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'A little walk for Jem'

Jeremy Little, a TV soundman, was killed while on assignment for NBC News in Iraq last year. On Sunday, his mother embarked on " little walk for Jem," a 300-mile pilgrimage to honor her dead son. NBC's Chris Hampson reports.
Tim and Anna Little alongside the Thames in London on Sunday.
Tim and Anna Little alongside the Thames in London on Sunday.
/ Source: NBC News

Two countries. Two roads running through them.  On one, it is a chilly Easter Sunday morning.  On the other, a dark and dangerous night.

A woman and a young man step out through brief patches of sunlight. Mother and son, wrapped in each other’s company, a long walk ahead.

On the dark and dirty road a convoy of American army vehicles rushes through the night. A blinding flash of light, the screech of metal tearing apart, the stench of explosives. On the ground, lit up by the flames of the burning vehicle, a young man struggles with the pain of appalling wounds. He doesn’t know it yet, but his struggle will be in vain.

He will bravely undergo a long evacuation, surrounded by medics and with his loyal friend always at his side. He will briefly talk to his folks and crack a couple of jokes. But a week later — in a military hospital in Germany  — he will lose his desperate fight for life.

His mother and brother will be there, faces stained with grief and anguish. His father, too, will stand helplessly by, his big warm heart breaking.

Two countries. Two roads. One family.

A walk to ease the pain
Jeremy Little was covering the Iraq war when he was mortally wounded almost a year ago. He was working as a freelance sound recordist, on his first overseas assignment for NBC News. He was excited to be there. He was just 27 years old.

On Sunday, his mother Anna is walking along a road of her own, from London to Cornwall, in what she describes as a pilgrimage to her dead son. Her tee shirt says proudly:  "A Little walk for Jem." His smiling picture covers the front.

She’s traveling 300 miles to the place where Jeremy spent his last vacation. He loved to surf and Anna hopes to find some of the crowd he spent his time with, to pick up some more memories of her gregarious, lovely boy, who liked to laugh, tell jokes, have fun.

Jem had told his friends he'd be back. Now Anna is going in his stead. It’s a time for healing and for dealing with the pain that fills her days.

Her husband John wrote recently: “Anyone who tells you that grief wears off with time has not had the experience.”

A tale worth telling
Back home in Australia, John is a successful author who is busy writing Jeremy’s story. It is a tale worth the telling — and, as John admits, it’s his therapy.

At times, he is overwhelmed by the memories and struggles to put them on the page. He hopes people will want to read them, to know more about his son. It will be his own memorial to Jeremy.

As a young TV producer 30 years earlier, John went to Vietnam to help tell the story of that war. He understands what his boy was doing in Iraq, even if he won’t ever come to terms with what happened to him there.

Anna is a teacher, one of those naturally good people who has devoted much of her life to children: her own and many others.

A few months ago she gave up her job. She felt she couldn’t give the kids what they needed.  For now, she needs it for herself.

Jeremy’s younger brother Tim is with her for the first stage of her journey. He is making his life in London, just like his brother did. He looked up to Jem, followed in his footsteps as a kid.  Now he’s taken over Jem’s sound kit and is learning his brother’s trade.  He plans to be successful in his own right.

There’s much of Jem in him, not least the cheeky grin. People sometimes tease him that he looks like Tom Cruise. Tim usually says nothing, just gives them his best Hollywood smile.

No bitterness, just sorrow
Now he walks side by side with his mom, the survivors of a tragedy that has changed their lives forever. For them, there are no cliches.

Surprisingly, there is no bitterness, just a lingering sorrow, an all-pervasive sense of loss for a fine young life that once filled their days with joy, not sadness.

They know they are not the only ones to have lost a son, brother, husband, lover in far-off Iraq. Since the conflict began more than 700 "foreigners" have died there. Most were in the military. Some 40 or so worked for the media.

Shortly after Jem’s death a group of families got together in London to talk about the one thing they had in common: grief. All had lost someone dear to them in Iraq while they were engaged in trying to tell the world what was happening there.

One died when an American tank inexplicably blew away part of his hotel. One was blown up, indiscriminately, by a suicide bomber. Another, just 24 years old, was shot in the head at point blank range, without warning or discernible reason, other than that he was tall, fair-skinned and defenseless — truly an innocent abroad.

It was typical of Anna that her concerns that day were for those other poor souls; her worry was how they would cope.

Today it’s Anna and Tim’s turn.

One path
They begin at the "journalists’ church" of St Bride’s in London. Here, in a corner by the altar, a plaque to the media victims of the war carries the name of Jeremy Little, NBC News Sound Recordist. He died on July 6, 2003.

Although they have lived without Jem for almost a year, it’s a shock to see such stark confirmation that he is gone. But it’s also, curiously, a source of comfort and pride to read his name there. The priest says a prayer. They each light a candle.

They walk along beside the Thames, sometimes talking about the things they did with Jem. They laugh. They smile. For a while, they forget their anguish, happy still to have each other. 

Perhaps, as they walk, they will recall the funeral at a church on Sydney’s northern shore, crowded with young people listening to Jeremy’s best friend, bewildered by his death, struggling to pay his tribute between his sobs. When the words failed, his tears filled in the gaps.

Or the wake, where more than a hundred of Jem’s friends crowded outside as the full moon rose straight out of the ocean like a rocket, as it does Down Under.  They whooped and cheered, as if Jeremy’s spirit was soaring into the night sky.

A few days later, they swam out on surfboards from Jeremy’ favorite beach and held hands in the water as his father cast Jem’s ashes into the Pacific waves.

John described that poignant moment in a letter: “I opened the receptacle and told Jem that he was surrounded by his closest friends, in the place that he loved, and that we were here to say goodbye.

“As I began to scatter his ashes an exultant roar went up from the circle — it was primitive and beautiful, and we all felt bloody good about it afterwards."

Anna’s "Little walk for Jem" will take her through some of England’s most beautiful countryside.  Her son’s death has brought her to the other side of the world in search of something to take home with her. It is too soon for her to feel "bloody good," but it won’t stop her trying. She’ll do it for Jem, if she can’t yet do it for herself.

"I was 27 when I had Jem," Anna says, "and it changed my life.

"He was 27 when he died. My life has changed again. I'm no longer the person I was. Perhaps this walk will help me understand the person I've become."

Two countries. One death. One very long road.