'Empty spot' remains for mother 6 years later

METTER, Ga. --- Lillie Jenkins stayed on the road a lot after her son was killed in Iraq six years ago.

When she bought her Dodge Caravan in 2004, it had only two miles on it. Twelve months later, the odometer read 48,000.

She didn't drive to any place in particular. It was more about getting away from something.

When the memories of the son she lost in the early stages of the Iraq war got too painful, she had to get out of her house in rural Candler County and hit the road to visit friends and family.

"In fact, just last week, I was sitting up here and I couldn't stay here," Jenkins said last month. "I just had to go. When I have to leave, I have to leave, because if I stay here, I would just make myself miserable."

April 2 marked six years since her son, Pfc. William R. Strange III -- nicknamed Rah Ra -- was killed when the Humvee he was in was hit by an improvised explosive device in Baghdad. Time hasn't healed this wound.

"I have an empty spot right here," she said, pointing to her heart. "Can't fill it no kind of way. It's a pill to swallow. I mean, it's a pill. We got up after he was buried and stuff, and had cookouts, and I couldn't take it. Because I felt like they got all of their kids but I'm short of one."

Jenkins smiled when asked how she feels when people who mean well tell her they know how she must feel. "No, you don't," she would say to herself.

"I used to think I knew how my mom felt, and I've lost four sisters and brothers, and when my son died, I went to my mom and asked, 'How do you do it?' " she said.

Special occasions such as Rah's birthday and holidays are still rough. She said Christmas is the toughest because it was Rah's favorite holiday.

A cherished picture is one of Rah as a child, sitting in the middle of a bunch of presents he got for Christmas.

"He sat in the middle of them like, 'Oh, man, I got this. This is mine,' " Jenkins said.

The months after Rah's death are a blur to her. She said she didn't care whether she lived or died, or about her responsibilities to her younger children still at home.

"Whatever they did, they could do it," Jenkins said. "It really didn't bother me.'

A conversation one day with her husband, Ricky, helped snap her out of it.

"He said, 'Let me tell you something. You've got two other children you got to raise. You have got to get yourself together,' " she recalled.

What also helped was a dream she had. That night, when the heartache had become nearly unbearable, Jenkins dropped to her knees and started bawling.

"I couldn't even pray. I couldn't talk to God. I couldn't do nothing but cry."

Eventually she dozed off and Rah, she said, came to her in a dream and Jesus was with him.

Jenkins said Rah spoke to her, saying, "Mama, don't worry. You know better.' And Jesus said, 'Rah, give her time.' He said, 'I know what she's going through.' And when I got up, it was something about that that just picked me up and gave me my belief back."

It's still hard for her to watch or read news about the war. It pains her when she hears about a soldier dying in Iraq or Afghanistan. She grieves for the families, sharing a bond she will always have with them.

With the combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom over, Jenkins has taken stock of the war. She wants to believe that Rah, and the sons and daughters of so many other parents, died for a just cause.

"Some of the missions that they set to accomplish I really think they accomplished," Jenkins said. "I really do. Those people over there, they are crazy, because they believe that if they kill somebody or themselves they will see their god. They are brainwashed. But I think my son and all the other sons and daughters and fathers over there, I think it was good. I don't think it was in vain."

Her feelings about the war are not shared by other family members.

"You know, I don't think it was fair," said her daughter, LaShonda Burke. "And that's for every soldier and everything. The soldiers were sent over there under false pretenses.

"I don't know the whole story to the whole situation. All I know is that I lost my brother. And I would give anything to have him back."

William Strange, Rah's father, says he hopes the troops will now be out of harm's way but said it comes too late for his son in a war he was against from the start.

"It will make me feel better that someone else won't lose their child for what I call a lost cause," he said. "So many have been lost. They should have been pulled them out of there.

"I don't see any good coming out of this war. Just a lot of bloodshed."

In the days and months after Rah was killed, Jenkins received commemorative quilts that honor his service to the country. One person sent her a portrait, sketched in pencil, of Rah dressed in his camouflage.

His medals, which include a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, are in a triangle-shaped glass-enclosed case that also holds a folded U.S. flag given to her at his funeral. She has several scrapbooks filled with pictures of him as a youngster and as a soldier.

Jenkins also has a box filled with some of his clothes. Other clothing hangs in closets. She can't bring herself to give them away.

"Hold on to his memories," Jenkins replied when asked why she has kept his clothes. "After six years, I don't know if I'm ready to get rid of them or not. I keep hoping one day he's going to come home. I think that's the real reason."

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