Sunday, April 08, 2007

James J. Coon dies of injuries from I.E.D.

WALNUT CREEK — In the days since 22-year-old Army Pfc. James Coon's death in Iraq, his father has been emotionally ripped in two. On the one hand, he's proud, pointing out the "Support Our Troops" sticker on the family truck.

On the other, he hates this war.

"Why are we even there?" Jim Coon said Saturday, three days after Army representatives knocked on his door and explained how his son, a good-natured lad who stood 6 feet 6 inches tall and wore a white zoot suit to the prom as a joke, had been killed when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle in Balad, Iraq.

"Our government lies. President Bush lies," said the 49-year-old carpenter. "We're not doing any good over there, and our kids are dying. I love these troops with my heart, and they're getting blown up every day. What for? To help democracy?"

Funeral arrangements have not been set yet because Jim Coon and James' stepmom, Marie, 46, don't know yet when he will be flown home.

James Coon, a Las Lomas High School graduate who had been in Iraq for eight months, had described in e-mails how the enemy seemed so elusive, how bullets whizzed by his head daily and lodged themselves in walls throughout towns he patrolled. And yet when he would look around, he would see only civilians. Like many U.S. soldiers, he never killed a soul, never even shot his gun.

His father said it's like these young soldiers are "fighting ghosts." He said it doesn't appear they are getting much in the way of leadership or a clear directive. Morale, he said, seemed to be low. It was getting to his son.

"I wanna come home so bad," James wrote in an e-mail on March 16, one day after he'd run unprotected to help two injured soldiers after a bomb went off, an act that earned him consideration for the Bronze Star.

"Everyone is calling me a hero but all I did was what I thought was right," he continued. "I don't wanna play Army anymore. Well I love you guys and I will talk to you soon. Please pray for us and please don't worry too much."

The elder Coon said that despite his mounting frustration with the war, it's comforting knowing that James took his job seriously and acted as a protector to those around him.

"I do what I have to stay alive out here but if I have to I will risk everything for my buddies out here," James wrote in the same e-mail.

The Coons talked to James on the phone the day he died, and said that while he was still upset that the two men he helped in March had died, he was trying to hold on to a positive outlook.

"He just said he felt a little better about things, but that he didn't have long to talk," said Marie Coon, a wedding gown seamstress who also works at McCaulou's department store.

"He said not to worry, and he said, 'I love you.'"

She said that before his death, she and her husband had worried the war was changing him. He was such a happy-go-lucky teen, someone who didn't get nervous easily. They didn't want him to come back with a dark cloud hanging over him, and they were concerned that the military wasn't providing enough day-to-day counseling. Marie Coon, who had been in the military herself, said she didn't think he realized how much a war could change a person.

"As a kid, you'd think he would be insecure because he was so tall, towering over everyone, but he wasn't. I just really hoped he'd come back that same person.

"He was the guy who, in a stressful situation, would make a joke, and maybe at that point, that's what everyone needed," she said, a single tear on her cheek. "We always knew he'd be good for spirit and morale."

He loved extreme sports — off-road biking and skydiving — despite a childhood fear of heights. He graduated from Las Lomas in 2003, and had been a punter on a championship football team there. He'd also flown to England right after Sept. 11, 2001, on his own for an international dart-throwing tournament, a skill he learned from his dad. He came in fifth.

He attended Diablo Valley College before going into the Army and hoped to make enough money serving to buy a house when he got back.

Two days before he died, James left a message on his parents' answering machine. It says nothing out of the ordinary, but it's his voice, and there on the tape it will stay, reminding Jim and Marie Coon not of his death but his life.

It's the voice of the kid who could pop a wheelie on his bike and ride it "from Walnut Creek to Concord." It's the voice of the teenager who could catch sturgeon almost as big as himself, and the man who would go on motorcycle outings with his dad.

"It's me, just calling to let you know I'm OK. It's starting to get hot out here. I love you guys and will call you tomorrow or the next day . . . the days go by pretty fast here."

From the Argus