By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
The stories help.
Since burying their 20-year-old son and U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Jerrod Warden just over a week ago, Kelly and Kyle Warden are reliving a lot of memories and good times.
Two weeks before Christmas, Jerrod died at Camp Pendleton in California. It’s not clear why.
His parents suspect it had something to do with his heart, though an investigation in currently underway to reveal the exact cause.
The cause behind their son’s death is far less pressing for the couple than the fact he’s gone. His death has left a permanent hole in the close-knit Casper family.
Their cozy living room is a shrine to their son. His airbrushed face smiles from a blanket folded over a futon while a plaque with his photo and the poem “As I sit in Heaven” hangs on a wall near the television.
On a shelf, his photo appears every few seconds in a digital picture display that never ceases to prompt Jerrod’s niece Kimora to jump up and point at her “Uncle JJ.”
The two were close, and the 2-year-old is struggling to understand why her beloved uncle missed Christmas. She’s been told he’s in heaven but still wonders why he didn’t come home as promised.
His departure for boot camp in California had been hard on Kimora, so Kelly purchased a “Hug-A-Hero” doll, a stuffed figure carrying a photograph of Jerrod.
On Jan. 6, the family buried Jerrod at the Oregon Trail State Veterans Cemetery in Evansville in a military honors ceremony, complete with an escort led by members of the Wyoming Patriot Guard Riders.
The parade of cars stemmed for miles between exits on 1-25 as hundreds of friends, classmates, family members and military members lined up to pay their final respects at the cemetery.
The turnout caught the Wardens off guard, particularly all the cars with strangers who pulled over to the curb as the escort passed, getting out of their cars in the frigid wind and cold to salute the fallen soldier.
They were floored by the outpouring of love and respect for their son. They were also touched by Jerrod’s close friends and platoon mates from the 2/1 Weapons Company of the 81st Platoon.
The 13 soldiers arrived in Denver during a snow storm.
Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, worked with the Department of Transportation and law enforcement officers to make sure they reached Casper in time for the ceremony.
Kelly was also been pleased to see delegates from Sen. Cynthia Lummis and Gov. Mark Gordon’s offices.
Their son loved being a Marine. He’d decided to join the military after graduating from Kelly Walsh High School.
He signed up as a mortar man – which he told his mom entailed ‘blowing things up’ – and told his parents he wanted to be on the front lines. Jerrod completed one tour in Kuwait and Jordan before returning to Camp Pendleton.
Like other military members, he was frustrated by the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan last summer. He was assigned to guard the Jordan border but had wanted to be in Kabul.
He was paid to fight, he told his parents, and had enlisted to serve, not stand around watching everyone else in action.
“Sitting back hadn’t been easy for him,” Kelly said.
Like the rest of the state and country, he was devastated by the death of his fellow Marine and wrestling friend, Rylee McCollum, who died in the blast that killed 13 servicemen at the Kabul airport following the American withdrawal.
Rylee’s parents have been in touch with the Wardens, Kelly said, to offer their condolences and support.
“Gold Star families stick together,” Kelly said with a smile. “You never want to be one, but at least you have the support of other people who are going through the same thing.”
Since Jerrod’s passing, the Wardens have heard from many of his fellow military members and former classmates at both Kelly Walsh and Centennial Middle School about the many ways that Jerrod helped them.
Text messages and letters tell heartfelt stories about how Jerrod helped others.
One Marine told Kyle he wouldn’t have made it through boot camp without Jerrod, who had stopped at several points along a grueling obstacle course to pick him and others up – sometimes dragging them – to get them over the finish line.
They were in this together, Jerrod said, and if the individual Marines didn’t pass, none of them would.
Likewise, Kelly recounted the story told by a young man who during the funeral had said that he wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for Jerrod.
In junior high, the boy had really been struggling with depression and suicidal ideations. Sensing his distress, Jerrod took the underclassman, a young wrestler, under his wing and more or less saved his life.
Others talk about Jerrod’s unabashed love for his family. Jerrod was a “mama’s boy” and proud of it.
Kelly thinks this stemed from the brief period between elementary and junior high when she had homeschooled him because he was getting into too much trouble. He would help her in the kitchen and become her little buddy, she said.
Later when she had brain surgery for hydrocephalus, Jerrod, then 8, and his father shaved their heads in solidarity with Kelly.
Kyle also heard from many of Jerrod’s friends who said his son was their hero.
Kyle tearfully read one message from one of Jerrod’s platoon mates who reiterated how much his son loved and respected him. Jerrod was his hero, the friend wrote.
He was a natural leader, both parents said of their son, and an athlete.
Just a hard-working, smart and very nice kid, Kyle added. During his two years in the military, he’d already been promoted twice up to lance corporal and had been studying to be full corporal prior to his death.
Jerrod talked about wanting to come home in two years to marry his girlfriend and former classmate, Anastasia, who he’d recently connected with.
He also talked about joining the Wyoming National Guard and maybe becoming an MMA fighter.
Jerrod had wrestled all through school and had recently asked his mom to send his wrestling gear to Kuwait, so he could practice with other Marines.
Since joining the Marines, the Wardens had seen a change in their son from boy to man.
They watched him become more resolute in his convictions in protecting both his country and family.
“One thing the Marines taught him, I think,” Kelly said, “is that nobody is going to mess with his family again.”
The fact that Jerrod will not have a life and family with Anastasia has also been a hard truth to accept, the couple said. They are very fond of the girl and now consider her family, regardless.
There’s no shortage of stories about their son, the couple said, and they enjoy hearing and telling them. It helps keep his memory alive, well after his funeral.
Jerrod’s 22-year-old sister, Lily, is also struggling with the absence of her brother, Kelly said.
The two were close, like the rest of the family. Kelly recalled that Jerrod had probably had a harder time when Lily gave birth to Kimora than Lily did.
Like his dad, Jerrod was a jokester and couldn’t ever be serious for too long, except when it came to his sister. It had been a rough birth for her, and she’d lost a lot of blood.
Jerrod had paced back and forth, sticking out his arm in desperation and offering his blood to help her.
That’s not quite how a blood transfusion works, Kelly had told her son, laughing today at the memory.
They are waiting for his belongings to be returned home. Among them are the numerous pairs of shoes that Jerrod painstakingly collected, keeping the shoes — mostly tennis shoes —- in their boxes with the price tags on when he wasn’t wearing them.
Because the family does not have much money, the Wardens said Jerrod started buying shoes with his own money.
Even when serving in the Marines, he would buy expensive sneakers and have them shipped and waiting for him in Casper.
Kelly laughed at her son’s idiosyncrasies. He’d also had their Christmas gifts shipped home and waiting for a holiday visit that never came. In the meantime, the Warden plan to do everything they can to keep their son’s memory alive.
To that end, Jerrod’s family has started the Jerrod L. Warden Kelly Walsh Wrestling Scholarship that people can donate to by purchasing a T-shirt at the online store.
Proceeds from the scholarship will go to Kelly Walsh wrestlers who, like Jerrod, show a lot of heart and love for the sport but aren’t among the top performers who would otherwise qualify for wrestling scholarships.
The Wardens are confident Jerrod would approve of this effort.
They are also trying to get on with their lives because they know Jerrod would want that. For the first time since her son’s death Kelly started walking on trails again this week.
Prior to his death, Kelly had sent Jerrod a picture of herself on the trail pretty much every day. He’d been very proud of Kelly’s recent 50-pound weight loss and loved encouraging her, Kelly said.
Jerrod told her that it was time for her to focus on herself after a lifetime of pouring her energy into her two children. The walks are now a mixed blessing. Sometimes she cries, sometimes she laughs, other times she has long conversations with her son.
“It’s just me out there,” she said, eyes blurry behind her glasses.
The one thing the family always did together was hold family meeting to discuss various issues about their health or lives, so that they could make the decisions together.
Recently, they held their first meeting without Jerrod. It felt surreal, Kelly said, but it’s part of what they have to do now that he’s gone.
“We’re all really lost right now,” she said. “We just feel like we’re in a fog, but we’ve got to move on because we have no choice.”