Terrorist attacks inspired fallen soldier to enlist

September 6, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Staff Sgt. Robert J. Wilson, a daredevil teenager from the Sunshine State, matured into a determined soldier in sun-scorched Iraq.

Robert J. Wilson

The boy in Florida sometimes jumped into a swimming pool from perilous heights or needed stitches to repair damage from a mistimed stunt.

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, led Wilson to abandon a rambunctious youth and focus on a military career.

The infantryman in Iraq often served on point, as the lead soldier in a formation, during foot patrols. Other soldiers in his unit had spouses and children at home. Wilson, unmarried and childless, chose the most-exposed position to shield other soldiers from harm.

“Even though he was my younger brother, he was usually more mature than me — for the most part,” said Darlene Weigle, Wilson’s older sister and a Mirrormont resident. “Sometimes, he was still my annoying little brother.”

The attacks on 9/11 led to a decadelong odyssey in Afghanistan and Iraq. The wars have claimed more than 6,000 U.S. service members — a grim milestone in a decade defined by catastrophe and conflict.

Wilson, 28, died in January 2008 after a crude bomb, or improvised explosive device, detonated during a foot patrol in Baghdad.

“My brother and I, it was always us two versus the world,” Weigle said. “He was my best friend; he wasn’t just my brother.”

‘The catalyst for everything’

Wilson moved to Tacoma not long before the 9/11 attacks, joining his sister and her husband in a cramped apartment.

“My husband called from work and had me turn on the TV,” she said. “I saw it, all of the images. I was freaking out and my brother was very calm and stoic.”

The images flashed across the screen in a horrific procession: smoldering rubble in New York City, a scarred façade on the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., and a barren field in Shanksville, Pa.

Then, as a nation mourned in the days after 9/11, Weigle noticed a change.

“That was kind of his moment where he realized he wanted to do something, like he could be part of something,” she said.

Wilson decided to enlist in the Army as U.S. forces prepared to retaliate against al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

The war started less than a month after the terrorist attacks. Wilson left Washington in January 2002 for basic training.

“If it wasn’t for 9/11, I don’t know what he would have ended up doing with himself,” Weigle said. “That was the catalyst for everything.”

Throughout basic training, brother and sister spoke often on the phone.

Robert Wilson’s gravesite and headstone are located at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. U.S. Department of Defense

“His buddies at basic for a while thought I was his wife, because I was the one he called,” she said.

The coming conflict in Iraq loomed as Weigle traveled to Fort Benning, Ga., for Wilson’s boot camp graduation.

‘That moment could be your last’

Weigle stopped watching the news not long after Wilson reached Iraq.

“A lot of times, the stuff hits the news before the families are even informed,” she said.

Still, some habits from pre-Army life persisted, despite the distance separating continents and time zones. The siblings sent each other letters and chatted often on Yahoo! Messenger.

Weigle last spoke to her brother through the instant-messaging service a couple of days before he died — a run-of-the-mill conversation about life at home in the United States and routine duties in Iraq.

“I was kind of coursing through life — oh, I’m married; oh, I have kids — and it teaches you to value every moment you have with everybody,” she said. “That moment could be your last moment with that person.”

Wilson transferred to the 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Ky., not long before deploying to the Middle East for tour No. 3.

Then, on Jan. 26, 2008, came the explosion in Baghdad.

Weigle lived in Richardson, Texas, at the time, and the Army sent soldiers — casualty assistance officers in military jargon — from Fort Hood, almost 200 miles south, to deliver the news.

“One day the Army showed up at my door,” she said through tears.

Wilson’s family chose Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia for a funeral 18 restless days after the incident.

“You’re kind of in limbo, waiting for days and discussing details over and over,” Weigle recalled.

‘I don’t want to be the only one’

In the years since the tragedy, Weigle, the mother of a young daughter and son, left Texas and settled in Mirrormont.

The flag once draped on her brother’s casket is crisply folded inside a case on the mantel. Weigle received the flag at the funeral in Arlington.

The medals Wilson received for his service, including a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, rest inside a wooden chest. Weigle’s brother-in-law named his son for Wilson as another tribute.

“I haven’t been able to bring myself to go to Arlington yet,” she said regarding visiting her brother’s grave. “My husband keeps telling me, ‘If you want to go, we’ll make it happen.’ It was hard enough for me to leave the first time.”

Weigle also keeps in touch with some of her brother’s colleagues and, after her mother died last year, soldiers from her brother’s unit attended the funeral in Illinois. The conversations serve as a reminder of Wilson’s sacrifice in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“You learn how to get through the day, but it doesn’t keep you from crying yourself to sleep at night,” she said.

Sometimes, on milestones such as her brother’s birthday, she places flowers on a memorial to fallen veterans in Seattle. Weigle also plans to pause and remember her fallen brother on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The acts represent part of a long and arduous healing process.

“I want his story to be there,” she said. “I don’t want to be the only one who thinks of him.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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