By News planning editor
NBC News
updated 5/27/2005 7:42:20 AM ET 2005-05-27T11:42:20

“Sometimes,” Fran Jenkins says, “Jack is in the oil rig, and he feels someone brushing his cheek. He hears ‘Pop!’ – just the way Troy used to call him.” 

Fran’s husband Jack, of Turkey Creek, La., is just one out of a couple of thousand parents who have lost a child in Iraq. His son, Sgt. Troy Jenkins, was one of those who never came back.      

Last June, Jack Jenkins took time off from his grueling work as a cook on an offshore oil rig off the coast of Louisiana.   He and his wife Fran journeyed more than 600 miles to Ft. Campbell, Ky. 

There was a weekend for the families of the 101st, and Jack Jenkins went to retrieve his son’s dog tags.  Troy had died in April of 2002 from the injuries he sustained after an ordnance exploded near him.

Jack Jenkins got a chance to talk and spend time with the soldiers who were part of his son’s life.  He went out to dinner with Troy’s sergeant. Troy was due to return in a few months, and his sergeant had told him to stay behind when they went out on patrol. But Troy insisted.  Jack Jenkins shared stories, and he received Troy’s dog tags in an emotional ceremony. NBC News was there and interviewed the Jenkins.

“It is so hard, so hard,” said Fran, her voice breaking as she recalled the weekend.  “But Jack has been better since last year’s events…it has helped.  Before, he thought he was going to go crazy.”

The act of traveling to Fort Campbell and talking about his son in a news story served as a healing balm for Jack, according to his wife Fran.  “It’s never easy, but it has helped,” Fran said. 

To those who have lost a loved one in the Iraq war, grief is a constant, solitary companion.   “You want everybody to know how good they were…you don’t want people to forget them,” she said.        

A few months ago, someone who did not even know Troy remembered him.  He gave the Jenkins a wonderful gift. The Jenkins received a scroll saw portrait of Troy, a wooden “relief” that was etched by a member of “Portrait Freedom.”

‘Guilt trip’
Gary Browning, of Greencastle, Pa., started “Portrait Freedom” last year.  Browning is a soft-spoken and unassuming husband and father who installs security systems during the day and whose hobby is scroll sawing.  Without much fanfare, he has organized around 250 fellow hobbyists across the country.

Why did he do it?  “Sort of a guilt trip, actually...” Browning said with a slight smile. “I used to be in the Marines. I went to the first Gulf War, and I trained people who I knew were now in Iraq.  Since I am not there with them, I wanted to do something; I wanted to help.” 

The group creates a design from a deceased soldier’s picture  The design is then sent to a scroll saw cutter, who “cuts” the portrait and then sends a couple of portraits to the families, free of charge.   

The designer for Troy Jenkins’ portrait was Christine Yaeger, a volunteer who lives in Crooks, S.D., more than a thousand miles away from the Jenkins’ Louisiana home. 

Yaeger left Scotland for America 32 years ago, but still has a lovely, lilting accent.  She recalls finding a picture of a deceased Latino soldier from Texas and deciding to do a portrait.  But the widow had moved, and the portraits came back. 

Yaeger persisted until she found the right address. “I received a letter from the mom, and she was amazed at the portrait, because when her son was little he had fallen off a swing  and bit his lip. He tore a piece off that left a bump on his lip, and you can see that in the portrait.” 

Yaeger added, “This family said they never would have believed strangers could do this without asking for anything back. I was a stay-at-home mom all my life, but now I tell my husband, I have a job.”    

Another thousand miles away from Turkey Creek, La., in a different direction, is Rochester, N.Y. This is the home of Bob Henry, a grandfather who cut Troy Jenkins’ portrait. 

“I cried on my first one …he was a young soldier from Texas who had just had a baby. I still have a portrait of him; I made an extra cutting.  I don’t know, there’s a feeling…”

Here Mr. Henry’s voice breaks a little.  “This person’s part of your family; you can’t help but get attached.  You think about all these young parents that are leaving children behind…sometimes you wish you could thank them personally.”  

The Jenkins feel Yaeger and Henry have thanked Troy.  They love the portrait.  Jack Jenkins has decided to take up scroll sawing.  “I think it will help him,” Fran said. 

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