BARNWELL, S.C. --- As a child, Guy Buggs had a father who doted on him, coming home from Fort Stewart every Thursday and spending four straight days with him -- playing video games, shooting hoops, going to the malls, watching horror movies, or whatever else Guy felt like doing.
Then, when he was 12, his father was killed in an ambush on a convoy a few days into the Iraq war in 2003.
Later that year, Guy accepted a folded and framed American flag from U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in the Barnwell High School gym. Tears streamed down Guy's cheeks as he turned to face the audience. When they rose to their feet in applause, he handed the flag to his mother and covered his face with his hands.
It was a painful time, Guy said, and he would feel the gravity of the loss as he spent his teen years fatherless. Staff Sgt. George Edward Buggs III wasn't around to teach him to drive or see him graduate.
While his mother sought psychiatric help in her grieving, Guy said, he kept his feelings to himself.
"I just learned to deal with it myself," he said. "I didn't ever really talk to anyone about it.
"As the time passed, I got better with it, but you never get used to losing someone close to you like that."
One way he coped, Guy said, was to think back on the things his father told him to do -- and do them. Buggs told him not to go into the military, something his own father, a Vietnam veteran, had once wished for him. He also taught Guy to take school seriously and follow his heart in picking a career.
Guy graduated from Barnwell High School last year with a 3.5 grade-point average. He is studying computer science at the University of South Carolina Aiken, with tuition covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs' Dependents' Educational Assistance Program. He dreams of becoming a record producer.
Despite what the loss of his father did to him, Guy said, he never wanted to know exactly what happened March 23, 2003, in Nasiriyah. He knows that his father and Pfc. Jessica Lynch were in a convoy that took some wrong turns and wound up in an ambush.
"I never really got curious," Guy said. "I don't want to bring back old memories. That's a bad memory."
His mother, Wanda Buggs, did get curious. She said that Army documents led her to believe her husband was captured alive and executed but that she's still not certain.
Several years ago, she asked a reporter to pass her telephone number on to Lynch, the only person in a Humvee with her husband who survived the hourlong street battle.
Lynch, who is out of the Army now and studying to be a teacher at West Virginia University at Parkersburg, returned the message in 2007. Wanda asked what happened.
Lynch told Wanda that she couldn't remember much because she had lost consciousness, and that she couldn't tell her anything else about Buggs because he was from a different unit and she didn't know him. Wanda asked her to call back if anything ever came to her, and Lynch said she would.
Wanda said just talking to Lynch made her feel better.
"But after she called," the widow said, "I just really wanted more answers."
Wanda took the loss hard initially, with crying spells and becoming so distraught that she quit her job at the Hanesbrands factory, where she worked as a sock knitter. Compounding her pain was that she and Buggs were separated when he died and were planning to get divorced. She still loved him, though, Wanda said.
"It was really devastating," she said. "I couldn't do anything, myself, for six months. I had to go into counseling and get on depression pills."
She also wanted to be alone. She used the payout she received from Buggs' death to buy a house in the country, in Red Oak community south of Barnwell.
The quiet helped.
"When you're surrounded by people, it doesn't seem like you can think as well as you can by yourself," Wanda said. She eventually went back to work and now is in medical billing at Barnwell County Hospital. She has a house-cleaning business on the side.
In their house, a room on the bottom floor is a shrine of sorts to her late husband. On one wall hangs a framed letter of condolence with President George W. Bush's stamped signature, along with the framed flag that Guy received from the senator and honorary resolutions from the South Carolina General Assembly and the Barnwell County Council.
On a stack of shelves sits Buggs' Purple Heart and Bronze Star, shell casings from the rifles fired at his funeral and a fading 2003 People magazine with Lynch on the cover.
Both she and her son say they don't believe the war he died in was justified. The reasons given in the beginning turned out to be false, they said, and they wonder whether Iraq will really be better off after American forces leave.
Wanda said that she initially supported the campaign, taking the Sept. 11 attacks into consideration, but that after her husband was killed she couldn't come to grips with the question of why him.
Guy said that he didn't understand the reasons for the war when he was a child, making his father's absence even harder, and that he still doesn't get it. He said he doesn't blame anyone, though.
"I really can't be mad at the military," he said. "That was something he liked to do. I really can't be mad at Bush; I really don't know him to be mad at him. I can't blame the Iraqis; I don't even know who shot him."