Thursday, July 05, 2007

Joel Dahl remembered

Army Cpl. Joel Dahl fought two wars: the one to keep his biological family together in whatever construct he could; the other in Iraq.

The first was driven by Dahl's desperate need to cobble together at least a semblance of family from the emotional rubble he had been born into.

The second one killed him.

Patti Harris-Thompson and her husband, Jerry Thompson, knew his battles better than most. They knew him as much as he would let them in the three teen years he was their foster son.

They grieve now for him, their brief son, killed June 23 by small-arms fire in Baghdad five days before Dahl's wife gave birth to their first baby, a son - five days before he could experience a family, at last, of his own making.

The Thompsons rescued Dahl in March 2002 when he was 16 and his mother and her husband du jour abandoned him and his younger siblings, Chrystal, Nick, Angel and 3-month-old Patti.

All but Patti called the Thompsons' Los Lunas abode "home," at least for awhile.

It hadn't been the first time the children came into foster care, not the first time Joel assumed the heavy role of patriarch.

"He was always the one who kept those kids together," said Harris-Thompson, a foster mom for 14 years. "He was the one who made sure they got to school, even if that meant he had to miss school to take care of them. He took that role so seriously."

Even in the Thompson home, it was a role Dahl found hard to relinquish.

"We had to keep telling him, Joel, you're allowed to be a kid now," Thompson said. "But it was like, `You don't know my family like I know my family.' "

Yet in those moments when he could be just a kid, what emerged was a jovial spirit who loved to clown around, play football and break young girls' hearts.

"He was no choir boy," Harris-Thompson laughed.

And if family was at the heart of Joel Dahl, then the Army was in his soul.

"In his mind he knew what he wanted to do. He was clear," Thompson said, himself an Air Force Reserve officer. "It was an honorable goal."

Harris-Thompson recalled times Dahl and his best friend, Robbie, would dress as "Army guys" and conduct missions in the ragged meadows outside Los Lunas.

One night, Dahl and his friend armed themselves with flashlights and gas masks and struck out for the abandoned Cypress Gardens home where his family had lived, left just as it was the day the state Children, Youth and Families Department had pulled the children into foster care.

"The kids always wanted to get their stuff — wrestling trophies, photo albums, school papers," Harris-Thompson said. "But the state never got it together to let them. So Joel did it himself."

Neighbors called police. But the officers, she said, understood.

"They told Joel, `OK, get what you need,' " she said. "And he got baby books, photos. He got stuff for everybody. Right or wrong, he did it. He came back with a footlocker of stuff."

Dahl joined the Army JROTC at Los Lunas High School. In his junior and senior years, Thompson helped him enlist in the Army Reserves. When Dahl graduated, Thompson inducted him into service in April 2004.

But Thompson had misgivings. The war in Iraq raged on, and every day the lives of American sons and daughters, especially those on the ground, were lost.

"In his mind, the Army was basically symbolic of American defense," Thompson said. "He wanted to get over there. He wanted to help."

Dahl had already moved out of the Thompsons' home by the time he was called up for duty in Iraq. He had become emancipated at age 18 from the foster care system. He chose not to be adopted.

Two years later, he began to create a new family, marrying Alia, a young woman he had met in youth group at the First United Methodist Church in Belen, where the Thompsons worship.

Nick, 14, stayed with the Thompsons and is now their adopted son.

After two failed adoptions, Angel, 13, found a home with a family in Truth or Consequences.

Patti, 5, was adopted by another family.

Chrystal, 19 1/2, struggled the hardest with the wreckage of her childhood. She is somewhere still on the streets of Albuquerque, Harris-Thompson said.

Attempts were made to keep the children in contact once their adoptions were finalized.

But without Dahl, the efforts dwindled, then collapsed. Patti's new parents openly told the others they were curtailing visits because of emotional upheavals in her life.

But last week, Harris-Thompson said she heard from Angel. The families have agreed to reconnect.

This week, Patti's mother, Tricia McAlister, also reached out to the other families. McAlister said she wants her daughter to know her siblings and, through them, Dahl.

"I had felt like there would be time for Patti to get to know her siblings someday," McAlister said, her voice breaking. "I was so filled with regret that she hadn't and would not have the opportunity to know her big brother."

It is because of Dahl, McAlister said, that she has a baby picture of Patti, taken before she knew her daughter. Dahl had sent the 8-by-10-inch photo to CYFD and asked the agency to pass it along to his sister's new family, she said.

The photo was one of the items retrieved that night long ago on his "Army guy" mission.

Even in death, Dahl found a way to pull his family together.

Someday, when the time is right, the Thompsons say they will reach out to Alia to let her know she is welcome in their home.

"Part of Joel is still here," Harris-Thompson said. "It's in his brother, Nick."

They are all family now, not in the normal sense, but family just the same.

From the Albuquerque Tribune

Related Link:
Joel A. Dahl dies 'of wounds sustained when his unit was attacked by enemy forces using small arms fire'