Dwan Fairbanks was at her supervisor's job at the Best Buy store in Clarksville, Tenn., near the sprawling Fort Campbell Army base when her cell phone rang. Her husband, Jake, was in Iraq, in the middle of his second combat deployment. Her four children were at home, enjoying a day off from school.
It was Fairbanks' 9-year-old daughter, Katelin, calling. Two soldiers in "Army greens," the uniform worn on official occasions, had come to the door. Obeying their mother's instructions for when they were home alone, the kids did not answer the door. The soldiers went away.
They would be back.
Dwan and Jacob Fairbanks were both from the East Side of St. Paul. Jake graduated from Johnson High School in 2004. Dwan went to Harding. They met after Jake joined the Army and was assigned to the 320th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team at Fort Campbell, which straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee border. They clicked right away.
"He was my strength in everything I was weak at," Dwan says. "We just connected. I was a single mom, and I was happy with the way things were for me. But he swept me off my feet."
Dwan, 28, was six years older than Jake and already had three children -- Alexander, who is 11, Katelin, 9, and David, 5. The blended family bonded tightly, and Dwan says Jake was "an amazing parent for my kids."
They married in August 2005, before he deployed to Iraq the first time. Dwan got pregnant when Jake came home on a brief R&R visit a few months later, and the couple's daughter, Kayla, was born after Jake returned from the war.
Kayla, 17 months old now, seemed always to be in Jake's arms. He called her "Tati Baby" ("tati" was her word for pacifier). But being a father can change the emotional equation for a soldier. After Jake got word that his unit was being re-deployed to Iraq, for 15 months this time, a feeling of dread came over him.
"Dwannie, what if I don't come back this time?" he would ask his wife.
Some 225 soldiers from Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne, the Screaming Eagles, have died in Iraq, including some of Jake's friends.
Jacob Fairbanks would be the 4,027th American to die. On April 9, the Army says, he died of "non-combat" injuries. His death is under investigation by the Army, but news organizations have reported Jake's death as a self-inflicted gunshot. As many as one in five returning Iraq veterans are suffering from post traumatic stress, and suicide rates among members of the military have soared. Dwan Fairbanks says she is convinced such "accusations" of suicide, as she calls them, are not true in her husband's case.
The couple had made too many plans for something like that to happen.
At Fort Campbell, a child is supposed to be at least 12 in order to baby-sit younger siblings. Since Alex is only 11, Dwan wondered whether the soldiers at her home might mean she was in trouble for ignoring the rule. She told Katelin to keep the door locked.
Maybe it was nothing.
But Dwan was worried. Jake had gone without regular sleep for months. He was on medication for that, and for depression and anxiety.
"He was so full of life before he went to Iraq the first time," Dwan says. "But after he came back, he couldn't sleep. He was up all hours. He'd start talking about how uneasy he was, but I didn't want him to. I would say, 'Don't talk like that, Jake. You're coming home!' "
When Jake went back to Iraq, they tried to stay connected with Internet chats. He missed Kayla's first birthday, but in February, he came home for another brief R&R visit. He and Dwan went away for a few days, to the Smoky Mountains. Jake had to return to Iraq Feb. 13, so they celebrated Valentine's Day early. Jake bought her roses, as usual. They went out to dinner. But the war was with them.
"It was hard," Dwan says. "It was hard on him to know he'd be home such a short time, and then he'd have to go back."
Married two and a half years, they had been together, at home, one year.
On April 9, Dwan and Jake talked on the computer. Her video camera didn't work, meaning she could see Jake on her screen but he couldn't see her, or the kids. His microphone was out of order, so they couldn't hear his voice. Dwan fed the kids, returning to the keyboard at intervals to exchange instant messages with Jake. Back and forth, "together" on the Internet, trying to snatch some family time with a husband half a world away.
Jake told Dwan he knew what he was going to get her for her birthday. They talked about taking the family to Disney World. He asked her to send him an electric razor. She told him that the baby was fussy and wanted more cheese slices. Jake hadn't known that his daughter even liked cheese.
He complained that he was missing all of Kayla's "firsts," and that he couldn't believe how fast she was growing up. Later that night, he died in Baghdad.
The soldiers in dress uniforms were back and Katelin was back on the telephone, asking her mom what to do. Dwan had Katelin put one of the soldiers on the phone. "Is it OK," Dwan asked. "No, ma'am," a soldier told her. "It's not OK. Can you please just come home and talk to us?"
Dwan left work and drove back to the post, her heart sinking. When she arrived home, the soldiers and a chaplain were waiting. She was crying as she came inside the house.
"Are they going to take us away," Katelin asked.
"No, honey, they're not going to take you away. Daddy died."
Dwan was in disbelief, and shock.
"After seeing how Jake was, I understand the depression, and the pressure that soldiers are under," she says. "They are in Iraq more than they are at home. It wears them down, and I can definitely see why they get depressed. But Jake and I were making plans.. I just that day sent him photos of Kayla and he was asking me to send him a CARE package... There was nothing that made me question anything.
"Nothing makes sense."
Jake's "story of love and devotion to others" "appears to have an unhappy ending," his pastor, Rev. Mike Wallman, said at Jake's funeral at Hayden Heights Baptist Church in St. Paul. Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Betty McCollum attended the April 18 funeral, along with an honor guard from the Leech Lake Indian Reservation where Jake, an Ojibwe, was an enrolled tribal member.
Wallman, a retired Army chaplain, wore his Army uniform for the funeral.
"Soldiers give so much," he said, enduring "long separations from family that take a toll on a soldier's sense of self... Only soldiers understand how the terrors of war and the horrors of the battlefield affect the soul for a lifetime."
No mention was made of the circumstances of Jake's death.
Jake was buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. Dwan put pictures of the kids, and of her wedding, in Jake's coffin, along with a replacement wedding ring she bought for Jake after he lost his ring in Iraq.
The ring tone on her cell phone is a snippet of a country song Jake liked, a song called "Life Ain't Always Beautiful."
"I get tired of walking all these lonely miles," the lyrics go. "I wish for just one minute I could see your pretty face. Guess I can dream, but life don't work that way."
"That song breaks my heart now," says Dwan. "But I can't change it."
Dwan Fairbanks can stay in her home on post at Fort Campbell for a year.
She does not know what she will do after that.