For Sgt. Willie Stogner of the Mississippi National Guard, a two-week Thanksgiving leave from the war in Iraq has been a feast of dueling emotions — about life and death, and about family and country.
Since returning to his rural Mississippi home and to the warm embrace of worried family members, Stogner has been the toast of this small community 10 miles west of Columbia, where he worked as a fireman before being called up in March to serve in Iraq.
The local Kiwanis Club held a lunch in Stogner’s honor. A friend on the police force paraded him around town in his squad car. Family members wear T-shirts emblazoned with an American flag and a photo of 37-year-old Stogner.
Every minute passing here in the woodlands of southern Mississippi reminds friends and family that Stogner has to return to Iraq to serve three more months, at least. Nobody wants to let go of him.
“He’s my baby brother, and I don’t want to see him go back to Iraq,” said his sister, Bonnie Johnston.
Yet Stogner, a quiet man who was already thin before losing 25 pounds while serving in Iraq, appears uncomfortable at the center of fawning family attention.
While Stogner made it home to Mississippi, Spc. James Chance III, Stogner’s neighbor, friend and fellow soldier, did not.
A FALLEN FRIEND
Chance, 25, died just days before his scheduled Thanksgiving leave, when his vehicle ran over a landmine in Iraq, near the Syrian border.
The first Mississippi National Guardsman to die in Iraq, Chance was buried Nov. 15 with full military honors in Kokomo, just down the road from the house Stogner shares with his wife and 12-year-old daughter.
Stogner and Chance served together in Company C of the 890th Engineering Battalion. The Chances and the Stogners have been friends, and relatives by marriage, for generations.
“Jimmy was a great guy,” Stogner said. “He loved his job. He loved what he did.”
Chance was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the Mississippi Magnolia Cross. On his last mission, leading a convoy nine miles from the Syrian border, Chance told his fellow soldiers, “I’m single. In case we get hit, I don’t want someone with a wife and children to get hurt.”
Stogner’s leave from Iraq began with the funeral for his friend, and ended Thursday with Thanksgiving dinner with the extended Stogner family — events that serve as emotional bookends to his leave from war.
“I ain’t gonna lie. I don’t want to go back,” Stogner said. “But there’s no way I’m going to sit here and leave my soldiers over there.”
Stogner described his loyalties to his “two families” — his wife, Annette, and his daughter, Druicilla, in Mississippi, and the over 600 Mississippi National Guardsmen who have spent nine months on active duty in Iraq.
“It’s my family there, just like it’s my family here,” Stogner said.
On Friday, Stogner, still full from a festive Thanksgiving meal the night before, caught a flight back to Iraq. At the airport in Jackson, Mississippi’s capital, his family said tearful good-byes, hoping their soldier will make it home again.
Annette Stogner buried her head in her husband’s embrace.
“You be safe,” she said.
Preston Mendenhall is an NBC News correspondent.