St. Paul soldier’s blended family shattered by horrors of war — (The Star Tribune)

SSRI Ed note: Happily married soldier on antidepressants and sleep meds has insomnia, worries about redeployment, dies by suicide in Iraq.

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The Star Tribune

By NICK COLEMAN, Star Tribune

Last update: April 26, 2008 – 10:34 PM

Dwan Fairbanks was at her supervisor’s job at the Best Buy store in Clarksville, Tenn., near the sprawling Fort Campbell Army base when her cell phone rang. Her husband, Jake, was in Iraq, in the middle of his second combat deployment. Her four children were at home, enjoying a day off from school.

It was Fairbanks’ 9-year-old daughter, Katelin, calling. Two soldiers in “Army greens,” the uniform worn on official occasions, had come to the door. Obeying their mother’s instructions for when they were home alone, the kids did not answer the door. The soldiers went away.

They would be back.

Dwan and Jacob Fairbanks were both from St. Paul’s East Side. Jake graduated from Johnson High School in 2004. Dwan went to Harding. They met after Jake joined the Army and was assigned to the 320th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team at Fort Campbell, which straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee border.

“He was my strength in everything I was weak at,” Dwan says. “We just connected. I was a single mom, and I was happy with the way things were for me. But he swept me off my feet.”

Dwan, 28, was six years older than Jake and already had three children — Alexander, who is 11, Katelin and David, 5. The blended family bonded tightly, and quickly.

They married in August 2005, before he deployed to Iraq the first time. Dwan got pregnant when Jake came home on a brief R&R visit a few months later, and the couple’s daughter, Kayla, was born after Jake returned from the war zone.

Kayla, 17 months old now, seemed always to be in Jake’s arms. He called her “Tati Baby” (“tati” was her word for pacifier). But being a father can change the emotional equation for a soldier. After Jake got word that his unit was being redeployed to Iraq, for 15 months this time, a feeling of dread came over him.

“Dwannie, what if I don’t come back this time?” he would ask his wife.

About 225 soldiers from Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne — the Screaming Eagles– have died in Iraq, including some of Jake’s friends.

Jacob Fairbanks would be the 4,027th American to die. On April 9, the Army says, he died of “non-combat” injuries. His death is under investigation by the Army, but news organizations have reported Jake’s death as a self-inflicted gunshot. As many as one in five returning Iraq veterans are suffering from post-traumatic stress, and suicide rates among members of the military have soared. Dwan Fairbanks says she is convinced such “accusations” of suicide, as she calls them, are not true in her husband’s case.

The couple had made too many plans for something like that to happen.

At Fort Campbell, a child is supposed to be at least 12 years old in order to baby-sit younger siblings. Because Alex is only 11, Dwan wondered whether the soldiers at her home might mean she was in trouble for ignoring the rule. She told Katelin to keep the door locked.

Maybe it was nothing.

But Dwan was worried. Jake was on medication for depression and anxiety, and to help him sleep.

“He was so full of life before he went to Iraq the first time,” Dwan says. “But after he came back, he couldn’t sleep. He was up all hours. He’d start talking about how uneasy he was, but I didn’t want him to. I would say, ‘Don’t talk like that, Jake. You’re coming home!'”

Strains of separation

When Jake went back to Iraq, they tried to stay connected via Internet chats. Jake missed Kayla’s first birthday, but in February, he came home for another brief R&R visit. He and Dwan went away for a few days, to the Smoky Mountains. But the war was with them.

“It was hard on him to know he’d be home such a short time, and then he’d have to go back,” Dwan says.

Married 2 1/2 years, they had been together, at home, one year.

On April 9, Dwan and Jake talked on the computer. Her video camera didn’t work, meaning she could see Jake on her screen but he couldn’t see her or the kids. His microphone was out of order, so they couldn’t hear his voice. Dwan fed the kids, returning at intervals to exchange instant messages with Jake.

Jake told Dwan that he knew what he was going to get her for her birthday. They talked about taking the family to Disney World. She told him that the baby was fussy and wanted more cheese slices. Jake hadn’t known that his daughter even liked cheese.

He complained that he was missing all of Kayla’s “firsts,” and that he couldn’t believe how fast she was growing up. Later that night, he died in Baghdad.

The soldiers in dress uniforms were back and Katelin was back on the telephone, asking her mom what to do. Dwan had Katelin put one of the soldiers on the phone. “Is it OK?” Dwan asked. “No, ma’am,” a soldier told her.

When Dwan arrived home, the soldiers and a chaplain were waiting. She was crying as she came inside the house.

“Are they going to take us away?” Katelin asked.

“No, honey, they’re not going to take you away. Daddy died.”

Dwan was in disbelief, and shock.

“After seeing how Jake was, I understand the depression, and the pressure that soldiers are under,” she says. “But Jake and I were making plans. I just that day sent him photos of Kayla and he was asking me to send him a CARE package. … There was nothing that made me question anything.”

Jake’s “story of love and devotion to others … appears to have an unhappy ending,” his pastor, the Rev. Mike Wallman, said at Jake’s funeral at Hayden Heights Baptist Church in St. Paul. Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Betty McCollum attended the April 18 funeral, along with an honor guard from the Leech Lake Indian Reservation where Jake, an Ojibwe, was an enrolled tribal member.

“Soldiers give so much,” Wallman said, enduring “long separations from family that take a toll on a soldier’s sense of self. … Only soldiers understand how the terrors of war and the horrors of the battlefield affect the soul for a lifetime.”

No mention was made of the circumstances of Jake’s death.

Jake was buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. Dwan put pictures of the kids, and of their wedding, in Jake’s coffin, along with a replacement wedding ring she bought for Jake after he lost his ring in Iraq.

Dwan Fairbanks can stay in her home on post at Fort Campbell for a year.

She does not know what she will do after that.

Nick Coleman •