Soldier's death haunts father

Chief Warrant Officer Jason DeFrenn

Something that haunts Garth DeFrenn about his son's death is how close he came to talking him out of going back to Iraq.


But then, the fact that Chief Warrant Officer Jason DeFrenn felt like he had to return to his unit helps him and his wife, Naomi, make sense out of losing him.

It's why they supported the war when it started. They believe, as their son did, that if terrorists weren't fought in Iraq, they would be pulling off more 9/11's on American soil.

"He said that he had to go back because he had seen enough while he was there," said Naomi DeFrenn, his stepmother. "He knew that if he didn't go back that they would be over here, and he wanted to protect his family has much as he could."

DeFrenn is the most recent soldier from the greater Augusta area to die in Iraq. It's been three years since his family lost him, but the pain still stings, the higher meaning still coming into focus.

Before DeFrenn redeployed in 2006 -- his third tour in the war on terrorism after one in Afghanistan and another in Iraq -- the situation in Iraq seemed at its worst. The insurgency was wreaking havoc, and DeFrenn, an Apache helicopter pilot, would be in the thick of battle.

His father, a mechanical contractor, said he found him a civilian job flying a helicopter ambulance in Houston, and his son seemed interested. Then DeFrenn's battalion commander convinced him to re-enlist, and his son phoned him and said he would be leaving in four weeks.

He never saw his son again. Insurgents shot his chopper down outside Taji on Feb. 2, 2007, killing DeFrenn and Chief Warrant Officer Keith Yoakum, of Hemet, Calif.

The attackers also filmed the crash and posted video on the Internet. Garth DeFrenn said he was "dangerously angry" after hearing their off-camera, celebratory chanting. But a month later, he wrote in a letter to The (Barnwell) People-Sentinel saying he no longer harbored hatred toward them. His son died so both Americans and Iraqis could live in peace, and he said he had decided not to let evil men deprive him of his own peace.

Far from a war hawk, Garth DeFrenn said he has no doubt the reasons for invasion were false and that the American public was told things by the Bush administration that weren't true. But so many terrorists had set up operations in Iraq, he said, and once we were there, we might as well have rooted them out. That doesn't justify it, though, he said.

"No war is worth it," he said. "I lost my only son. I can tell you that."

When he delivered his eulogy at Barnwell's First Baptist Church, DeFrenn said he hoped his grandson, Christopher, born four days after his father died, would be a peacemaker.

"Fighting is not always the answer," he said recently. "And I'm not saying that fighting wasn't the answer with Jason in Iraq. But we should search for ways to get along with people. It's not easy to do. It's not easy for me to do."

His son's children by three wives are spread out across the country -- one in Tennessee, one in Maine and two in Bamberg, S.C. One of them, Michael, 7, who lives in Bamberg, has had a hard time lately, DeFrenn said.

"He took his daddy's death real hard," he said. "Learning problems, learning disabilities problems, emotional problems. His mother's dealing with it, and she's taken him to the right places to get him back on the straight and narrow, so he'll be fine."

DeFrenn said the death left him scarred, too. He makes frequent trips to Allen's Chapel Baptist Church cemetery, where his son is buried.

"I spend time with Jason, sometimes," he said. "I go out, out to the church, sit there in the truck. There's really nothing you can say or do, once you've lost somebody.

"I have nightmares sometimes. Keeps me up."

Soon after it happened, his granddaughter Jessica, now 11, asked him why her father had to die.

"It's hard to explain to your grandchildren," DeFrenn said. "The real truth is, well, I guess he didn't really have to die, if somebody would have taken the time to work with Arabs, work with the situation. But that's part of politics.

"To tell a child that we make machines that kill people, and we fly them around and destroy property, how do you explain that to a 9-year-old child that makes any sense?" he said. "Doesn't make a lot of sense, does it?"

Pilot died protecting fellow soldiers