In letters to his parents in Little Rocky Run, Army 1st Lt. Jeff Kaylor assured them he'd be "home soon" from Iraq. But Mike and Roxanne Kaylor didn't know exactly what "soon" meant.
Tragically, they do now — but it's not how they'd envisioned it. Jeff, 24, whose field artillery platoon supports the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, mechanized, was killed Monday when an enemy grenade was tossed at the humvee in which he was riding.
He's the first person from western Fairfax County to die in the War in Iraq, and he also leaves behind two sisters and his wife of nine months, Jenna — also serving in the Army, in Kuwait.
"It's awful — I have so much anger," said Roxanne Kaylor. "I really blame the lean forces and the rapid race to Baghdad. This was straggler stuff — the paramilitary with weapons in villages along the way that hadn't been cleaned up.
"He was on a reconnaissance with his driver and they got grenaded. The driver lost his arm; it wasn't Jeff's lucky day. But they were by themselves — there was no one else to cover them. I hope whoever set up these plans thinks about it every day of their lives — it killed my son."
JEFF ATTENDED UNION MILL ELEMENTARY and Rocky Run Middle School, graduating in 1997 from Centreville High, where he played linebacker on the varsity football team. He graduated from Virginia Tech in 2001 with a bachelor's in information systems. While there, he was in the Corps of Cadets (like ROTC) and, upon graduation, he was commissioned an Army second lieutenant.
He attended jump and leadership schools at Fort Benning, Ga., and received basic training, last winter, at Fort Sill, Okla. Next came orders to the 1st/39th Artillery Battalion, C Company, at Fort Stewart, Ga.
Jenna — who was also in Virginia Tech's Corps of Cadets — became a military police officer and was stationed with Kaylor at Fort Stewart. They married July 5 but, a month later, he left for Kuwait.
"When he reported [to Fort Stewart] in May, she was doing her MP training in Missouri," explained Kaylor. "When he learned he was to be deployed to Kuwait by August, they moved up their wedding to July. He left Aug. 8 for Kuwait, and she left [in early March], but they weren't stationed together."
Still, it caught his mother a bit off guard when he told her he was deploying. "I always thought [the U.S.] would not get involved [in a war] — that we'd let diplomacy take care of it," she said. "In August, I had no idea that it would escalate to this point. He was only supposed to be there on a six-month rotation, until Feb. 1. [But] after Christmas, he e-mailed me that he wouldn't be home then."
Kaylor couldn't bear to watch news of the war on TV, but she kept up via the Internet and through Jenna's letters, telling her what was happening and if Jeff needed anything. And she busied herself "living day by day," taking care of her family and teaching graphic imagery and design at Fairfax High's Academy.
Jenna was stationed in Kuwait, but Jeff's platoon went into Iraq, where it operates multiple rocket launchers to support the 3rd Infantry Division. Just recently, Kaylor heard from an officer at Fort Stewart who'd talked to Jeff's battalion commander in Iraq.
At that time, he reported all was well. Said Kaylor: "He said the boys were fine — they were all hungry and dirty, but morale was high and everyone was doing a good job."
THEN CAME MONDAY and an 8 p.m. phone call from Jenna telling the Kaylors their son was dead. "I just didn't want to believe it," said Jeff's mother. Two hours later, a chaplain from Fort Myer was at their door. Jenna was due to arrive here from Kuwait, Wednesday afternoon. Jeff will return home via Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
"It's tough," said his father, Mike Kaylor, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. "I was in the military for 22 years — I knew what he was doing. I understand it, but it doesn't make it any easier."
He said the family received "sketchy details" of Jeff's death from the rear detachment of the 3rd Infantry Division, and the Army will investigate further. "You can't make sense of it," he said. "He's the only death out of his battalion."
But he's comforted by the fact that his son was "a leader on the field" and was doing his job. "He was a wonderful person and a great soldier," said his dad. "He got nothing but compliments from his commanding officers. We're proud of him. He was doing exactly what he wanted to do — he just ran out of luck. It's an absolute tragedy."
Funeral arrangements aren't yet completed, but the family's considering burial at Arlington National Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to Centreville High to establish a scholarship in Jeff's name.
His sisters, Tricia, 25, who works in Washington, D.C., and Cindy, 17, a Centreville junior, are both devastated. Said their mother: "They're fine, as long as they don't hear me cry." Cindy plays varsity soccer for the Wildcats, so her brother's death hit her teammates hard.
"Everyone was emotionally drained [Tuesday]," said school Principal Pam Latt. "Jeff was a wonderful kid, well-liked by faculty and students. The only reason we have our freedoms is because of people like Jeff who are willing to put their lives on the line."
Meanwhile, the Kaylors thank all the friends and neighbors who've shown them such support in their time of grief. "We all feel like our children are safe out here in these communities and no harm will come to them," said Roxanne. "This makes it really hit home."