Amber Carlson jiggles baby Korben on her knee and laughs out loud about the boy’s father. His bone dry sense of humor. How he begged for another child. His artistic talent.
Army Spc. Erik John Carlson returned safely from a 10-month tour of Iraq in 2003, only to die less than a year later in a Humvee crash Sept. 2 near his base in Bamberg, Germany.
This Memorial Day, the Corona del Sol graduate and father of two will be honored along with thousands of others from the East Valley who lost their lives in military service.
More than 1,600 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to The Associated Press, including 1,506 who perished after President Bush declared major combat in Iraq had ended in March 2003. More than 50 Arizonans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
The list, however, doesn’t include soldiers like Carlson, 25, whose training exercises were in direct support of the war and who was on notice that he could return to the Middle East at any time.
"It’s a huge sacrifice, not only for me and his kids, but for everybody who knew him," Amber Carlson said. "It’s changed everyone who knew him, permanently."
Jacob Hobbs loves to talk about his father, Army Staff Sgt. Brian Hobbs. The 9-year-old Apache Junction boy grins when he recalls hiking with his dad in Hawaii, where the family was stationed before Hobbs’ unit was sent to Afghanistan. "And he got me a soccer ball, and a football," Jacob added.
Hobbs, 31, came home on midtour leave in September. Though he was the kind of guy who liked to keep moving, he decided against a family vacation in favor of puttering around the house and spending a special day with each of his children: Briana, 11; Josiah, 3; and Jacob.
Soon after he returned to Afghanistan, he survived an ambush that later earned him the Bronze Star. Days later, on Oct. 14, Hobbs and another soldier were killed when a bomb exploded underneath their patrol vehicle.
"I had spoken to him four days prior. I think he was just really trying to put it into my mind how much danger he was in," said his wife, Jenny Hobbs. "He told me to have the church pray for him."
Jenny Hobbs and the children are spending Memorial Day in Washington, D.C., viewing her husband’s portrait in an exhibit called "Faces of the Fallen" at the Women’s Memorial. The exhibit, which opened in March, features more than 1,000 portraits by professional artists of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Family members say Erik Carlson and Brian Hobbs were born to be soldiers and loved their jobs.
And even though they’ve been left single mothers, both young widows say they wouldn’t have done anything differently.
"I’m not bitter toward the military and I’m not angry at my husband for having joined," Hobbs said. "It was a privilege to be Brian’s wife and now it’s a privilege to be the wife of a fallen soldier."
Carlson said it does no good to curse the war or the military. It’s not what Erik, who practiced Taoism, would have wanted. And anger won’t help her to raise 6-month-old Korben and Finnegan, 6.
"I can’t live my life that way. I can’t raise healthy, well-adjusted children that way," she said. "Raising Erik’s children — that’s my job."
Carlson recently moved into her first home in Chandler, and earlier this month it was ransacked and burglarized. Along with a stereo, DVD player and a broken printer, the thieves took Erik’s duffle bag, which contained three of his combat uniforms, his boots, hat and shaving kit.
The family hopes these items will be returned, since they’re of little use to anyone else but are of great sentimental value to the Carlsons.
Finnegan is a serious boy like his father, with the same dry wit. Last weekend on a fishing trip with his grandfather, he bought a rubber ring that lights up to replace his mother’s wedding band, taken in the burglary. He and his mother attend counseling now and then, and tell the baby stories about Erik.
"Teaching Korben about dad is something he takes very seriously," Amber Carlson said.
Erik’s mother, Cheri Shewak of Scottsdale, is making photo albums for Korben and Finnegan so they will always remember what their dad was like when he was little. She’s combining quotes and memories with old photos of her son, whom she fondly recalls as "an accident waiting to happen."
"It didn’t have to happen," she said of the Humvee accident. "And I just feel so awful about it and I miss him so much. And there’s no recourse."
She takes comfort knowing that her son was happy in his job and his life.
Amber Carlson realizes many people treat Memorial Day as the beginning of summer, a reason for a barbecue or just a day off from school or work. She’s planning a family gathering at her home, the first in what she hopes will be an annual "celebration of Erik."
"Since we can’t have a National Erik Day, I think Memorial Day will do."
At the Hobbs house, Jacob returns from his room clutching a teddy bear that his dad gave him. When you press its tummy, there’s Brian’s voice, "Always remember, daddy loves you Jacob."
Then Jacob sums up the story he says he’s been writing in his head about his father.
"My dad made me feel proud. He made me feel special. He’s my hero."