***Bumped and Updated***
My husband, Steve, and I received some very sad news Thanksgiving evening. Steve's cousin, Army Sgt.1st Class James Priestap, was shot and killed by a terrorist sniper while working at a checkpoint near Baghdad. He was wearing body armor, but he hit was in the shoulder, and the bullet went into his heart killing him instantly.
Here's the AP story on his death:
IRON MOUNTAIN, Mich. (AP) -- A National Guard soldier from the Upper Peninsula was killed in Iraq on Thanksgiving Day, military authorities said.
Army Sgt. 1st Class James D. Priestap, 39, of Hardwood, was fatally shot while on duty at a checkpoint in Baghdad. He was assigned to the 46th Military Police Company in Kingsford.
Priestap was among 60 members of the unit, which was deployed to Iraq on July 9. They had trained in Fort Dix, N.J., for six weeks before heading to the combat zone.
"Jim was the type of guy that everybody liked," Mary Oman, a friend of Priestap's from Breitung Township in Dickinson County, told The Daily News of Iron Mountain for a Monday story. "He was a great guy to be around. You never saw him without a smile on his face."
Priestap was a 1985 graduate of North Dickinson High School, where coach Joe Reddinger remembered him as a good football player.
"Jim was always upbeat about everything he did," Reddinger said. "He was very passionate about playing sports and always went full force. He was a natural leader."
We found out a couple of days after his death that he actually wasn't supposed to be at the checkpoint at the time, but the generator blew out. Apparently, two other guys were assigned to go out and restart it, but, since Jim was in charge of the platoon, he went out instead because he felt responsible for his men. It was then that he was shot. That was Jim, always putting the well-being of his men before himself. And helping others was what Jim was all about. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf coast region, he traveled to New Orleans and spent a month there to help rebuild the area and assist those whose lives had been turned upside down.
Jim's father wrote this about him in an email which he sent to us shortly after Jim's death:
[H]e always believed, and proved, that being mediocre in life wasn't for him. Like when he was a kid and was called "little Jimmy" until he became captain of the high school football team. I remember talking with his ship mates once when he was in the Navy in San Diego and they said he was the top sailor on the ship in all ways, and they hoped he'd go to OCS and become their officer. As you probably know, he became a Navy Diver (next thing to his dream of being a Navy Seal), a small plane pilot, and after we spent many study hours together he became a Deputy Sheriff in Florida--getting the highest score in his class. That eventually enabled him, Connie & the kids to get back to the families and area they loved.
Then he worked like a dog on the old house they bought to get it ready for a UP winter for Connie and the kids, before he left for Iraq. For example, 1,000 sheets of drywall were hung. He and Connie did a beautiful job on it. Then in his "spare time" from that and his job (working nights--so he usually didn't get enough sleep-- he helped [his brother-in-law] Mark and [nephew] Mason put a roof on their garage--just before he left. Jim was ALWAYS helping others.
The time we worked together repairing their Florida house so they could sell it and move back to the UP, and then together painting their house this past summer before Jim left is a time I'll always cherish.
But you know, in spite of Jim's many "accomplishments" in such a busy schedule, the best thing about Jim was how wonderful & attentive a father he was. Frankie and Brody adored Jim, for good reason.
His funeral is scheduled for this weekend, and about 3,000 people are expected to attend, including 200 Patriot Guard riders who will escort Jim's body to the cemetery in the Upper Peninsula town in which he grew up.
If you wouldn't mind, please think of and say a prayer for Jim's wife, Connie, and their two kids, Francesca and Brody, as well as his sister, mother, and father as they cope with Jim's sudden death. It will be especially difficult during this Christmas season.
Update: Flowers will be accepted or memorials may be made to the Sgt. James Priestap Memorial Trust Fund at either First National Bank and Trust of Iron Mountain at 231 S. Stephenson Ave. Iron Mountain, MI 49801 or the Range Bank of Kingsford at 345 Carpenter Ave. Kingsford, Michigan, 49802.
Update II: I found a post written by a soldier, Matt, who served under Jim and who was with him when he died. I posted it briefly on Tuesday but took it down because Jim's family hadn't seen it yet. Now that they have, I am going to repost it because it's an amazing but heartbreaking tribute to Jim as a person, a soldier, and a leader.
In memory of SFC James Priestap (my platoon sgt.). Killed by a sniper at Checkpoint 17 while distributing food and water to the Iraqi Police. Moments before his death, he was smiling and giving candy to the kids in the area. He was a man with a wife and 2 kids, ages 11 and 9. I had to help load his body in the backseat of my humvee and then loaded him onto the MEDEVAC helicopter. I had in my posession a camo pattern angel that i carried for my own good luck charm. Before we got him on the helicopter, i placed the angel on his body and said a prayer to help him on his way to Heaven. He will now be living in eternal happines and we all have another guardian angel watching over us. The expression on his face is something that is forever burned into my memory and i'll never forget it. It was most certainly a life altering experience and I now have a whole different outlook on life in general. This man was one of the greatest leaders in our company. He had a huge heart and he would do absolutely anything for his soldiers that were under his command. This incident may have dented our morale here, but we will NOT stand down and we will NOT back away. We will be back out at Checkpoint 17 soon and those motherfuckers better be ready to die. They may think they've had a victory on thanksgiving day but they haven't seen the wrath of my squad and the sheer anger we now have growing inside us all. After we took SFC Priestap's weapon we divided up the rounds in the magazine to everyone in the squad. The first round in the chamber of our M4 rifles is one of his tracer rounds and it will be the first round out of the barrel in his name. He will not have died in vain.
On Wednesday afternoon, I had a wonderful IM conversation with Matt and had the opportunity to thank him for his kind words as well as his service to our country.
Steve and I are so grateful for everyone's kind words of support and sympathy for Jim's family as well as for us. While Steve and I are heartbroken about Jim's death, our thoughts and prayers are with Connie and her kids as they try to get through this difficult time. Losing Jim is hard enough for them to begin with, but losing him on Thanksgiving day makes the hurt so much more intense.
Again, thank you.