This story is about two young women who've never met. Christina Penrod, a Mahomet widow, and Stephanie James, a recent UI graduate and Army sergeant, have seen their lives stamped, shaped and unalterably changed by the events in a scorched part of the faraway Middle East called Iraq.
A bolt of lightning brought Justin Penrod and Christina Whittington together.
Justin, an air conditioning repairman, had been called to fix the zapped central air unit in Christina's backyard when their eyes met, she laughed and the conversation turned flirty. The two decided they'd go out that evening to Uncle Buck's at Mahomet to shoot pool.
July 1 was the date. 2004. And on July 4, on their way to see the celebration of fireworks at Memorial Stadium, Justin talked over a love song playing on the radio and told Christina he thought he loved her.
Surprised, she said "thank you." But on the way home, she told him she loved him, too. He played a CD for her, "You're My Inspiration."
They played a lot of special songs for each other, and they couldn't stop talking, or be apart. They had too much to learn, too much to say. And in a month's time he proposed. He moved in with her. On Nov. 1, 2004, they married.
She knew they were meant to be. We clicked, she said. From the first day.
"It just felt right," Christina said. "He was the one."
But orders from the National Guard interrupted the married bliss of the new Mr. and Mrs. Justin Penrod. He left for training in January '05 and around Memorial Day he set foot for the first time on the sun-washed sands of Iraq. He did his duty, staying a year in the area around Baghdad. The couple kept the relationship close through the Internet, e-mailing constantly, sending pictures. Making phone calls.
Christina says it seems from the beginning their lives had been blown from here to there in a fast-moving whirlwind. And the frantic pace continued. After he returned from Iraq, their son, Colin, came three months early at 2 pounds, 7 ounces. Not expected to live 24 hours. The couple prayed and begged for his life, and three months later the two carefully carried their precious bundle home to Candlewood Estates in Mahomet.
The new father couldn't get enough of his son, couldn't put him down, stop touching him or looking at him. But for whatever reason, Justin told Christina he needed to go back to Iraq. They had a few months' lull before Justin told his wife and son goodbye with kisses wet with tears and flew away to fight the insurgents in a part of the world called Arab Jabour, 10 miles south of Baghdad.
Just three weeks after he'd arrived, an improvised explosive device blew up a house he and his unit were searching. Four others – Spc. William Edwards, Sgt. Scott L. Kirkpatrick, Sgt. Andrew W. Lancaster and Staff Sgt. William D. Scates – died with him.
Christina woke up with an awful headache that day. Aug. 11, 2007.
No one had to tell her. She felt it in her heart. That's how close they were, she said.
Glistening dark eyes. Sleek black hair. Pretty enough to be a model. Stephanie James at 24 tells her story now with the confidence of a seasoned combat vet.
But she recalls the day as a teenager when she sat in her high school's home ec class and watched as Flight 175 flew into the south tower of the World Trade Center.
Just a few months earlier, she'd signed on the dotted line, agreeing to serve six years in the National Guard in return for help with her college tuition – and an $8,000 signing bonus.
As the towers collapsed, as the third airplane hit the Pentagon and yet another plane plowed into the field near Shanksville, Pa. Stephanie never drew the line from those tragedies to her own life in Robinson, Ill.
But more than a year later, as a freshman at the University of Illinois, she got the call that connected the dots. And when her classmates were in their sophomore year of college, Stephanie packed up her apartment, hefted two duffle bags and a rucksack stuffed with desert combat uniforms and boarded a plane for Kuwait.
Comfortable and friendly, Kuwait even offered a Baskin-Robbins and Hardee's. She and the others relaxed while they waited a month for final orders. Then she climbed aboard a convoy of trucks that rolled into a country littered with trash, decomposing animals and cheering Iraqi people. Children ran alongside the trucks, barefoot over sharp rocks, begging for food and water.
On the trip to Log Base Seitz, 10 miles west of Baghdad, a gunner watched for snipers. She wore a bulletproof vest, her M-16 rifle out and ready.
Stephanie began to feel unsure.
She feared she hadn't been paying attention, that she'd been dressing up and playing at being a soldier.
Within 17 hours after arriving at the base in March 2004, she and a friend had just finished eating and decided to explore when they saw a huge flash, 30 yards away.
They got pulled into a bunker. The chaos and noise melded into a surreal scene in the dank, muddy dugout. Stephanie cried and shook with fear and refused to leave for a long time, way beyond the others who'd heard the screams and cries for a medic. A Chicago man, 44-year-old Sgt. Ivory Phipps, died in the blast.
Those hours in the bunker became her defining moment. The awakening, she says.
She had no choice. Stephanie emerged – not as a college poli-sci major – but as a soldier in a war with real bullets and real bombs and real people who wanted her dead.
Christina knew American soldiers were being killed in Iraq. But honestly, it never crossed her mind it would happen to Justin. That happened to somebody else, she said.
But before he left for Iraq, he talked about the kind of services he wanted if he did die. So she gave it to him.
Big and extravagant, full military honors with hundreds and hundreds of people attending the funeral at Stone Creek Church, Urbana. The mourners created a procession that stretched 18 miles as it snaked from Urbana to the National Cemetery at Danville. Dozens of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts with American flags stood at attention with hands over their hearts as the line passed through St. Joseph. And on Interstate 74, truckers slowed traffic so that no vehicles passed. Hundreds of Patriotic Guard Riders were joined by some 300 other motorcyclists who left a poker run when they heard of the soldier's funeral.
Christina didn't know many of the people who came. But she remembers the father of a soldier killed in June who drove up from Southern Illinois. Friends Justin had known from high school came, and young men he'd gotten to know as a cadet at the Lincoln's Challenge Academy in Rantoul. They told her Justin had changed their lives; they felt fortunate to have known him.
She received the triangular package of the flag, but so much happened that memories of the day blurred.
Months later, she and Colin moved into a new home near Mahomet, a difficult transition to make without Justin. She sadly unpacked the memories and decided to seek grief counseling.
Talking about it helps, she says. She keeps in touch with the wives of the other soldiers who died, and friends of Justin who survived.
She also talks to the urn containing part of Justin's cremains that she keeps on the mantel, and when the weather's decent she and Colin visit Justin's grave near the Soldier's Monument in the heart of the National Cemetery.
It's been seven months. The reality of his death is more real now, especially when she sees the happy stories about soldiers coming home. Her voice trails.
She sees Justin in Colin's face. They both had dimples. And every day, many times a day, she tells Colin, now 14 months old, about Daddy. He had a big heart, she says. If someone needed help, Justin pitched in. His favorite NASCAR drivers were Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch. He loved to grill steaks and burgers.
He had a laugh you'd never forget. And when he got serious, well, you knew it. But more than anything, she says, he loved his baby son.
The last time she talked to Justin was the day before he was killed. He called and told her he was OK, that he loved her and then Justin asked to speak to his 8-month-old son. He wanted to hear him breathe, or coo. He wanted some connection.
"I always joked with him, 'Don't die over there. Come home,' " Christina said.
I'm not going to die, he assured her. I'm strong.
Stephanie learned to be a soldier, no gender attached.
Her combat boots were men's, her uniforms were men's. The only thing that kept her feminine was her long hair, which she kept pulled back in a rubber band. She didn't worry about men; she focused on her job, and staying safe.
She saw two helicopters shot out of the air. Men and women in her unit were being sent home seriously injured. Another soldier in her unit, Jeremy Ridlen, 23, of Clinton was killed in May 2004 by explosives detonated on the side of the road in East Fallujah.
Strong friendships formed, and together the men and women weathered depression and homesickness. And after six months, when she got a two-week pass home, she bounded onto the airplane with happiness.
"Everybody hits a point where you think you just can't be there anymore," she said. "And so when I got home it was perfect!
"I got home and had Friday and on Saturday I went to a UI football game ... and then on Sunday I got the call. It was my best friend (from Iraq). She said 'Sit down.' "
Stephanie learned that a mortar round struck the compound, killing Stephanie's bunkmate, 26-year-old Shawna Morrison of Paris. Spc. Charles Lamb of Casey also died in the Sept. 5 blast.
Stephanie locked herself in the bathroom, lay down on the floor and cried. Don't talk to me, she yelled at her mother. You don't understand what this feels like. You don't understand.
She couldn't carry the weight of the guilt for being home when it happened, or express the grief she felt for such a crazy, carefree, outgoing young woman like Shawna to have died so senselessly.
Stephanie attended Shawna's funeral, and when Stephanie returned to Iraq, to the room they shared, she had to pack up all of Shawna's belongings to send home.
"That still is the hardest thing I had to do – pack up her stuff," Stephanie said. "It was just like she had stepped out of the room for a minute and was coming right back. I remember sitting out in the bunker, crying and one of the girls from my unit came out and asked me what was wrong.
"I told her how hard it was to pack up Shawna's stuff ... and then a month later, (this girl) had to do the same thing. She was Jessica Cawvey's best friend."
Jessica Cawvey of Mahomet died in an IED blast on Oct. 6, 2004, near Fallujah.
When Stephanie finally packed her own belongings and left Iraq in March 2005, she arrived home in Robinson a different person. More serious, a little more negative. More confident. Smarter.
But she became depressed. She felt withdrawal, she said, missing her friends and the closeness of their relationships.
Her safety net.
"At home, you're by yourself," she said. "I felt really alone. It was hard."
The Army planted a memorial tree, a redbud, in memory of Justin at Fort Stewart, Ga. Christina went down for the tree ceremony in September. At Christmas, her family stayed close. And in January, Colin had a hole in his heart repaired. Scary, but he came through it fine. Christina said she felt Justin close beside her all of that day.
She believes he visits her in dreams. In one, just before she moved into the new house, he told her he was fine.
Everything's all right, he said. Everything's going to be OK.
And one time she saw him dressed in uniform, getting out of a helicopter, looking like he had the last time she saw him. He played with Colin and walked with her. He passed her off to her best friend and said "Hold on to her. It's time for me to go."
In another dream, he told her it was OK to move on.
"It's comforting," she said. "I feel his presence every day, and I know he's with us."
24 hours a day
Stephanie graduated from the UI in December, and is waiting to hear from law schools around the country. She completed her six-year commitment to the Army in June with no regrets.
The experience was bittersweet, she said. "I hate that people were lost and I've had to experience some things to gain that perspective – but in the end I'm thankful I've gone through that."
She also realized that she liked being a soldier. So she re-enlisted for three more years. Law school might be interrupted by another deployment – this time to Afghanistan.
She smiles, sits tall, proud. The Army's been such a huge part of her life, she said, she doesn't know what it's like to NOT be in the Army.
She found equality there, and rewards for hard work. She liked the discipline. The polish it puts on people.
And she's now a sergeant, so at the drills on weekends, when the new soldiers come in, she teaches them how to be soldiers.
"I'm hoping to guide them ... so that they take it serious from the beginning. Because I didn't.
"And I want them to know coming in that this isn't just something you just do on weekends," said Sgt. Stephanie James. "You're a soldier 24 hours a day."
Life goes on
After Justin died, Christina hated the military. She didn't want anything to do with the Army. She hated the war.
But now, she honors it. Justin liked being a soldier. He signed up to fight the battles, and he voluntarily went back.
In fact, he insisted on it, she said. She didn't understand his drive to go back, but she knows that to hate the war and the military is to dishonor Justin and every other soldier who died in the fight.
She doesn't watch the news of the war on TV, doesn't have a political position about the rights or wrongs of Operation Iraqi Freedom. But she had an inscription put on Justin's tombstone that explains the tragedy the best way she can.
It says simply: Father. Husband. Our hero.
That's not debatable. Of that, she is certain.