Thursday, June 21, 2007

David A. Wilkey Jr. 'died June 18 in Baghdad, Iraq, of wounds suffered when an IED detonated near his unit June 17 in Baghdad'

ELKHART -- U.S. Army Pfc. David Wilkey Jr. would rather hunt, play with his children and throw an egg into his aunt's mailbox as a practical joke more than almost anything else in the world, his aunt Diane Duffield says.

The 2003 Jimtown High School graduate was nothing short of an all-around family man -- a young, upbeat and fun-loving guy willing to sacrifice to take care of his family, say those who knew him best. In fact, love for his wife and children and a determination to support them financially drove him to join the Army last year.

It was a love that led to his ultimate sacrifice Monday, the day he died from wounds suffered when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated near his unit Sunday in Baghdad, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

He's the second area soldier to die in Iraq during the past two weeks. For him, death came just two weeks shy of his 23rd birthday.

"He was a good son," father David Wilkey Sr. said Tuesday of his 22-year-old son. "He always wanted to joke with you. He had a big heart, and he's a son that any father could be proud of."

Wilkey Sr. learned of his son's death late Monday morning after an Army contingent arrived at his workplace, Plastic Components in Elkhart. His wife, Margaret, picked him up from work, and the family spent the day trying to cope with the news, he said Tuesday.

He last spoke with David Jr. on Saturday, when the young soldier told his father he might not be able to call him on Father's Day from Iraq but would call when possible.

"He was just a good person," Wilkey Jr.'s 21-year-old cousin and high school friend Jessica Duffield said Tuesday at the family's Morgan Street home in Elkhart. "He was always positive about things."

After Wilkey Jr. graduated from Jimtown High School -- where he played football and wrestled -- he worked for several years at Plastic Components with his father before being laid off. Times got tough, so he completed boot camp at Fort Benning, Ga., and entered the Army in January 2006 to support his family and receive financial backing for college, his father said.

"He wasn't asking anybody for help," Wilkey Sr. said. "He was trying to take care of himself and his kids. ... I told him just to sit back and get unemployment for a month or two and be back to work. He chose to join the Army."

Wilkey Jr. was stationed at Fort Riley, Kan., and lived in nearby Clay Center with wife Melinda -- a Memorial High School graduate whom he married in December 2005 -- and his two children -- 4-year-old stepson Christian Clark and 1-year-old son Blayke Wilkey. A third child is due in October, Wilkey Sr. said.

"He was a real person, and he enjoyed life," said stepmother Margaret Wilkey, who described how her stepson believed in God and treated her in the same way he treated his real mother. Wilkey Jr. lived in Powers, Mich., with his mother, Cindy Wilkey, until age 15, when he moved to Elkhart with his father and stepmother.

"His passion was nature. If he had to pick where he was going to live, he would've picked a cabin in the middle of the woods with a pond nearby," Margaret Wilkey said.

Jimtown High School Principal Nathan Dean -- who last saw the Wilkey Jr. when he visited the school just a few weeks ago -- recalls chatting with the quiet and well-behaved young man about hunting and fishing. Jim Rhoads, who coached wrestling during Wilkey Jr.'s junior and senior years, remembered him as being a "very physical kid, very strong."

"If he didn't pick things up right away," Rhoads said, "he was pretty hard on himself."

The soldier's uncle Wayne McDonald often went hunting with nephew "D" in Michigan's White Pigeon area or Upper Peninsula. McDonald said he knew something wasn't right when he hadn't seen Wilkey Jr.'s online messenger light up during the past week.

"It's going to be hard this fall," McDonald said. "It's going to be real hard."

Aunt Diane Duffield -- who remembers how her nephew covered her house with toilet paper a couple of Halloweens ago and laughed about it -- will miss his signature smile and wink the most, she said.

Wilkey Jr. -- who had been in Iraq since February -- was expected to return home around May 2008. He originally was deployed for a year but had his tour extended three months, his father said. He began serving with the 1st Infantry Division in May 2006, and this was his first deployment, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Wilkey Jr. had an older sister and a younger twin sister and brother, along with two older brothers who died when they were babies. Family members in Elkhart spent Tuesday waiting to hear about funeral arrangements from wife Melinda, who just closed on a house in Kansas this past weekend but likely will end up moving back to the Elkhart area, the family said.

A memorial service is planned for next Tuesday at Fort Riley, after which funeral services will take place in Powers, although arrangements are still pending, Wilkey Sr. said.

From the South Bend Tribune