Vivian Huffman remembers the smart and loving child she raised but had no idea would embark on a military career. Now more than 16 years after her death during the war in Iraq, she is among the families reflecting on their losses in wars following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Orangeburg County resident has several smiling pictures of the late Army Spc. Katrina L. Johnson Bell in her Bair Road home, sometimes stopping to look at them and cry when she thinks about her daughter’s sacrifice.
‘Somebody had to be able to go’
Bell, 32, was killed in Baghdad, Iraq, on Feb. 16, 2005, the fourth person from Orangeburg County to die in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.
Bell was riding in a convoy delivering goods for the Army when the truck she was riding in flipped over and came to rest on top of her. She was killed instantly.
Huffman was left to raise Katrina’s infant daughter, Gabriella.
“I had Gabby from a tiny little baby. She didn’t get to know her mother. When she grew up, I made sure I showed her her mother’s picture. I told her all about her mother and what she did for this country,” Huffman said.
She said for a long time she did not know how to cope with her loss and, in fact, did not.
“For a long time, I didn’t. I was just out of it every day. Every day I was crying because I would look at the baby and say, ‘Oh my God. How can you do this to me, Lord?’ I know I shouldn’t have done that, but I said, ‘Lord, how can you do this to my child you gave me and now I have her child?’” Huffman said.
She said Gabriella was Katrina’s miracle baby because doctors had told her daughter she wouldn’t be able to conceive after suffering a ruptured appendix as a child.
She said Katrina was trained as a heavy duty mechanic in the military and knew her way around a truck, but that she had also enjoyed sports in school and had even had plans to become a nurse after graduating from Midlands Technical College with a degree in surgical technology.
She was drawn into the military under the advice of her uncle.
“When she went overseas, she was a driver, but she still had to do mechanic work. She was a Christian person. While she was overseas, she taught them things in the Bible. As a matter of fact, she said, ‘Mama, the Lord saved me.’ I was able to deliver a message to the people over on that side of the world.’ She read the Bible to them, they had Bible study and she taught them the word of God,” Huffman said.
She has mixed emotions regarding the war in Iraq and if it was necessary.
“That’s a hard question. Somebody had to be able to go overseas and try to get things straightened out, though,” she said, noting that she thought her daughter was relatively safe by not being in direct combat.
“But it was those hidden dangers,” she said, noting that life is a little better now.
She said she finds solace in knowing Katrina is “gone home with the Lord,” and that Gabriella has grown into a successful young lady who has dreams of her own.
Gabriella, who will turn 18 on Sept. 30, is set to attend Midlands Technical College. She said she appreciates the sacrifices that Huffman has made for her.
“Sometimes I forget that she’s even my grandma because I’m just so used to her being really the only mother I know. I never got the chance to really know my biological mother, but as I grow up and stuff, she said she can see a whole lot of my mom in me,” Gabriella said.
“At first it used to scare me a little bit because I thought I had to grow up to be exactly like her, but instead I just put her as one of my idols. I ascribe to be like her, but I don’t lose track of myself,” the teen said.
“I don’t think any war is necessary at all. I never understood why it was so hard to have world peace,” Gabriella said, but she’s looking forward to continuing her life with her mom’s memory forever in her heart.
“Now I’m trying to start a new chapter in my life going to college and stuff and trying to figure out what I really want to do in the long run, but life’s been good,” she said.
‘I just decided to move on’
The war in Afghanistan began in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania.
Then-president George W. Bush launched the war shortly after 9-11 on Oct. 7, with a U.S.-installed government taking over in Afghanistan and plans to ward off another 9-11. Bush then launched another war in Iraq, invading in 2003.
U.S. Marine Pvt. Rodricka Antwan Youmans, 22, of Allendale County was killed in a bomb attack by Iraqi insurgents on July 6, 2004.
His father, Johnnie Youmans, said “It’s hard. Days have passed, but yet still we miss him every day.”
What does he miss most?
“His smile, and sometimes we’d sit down and talk and stuff. He used to love to be getting in my truck and riding around and stuff,” Youmans said.
“He was a nice person. If you had gotten to know him, he would make you laugh. If he could help you out, he would,” he said.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Youmans has said that the focus should have stayed on Afghanistan and capturing Osama bin Laden, not destroying and rebuilding nations.
He has mixed emotions about the war in Iraq.
“At the time, I thought it was about something. I just went along with it. It just got old, and it seemed it was a waste of time and loss of life for nothing,” said Youmans, who served as a staff sergeant with the S.C. Army National Guard’s 163rd Support Battalion before retiring in 2005.
He said it is hard to accept the death of his son, but life goes on.
“It’s hard to accept for anyone’s child, but you have to move on. Memories always will be there,” he said, noting that he lost his wife and Rodricka’s mother, Manderlene, in 2009 at the age of 52.
The loss of their son weighed heavy on his wife, he said.
“That worried her so much. And she was suffering from cancer and stuff. That worried her a lot. It was hard for her to get over it,” Youmans said.
He said Rodricka’s son, Mekhi, 18, has just joined the U.S. Army.
“It’s kind of hard, but that’s what he wanted to do. After he got out of school, he didn’t want to go to college right then. He wanted to serve in the Army.
“I thought he was going to go into the Marine Corps, but he said he didn’t want to do that, I guess, after his father got killed in the Marine Corps,” Youmans said.
Enduring by serving others
Orangeburg resident Elaine Johnson is the mother of Army Spc. Darius T. Jennings, who was aboard a CH-47 Chinook helicopter that was struck by enemy fire and crashed in Al Fallujah, near Baghdad, Iraq, in November 2003. He was 22 when he died.
Johnson, who recently underwent a life-changing event with a kidney transplant on Feb. 13, said she endures the pain of losing her child by serving others.
“Things are going good. It’s been a while, but I’m getting through it by doing things,” Johnson said.
Veteran appreciation luncheons, to which she has invited all area veterans and their families to a free meal in appreciation for their service and in commemoration of her own son’s ultimate sacrifice, are among the things she has done.
“This year I’m paying tribute to the ones that have lost their lives by honoring their mothers. On Sept. 26, I’m planning on doing a trip to Washington, D.C. Sept. 26th is Gold Star Mom Day,” Johnson said.
“To honor the fallen soldiers, you have to first honor their mothers. So I’m raising money and planning a trip to Washington, D.C. We’ll be going to D.C. to meet with all the other Gold Star mom from across the United States,” she said.
While the U.S. eventually killed Osama bin Laden, whose Al-Qaida extremist network planned and executed the 9-11 plot from Afghanistan, Johnson still struggles with why the terrorists did what they did.
“I still don’t understand their reason for doing it, and I just try to move on now. I wouldn’t mind knowing why, but I just decided to move on. I try not to boggle my mind so much into that and just try to focus on keeping moving,” Johnson said.
'I feel good knowing they remember'
Bowman native Sallie Void-Jones, who now resides in Orangeburg, is the mother of U.S. Army Sgt. Demetrius Lamar Void, who lost his life in Afghanistan in September 2009.
“It’s been some good days and some bad days. Sometimes it’s OK, and sometimes it feels like it just happened,” she said.
Void-Jones said her family enjoys remembering what a jokester her son was.
“We’ll be laughing about things he’d do. He used to laugh and tease anybody about everything. So we just repeat some of the stuff he’d say when we’re around people and joke,” she said.
She said the war in Afghanistan was necessary but dragged on too long.
“It was necessary, but it’s just been a long time going on. They had the war going on a long time,” Void-Jones said.
She did not look at images on TV regarding the last remnants of America’s longest war, nor has she watched in the past.
“I don’t really look at it like that. When they start talking about it, most of the time I just turn. I hate looking at it and hearing about it sometime, anything that has to do with that,” she said.
She has been dealing with health issues of her own.
“My cancer and stuff. So I really didn’t focus too much on the other part of my life. I was just trying to get better and heal. ... I just changed my focus and put everything into dealing with my health issues and kind of block the other stuff out,” Void-Jones said.
She is grateful, however, for people remembering her son and others who died in the wars, particularly on the anniversary of 9-11.
“I feel good knowing they remember what all of them went through and the sacrifice they made. Nobody forgot about them,” she said.
'You just have to keep on living'
Irateen Smith is the mother of Army Spec. Orenthial Javon Smith, 21, of Allendale County. Her son was killed June 22, 2003, when a convoy was ambushed by small arms fire in Iraq.
Smith said she is doing well but admits to be “down and depressed” around the holidays and her son’s birthday.
“I’ll never get over it, but I can learn to adjust and cope. The biggest thing that helped me to cope was having God in my life. Without him, I would have been a bucket case. I would have been bad off,” Smith said.
She said the war was not necessary but that she somewhat changed her outlook on it.
“I know when it first happened, I said that. I remember President Bush was the president, and I said that if he hadn’t sent them to war, I would have had my baby, but I had to rethink that. I think that God has a time and a place for everything, and I just think that if he was home, or if he was back in Germany, if it was his time, it was just his time,” Smith said.
She continued, “I’ve had conversations with different people, and they look at me kind of strange and whatever, but that’s just what I think. I don’t think we’re going nowhere before our time. So I think it was just his time,” she said.
Smith said she doesn’t think too much about the results of the war and what would have happened if more concentration had been put on Afghanistan at the time.
“You know what? I really can’t say. I know things are happening. It was happening back then and it’s still happening, but I try to put a lot of that stuff out of my mind. I just really didn’t want to think about that stuff. ... I really hadn’t been able to figure this stuff out yet,” she said.
“Whether it was necessary, I really don’t know, but I know one thing: He loved doing what he was doing. He wanted to make a career out of it. He loved it,” Smith said.
Smith said she is grateful for God making the loss of her child easier.
“I always said if something happened to one of my children before it happened to me, I don’t know what I would do. But, I mean, it happened to me, and I pulled through it by the grace of God. It’s hard, but you just have to keep on living because I know that’s what O.J. would want us to do,” she said. “I know he died doing what he loved.”
Contact the writer: email@example.com or 803-533-5534. Follow "Good News with Gleaton" on Twitter at @DionneTandD