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Bond of brothers

The Weaver sons of Citrus County shared a love of country and the Army. All three were helicopter pilots. All three went to war. Two came back.

By AMY WIMMER SCHWARB, Times Staff Writer
Published July 3, 2005

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[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
Horses pull a caisson bearing the flag-drapped coffin of Aaron Weaver to a public memorial service at the Citrus High football stadium, Jan. 17, 2004.

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The Weaver sons of Citrus County shared a love of country and the Army. Go to photo gallery

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Steve Weaver peered through the scope of his new rifle. In his pocket, his cell phone vibrated.

He ignored it.

The soldiers of B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, based at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, were about to be pioneers, the first Kiowa Warrior pilots dispatched to the Afghan desert. The scout pilots were learning how to handle the M-4 rifles they would carry with them.

Steve's cell vibrated again, and this time, he answered. It was his sister, crying, telling him to call his father at home in Inverness.

Steve immediately thought of his brother Ryan, a helicopter pilot in Iraq. Steve knew a Black Hawk had been shot down that day, but it was a medevac helicopter. Ryan didn't fly medevacs.

"Why do I have to call Dad?" Steve demanded. "What happened to Ryan? Is it Ryan?"

"No," his sister said. "It's Aaron. He's dead."

Aaron. The other brother in Iraq. Like Steve, Aaron flew Kiowas, but he had been in the back of a Black Hawk that day, on his way to see a doctor.

That night, the 26 men of B Troop gathered to talk about their mission in Afghanistan, about finding Osama bin Laden. They were pumped.

Steve, at 39 the oldest soldier in the unit, raised his hand. "For everyone who thinks this is all about fun and games," Steve told them, "my brother just got killed today.

"I don't want people going into this thinking this is just a military thing. That was my brother, flying in the back of a Black Hawk helicopter to get a blood test. Not even a combat mission.

"Where's the glory in that? He's gone. There is no glory."

Then Steve - stoic, poker-faced Steve - cried. His fellow soldiers swarmed him, placing their big hands on top of his buzz-cut head.

* * *

Ryan Weaver's company commander wanted to see him. He figured he was in trouble. Maybe he'd messed up the radio exercise.

But the commander wasn't alone in his office at Baghdad International Airport. When Ryan spotted the chaplain, his face reddened, and hot tears began to form.

"What is it? What happened?" he asked them.

The commander read from a sheet of white paper, a Red Cross message. "Mother Kelly Weaver request notification due to death of brother, Daren Weaver."

"My brother's name is Aaron," Ryan interrupted.

"Well, it says Daren here," the commander told him.

For a moment, Ryan thought maybe it was a mistake. Some poor soldier with a brother named Daren was about to get some bad news. But it couldn't be a mistake. Kelly was their mom's name.

The chaplain put his hand on Ryan's shoulder. Ryan told him not to touch him.

"My brother's name," Ryan repeated, "is Aaron."

* * *

As Aaron's wife, Nancy Weaver, drove out of her office parking lot in North Carolina, she spotted a Fayetteville police vehicle and thought, "Those sure do look like military police cars."

After a run to the post office, she arrived back at her office to find her boss' assistant waiting for her. "Someone's here to see you in the other building," the woman said, without looking Nancy in the eye.

"What about?" Nancy asked.

Halfway across the catwalk that connected the two buildings of the real estate office, Nancy stopped. That military police car. Every Army wife knew what that meant.

* * *

The Weavers, of Citrus County, lost Aaron on Jan. 8, 2004, to a war the family believed in, and one the nation was, and is, still struggling to define.

More than 1,700 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq. Many of them were fresh-faced kids, or patriots who enlisted immediately after 9/11, or weekend warriors in the National Guard who never expected to see battle on foreign soil.

Aaron Weaver was none of the above. He went to Iraq as a 12-year Army veteran who had already seen more death than some soldiers see in their careers. He had survived the bloody 1993 battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, that killed 18 soldiers and became the basis for the book and movie Black Hawk Down. He was also a cancer survivor. Aaron understood mortality.

In a letter to his year-old daughter, he wrote candidly about not knowing what might happen to him. He wrote to schoolchildren he never met about the price of freedom. He jotted down lines from Shakespeare's Henry V:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother.

His own brothers - Steve, seven years older, and Ryan, two years younger - chose similar paths into the Army. The Weavers were accustomed to risk, at least the threat of it. But then Aaron died, and the idea of a soldier's death became their reality.

In the year and a half since, his loved ones have struggled to fill the terrible empty space left in their lives. His older brother strapped on an "Aaron A. Weaver Killed in Action" I.D. bracelet and flew in Afghanistan. His younger brother put on Aaron's old pilot's watch, but might never pilot a helicopter again. And Aaron's wife found herself in a situation she never expected: young, single and a mom. She was financially comfortable with an Army pension, life insurance and full college scholarships for her children, but also bored and restless.

"Not everybody ever finds that kind of love in their lives," Nancy Weaver said. "At least we had it for a little while."

* * *

Nine days after Aaron's death, Steve and Ryan Weaver followed his flag-draped casket down a flag-lined street in Inverness. Veterans saluted from sidewalks. Children laid down their bicycles in reverence. Aaron's daughter leaned out of her mother's arms to kiss his casket. Aaron's parents, Mike and Kelly, had long since divorced, but for now the whole family was united in grief.

Gov. Jeb Bush showed up, though Steve was too numb to recognize him. The governor introduced himself and shook Steve's hand. "Jeb Bush, Jeb Bush," Steve thought, flipping through his mental Rolodex.

Steve and Ryan spent their last night together at Coach's Pub in downtown Inverness. Waitresses filled ketchup bottles and perched chairs on tabletops as closing time ticked by, but no one rushed the Weaver brothers.

"We'll stay open as late as they need," said Keri Speerly, a waitress in short denim shorts and a long ponytail.

Steve and Ryan drank, laughed, cried. Steve did most of the laughing; Ryan almost all the crying. It was always like that: Steve the in-control big brother and Ryan the heart-on-his-sleeve little brother. Aaron had been the feel-everything-but-keep-it-all-inside glue in the middle.

Steve and Ryan had decisions to make. After Aaron's death, their father, Mike Weaver, called his congresswoman's office, trying to get Ryan out of Iraq and Steve off the deployment list for Afghanistan. His calls were meant to open doors, not push his boys through them.

"My sons are their own men," Mike said, "and I wouldn't try to talk them out of going."

Steve had plenty of reason to opt out of his mission. His wife, Sharon, was no fan of the military; she even refused to give the Army her contact information, saying that if something happened to him in Afghanistan, she'd rather hear from a friend.

When Steve thought of family, he also thought of the soldiers in his unit. Men like Andrew Sescilla, a first lieutenant everyone called "Vinny" because he looked Italian even though he was Polish; Chris Gauthier, a former neuroscientist who became a pilot because brain science was "boring"; and Jeremy Phillips, a tobacco-spitting captain from Crosby, Texas.

"I'm going," Steve said. "They're my brothers, too."

Ryan was more conflicted. Aaron had died in the back of the same type of helicopter that Ryan flew. He wasn't sure he could look in the troop seats without seeing Aaron and imagining him in the Black Hawk.

"You know when you sign up that the ultimate price you have to pay is your life, and now I may be backing out on that," Ryan said. "I don't want to sell the Army short for the things it's given me."

Steve and Ryan let the bar close behind them at 2 a.m. Too tipsy to drive, they walked home along a street still lined with flags - Aaron's flags.

STEVE WEAVER: Loyal to the brotherhood

Twenty-two years ago, Steve Weaver came home from his first semester at community college with a D average. His father told him he needed discipline and should join the Marines.

Instead, Steve walked into an Army recruiting office.

"What do you have that's hard?" he asked. And just like that, he set his sights on the Army Rangers.

His dad roared in laughter when Steve announced he would train to be a Ranger, not a Marine. "Just to spite me," Mike told him, "you made life twice as hard on yourself."

In the Weaver family, the military has long been a proving ground. It gave the Weaver brothers' granddad, a World War II belly gunner, his grit. It gave their dad, a Vietnam-era Marine, his patience and discipline.

As for Steve, the Army toughened him up, made him a man. He headed off to basic training, then Ranger training. When he visited Citrus County on leave, he brought along his rappelling equipment, and his little brothers Aaron and Ryan used it to climb trees.

After the Rangers, Steve came home to Florida and went to college, faring much better that time around. Then it was back to the Army: flight school, then warrant-officer training. Steve realized he was good at soldiering, and found a sense of responsibility.

An old-fashioned soldier, Steve hated the "Army of One" slogan. To him, the Army was all about the brotherhood, the watching of someone else's back.

At his base in Hawaii, Steve is the chief warrant officer and standardization instructor pilot for his troop. Warrant officers are the lay officers of the Army, officers who are made, not graduated. Privates who see them on base salute them, but aren't sure why. Steve earned more money than his captain, and part of his job was to train the more senior man to be a better leader, but Steve still answered to him.

"If you look at that troop, there are a couple formal leaders, but there's only one Steve Weaver," said Maj. Ken Chase, who was once Weaver's captain. "Every time he talks, people stop and listen."

Even before Aaron died, Steve was thinking it might be time to call it quits, to settle down with Sharon and their daughter Keelin. He had been in the Army 181/2 years. Yes, he would go to Afghanistan because he couldn't let down his troop. But that would be Steve's last mission.

When he got home from the desert, he promised his wife, he would retire.

Before shipping out, most of his cavalry headed to Fort Rucker, Ala., for training. One night, as they drank, played pool and took turns behind the karaoke microphone, Maj. Frank Tate grabbed the mike and sang Darryl Worley's Have You Forgotten? about why the United States got into the war:

Have you forgotten when those towers fell

We had neighbors still inside

Going through a living hell

And you say we shouldn't worry 'bout Bin Laden.

Have you forgotten?

Lt. Col. Michael McMahon, set to lead 25,000 troops into Afghanistan, led a kickline, swaying and singing to the country song. From the crowd, a soldier yelled, "I'm gonna get you, bin Laden!"

RYAN WEAVER: Haunted by the loss

Ryan Weaver cruised south two weeks after Aaron's funeral, a cell phone in one hand, a scrap of paper and the steering wheel in the other.

Scribbled on the paper was a phone number that might get Ryan out of Iraq: the number for U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite. Ryan's mother wanted him out. His new girlfriend, a Gainesville woman he had met online while serving in Iraq, wanted him out.

His dad, so eager at first to get his boys out of harm's way, now doubted his own judgment.

"A lot of people are going to call him a coward," his dad said. "The military is not a kind place."

Ryan dialed the numbers and listened to the instructions. He had to write a letter detailing why he merited a ticket out of Baghdad. If that didn't work, he had one other option: a reassignment from the military. The Army could choose to ship Ryan somewhere else, presumably somewhere safer, and give him a new job.

At his mother's apartment in Clearwater, he kissed her on the cheek and commandeered her computer, the one with the screen saver of Aaron in his flight uniform, squinting in the sun, the Iraqi desert visible through the panoramic windows of his Kiowa. Ryan started typing.

"I am formally requesting a compassionate reassignment," he began.

"I am a soldier to the core, but my love of family fuels my drive for success as a soldier, aviator and officer in the United States Army," Ryan typed. "I would choose to return to Iraq if I had no doubt that I would be able to serve alongside my fellow soldiers to a level at which they deserve."

His mother, Kelly, read over his shoulder. She had already lost one son and didn't want to lose her other one. (Steve is Mike Weaver's son from a previous marriage.)

"I can't support him going back and fighting," Kelly said.

* * *

They were so different, Aaron and Ryan. When Kelly would ask Ryan what it was like to fly a Black Hawk, he would describe the instrument panel, the landing procedure, the missions, as if he were teaching her how. Aaron never had much to say. "Just the same old stuff, Mom. Nothing really to it."

Ryan was sensitive to the core, and not ashamed of it. At Aaron's funeral, Ryan stood out front, bawling and saluting his brother's casket. Steve hung back, indistinguishable from the other uniformed soldiers.

Aaron joined the Army after high school. Two years later, Ryan enlisted. Then Aaron followed Steve into flight school, and when his time came, Ryan did the same.

Sometimes the brothers' paths crossed. In January 2001, Ryan and Steve were at the Army's aviation center at Fort Rucker, Ala., at the same time: Ryan as a beginning aviator; Steve for advanced flight training.

In the dining hall, Ryan approached Steve and sighed, "I can't fly."

"How long you been flying?" Steve asked.

"Three days," Ryan replied, drawing chuckles from the more experienced pilots training with Steve.

"The Army wouldn't need a flight school," Steve told Ryan, "if you could fly after three days."

It was at Fort Rucker that Steve, Aaron and Ryan were together for the last time, in November 2002, for Ryan's graduation. Ryan's family didn't know he was graduating at the top of his class. When his name was announced, his two brothers pinned on his wings.

Three Weavers, three Army warrant officers, three helicopter pilots.

"All three of them called me at home during flight school, saying, "I'm not going to make it, Dad. I can't hover,' " Mike Weaver recalled.

Steve flew Kiowas, the Army's scout helicopter, the aircraft that often flies ahead of ground troops. Ryan flew Black Hawks, the Army's utility helicopter, used mostly to transport people and cargo.

Aaron flew Kiowas, and died in the back of a Black Hawk.

* * *

Ryan flew into Baghdad International Airport in October 2003, landing his helicopter after dropping off an Army general west of Baghdad. Through his aircraft radio came a question from company command post: Where, specifically, did Ryan plan to park the Black Hawk?

Weird question, Ryan thought, then answered it.

Once on the ground, he popped open the door and saw Aaron, grinning and snapping Ryan's photo. Aaron had been in Iraq for six weeks by then, but no one in the family had told Ryan about the deployment because Aaron had wanted to surprise his kid brother.

Ryan showed off Aaron to the other guys in his unit. "I was like a kid with his new toy or a brand-new pair of sneakers," Ryan recalled.

When they next saw each other, they traded flight badges. The next time - the last time - they were together in Iraq, Aaron had just attended a funeral and told Ryan how much he dreaded hearing a bugler blow taps. The 24 notes are said to lull to sleep the restless spirits of soldiers, but to Aaron, they were just haunting.

When they parted, Ryan extended his hand because he knew his brother preferred handshakes. Aaron grabbed him and gave him a hug.

Later, Aaron instant-messaged him: "Be Safe."

* * *

From Iraq, Ryan befriended a Gainesville woman on hotornot.com, where members ask other Web surfers to judge their "hotness."

Rochelle Reber took one look at Ryan's bio - military guy, a pilot - and thought she knew him. "I thought, "He's probably arrogant, and a player,' " she said.

But Ryan surprised her with a sensitivity she didn't expect. He shared with her the poems and songs he wrote in Iraq. "Just to stay sane," Ryan explained.

They exchanged "I love yous" over e-mail. And when Aaron's death brought him home to Florida, he broke away from his family to meet her.

He called her "Rock" for short, and she was his rock. She supported his plan to get out of Iraq, and with his father's uncertainty about the decision, Ryan needed that. A couple of weeks after Aaron's funeral, he asked her to marry him, and she said yes.

Most of the cooing over the engagement ring came from her family; the Weavers were too numb to celebrate. They also wondered whether a relationship born in grief was the real thing.

Rock held his hand as he sat under the halogen light of an Inverness tattoo parlor, his shirt off. The tattoo artist etched an image of Aaron's flight badge over Ryan's heart. Beneath, he added a line that echoed Aaron's last words to Ryan: "Be Safe My Brother."

On his last night home in Inverness, Ryan headed to his favorite karaoke bar, located in the back of a BP station. Karaoke operator Katman Yates called Ryan to the front. "Ryan, why don't you come up here and sing that song of yours, buddy?"

A cappella, Ryan sang the song he wrote in Baghdad:

And she sighs for the times they'll spend without me.

She seldom cries cause she's trying to be strong.

But inside she dies when she tells me that she loves me

because I'll always be a hero in her eyes.

The next day, Ryan flew to his base in Germany, where he would wait while the Army decided what to do with him. He soon got his answer: Ryan would train warrant officers at Fort Rucker, where he, Steve and Aaron were last together, posing for photographs after Ryan got his wings.

* * *

When Ryan returned to the United States and touched down at Dothan Regional Airport, Rochelle was late to pick him up. By the time she got there, he was irritable. Are you mad at me? she asked.

He didn't answer.

Rochelle had found them a little two-story house in the country. It even had a picket fence, and she planted an American flag out front.

Ryan, who had always wanted to be a teacher, was excited about the chance to work with warrant-officers-in-training and figured it might be the closest thing to a teaching job he'd get in the Army.

But his life in Dothan wasn't what he had hoped. He felt that in his grief he had rushed into an engagement to a woman he barely knew.

He threw Rochelle out of the house. She took the American flag with her. He found other roommates to help pay the rent. He started wearing Aaron's old pilot's watch, the one Aaron's wife gave him. He hadn't set foot in a Black Hawk since Aaron died.

* * *

In Alabama, Ryan's flirtation with the karaoke circuit paid off. He came in second in a contest sponsored by a radio station and won the chance to open for country legend George Jones at the Dothan Civic Center.

He was giddy. "How many people get to say they opened for George Jones?" he asked.

He was allowed two songs. He thought he'd start with In Her Eyes, the song he wrote in Baghdad, to lure in the military-enthusiastic crowd of an Army town. Then he'd shake things up with Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy by Big & Rich. The karaoke bar ladies always screamed at his gyrating and grinding.

He strutted into the civic center in his cowboy hat and butt-hugging Wranglers. He stepped onto the stage, grabbed the microphone and said, "I wrote this one in Baghdad."

The sand is hot, the road is long,

but I see them in my dreams, and I'm carrying on.

Before the fighting starts I lean down to pray

that I get back to see my family someday.

The crowd was distracted. People waved their arms to attract the attention of friends who had just arrived, or dove for T-shirts concert sponsors were tossing into the audience as Ryan tried to sing.

But Ryan was unfazed. He shouted into the mike: "Now it's my turn to shake it."

With that, the Big & Rich music started, and the crowd that had been so inattentive during the song about a soldier at war was mesmerized by Ryan shaking his thing and singing about saving horses and riding cowboys. Ryan stepped off stage and called the experience a "dream come true."

"This time last year I was in Baghdad," he said. "And here I am singing on a stage in Dothan, Ala."

* * *

And they're off.

Warrant officer wanna-bes dart out of their rooms, race up a hallway. It's 5:35 a.m., wake-up call. In the next seven minutes, they must shower and make their beds and brush their teeth and dress, all while remembering to pay some respect to their training officer.

"Good morning, Mr. Weaver," they utter in succession as they race past him. "Be No Do, sir."

Be No Do is the word of the day, a bit of nonsense thrown in that the candidates are expected to take seriously. And if they don't . . .

"Go ahead and give me pushups, candidate, if you can't give me the proper greeting of the day," Ryan scolds a warrant officer candidate.

Ryan loves this new role. It's a contrast to his sentimental but fun-loving personality.

"Three minutes! Three minutes!" he shouts at his charges. "Don't stop! Don't stop! Let's go! Let's go! Come on, First Platoon!"

If he hadn't gone into the Army, he figures, he would have become a high school English teacher. Sometimes, instead of pushups, he assigns his candidates written papers, and shakes his head at their poor writing skills.

The candidates think of Ryan - Mr. Weaver - as among the meanest of the training officers. They curse under their breath when he deals them a punishment for storing a memo in the wrong pocket of their backpacks.

But every once in a while, when he's berating someone for farting while in formation, they giggle behind cupped hands and hope he doesn't notice.

Ryan told his first class of candidates about Aaron. He was making a point about their responsibilities as warrant officers, about what they might be called to do.

The class, moved by Aaron's sacrifice and Ryan's heartache, took up a collection and presented Ryan a plaque in Aaron's honor. Ryan's superiors disciplined him for accepting a gift from his students, but the plaque still hangs in his office.

One night, Ryan got caught up at work late, and he was rushing through the parking lot to reach his car when the military clocks hit 2200 hours. Through the base speakers came taps, the haunting melody Aaron hated so much.

Ryan stood at attention in the parking lot, tears streaming down his face beneath his salute.

NANCY WEAVER: Going it alone

As romances go, Aaron and Nancy Weaver's had a pretty lousy start.

Nancy worked with Aaron's dad Mike at the Citrus County Chronicle and played with him on a company softball team. Aaron was home between stints in the Army. Mike introduced them at a softball game, thinking the two might hit it off.

They didn't.

"Your son is the biggest, most conceited jerk I ever met," Mike remembers Nancy telling him. "And "jerk' is more polite than what she said." Aaron's reaction, according to Mike, was no better: "Why'd you introduce me to her, Dad? She's so self-centered, and she thinks she's the hottest thing."

Aaron was attending college after returning from Somalia. Nancy thought he spent too much time talking about his Army exploits. But eventually, they softened toward each other. "I just got to know him, I guess," is Nancy's only explanation, and she realized the pain he had carried home from Mogadishu.

It manifested itself in nightmares, wrenching dreams in which he revisited a country he would never see again in waking life. He would catapult from bed, try one more time to rescue his friends.

In 1993, when the United States dispatched troops to oust Somalian drug lords, Aaron was a freshly minted Ranger. On a mission to make some arrests, Aaron and other Rangers rappelled into Mogadishu from Black Hawk helicopters, and one Black Hawk was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

The helicopter plummeted into the middle of the city, provoking an immediate attack. Aaron got out safely, but when troops went back into Mogadishu to rescue soldiers still caught in the gunfire, Aaron was selected to lead the Humvee caravan.

In those hours back in Mogadishu, he helped pile dead comrades into the back of his Humvee. He counseled a buddy who'd had his fingers blown off. Eighteen American soldiers died that day, but Aaron left Mogadishu unhurt.

He never felt right about it.

Aaron and Nancy married seven years later. It was his first marriage and her third.

Nancy looks at it like this: She married the first time because she was pregnant. She married the second time to give her young son a father. The third time, she married for love.

* * *

Nancy was five months pregnant in 2002 when Aaron first noticed the knot on his testicle. The doctors told him tests could wait, but Aaron pushed, and sure enough, the lump was cancerous.

It was caught in time, and surgeons removed not just the lump but, at Aaron's urging, the entire testicle. The cancer scare was short-lived, but two abdominal surgeries, intended to stop the cancer's spread nearly killed him.

In the weeks he spent in an Army hospital in Fort Bragg, N.C., his 5-foot-8 body dwindled to 108 pounds. He wouldn't pray with Nancy in the hospital chapel, but he did follow her to the ultrasound room, his IVs in tow.

Nancy lay on her back as a technician showed them the fuzzy image of their baby. "Please," Nancy thought to herself, "let it be a girl."

Aaron wanted a girl. He wanted one so badly that Nancy thought the anticipation might pull him through the cancer.

Savannah Aryn Weaver was born Aug. 25, 2002. Aaron was healthy by then - he made a complete turnaround after the ultrasound, Nancy says - though the Army still monitored him to ensure the cancer hadn't returned.

* * *

It was no surprise when Aaron's unit was ordered to Iraq in October 2003. The bigger surprise came when Aaron, considered nondeployable at the time because of his treatments, told Nancy he wanted to go to Iraq with his unit.

They could pay off some bills with his combat pay, he told her. It would be good for their future.

Nancy didn't buy it. Aaron was the big spender; she was the one who worried about money. He was telling her what he thought she'd want to hear.

"It wasn't about money," Nancy said. "He just wanted to be there, to be there for the other guys." Nancy thought he was motivated by the guilt of returning home unharmed when so many others were disfigured or worse in Mogadishu.

Aaron requested permission to get his post-cancer checkups in Baghdad instead of Fort Bragg. He celebrated Savannah's first birthday, then shipped out.

* * *

Nancy and her children talk about Aaron in the present tense. When Nancy's son Austin, now 11, skinned his knee, he told her he wasn't allowed to wear Band-Aids.

"What do you mean?" Nancy asked.

"Aaron says Band-Aids are for babies," Austin said.

Sometimes when Nancy is driving along in her Ford Explorer, 2-year-old Savannah will pipe up from her car seat in the back: "Mommy," she will say, "Daddy says hi."

Nancy isn't sure what to believe, but she trusts Savannah. "Maybe in her little world, he does visit her," Nancy said. "If he visited anybody, it'd be her."

Nancy moved closer to her family and Aaron's after his death, into the Trinity subdivision in Pasco County. She thought it would be good to be near them, but sometimes, when she talked happily to her children about Aaron or visited his grave without getting choked up, she feared the family thought she wasn't feeling enough grief.

She considered moving back to North Carolina, where she has friends who might understand her better. Aaron, she thinks, will be with her and her children no matter where they are.

For months, the Weavers didn't know precisely how Aaron died. His body arrived in Inverness in a flag-draped casket, and the Army advised against a public viewing.

The family feared he might have burned when his helicopter was shot down. But then Nancy received a box with items Aaron had carried in the crash, including a letter he had written to Savannah, and they knew he hadn't died in a fire.

He began the letter, "My dearest little Savannah." According to the date in the upper right-hand corner, Aaron had written it three weeks before he died. It ended:

"No matter what happens to me or where we go, you will always know that I love you, Mommy loves you, and your family loves you. Remember that family is the most important thing and all you may have to fall back onto in times of need. Your family loves you. Love your family."

- Daddy

Epilogue

Steve Weaver returned to the United States in April after a year in Afghanistan. As he crossed over the desert last summer on Aaron's birthday, he flew an American flag from his Kiowa helicopter. Later he sent the flag to their dad.

Steve's commander, Lt. Col. Michael McMahon, who led his soldiers in a karaoke kickline weeks before he led them into Afghanistan, died in a plane crash in the Hindu Kush mountains. A crew chief in Steve's unit also died in the crash. The other 25 men of B Troop - including the neuroscientist-turned-warrant officer, the Italian-looking Pole and the tobacco-spitting Texan - came home safely.

Steve plans to keep his promise to his wife and retire when he becomes eligible next year - if the Army lets him. "I can put in retirement papers, and they can say, no, you can't retire right now."

Ryan Weaver still teaches warrant officer candidates at Fort Rucker. He has a new girlfriend. He hasn't flown a helicopter since Aaron's death.

Nancy Weaver moved back to North Carolina shortly after her son finished the school year in Pasco County. A few weeks ago, Savannah saw a helicopter and asked if her daddy was flying it.

His last letter to her, framed and matted, hangs on her bedroom wall.

Times staff writer Amy Wimmer Schwarb can be reached at wimmerschwarb@yahoo.com

[Last modified June 30, 2005, 10:46:03]


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