Allen and Rosa Ermer raised their five children in a Latter-day Saint household. No alcohol, no stimulants, as the Word of Wisdom dictates. Fourth child Jason entered a rebellion phase—tobacco, beer drinking with friends, a little weed now and then. “He got in a rough crowd,” younger brother Joey recalls.
His parents laugh good-naturedly about his teenage antics. He was a risk taker; he loved bull riding. They prefer to remember Jason’s loving nature. “He was very soft-hearted,” Rosa says. Allen says his fourth son was the emotional core of the family. “Since he’s been gone, there’s something missing in our lives.”
The Ermer family boasts a long record of military service. Allen did four years in the U.S. Navy and now helps keep F-16s flying through his job at Hill Air Force base as a software engineer. When youngest son Joey enlisted in the Army after 9/11, it was no surprise. A week later, Jason also enlisted. He told Brandi he wanted to protect his little brother. Two of the other three Ermer siblings have also served in the military.
Jason did his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Joey was there at the same time with his unit, prior to shipping out to Germany. Army regulations kept the brothers from fraternizing. They got around the rule by attending a nearby local LDS ward together. Jason confided in Joey how much he disliked army life—it was much more than simple homesickness or general malaise.
Joey was gung-ho. “I told my mom I’m not coming back,” he says today. “I wanted combat bad.” Yet Joey didn’t make it to Iraq. The hatch door of an armored vehicle hit him on the head while his unit was in Germany, damaging nerves at the back of his eyes. Overnight, he went from being the hero of his unit for his boxing prowess to an object of ridicule. Joey says his superiors bullied him with accusations of cowardice and malingering. He quit when he had the chance, forfeiting medical benefits. “I felt ashamed I’d gotten hurt,” he says. His unit went to Iraq without him.
Jason went to jump school. Parachuting from a plane meant an extra $150 each month. He also spent several months learning how to operate heavy machinery, with a goal of making that his trade in civilian life. Jason learned his brother wasn’t going to Iraq shortly before leaving for Kuwait with his own unit on April 1, 2003. Brandi Ermer says the news depressed her husband. “His brother gets to go home and away from this shit, and he’s stuck in it.”
THE BODY IN THE ROAD
Twelve days after Jason landed in Kuwait, 20 miles from the Iraq border, he wrote to Brandi, complaining about guard duty “with all our shit on (full battle rattle).” The infernal 130-degree heat left him beyond exhaustion.
Mosul, where Jason was stationed for much of his year in Iraq, is a desolate place, veteran Andy Figorski says, with “gray cloud sky, dingy asphalt and gray-khaki buildings.” Jason told his parents how desperately poor the Iraqis were. Whenever the soldiers distributed water among raggedy villagers, they were all but mugged.
After Jason’s unit finished repairing Mosul airport’s bomb-cratered runway and building baseball and football fields for the troops, his unit became infantry. In a letter to his parents, Jason foreshadowed his growing sense of despair. “We have no real mission here,” he wrote.
His father says his son bought Valium from Iraqi children on the street for his nerves. He wanted the medication to get him through guard duty at night in the tower of a former Iraqi army base. Once darkness fell, insurgents would fire mortars into the camp, he told Rosa. He and his battle buddies would sit there, wondering who was next to die.
Jason told his brother David about things he did or saw in the war that Allen’s oldest son refuses to share with his father. “I don’t know why,” Allen says. “It’s seems strange, especially now that Jason’s dead. Things must have happened, I don’t know.”
What Jason’s parents did learn shortly before his suicide was of his part in the death of an Iraqi child. Jason was driving the lead Humvee in a convoy when, he told his parents, Iraqi insurgents threw a boy at the vehicle to slow it down so they could attack. The boy grabbed hold of the side-view mirror and shouted at Jason in Arabic through the window. Jason couldn’t stop, otherwise he would have endangered the whole convoy. The boy fell under the wheels.
Jason told Brandi a different version. While the convoy was routinely slowing down, the boy jumped onto the vehicle. Children in filthy rags always swarmed around the soldiers, he told her, begging for food or money. The convoy picked up speed. The boy did not jump off.
Jason kept looking at his sergeant while the boy was shouting. “What do I do, what do I do?” Jason screamed.
“He might have a bomb,” the sergeant shouted. “Push him off.”
Jason pushed the boy away. The child fell beneath the vehicle. “He felt the whole Humvee run this kid over,” Brandi says. In the mirror, Jason saw the vehicles behind him swerve. The boy lay still in the middle of the road.