells those who offer their condolences that she loves all three of her children. But J.R. had something special, a generosity and a happy spirit. And he had his mama's heart.
What she didn't realize -- had no way of knowing -- was that the grief in her heart for a young man lost so early in life would be shared by so many.
She and her husband, Tim Spears, 46, say they have experienced the best of the Pensacola Bay Area's compassion since their son was buried at Barrancas National Cemetery -- from the dozens of people who lined the streets as his funeral procession solemnly passed, from the sympathetic cards and letters, from people who recognize them, give them a hug and say, as so many do: "Thank you for your son."
She finds remembrances and notes from strangers left at his grave, too, where almost daily she spreads a blanket on the grass, pats her son's name chiseled into the headstone and talks to him as though he were still with her.
She recently left a poinsettia plant, decorated with small Christmas ornaments. Others have left a yellow rosebud, a Santa in a small snow globe and a bouquet of daisies. A card with the flowers read: "I did not know you, but thank you."
The 2,000th U.S. death
J.R. Spears was the 2,000th military fatality in Iraq, according to the Web site Iraq Coalition Casualties, which tracks Department of Defense death reports chronologically.
On a global scale, death No. 2,000 was a marker, a time to contemplate the war and the sacrifices being made by American military forces for people in a faraway land.
For the Pensacola area, Spears' death brought the war home like nothing before. He was the first combat fatality from Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
The intense young man who stares back from his official Marine photo grew up in Molino, played four years on the Tate High School football team's offensive line and was a Subway sandwich maker at the eatery on Nine Mile Road.
"I think everyone can see their son or their grandson in J.R.," said his uncle, Ed Spears, 35. "Our community is really close, so you know someone like J.R. It's a part of you."
Comfort from strangers
The family has found a comfort they never expected from the letters, cards and mementoes.
"I was truly amazed at what they did," Marie Spears said of the Gulf Breeze students' letters. "They did beautiful drawings. One little girl wrote: 'If you need to talk' and wrote her number."
Gail Haremza, 48, of Pace put together the condolence album and contacted the funeral home to have someone from there leave it at the Spears home.
She never knew J.R., but her son, Jacob Haremza, 24, is a Marine reservist. He was in Iraq at the start of the war and, during that time, she joined Marine Moms Online.
One of the comforts its members provide the family of a fallen Marine is a condolence album, full of poems, e-mails from other parents and pictures or news clippings of the loved one.
"When I heard that Spears was killed and was from here, I thought, 'I've never done one of these, I'm not sure I know how to do one of these, but I have to do this,' " Haremza said. "I didn't want his family to feel isolated, to feel lost or to think that nobody cares."
For the Spears family, it all helps, especially when there are still so many reminders of their loss.
Two boxes of J.R.'s personal effects have been delivered in the last two weeks. From one of them, Marie Spears pulled one of her son's large clean T-shirts to wear as a night shirt.
"It still smells like him," she said.
She cries every time she hears the Kenny Chesney song "Who You'd Be Today" in which the country artist sings about losing loved ones too early.
Sharing the memories
On Veterans Day, others shared their memories and their tears.
The Spearses accepted an invitation to the annual Marine Ball at the Hilton Garden Inn at Pensacola Beach.
They believed the ball would bring an older crowd sharing memories of their service. They didn't expect to see dozens of 20-something Marines, resplendent in their dress blues.
"I pretty much cried the whole night through," Marie Spears said.
But they also found people and images that brought smiles and a little peace to their hearts.
Sometimes, Marie Spears said, she imagines the look on J.R.'s face as he lay wounded in Ramadi. She ran to his side once when he was injured at a football game.
She remembers how wide his eyes were with fear, and she can't help wondering if he had the same look on his face that night in October.
But, at the Marine Ball, she got another image of J.R., and it is one she holds dear. After the formal part of the evening, as the music and dancing began, she watched all those young Marines in their dress blues laugh and dance and celebrate.
"J.R. went last year to the ball in Las Vegas," Marie Spears said. "Seeing them gave me an idea of the fun he had. I can just see him singing karaoke and cutting up."
It is Christmas that worries Tim Spears, 46, the most.
Thanksgiving was hard enough, gathering friends and relatives around a table, cooking favorite recipes and knowing every moment that it was the first family holiday without J.R.
But Christmas promises to deliver a whole new kind of heartache.
"Usually, Christmas is Marie's favorite time of the year," her husband said. "If I'd let her, she'd keep everything decorated year-round."
For so many years, J.R. was a willing assistant in the shopping and the decorating, his mother said.
When they wrapped presents for his younger sisters, Jessica, 11, and Jennifer, 10, he helped, even last year as a 20-year-old Marine.
"We'd booby-trap the hallway so that we'd hear a noise if they got up out of bed, because they both would try to peek, and Jenny especially is such a light sleeper," Marie Spears said.
"And he would help take all those twistees off their Barbies or their Bratz dolls. That Bratz beauty shop just about did him in last year because it had so many little pieces."
She buys Christmas gifts throughout the year, so most of her son's presents were bought, wrapped and hidden safely away before he died.
She isn't sure what she will do with them. Speaking about it sends a tear sliding down one cheek.
J.R. did his shopping early, too.
When he was home on leave in July, he ordered his father's Christmas present. Marie Spears has it ready and waiting, just as Tim Spears will be ready with the gift he and J.R. bought for her.
When the family opens gifts Christmas morning, it will be around a tree that Jessica and Jennifer decorated.
Marie Spears feels bad that they did it alone and worries about how well the girls are handling their grief and hers.
"Thanksgiving was hard," she said. "It just wasn't the same without him. I can't imagine what Christmas will be like."
None more beautiful
He was more than her son to her, Marie Spears said. He was her best friend, and she misses him with a pain that is visible in her voice and on her face.
"I get angry sometimes because he's gone, and I think 'Why did you have to be a hero?' " she said. "But that was J.R. He had to check on his men."
Nothing less would be expected of a Marine, and J.R. was determined to be the best he could.
He didn't come from a military family, but his mother often told him she could think of nothing more beautiful than a Marine in his dress blues.
The Corps' unwavering sense of duty, honor and love of country also appealed to J.R. He seemed drawn to examples of leadership and service.
As a 6-year-old, he became fascinated with President John F. Kennedy, even dressing up in a suit to give a school report so that he might better resemble the president, his mother said.
Those lessons learned so early about serving one's country took on new importance for J.R. after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"He was old enough to know what was going on," she said. "He just couldn't believe that people could be capable of doing that."
He graduated from Tate in 2002, but his football weight - 265 pounds - made him too heavy for the Corps. By 2003, he had lost 60 pounds and made it through boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.
He embraced every tradition, every instruction imparted there.
Among the personal effects in his wallet, along with two worn pictures of his sisters, his family found a weathered "honor" card that all Marines receive in boot camp.
The card defines honor, courage and commitment and serves as a constant reminder of Marine standards.
When J.R. died, he was on the last day of a six-day patrol with India Company, Third Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment. He was leading a small team when it came under attack.
His commander, Capt. T.R. Hickman, told his family in a letter that J.R. was respected and loved by his subordinates, peers and seniors.
"In our organization, there are many good Marines and several great Marines, but only a few leaders of Marines," Hickman wrote. "Your son was truly a leader of Marines. "
J.R., who had been in line for promotion to corporal, received the rank posthumously. He also was awarded the Purple Heart, which his family received a few weeks ago.
It rests in the family room, near a set of his dress blues with their newly stitched corporal stripes, the flag that draped his coffin and the family beach portrait that he insisted on the last time he was home on leave.
Support of the Corps
If the symbols of the Marines bring comfort, it has been the men and women of the Corps who have most enveloped the family, offering condolences and support at every turn.
"You hear people say, 'Once a Marine, always a Marine,' " Tim Spears said. "But we had no idea. We've had Marines just coming out of the woodwork."
Two weeks ago, three Marines presented the Spears family with their son's ceremonial sword, bestowed on Marines with the rank of corporal or higher.
Members of the Marine Aviation Training Support Group 21 - none of whom knew Spears - pooled their money and made the display to hold the sword.
"It meant more to us to build it," 2nd Lt. Joel Van Winkle said. "You can buy them on the Internet, but this is made by Marines for a Marine."
Some of the family's most steadfast support has come from members of the Marine Corps League, a military service organization open to all Marines and their families.
Tim Spears and J.R. attended a meeting when J.R. was home on leave in September.
League member Larry Powell, 69, of Pensacola remembers J.R. as a solid young man, a little shy.
"His death was such a shock," he said. "I think maybe that's why it hurts so much."
League members attended Spears' Nov. 2 funeral, as they do for all fallen Marines.
But long after that day, they have helped make sure the Spearses have had any and all help they have needed.
One of the members, J.L. Faircloth, 66, of Bellview, caught something important in watching a WEAR-TV report on the Spearses.
The family did not have a triangular wooden display cases for J.R.'s burial flag.
Faircloth, on behalf of the league, took the Spearses to the PX at Pensacola Naval Air Station and purchased one for them.
"If the man is a Marine, he is part of our family," Faircloth said. "That's our brother, and that's what needed doing. Any other Marine would have done the same."