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Wednesday, August 6, 2003

A family feels the cruelty of war


When the car pulls up, the young woman's parents, white as ghosts, are sitting on the steps. They stare into nothingness. Her father has his hand on her mother's shoulder and her mother clutches a framed photograph of her son in Army fatigues. She presses the picture over her heart.

Just like that, Justin Hebert -- brave soldier, beloved son, brother, friend -- gone.

The price of war is measured by dreams that will never materialize, by happy memories jousting against news of the worst kind.

Justin wasn't killed in an accident. He lost his life in a vicious attack over the weekend, when a rocket-propelled grenade blasted the Army convoy in which he was riding.

Justin just celebrated his 20th birthday last Tuesday.

He had been looking forward to leaving adolescence behind.

In the trunk of his sister's Corolla a few items kept jostling around the other day.

She would make a right turn and hear ka-blunk. Same thing happened turning left.

The young woman stopped her car, got out and removed the shifting items -- a boom box and bags filed with facial wipes, shaving cream, razors, pens, writing tablets, sour Skittles and sour gummy bears. She couldn't find his favorite, sour patch kids.

The items were birthday presents for Justin. His sister planned to ship the gifts to Iraq, just as soon as she got her next paycheck.

The tears of war fill the eyes of 21-year-old Jessica Hebert as she talks about "my lil' bro" who is coming home any day now.

They were a tight family.

Parents Bill and Robin manage Silvana Riverfront Park, a recreational spot for RVs, campers and tents along the banks of the Stillaguamish River.

They have two dogs, Licorice and Midnight, who perk their ears and glance at the front door whenever someone says Justin's name.

"And just us two kids," the sister says. "Jessica and. ..." Her words become sobs.

The two siblings were close. Sure, they had their share of fights. But she loved her brother more than all get out. She was so proud to see him mature into a handsome, strong man.

They looked nothing alike. He had sandy brown hair, hazel green eyes and towered at 6-foot-2. She is several inches shorter with red head and a shower of freckles.

Justin always got cool tans. Jessica just got lobster red.

They graduated from Arlington High -- she in 2000, he in 2001.

Justin went straight to the service because he wanted to make something of himself, get some cash for college and see the world. He visited Italy, Germany, Kosovo and Switzerland, and brought back shot glasses from some of those countries for his sister's collection. "Always thinking of others," Jessica says.

Justin shared mail goodies with his fellow paratroopers in the 173rd Airborne Brigade -- the same crew that jumped into northern Iraq in March.

The young man from the country town surrounded by verdant fields understood the big picture of his job in a wretched desert, so far away from home. Justin believed in getting rid of Saddam and freeing the Iraqi people from brutality and despotism.

At the same time, he loathed the harsh conditions -- the temperatures topping 110 degrees, the escalating guerrilla-style attacks on U.S. forces.

But he downplayed the dangers so that his mom and dad wouldn't worry, so that his big sis could sleep easier at night.

Jessica spent time with her brother when he was home for a brief time earlier this year.

On her 21st birthday, Jan. 7, they celebrated at a restaurant in the Arlington area, close to the Wal-Mart where Justin got the picture taken of himself wearing military fatigues. He wanted the family to be able to look at him whenever they missed him.

"I love you," he told Jessica before leaving the restaurant on her birthday.

She never saw him again.

Family and friends. Emily, the pretty Romanian girlfriend in Italy. Enough memories to fill up an encyclopedia.

All of this Justin leaves behind.

The guy had a big heart. Played pranks. Liked the Mariners. Loved to roughhouse. Stood up for the underdog. Listened to music, from Metallica to Nelly. Relished people. Looked you right in the eye and took genuine interest in what was happening in your world.

Jessica sums lil' bro up in a word: "Awesome."

She cries, and the crying will not soon stop.

This is what happens when brave soldiers come home in caskets after politicians send them to fight for God and country.

The cost of war.

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