When Spc. Erik Wayne Hayes left for Iraq shortly after Christmas, he told family members he was worried about his younger brother, Bradley, who was severely injured in a car accident two years ago. The 20-year- old is unable to communicate and is confined to a nursing facility in Hagerstown.
The Army gave Erik Hayes emergency leave to be with his family at the time of the accident. He returned home as often as he could and spent hours at his brother's bedside.
Hayes, 24, died Monday in Al Miqdadiyah, Iraq, when a bomb detonated near his military vehicle, said Leah Rubalcaba, a spokeswoman for the Army media relations personnel and human resources team. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry of the 1st Infantry Division, based in Vilseck, Germany.
"It hurt him to leave his brother, and it made any communication very hard," said Hayes' mother, Debora Reckley of Thurmont. "He asked about Brad every time he wrote or e-mailed. He asked, 'Please explain to him why I'm not there.'"
Reckley was at a loss about how to explain to her younger son that his brother is gone.
Erik Hayes, who grew up in Harney in Carroll County, where his father, Douglas Hayes, still resides, and in Thurmont in Frederick County, is the sixth Marylander to die in Iraq in less than a month and the 20th in the past 20 months.
Margaret Hayes, 84, his paternal grandmother, said her grandson "was always good at helping people. It is really bad when you are as old as I am and you have something so good taken from you."
Erik Hayes, who turned 24 Nov. 14, joined the Army hoping to better himself and earn money for college, Reckley said. After graduating from Living Word Academy in Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., he worked for an electrical contractor and at a large farm operation. He enlisted in 2001, five days before the Sept. 11 attacks.
"He liked that he was helping his country, and I am very proud of him for that," Reckley said.
His family last saw the 6-foot-tall young man with soft brown eyes nearly a year ago. His most recent phone call to his mother was about a month ago at the laboratory at Fort Detrick where she is a technician.
"I heard, 'Hello, Mom' in that slow, deep voice of his, and it made me so happy," Reckley said. "He asked about Brad, his friends and said he was OK. He told me he was chosen to guard his fort and would not be going to Fallujah. We told each other that we loved each other."
Mother and son exchanged e-mails weekly, she said.
"He was coming home in February, and that was to be my birthday present," Reckley said. "His whole goal was to get out of the Army and come home to take care of his brother."
Hayes was making other plans for his future, Reckley said. Initially, he had hoped to turn a lifelong affinity for animals into a veterinary career, she said. Through his childhood, he tended to a steady stream of creatures including mice, lizards, turtles and snakes.
"Erik knew everything about animals that you could ever ask," said Cheryl Turner, a family friend and Hayes' former teacher at Living Word Academy, a private school with an enrollment of about 30 students from elementary through high school. "He knew the scientific name, the habitat and he was always studying about them. He would lose himself in books."
The soldier had been thinking about emergency services. He e-mailed Turner's daughter, Krystal, a week ago seeking information about becoming an emergency medical technician when his stint in the Army ended, which was to be in September. Krystal Turner, 19, replied that day, but she "has not had the heart to check" for a reply from the schoolmate she called her big brother, said Cheryl Turner.
"He was a very bright, loving and kind young man," said Frank Turner, principal of the academy, which both Hayes brothers attended. "All his plans were cut short. He died a hero, serving his country."
Cheryl Turner said the mood at the school is "somber."
"We have told all the students that Erik died doing the best that he could," she said.
Hayes, the only graduate in the academy's Class of 1998, donated a set of encyclopedias to the school.
"He had solid Christian principles that guided his life," said Pastor Warren Rice, the school chaplain. "He wanted to serve his country. I think that what he believed and why he believed helped him."
The family has yet to make plans for a memorial service, but Reckley said her son's body has arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
"My son was a man of God with a heart for people," she said.
Sun staff writer Sheridan Lyons contributed to this article.