When Army Spc. James R. Wolf came home on a two-week leave from Iraq in the fall of 2003, he put on his desert fatigues and visited his nephew's second-grade class in Scottsbluff.
The class questioned Mr. Wolf-called Jamie by friends and family-about what it's like to be a soldier in the U.S. Army and especially the experience of fighting in the Iraqi war. A few of the girls surprised Jamie by asking him about the kind of truck he drove and the size of his machine gun, recalled his father, Bob Wolf, who is manager of Dale's Tire & Retreading Co. Inc. in Scottsbluff.
On that day, Jamie, 21, made his father proud when he gave some of his free time to make an afternoon special for some second graders. About three weeks later he again made Bob Wolf proud.
On Nov. 6, 2003, Jamie, a member of the 52nd Engineer Battalion, was filling in as security gunner in a convoy he normally would not have been part of, Mr. Wolf said. They were heading to a camp somewhere near Mosul, Iraq, to assist another engineer group when a hidden insurgent detonated a roadside bomb just as Jamie's vehicle crossed over it.
Schrapnel hit the right side of Jamie's head, killing him instantly. The vehicle's driver suffered damage to his shoulder, arm and face while the front seat passenger escaped with scratches.
Mr. Wolf and his wife Chris received the news at Dale's Tire after their neighbor, Norma, had called Mrs. Wolf at work to let her know that a couple of uniformed Army men had stopped at their home, Mr. Wolf told Tire Business. So he picked up his wife and met the soldiers from the local National Guard unit back at Dale's Tire, knowing deep in his heart the reason for their visit.
``When Chris said Norma had called, that there were two guys in Army uniform, I knew,'' Mr. Wolf said. ``You don't want to know. You want to think that may-be he's been hurt and he can't call. But you know.''
The devastating news brought tremendous support from the community of Scottsbluff, a town of 20,000. After only two hours at home on that day, Mr. Wolf said 50 to 60 people had stopped by to offer help and condolences.
``I'll never forget that it was a Thursday that Jamie was killed,'' Mr. Wolf said. ``Saturday morning Chris had gone out to get the paper and said, `You gotta come look.' I went outside, and we live on a long block. And every house on both sides of the block had their flags out.''
Mr. Wolf's general manager, Brennan Pruss, came to Scottsbluff from the dealership's headquarters in Rapid City, S.D., that same day to help out. Two men Mr. Wolf works with-assistant manager Tom Warthen and warehouse manager Bill Aratani-had watched Jamie grow up, and the news was hard for them as well. They and the other employees helped fill in for Mr. Wolf so that he could have as much time off as needed.
The man from whom Dale's Tire leases its Scottsbluff office flew Mr. Wolf's son David and daughter Rachel, who attend the University of Nebraska, home for the funeral on his private plane.
On the day of the funeral, the mayor of Scottsbluff ordered all flags to be flown at half-staff. Mr. Wolf said he didn't recall much of the funeral service, but he does remember his church filled to standing room only in both the main sanctuary and the basement. Some stood outside.
Most of his tire supplier representatives attended the funeral, as did many servicemen, including the commanding general of the 52nd Engineer Battalion.
Mr. Wolf said he credits his co-workers for their help not only during the time immediately following Jamie's death but even now.
``There are days that I don't do much, but I've been blessed to work for a great family-owned business,'' he said. ``My guys here at my store, I couldn't ask for a better group of guys, especially Tommy (Warthen). He knows when I'm having a bad day and when he should just say, `Go in the office and shut the door, boss. I'll handle it.' It's been a lifesaver.''
A purpose-driven life
One of Mr. Wolf's fond memories of Jamie is his sense of humor, as evidenced in a trip he took with his high school choir to New York City. He sat behind his choir teacher with his best friend and sang Broadway show tunes to her for most of the bus ride, which drove her nuts, Mr. Wolf said.
``So about 3 a.m. on the bus he goes, `Mrs. Simpson. I have a joke for you.... An egg and a piece of bacon go into a bar and they want a drink. And the bartender goes, ``I'm sorry we don't serve breakfast.''' That became the catch joke for the choir ever since and that's been four years ago now,'' Mr. Wolf said.
When prior to his senior year he told his parents that he planned to enlist in the Army, Mr. Wolf said he thought Jamie was joking and laughed. He called his son, the third of four children, one of his ``problem children'' who had a less than stellar high school career.
``I asked him why he wanted (to enlist). He said he thought it would give him some direction in life. He was taking college-level computer drafting classes and getting As, but couldn't get through bonehead English because it didn't interest him at all,'' Mr. Wolf recalled. He added that he and his wife had feared how military life would change their fun-loving son.
Jamie and his three siblings-David, Elli and Rachel-all grew up around tire shops as Mr. Wolf has worked in the tire business for the past 30 years, the past five-and-a-half with Dale's Tire. Neither Jamie nor his siblings showed any interest in working in the tire business, Mr. Wolf said, joking that he'd never let any of them grow up to be a ``tire man.''
When they attended Jamie's graduation from boot camp, the Wolfs saw that their son not only put on a uniform and respectfully recited ``yes sir'' and ``yes ma'am,'' but the big kid they always knew was still there.
``We get back to the motel we're staying at and Jamie changes out of his class As, and the first thing he does is power bomb my grandson Tyler onto the bed, and they start wrestling,'' Mr. Wolf said.
``The military was great for Jamie. It really was. It gave him a sense of purpose. It gave him a sense of direction, discipline.'' Mr. Wolf added that people ask him if he would have preferred his son never enlisted, but he said he answers ``no,'' because Jamie loved the military and wanted to make it his career.
Jamie served near Seoul, South Korea, from 2001-02 for a year and was assigned to Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colo., a four-hour drive from Scottsbluff, when his tour of duty ended. When he returned home for Christmas, his alma mater performed its annual Christmas concert, and the school traditionally invites alumni to attend and join in singing the Hallelujah Chorus, according to Mr. Wolf.
Jamie not only joined in but also gave roses to his former choir teacher and his younger sister Rachel, an act that ``brought the house down,'' Mr. Wolf said. ``That was the kind of kid he was.''
Assigned to the first company that left for Iraq prior to the war's start, Jamie's mission there involved rebuilding homes, schools and orphanages for the Iraqi people, Mr. Wolf said.
When Jamie returned home from Iraq for the final time, the Army posthumously awarded him a Purple Heart and two bronze stars-one from the 101st Airborne Division and the other from the 82nd Airborne Division.