Thirteen years ago Friday, 21-year-old Elizabeth Jacobson became the first airman to die in Operation Iraqi Freedom. She was assigned to the 17th Security Forces Squadron out of Goodfellow Air Force Base near San Angelo, where she was memorialized.
Before the sun rose, a crowd of approximately 200 Air Force members and 525 Army members gathered at Goodfellow Air Force Base for a 6.2-mile ruck march. They slung 21-pound packs over their shoulders — a pound for every year Elizabeth Jacobson was alive.
Then they started walking, following a path that Jacobson took regularly as part of her job as a security forces defender.
Lavore Kirkpatrick, a command chief with the 17th Training Wing at Goodfellow, described the scene breathlessly while marching.
"Right now there's a little bit of talking,” he said. “But at the same time, it's quiet for the amount of people that are here. It’s a somber event.”
Kirkpatrick used to pass Jacobson on his way through the gate at Goodfellow, where she regularly monitored admittance to the base.
“I drove up to my vehicle and did what I normally do: handed her my ID card, expecting to just get the normal look, with the person handing my card back and just waving me through. But what she did — and it's super simple — she just looked at me and smiled (and) said 'Welcome to Goodfellow.' But I tell you, that smile, it was really infectious.”
Kirkpatrick said she seemed especially motivated as a young airman, bright-eyed and “dressed to the regs.” He imagined that she would go far in her career with the Air Force.
Friends At Home, In Combat
Jacobson was the first person that Senior Master Sgt. Russell Weatherby met when he arrived at Goodfellow. She was assigned to show him around the base and help him pick up equipment. They quickly became friends, and he said he always felt a sense of responsibility toward her.
“We were close enough to where it was like she was our little sister. ...We had to always be there to say, 'Hey can we help you out?' But of course she would say no,” he said, “because she had the heart of a lion.”
In 2005, Weatherby deployed with Jacobson to Camp Bucca, in southern Iraq.
"She always wanted to take that next step. That carried over to our deployment, where she was doing force protection duties and then wanted to be outside the wire. She wanted to go on convoys. She wanted to do something even more important to the mission.”
While providing convoy security near the city of Safwan, an improvised explosive device exploded near Jacobson’s vehicle, killing her and the driver.
Weatherby remembers learning about the blast. Just hours before the incident, he had been close to the spot.
"It's one of those deals where you just lose your breath,” Weatherby said. “Of course, you try to put on that tough face. You’ve got a mission to complete. But in the back of your mind, you can't stop thinking about it. It just keeps rolling over and over.”
The rest of the unit remained in Iraq for another three months. When they landed back on U.S. soil, Weatherby said he tried to collect his memories of Jacobson.
“You have to go back and pick out everything that you ever remember, ever saw, ever did, with Elizabeth. Where you hung out at. Whose house we were going to,” he said. “What we did on flight that day. Whatever. And try to go back and remember all those things.”
Weatherby is now stationed in Colorado with the Air Force Reserves. Still, he tries to come back to Texas every year to honor Jacobson at the annual ruck march. By his assessment, she isn't really gone.
"I remember her every day,” Weatherby said. “Her name is tattooed on my arm. I'm never gonna forget her."
At Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, trainees learn about Jacobson in Air Force history, and Goodfellow’s south gate now bears her name.
Carson Frame can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @carson_frame