A Big Empty Space Left Behind


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An American Soldier

Jill Asay fell in love with Ben Colgan on their first date in New York City when, in a burst of exuberance, he suddenly started running down First Avenue, hurdling parking meters. Struck by the sight, other men on the street began imitating Ben. Though some were taller than his 5 ft. 7 in., none could clear the meters. "That was my moment," recalls Jill, 34. "Here's this guy, he's athletic, he's fun, but mostly he's a leader. He made other guys want to follow him."

Colgan's relatives talk about his charisma too. When he was a boy growing up in Kent, Wash., he was the Pied Piper, as his mother Pat calls him, to his friends and seven siblings. There is the story of Ben's breaking his wrist on his first attempt to ride a bull and still persuading his younger brother to ride. And of his crashing a party at which friends predicted he would get roughed up and then calling from inside to report on the new pals he had made.

The Colgans are having to adjust now to the large empty space in their lives that Ben has left behind. On Nov. 2, the 30-year-old lieutenant died in Baghdad after his humvee was hit by a roadside bomb. Ben's parents are trying to come to grips with losing a son to a war they were against. Longtime peace activists, they marched against the idea of going to war in Iraq. His father Joe says the family was always united in support of Ben, and once the war actually started the family stopped debating it. Joe adds that he has forgiven the person who took his son's life: "They are fighting for their country just like we are fighting for ours."

Ben's widow displays no anger over the loss of her husband. "Joining the military is voluntary," Jill says. "He felt lucky to be an American and wanted to be part of making a difference. He died doing what he wanted to be doing." Some days, she acknowledges, "I want to curl up and cry and be miserable." But she adds, "I can't. They need me." They are the three daughters Grace, 2, Paige, 1, and baby Cooper, who arrived Dec. 19. Grace is old enough to know something is amiss. "She still asks about Ben all the time," says Jill, who tells the tiny blond her father is in heaven.

In the six months Ben was in Iraq, Jill compiled a trove of letters, e-mails, photos and audiocassettes from her husband, who taped himself reading stories and singing made-up songs for his daughters. "I'm grateful he died the way he did," says Jill of his tour of duty. "If it was a car wreck, we wouldn't have all these mementos. I've got all this to share with his girls."

On the day in May that Ben's unit deployed from its German base to Iraq, Jill left Germany too, moving in with her father and stepmother in Aurora, Mo. She plans to remain there but will spend time also in Washington State with Ben's extended family, whom she's counting on "to help keep his memory alive for his children." When Ben was born in February 1973, his parents, following a family tradition, planted a tree, a lace-leaf maple, in their yard in Kent. A black ribbon now hangs on the tree, next to the yellow one the Colgans had attached earlier in the hopes he would return safely from Iraq. --By Maggie Sieger with Eli Sanders/Kent