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Bombing engineer really a 'gentle giant'

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METTER, Ga. --- Whenever she was in a sour mood, Lillie Jenkins could always count on "Rah Ra" to provide the tonic to draw her out of the funk.

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Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff
Lillie Jenkins, mother of Pfc. William R. Strange III, clears weeds from her son’s grave as her daughter LaShonda Burke looks on.

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A tribute song performed by Jonathan Thomas Sapp, known as J/Prophet. Sapp wrote the song after his buddy, William Strange, was killed on April 2, 2004 in Iraq. Strange, nicknamed "Rah Ra," was in a rap group with Sapp called Zulu Mafia. The song is called "I'll See You There."

Her middle son, whose given name is William R. Strange III, would pop in a CD of one of his favorite soul singers -- Marvin Gaye. Al Green or Johnny Taylor -- and ask her to dance. When she did, the real fun began.

"I'd go in the living room, and then I start dancing and he'd know I'll fall," she said as the memory prompted a hearty laugh shared with daughter LaShonda Burke as they sat at a kitchen table in Jenkins' home outside Metter, Ga.

"He know I'll fall. And then I fall and then they just stand there and laugh at me."

Strange loved old school R&B, but found his musical calling as a member of a rap group whose lyrics were often raw and profane. As befitting a rapper, Strange would often put up a hard front, but that image belied another one, of a kid who took home economics when he attended Swainsboro High School to learn how to cook and bake.

"He was really a big baby," Burke said. "When he went out among his friends, he had this role he had to portray. He was this hard fellow, wasn't afraid of nothing. He was nothing but a gentle giant."

Little contradictions. Hardly surprising for someone still a teenager and trying to find his place in the world. This search for self eventually led Strange to join the military.

Strange signed up at an Army recruiting station in Statesboro, Ga., a month after graduating in May 2003. He would be dead less than a year later, killed when the Humvee he was riding inside was hit by an improvised explosive device in Baghdad on April 2, 2004.

He was 19 -- the youngest of the 18 Augusta area service members who died in the war.

LOOKING BACK at that chaotic time six years ago, Jenkins now can point to things she believes were signs of the heartache to come.

Two weeks before Rah was killed, her husband, Ricky, a truck driver, had to make a run to Delaware. Jenkins, as she often did when he had to make long trips, rode along.

The delivery was to Dover Air Force Base, home of the military's largest mortuary and where the dead, in war and peacetime, are taken for processing. Jenkins said she doesn't know what her husband delivered, but she knew the base's history.

The Sunday before her son died, he called her from Iraq. The conversation was short because he had to leave for a mission. As a member of the 91st Engineer Battalion out of Fort Hood, Texas, one of his duties was setting up observation posts. At the end of the conversation, she told him to take care of himself. As usual, he told her, "I'm straight." But this time, Rah added something else.

"I know the next two seconds of my life ain't promised me," Jenkins recalls him saying to her. "I know if I go out, I know it's a chance I might not come back. I'm not afraid of that. I'm ready.

"When Rah got killed, it was like everything that I done, God was preparing me but I just didn't know it."

His decision to go into the service wasn't a surprise to Jenkins. She and LaShonda encouraged him to enlist, hoping that a stint in the military would get him away from some of the negative forces waiting to ensnare him in his hometown of Adrian, Ga.

Jenkins said some thugs were trying to convince him to go down the same road as them. When he pulled away, the family feared they might harm him.

"Seeing where his life was in Adrian and seeing where he was going in the military, I really don't think we made a bad choice," Jenkins said. "I really don't. Because, had he stayed down in Adrian, he would have probably ended up hurting somebody or somebody would have hurt him. And that's the way it was going."

A buddy of Strange, Jonathan Sapp, can relate. The two were part of a seven-member rap group called Zulu Mafia, which played at local clubs in and around Emanuel County. He left the town of about 600 residents and one traffic light shortly after Rah's death, coming to a similar conclusion as his friend about his destiny if he stayed.

Sapp now lives in Atlanta and drives trucks. After Strange died, he wrote and recorded a rap song about meeting him in heaven, titling it I'll See You There .

"In Adrian, there's a lot of dope," said Sapp, who still raps part time and goes by the moniker J/Prophet. "There's nothing to do there. If you don't have a vision and you're just floating, there are some bad elements just waiting to take you down."

He believes that had Strange lived, his friend would have pursued a rap career after leaving the service. Sapp said Strange was excellent at rhyming lyrics and the two pushed each other to become better. Being the only white guy in the group, Sapp sometimes had more to prove to audiences.

But anytime someone tried to "mess" with him at a performance, Rah always had his back, Sapp said. At about 6-foot-2 and built like an athlete, Strange wasn't someone to tangle with.

"He would take up for you," Sapp said. "Rah was a very good guy. He tried to act really hard at first, but he had a really, really good heart. We connected at that level."

Sapp said he wasn't surprised that Strange joined the military because he admired his older brother, Perry Burke, who was already several years into a career in the Marines.

The last time Sapp saw Strange was before he deployed. Sapp remembers shaking his hand and telling him that he loved him.

He also told Rah one other thing: "I said don't go over there and get killed."

STRANGE WAS supposed to have company when he enlisted. LaShonda planned to join her younger brother in the Army, but she got cold feet.

"When I found out he was going on, I'm like, 'OK, I got to do something, so I'm going to go, too,' " said Burke, who is seven years older than Strange. "Well, he was actually serious, but I was on the fence."

Once he joined, Strange took his service seriously, particularly because of what he wanted to do while there: Blow stuff up.

Doing demolition in the engineer battalion suited a fearless streak his parents said he had, although Strange admitted in a letter to Jenkins that he didn't like being in the infantry. His assignment to this unit later led to a funny misunderstanding by his mother.

When he came home on leave after basic training, she recalled asking him about fixing a washing machine that was on the blink, thinking that he had been trained to repair things since he was in the engineer battalion.

"I can't fix it," Jenkins said he told her, "but I can blow it up."

Rah, Burke said, was a born actor, who would make a simple paddling by their mother seem as if he'd been brutalized.

Getting up from the kitchen table, Burke limped around the living room and moaned, mimicking how her brother acted after his spanking.

"He would find some Ace bandages and when she'd whip him he'd hop around the house after he'd got the whipping, 'Oh you broke my leg. You broke my leg,' " she said. "He would have this leg bandaged up, and Mama would have just tapped him. He would go in the room and he'd come out the room like he was crippled. He was trying to play her, trying to make her feel bad."

Jenkins knew that.

"I'd look at Shonda and she'd look at me and I'd just turn my head and laugh," she said.

Making her laugh was something Rah enjoyed doing. Another thing he loved was fishing. He liked to brag about his prowess, but Jenkins showed him who was top dog on one memorable outing.

"He said, 'Mama, I'm going to show you how to catch fish,' " she said. "We went to this pond and we got over there and I was reeling them in; he ain't caught none. I said, 'Rah, what's the matter?' He said, ...'Man I can't get no fish.' I done caught about 10."

His father, William, who lives near Jenkins down the same dirt road in rural Candler County, said he taught his son how to fish, just like his father had taught him. They'd go fishing pretty much every weekend and have father and son talks.

As he got older, Rodriquez -- the full middle name his father uses instead of its shortened nickname version of Rah Ra -- discovered something more fun: girls. They went fishing less and less after that, Strange recalled, smiling.

"It's amazing how quick they grow up," Strange said. "How those years just went by. One day they're just little babies and the next day, they grown. Time flies. You just wish you had spent more time with them."

DECIDING TO talk about Rah and dredge up the lingering hurt is difficult for his family. Each can recall with crystal clarity the moment the two Army officers, one a chaplain, pulled into their driveways to deliver the devastating news. Not so much about the moments immediately after.

Jenkins takes comfort in noting that her son's death inspired others. She said a number of people who knew him well, and some who didn't, told her his death prompted them to serve their country, too.

She admits that her faith in God was shaken after he was killed. As she puts it, "I was mad at the military. I was mad at God. I was mad at everybody."

Jenkins said she later came to realize that God doesn't make mistakes. There's a reason for everything.

"God don't take something and he don't leave you nothing. He replaces it with something."

She glanced at LaShonda's boyfriend, Felles Grant, after saying that. Grant is a sergeant first class with the 230th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade of the Georgia National Guard out of Atlanta. The two met a year after Rah was killed, through one of her cousins.

Grant was in Iraq from April 17, 2003, to April 17, 2004. Part of his time there overlapped with Strange, although they didn't know or run into each other.

The two have something else in common -- they share the same birthday, Feb. 16.

Burke was floored when she found out. For Jenkins, it was much more than coincidence.

"God works in mysterious ways," she said. "I'm a firm believer of that."

Pfc. William R. Strange III

AGE: 19

HOMETOWN: Adrian, Ga.

ENLISTMENT: July 8, 2003

DEPLOYED: Jan. 5, 2004

KILLED: April 2, 2004 when the Humvee he was riding in was hit by an IED in Baghdad.

UNIT: 91st Engineer Battalion, 1st Calvary, out of Fort Hood, Texas.

FAMILY: Mother, Lillie Jenkins; two brothers (Staff Sgt. Perry Burke and Darius Burke); three sisters (Lashonda Burke, Kia Burke, Yashima Jordan).

MEDALS: Bronze Star, Purple Heart, The Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal.

OTHER HONORS: Tree planted and dedicated to Strange at Swainsboro High School; bench at Adrian School of Performing Arts dedicated to him.

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