At press time, the Department of Defense had confirmed 3,960 American deaths since the Iraq war began nearly five years ago. Eight of those were from Shelby County.
The area's first victim — Morgan Kennon — died just months after the war began in 2003. Five more died in 2004; two in 2006. Last year passed without a single Bluff City casualty.
Memphis' fallen warriors are no longer in the news. Their obituaries have been written. Their memories remain fresh only to close friends and family. Too often, they're simply names on a list of thousands, a number or a brief line in a statistical report.
They deserve more. The "Flyer" spoke with family members and friends in an effort to paint a fuller picture of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country in Iraq.
Killed: November 7, 2003
Rank: Staff Sergeant
Central High School graduate Morgan Kennon was studying to be a lawyer while serving in the Army, but his family didn't find out until after his death.
"He didn't tell anyone. We found out by going through his things," says Taisha Crawford, Morgan's older sister.
"For some reason, he never wanted me to know about his achievements, and he had a lot of them," says his mother, Paulette Crawford-Webb. "I later learned that he'd gotten awards for this, that, and the other and that he was an expert in marksmanship. I also learned that he wrote poetry, and he was very good at it."
"He was very humble," Taisha says.
Morgan joined the Army at age 18, shortly after his graduation. He was working at Taco Bell. The fast-food chain offered him a management position, but he turned it down.
"He and his friends were just out of school, and they were trying to figure out what they were going to do," Paulette says. "He didn't want to be one of the street kids. He felt he needed discipline. I said, 'You can either get a job or go into the military.' He chose the military."
In school, Morgan was an A and B student, but he was also the class clown. When he was 16, Morgan and his buddies would hang out at his mother's home after school and try out wrestling moves in the yard.
"They thought they were in the WWF," Paulette says.
Taisha taught her little brother to drive.
"He was trying to be cool — trying to sit way back in the seat, trying to drive with one finger," Taisha says. "I was like, you need to sit up."
Taisha says her brother could talk anyone into doing almost anything. Once at a football game in Nashville, Morgan talked a security guard into letting Taisha and his girlfriend Patrice sit in the club section.
"He'd forgotten his money, and by the time we found an ATM, we ended up with bad seats," Taisha says. "Some people didn't show up for their club seats, so we moved over there. But a security guard told us we had to move."
Taisha and Patrice left to go to the bathroom, and when they came back, Morgan was still sitting in the VIP seats. He wouldn't tell them what he'd said to the security guard, but he assured them they could stay put.
"After we left, he was shaking hands with the security guard like they were buddies," Taisha says.
Taisha says her little brother often took the blame when she did something wrong.
"He got punished for stuff that I did," she says. "He was very protective of me."
"Protective" was Morgan's nature. He was trying to shield a fellow soldier on November 7, 2003, when the bank they were guarding in Mosul came under fire.
Morgan took the brunt of the blast. He was hit with shrapnel at the base of his skull and killed instantly. His friend managed to escape with a serious arm injury.
"He was a very responsible young man. Very smart. Very God-fearing," Taisha says. "And he loved me and my mom and my daughter. We were his girls."
Killed: April 7, 2004
Branch: Marine Corps
On September 11, 2001, Brent Morel was up early, training with his Marine unit in Twentynine Palms, California. His wife, Amy, and one of her girlfriends were asleep in the base housing she shared with her husband. The women were awakened when Brent's father, Mike Morel, called to say the World Trade Center had been attacked.
"I got my friend up, and we just sat there and watched the television. I was like, 'Oh, my God.' At that point, we realized everything was about to change. It was just a waiting game," says Amy, who has since moved home to Memphis.
Brent, a graduate of Bartlett High School, wasn't deployed to Iraq until February 2004, just a few days after he and Amy celebrated Valentine's Day in San Francisco.
"I heard from him twice a week [when he was in Iraq]," Amy says. "He never really told me things that were happening though. He would just be like, 'Everything's okay.'"
Brent and his sister Marcy grew up in Bartlett, though the Morels later moved to Martin, Tennessee. According to Brent's mother, Molly, her son loved to play golf with his dad, and he was an avid deer and duck hunter.
"He'd find a place to hunt everywhere we lived," says Amy, who now runs a florist shop. "And he'd gotten really into fixing cars. He'd spend many a Saturday afternoon trying to fix things that weren't broken on the cars that we had at the time. It infuriated me, but it was something he liked to do."
Brent and Amy married in 1998, a few months after meeting at a University of Tennessee-Martin fraternity party. Both wanted children, but Brent insisted on waiting five years to start a family. Unfortunately, the couple never had that chance. Brent was killed while leading a convoy in Anbar province on April 7, 2004.
"The guys in the back of the convoy were in the process of radioing ahead that something was about to hit because the children that had been playing in the yards suddenly ran inside for cover," Molly says. "But before they could radio ahead, an IED [improvised explosive device] hit the lead Humvee."
Brent was in the second Humvee. He immediately pulled his vehicle around to protect the wounded Marines in the damaged Humvee. As he did, his Humvee was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade. No one was wounded, but Brent knew they were surrounded by insurgents. He didn't want to turn the convoy around, because he'd have to abandon the injured men in the lead Humvee.
"So he made a split-second decision and told the guys in his Humvee to dismount. Then he took off running toward the insurgents," Molly says. "It sounds suicidal to most of us, but that's just Marine training."
His action changed the momentum of the battle. The insurgents weren't expecting a full-frontal assault. Brent and the other Marines were firing as they ran. As Brent raised his arm to give an order, an insurgent shot him at close range in the armpit. The bullet pierced both lungs.
Brent died in the medic helicopter. But the rest of his team survived.
"Brent was a good-hearted kid who was so focused on being a Marine. He believed in his mission. He believed the Iraqi people deserved better. He wrote us that he felt so sorry for the children," Molly says. "He believed they'd end up with a better world than they'd ever had."
Ervin Caradine Jr.
Killed: May 2, 2004
Branch: Army Rank: Specialist
On May 2, 2004, Army Specialist Ervin Caradine Jr. placed a call from Iraq to the home of his grandmother Willie B. and his aunt Minnie Jane in South Memphis.
"We could tell how afraid he was and how much was going on," says Minnie Jane, whose eyes well up with tears at the memory. "You could hear the fighting. He said, 'I'm going to have to let ya'll go. It's getting rough over here.'"
That was the last time his family would hear from him. Later that day, Ervin was killed when his Humvee ran over an IED.
"That was rough. I've tried to forget about that. I can't even look at his pictures," says Willie B., who's nearly 90 years old.
The 33-year-old left behind four children and his wife, Montessia. About a year later, Montessia died of cancer. Today, the children live with her mother, Edna Smith, in Cordova.
The tragedy for Ervin's children mirrors his own upbringing. When he was 2, Ervin's mother was killed in a car crash. His father was on dialysis and unable to care for five kids on his own, so Ervin moved in with Minnie Jane. Later, he was raised by his grandmother.
"He was such a mama's baby. At [his mother's] funeral, he said, 'Daddy, go tell Mama to get up.' It just broke my heart," Minnie Jane says.
Minnie Jane adds that she and Willie B. spoiled Ervin and his siblings.
"When a kid loses his mother, you want to give them everything to make them happy," Minnie Jane says.
But spoiled or not, Ervin had a sense of responsibility. As he grew older, he'd often pick up groceries for his sick father and see to it that the bills were paid.
He joined the Boy Scouts and stayed involved. In high school, he joined the Army ROTC team. At age 19, he married Montessia, his high school sweetheart.
"He wanted to be in the military, but I think he thought he'd be in a different situation," Minnie Jane says. "He went because he and his wife were able to go to college. They did both go to school, but he wanted to make the military his career."
The day before he was scheduled to leave for Iraq in January 2004, Ervin and his family shared one last meal at Pizza Hut.
"We were all talking about it and encouraging him to go do what he had to do," Minnie Jane says. "Now, I'm wishing I hadn't told him to go. I wish I had told him to go to Canada and not go to war. But you always want your kids to do the right thing. You can't just go telling them not to do something.
"You want to love and protect them, but you can't protect a grown man," Minnie Jane says. "You just gotta swallow it."
Killed: July 1, 2004
Age: 21 Branch: Marine Corps Rank: Lance Corporal
In late 2002, while attending college at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, Timothy Creager felt a calling from God. Rather than stay in school and become a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps, he believed he was called to enlist immediately.
"A lot of people gave Tim a hard time about giving up his scholarship," says Marilane Mesler, Tim's girlfriend. "But he prayed about it and felt called to go in and share his faith with his fellow Marines."
During basic training, Tim started a Bible-study group and volunteered as a layperson.
"I know of more than one life that was changed because of that," says his mother, Kay Creager, a devout member of Bartlett Hills Baptist Church. "One guy was actually baptised in basic training."
When Kay talks about her only child's passionate Christian faith, her eyes well with tears.
"If there's one thing I want to get across, it was Tim's love of God," she says.
From an early age, Tim developed a zeal for everything he became involved in. He began taking Taekwondo classes at age 6 and eventually earned his black belt. In the Boy Scouts, he achieved the highest ranking of Eagle Scout at age 13.
He started rappelling when he was 12 years old. He volunteered for the Memphis Belle Memorial Squadron Civil Air Patrol. He joined ROTC in high school, and he loved bull riding. A sticker on his rear truck window read, "Cowboy Up."
Tim met Marilane while in Charleston. The two were at a friend's birthday party at a Mexican restaurant, and Marilane couldn't help noticing what a great host he was.
"He was making sure everyone had their drinks, and I noticed how he had such a heart for serving people," she says.
Their first date was a visit to Tim's church. They only had a few months together before Tim was deployed to Iraq in February 2004.
A few months later, Tim was driving with members of his platoon in an armed patrol near Abu Ghraib.
"They had to turn across a median on this divided highway, and as they were crossing, an IED was detonated by remote control. He was the only one killed," says Kay, who was later given the burned Bible that Tim carried with him.
After his death, Marilane learned from some of Tim's fellow soldiers that he was planning to propose to her on her birthday in November 2004. She would have said yes.
"My life is so changed because of Tim," says Marilane, who's now attending divinity school in Birmingham. "I felt a strong calling after his death. Before, I was just a cultural Christian, and I didn't let God enter into my decision-making process. But I saw that Tim wasn't living for himself. I saw him living out his faith."
Killed: September 16, 2004
Branch: Marine Corps
Rank: 1st Lieutenant
The Army Corps of Engineers was building roads near Fallujah in the fall of 2004 when crew members noticed a suspicious-looking pile of rubbish. Fearful of IEDs, the group called in the Marines to check it out.
Several Marine tanks arrived and drove past the trash pile. Tank commander Andrew Stern thought the mysterious pile appeared harmless at first glance, but he ordered his tank to turn around for a second look. He was riding with his head exposed.
"They use cell phones and remote control devices to set these things off. Andy probably saw a wire and said, 'Oh no'," says his mother, Eileen Stern.
The IED exploded and shrapnel struck Andrew in the neck. He died four hours later in a medical helicopter. No one else was injured.
"It was three weeks before he was supposed to come home," Eileen says. "He'd already bought his airline ticket."
Eileen and her husband, Andrew's father, Richard, live in Germantown. Eileen says Andrew was "really difficult" as a teenager. "Not a bad kid, just difficult to deal with. Headstrong." They sent him to Culver Military Academy, a boarding school in Indiana. Andrew liked the idea and enrolled in 1994.
"It was like he just blossomed. He loved it there," Eileen says. "He could channel his energy. He learned to row crew, and he learned to be a leader."
Andrew graduated from Culver and moved to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee.
"He was a freshman in college, and he called to say he'd joined the Marines," Eileen says. "Nobody in our family is a Marine or in the armed forces. We didn't know where it came from. I didn't understand it, but I felt like I had to support him as my son."
After 9/11, the Sterns talked to Andrew about his decision. He wasn't commissioned yet, and they asked him if he was sure he wanted to go through with becoming a Marine.
"He said he wanted to be a Marine more than ever," Eileen says. "He said, 'I'm going to have my time in the sandbox.'"
Andrew left for Iraq on his first deployment in April 2004.
The Sterns heard from Andrew once a week. Richard Stern started a newsletter to keep family and friends informed as to how Andrew was doing in Iraq. Ever the ladies' man, Andrew requested that his dad send the newsletter in individual e-mails to several women rather than sending out a group e-mail.
"When Andrew was killed, my middle son said he was worried that all the girls would come to the funeral and start fighting each other," says Eileen, with a smile. "We were able to chuckle a bit about that. He was only 24. He wasn't ready to settle down."
Andrew had purchased a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. It was on hold at the dealership until he arrived back in the States.
"When we spoke to him several months before his death, he said he and his platoon were making plans to come back. His platoon did come back," Eileen says. "He was the only one killed. He always said his job was to bring his men back safely. And he did his job.
"He's definitely in a lot of people's hearts," Eileen says. "And he is definitely my hero."
Killed: October 8, 2006
Branch: Marine Corps
Robert Secher always knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: a military man. As a kid, he sketched lifelike depictions of soldiers in battle. As a teenager, he convinced his parents to pull him out of Christian Brothers High School and enroll him in Marion Military Institute, a boarding school in Marion, Alabama.
While some kids preferred novels, Robert buried his nose in military history books. He could name every major battle of the Civil War. Members of his family were killed during the Holocaust, so Robert fervently studied World War II as well.
"When he was 16, he went to the recruiting people for the Marine Corps and wanted to join up," says his father, Pierre Secher, a retired University of Memphis political science professor. "They told him he had to be at least 17."
So Robert waited until after his high school graduation in May 1991 to sign on. Soon after, he was assigned to guard President George Bush at the White House. Through the years, Robert moved up in rank and traveled the world, with stops in the Philippines, Okinawa, and Manila.
"One day, he wrote me that he was in Darbin, Australia, chatting up two girls in a bar, when the shore patrol came running in and said, 'Everybody back on board. The United States has been attacked,'" Pierre says.
That was September 11, 2001, of course. When the U.S. went to war in 2003, Robert longed to do his part on the battlefield, but he'd become overqualified.
"He wanted to be with a fleet. He didn't want to be in an office," says his mother, Elke Morris.
When a spot became available in an Iraq-bound volunteer training team in 2006, Robert jumped at the chance to see some action.
"He went there, and he was happy. He liked the whole set-up — the danger, the training, the camaraderie," Pierre says.
But it wasn't long before Robert saw that the war wasn't going as smoothly as it was made out to be. "He felt that we'd fouled up enormously on catching Osama bin Laden," Pierre says.
But Robert formed close friendships with Iraqis, and Elke says he felt great passion for improving their living conditions. He worked with Iraqi recruits, training them to take over the fight against the militants.
Robert never married, and his father says Robert wasn't very forthcoming with details on his love life.
"Robert was married to the Marine Corps. His [four] sisters would kid him because he wouldn't enter into any permanent relationships," Pierre says. "He said he couldn't responsibly do that."
On October 8, 2006, Robert was killed by a sniper's bullet in Hit, Iraq, during a controlled combat operation.
"He went out in a ball of glory and fire," Pierre says. "I didn't speak that way when it happened, but now I take whatever solace there is in knowing that he died the way he wanted to die. He lived the way he wanted to live. My son was a military man. That was what Robert wanted to do."
The families of the following two Shelby County servicemen, Marco Ross and Adam Murray, were contacted and either requested not to be included in this story or did not return messages by press time:
Killed: August 25, 2004
Age: 20 Branch: Army Rank: Specialist
Killed: July 27, 2006
Rank: Lance Corporal