ARLINGTON, Va. - Spc. Jason C. Ford's official U.S. Army photograph shows the face of a quite serious young man fixed on a path that would take him from training in Georgia to a unit in Germany, then to Kuwait and Iraq. The pursuit soon led to Arlington National Cemetery, Section 60, Gravesite 7971.
He had grown up in Prince George's County, embodying a far more lighthearted and generous spirit than the photograph suggests, living for 21 years, two months.
At the time of his death in a roadside bomb explosion in Tikrit on March 13, 2004, Ford was counted among 584 U.S. service members killed in Iraq. More than a thousand Americans have followed him since to Arlington and other resting places, trailing honor guards and buglers, ceremonial gunshots, flags folded into tidy triangles.
The grave lay in full sunshine early yesterday afternoon as five members of Ford's family in two cars turned left from Eisenhower Drive onto York Drive, pulling to the curb by a field where the march of white marble stones has, for the time being, ceased. In this section, open grass still stretches a few acres to the east.
Yesterday marked the first Memorial Day at Arlington for Jason's father, Joseph C. Ford.
"It was just too fresh on the first Memorial Day," he said. "It was just too soon."
A Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War and retired Washington police officer, Joseph Ford has since March 2004 tested his own limits of the bearable. He has not pursued the details of how his youngest child died, nor did he wish to see the remains when they were returned from overseas.
"I'm in denial, I'm not ready to release him," said Joseph Ford, who lives in the Prince George's community of Temple Hills. "I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. ... I want to keep the thoughts of him walking upright and everything."
Standing about 6 feet tall and slender, Jason Ford made a fine figure in uniform. He seemed to take to the soldier's role with ease, even if his decision to join the Army in 2002 caught some family members by surprise.
He had talked about a career in computer repair, which he learned at the Woodland Job Corps Center in Laurel, where he also completed work for his high school diploma late in 2001. He had played drums and keyboards and for a while attended the Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington. A gentle soul by all accounts, this son and grandson of war veterans did not seem to be called to arms.
"I can't see him doing what he did," his older brother, Thomas Harley, a Prince George's County police officer, said in a telephone interview. "Put an M-16 in his hands and tell him bear down on his sights? No, it wasn't him. It hurts me just to think about it."
An Air Force veteran who did tours on security details since Sept. 11, 2001, in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, Harley recalled talking with his kid brother alone in the kitchen of their sister's townhouse in Bowie soon after Jason Ford announced his decision in 2002.
"I said, 'Tell me you didn't go into the Army,'" Harley recalled. "'Tell me you didn't go into the infantry.'"
Indeed, Jason Ford had chosen both of these options. He went off to basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., then to the U.S. Army 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, based in Schweinfurt, Germany.
"My main concern was that he have a vision of where he wanted to go," said Joseph Ford. "Whatever was positive, I was for. I did not have an agenda for him."
'He loved people'
Joseph Ford's wife, Irene Ford, said she was as taken aback as anyone by Jason's enlistment, but at Arlington yesterday she said, "He wanted to do something to serve people. He loved people. People loved him. He's always been like that, happy-go-lucky. Just a kind, sweet person."
Rachel Hodges of Largo had not seen Jason Ford since their paths crossed at William Wirt Middle School in Riverdale. Then she heard the news in March 2004 that he had been killed. She instantly remembered his sense of humor, his generosity and one particular DKNY T-shirt he wore.
She liked the T-shirt, but was never so bold as to ask for it. On her birthday he gave it to her, although it was, by her account in an e-mail, "10 sizes too big. ... In middle school people didn't just do stuff like that, and that's when I knew Jason was different from any other person I would ever know."
At Woodland Job Corps Center, Jason Ford stood out from the crowd for his discipline, social grace and the way other students looked up to him.
"Students listened to what he had to say," said his Woodland career counselor, Jennifer Beil. "Students just respected him. They first have to respect you before they'll listen to you."
At the funeral service, Jason Ford's Army comrades said he commanded that kind of respect in the unit, his youth and inexperience notwithstanding.
"He was not afraid to lead," said Beil.
He seemed to be enjoying the Army, checking in with friends and relatives by phone and e-mail to tell about "the cool things he got to do," as Beil put it.
His tone seemed to change as the unit prepared to ship out to Kuwait, then Iraq. Family members said he seemed uneasy.
"He was scared, he was nervous," in a call from Kuwait in February, knowing the next stop was Iraq, Harley said.
In early March, he called his father from Iraq, reporting that his first patrol skirted an area where another unit had been ambushed. He had heard gunfire.
"I could hear the anxiety in his voice," Joseph Ford said. They talked about 15 or 20 minutes, as "he was assuring me he was OK."
Published accounts vary on how long Jason Ford had been in Iraq. Some say no more than two weeks, some say four. His last day was March 13, when he was in a Humvee in a three-vehicle patrol in Tikrit along with Army Capt. John F. Kurth, of Wisconsin and three other men. The so-called "improvised explosive device" killed both men at the scene.
Kurth, 31, and Jason Ford, 21, are buried eight spaces apart at Arlington.
American flags the size of handkerchiefs had been planted in the ground on these and all 250,000 graves here for Memorial Day, as has become a 40-year custom for members of the "Old Guard," the 3rd Infantry Regiment.
Jason Ford's family members stepped slowly to his site past graves so new that no marble stones yet stood there. These six men had been killed in Iraq since April 17 - the most recent May 11.
Joseph and Irene Ford, Jason's step-siblings Ben and Thleia Taylor, and his nephew, Derick Owens, joined hands to form a circle over the grave. As Joseph Ford punctuated with appeals in Jesus' name, Mrs. Ford improvised a prayer addressed to God.
"He believed in you, he turned his soul over to you. ... Lord God, heavenly Father, we pray."
'I'm OK now'
Airliners roared away from nearby Reagan National Airport, drowning the sound. When the family parted hands, Joseph Ford stepped away a few paces, turned his back to the grave and stared out to the sea of white stones to the west.
"I'm OK now," he said later. "It gets tough when I first come out here. You think you've gotten over it, until I get here and it's just as fresh as yesterday."
He said enough to make clear that he has, at the least, conflicted feelings about the rationale for the war and the official declaration of the end of combat operations in Iraq in May 2003. Some 1,500 Americans have died in Iraq since then.
"I'm at a loss, but I'm not bitter," Joseph Ford said. "All I have to hold onto is that he served his country well."