Most days, something reminds Jane Nelson of her son.
She goes through times of the day when everything is fine, she said. Then she may see something in the news about the war in Afghanistan, or a soldier might walk into her flower shop. Then her grief, now nearly 10 years old, floods back.
“It hurts,” she said. “It just hurts all over again. It never stops hurting.”
Nelson's son, Army Pvt. Jerod Dennis, was the first Oklahoman killed in the war in Afghanistan. Dennis died in a gunfight near the eastern city of Shkin on April 25, 2003. He was 19.
Dennis was a member of the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, based at Fort Bragg, N.C. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2002, just a few months after the Sept. 11 attacks and before he graduated from Antlers High School.
About three weeks after graduation, Dennis left for basic training. In January 2003, his unit was deployed to Afghanistan. Nelson said she didn't want him to go, but she never seriously considered the possibility that he could be killed.
“I don't think I ever thought that he would not come home when he was over there,” she said. “You're never really prepared for that.”
Dennis called home on Easter, Nelson said. He couldn't tell her much about what his unit was doing, she said, but he did tell her that he was exercising. Nelson's voice still breaks when she thinks about the call.
“He had been working out a lot and working on his physique,” she said. “He couldn't wait for me to see him.”
But Dennis would never get that chance. Five days after his last conversation with his mother, Dennis was on patrol when his convoy drove into an ambush.
‘Definitely a hero'
In 2003, Dennis' father, Jerry Dennis, told The Oklahoman his son climbed into a foxhole and began to lay down suppressive fire so the convoy could pull out. Dennis was shot during the firefight.
“He was doing what he was trained to do,” Jerry Dennis said. “The way they explained it to me, he was very definitely a hero.”
During Dennis' funeral service at First Baptist Church in Antlers, Army Brig. Gen. Abe Turner said the soldier had asked about his comrades even as he was dying in a hospital bed. Addressing the casket, Turner said the nation owes Dennis a debt of gratitude.
“We will remember you,” he said. “We will honor you, and you will always be a hero.”
A decade later, Dennis' family has seen changes. Nelson's other two children, Dennis' brother and sister, have gone off to college. Nelson, who was single when Dennis died, remarried and moved to Midlothian, Texas, in the southern outskirts of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
About two years ago, Nelson and her husband bought a flower and gift shop in Midlothian. Now and then, a soldier walks into the shop. Sometimes Nelson tells them about her son — who he was, why he joined the Army and how he died. Telling people about how Dennis died helps remind her that his death wasn't in vain, she said.
“It wasn't for nothing,” she said. “That helps.”
‘Hole in the family'
It's hard to say exactly how Dennis' death changed the family, Nelson said. She and her other two children grew closer after his death, although Nelson said she likes to think they would have been close anyway.
Nelson said she can't remember exactly how she talked about Dennis' death with her family in the days after it happened. Her other two children were younger at the time, and she thinks they might have been more resilient because of it. But even when she talks to them today, she said, there's still an obvious void.
“It's left a hole in our family,” Nelson said. “There's nothing that can ever fill that hole again.”