Cover Story

Fallen soldiers in a forgotten war

"Fallen soldiers in a forgotten war" Continued...

Issue: "Memorial Day 2005," May 28, 2005

Growing up together, first in Hillsville, Va., then in Easley, S.C., Jeremiah and Chrystal took different paths. Chrystal, known as a devout and outspoken Christian, finished high school, joined the Army National Guard, and was attending night courses when her unit was activated and sent to Afghanistan. But Jeremiah dropped out of school halfway through the 9th grade and embarked on a series of scrapes with the law, some serious.

Now 20, he aims to do what Chrystal always wanted him to do: straighten himself out. "I rebelled really bad, but she was like a second mom to me," said Jeremiah, whose parents divorced several years ago. "She was there whenever I needed her, but also always ready to jump on me whenever she felt like I needed to be jumped on."

But Chrystal's jumping, while firm, was also gentle, said her grandfather, John Henry Stout, Jr.. When the two visited him in Hillsville, Mr. Stout said, the siblings would talk, sometimes for hours, while ambling along familiar roads in their Mayberry-like hometown.

Mr. Stout most treasures his granddaughter's level-headedness. "She had a lot of common sense. She knew what she wanted." But generosity and a ready smile softened her solid side, and "radiated like a beacon," former co-worker Sgt. Mike Alexander told The Greenville News. Sgt. Alexander was stationed with Spc. Stout at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. "Even in the darkest moments, she would give people an escape from the war," he said.

That Chrystal never saw him escape his own downward spiral weighs on her brother's heart. Since her death, "I've been feeling so bad because . . . the last time I saw her she had just found out I was looking at some jail time," said Jeremiah, who is awaiting a court date on felony charges.

But though his freedom now hangs in the balance, he still hopes to honor his sister's memory. Through a home school program he will complete his high school diploma in June, "because that was the one thing Chrystal always wanted me to do, to get into college so I could have a good future."

It breaks his heart, he says, "that she never knew I was even trying. I will do whatever it takes to be able to see her again one day."

The men of Sigma Chi are going to make sure people do not forget Spc. Brett Michael Hershey of the Army National Guard's 76th Infantry Brigade. In memory of their fraternity brother, members of the Indiana University (IU) chapter have ordered 5,000 memorial bracelets: on one side, Brett's initials; on the other, the Bible verse John 11:25 -"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies."

Sigma Chi will donate the proceeds from the bracelets to IU's Campus Crusade for Christ, where Brett had planned to come on staff before he was killed when the vehicle he was riding in hit a landmine-leftover from another war-on March 26.

Friends knew Spc. Hershey, of State College, Penn., as a man both full of faith and full of fun, who lit up a room when he entered it, and sometimes donned a crazy black wig just to spice up fraternity chapter meetings. A multi-sport athlete, "he was constantly making new friends," said his mother Roxanne Hershey, who with her husband Roger serves with Campus Crusade at Penn State University. "He was able to make people feel loved, accepted and comfortable around him. He could just accept people however they were."

Mrs. Hershey said she believes that's what enabled him to "have a ministry" in the Greek system at IU. "Brett would go around and invite the guys to Bible study every week, then go to frat parties, dance, and have a good time" without compromising his biblical ethics. After his death, some Sigma Chi brothers told the Hersheys they respected Brett for living out his faith in a way that attracted others without condemning them.

For Spc. Hershey there were other attractions, in particular a young IU student named Elizabeth Keller with whom he had fallen in love. While he was in Afghanistan, the couple agreed to marry, chose a church for the wedding, and picked the Bahamas for their honeymoon. But even with those plans in place, Brett still wanted to get down on one knee and propose when he returned to the states. With the help of an aunt, he secretly bought Miss Keller an engagement ring and entrusted it to her parents for safekeeping. After learning of Brett's death, Miss Keller's parents gave her the ring he had in his daydreams given her himself.

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