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A soldier leaves for his final tour of duty

By Elizabeth Leland
eleland@charlotteobserver.com

More Information

  • Elizabeth and Brian's last video
  • Scrapbook memories
  • A soldier leaves for his final tour of duty
  • Blog: Still the same, only stronger
  • Read the full War Widow series
  • Sunday: Elizabeth Woods knew little about the Afghan war. Then she falls in love with a soldier.

    Tuesday: While Brian Woods waits to be called up for duty, he plans a surprise wedding.

    Today: After tragedy tests their marriage, Brian is deployed to Afghanistan.

    Thursday: Five weeks later, Brian is shot by the Taliban.

    Friday: Elizabeth spends her last hours with Brian in a hospital in Germany.

    Saturday: Without Brian, Elizabeth struggles to find her purpose.

    Sunday: Elizabeth helps other widows love life again.


  • This narrative is based on military records, and interviews with Brian Woods' teammates, his sergeant and other Army personnel. Also interviewed were Elizabeth Woods, her family and friends, and Brian's friends and members of his family.

    In situations where only Brian and Elizabeth were present, the story is based on Elizabeth's recollection.

    Other sources included news reports, military historian James Hogue of UNC Charlotte, the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors ( www.taps.org), Gold Star Wives of America ( www.goldstarwives.org), icasualties.org, www .americanwidowproject.org, http://journalism.berkeley.edu/ and www.state.gov.


  • The U.S. launched air strikes in Afghanistan in October 2001 after the Taliban government refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Operation Enduring Freedom is the official name of the war in Afghanistan.

    Brian Woods' team of National Guard Green Berets deployed in July 2009 as part of a buildup of U.S. forces.

    Nearly 100,000 U.S. troops are now in Afghanistan, more than twice as many as when President Barack Obama took office in January 2009.

    U.S. troops are fighting alongside Afghan forces, training them to take over the war.

    Obama promised to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in summer 2011.

    Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has said Americans should not expect a rapid pullout.

    Learn more: www.state.gov. Elizabeth Leland



The story so far: Elizabeth Woods falls in love with a soldier. Four months after they marry in January 2007, Elizabeth finds out she's pregnant.

Brian picked out the name for their baby: Tookie, after an Australian soldier he met in Iraq.

Brian loved the playful sound of it, and he told Elizabeth he looked forward to teaching their Tookie how to climb a mountain, survive in the wilderness and, one day, shoot a gun.

Elizabeth wanted a natural childbirth, so they decided to have the baby at their home in St. Louis. A doctor, a midwife and a doula were there to guide them.

Through nearly 14 hours of labor, everything went well.

Then the umbilical cord wrapped around the baby's shoulder, cutting off the flow of oxygen.

Tookie Brian Woods was stillborn. He had his father's reddish-brown hair and his mother's oval face, a beautiful 9-pound boy.

Brian wrapped his son in a blanket and cradled him in his arms. He rushed from the room, weeping. When he brought Tookie back, he gently placed him on Elizabeth's chest. She held him close to her heart, until she could no longer feel the warmth in his body.

She kissed his cheeks, his forehead, his hands. Brian took pictures. They told him they loved him, and told him good-bye.

After Tookie's funeral, they returned home to an empty crib and empty arms - and the biggest test of their year-old marriage.

Things will get better, Brian promised. We'll try again.

As a soldier, he was trained to keep moving forward. A soldier can't quit the fight even when a comrade falls. Brian took charge. He cooked. He cleaned. He planned a trip to Florida, and tried to get Elizabeth to laugh again.

Things did not get better. Elizabeth blamed herself. She lay in bed and wept for days.

After a couple of months, Brian startled her out of her grief:

I need my wife back, he told her.

Elizabeth sought help from a counselor. She had lost her son. She did not want to lose her husband.

Starting over: A new job

Brian and Elizabeth fled St. Louis, leaving behind the empty crib and the tiny grave.

Brian had quit his job in Iraq, to be home with Elizabeth. He found work in northeastern North Carolina with the security company Blackwater. He was hired to teach shooting and medical techniques to civilians, law enforcement and military personnel, training them for work in the U.S. and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They rented a house in Chesapeake, Va., 20 minutes north. It was the spring of 2008, and the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating. A record 32,000 U.S. troops were there, but more were needed to stop the Taliban's offensive.

At first, the new job excited Brian. Too quickly, he became bored with the monotony of the classroom. He told Elizabeth he wasn't sure he would ever be content to live a 9-to-5 life. He missed the excitement and challenge of the military. He missed his comrades.

Brian turned restless and moody.

When Elizabeth found out she was pregnant again, that only heightened his funk. Though Brian wanted the baby, Elizabeth said he had never dealt with his grief over Tookie's death. He worried something would go wrong again.

This time, Elizabeth was the strong one. When Brian wouldn't talk, she wrote him a letter and asked him to write back. Letter by letter, she coaxed him through his grief and his fears.

On Jan. 10, 2009, Ella May Sky Woods was born by C-section, a healthy 6 pounds, 6ounces. Their arms, which had ached so long to hold a baby, were now full. Ella gave them hope again.

I don't like being left behind

Around the same time, Brian got his orders from the Army.

His National Guard unit was called up. In March, the men would leave for six weeks of training in Wyoming, where the terrain is dry and mountainous like that of Afghanistan. In July, they would leave for combat.

Brian had a purpose again.

Elizabeth tried to be supportive, but she was haunted by the military wife's greatest fear: that her husband would not come home alive.

Afghanistan would be more dangerous than his work in Iraq. President Barack Obama was sending in 4,000 more troops, and the U.S. had launched a major push against the growing Taliban insurgency in the southern provinces.

Three years earlier, when Elizabeth fell in love with Brian, she had been jealous of the bond between him and the other Green Berets. Some military marriages don't survive it. But now Elizabeth felt comforted to know that Brian would be surrounded by men willing to risk their lives to save his.

Brian warned Elizabeth there was a good chance he would get hurt. He said the military would fly him to a hospital in Germany, and fly her there, too.

But don't worry, she remembers him saying. I'm not going to die.

'I'll be home shortly'

When time came for Brian to leave, Elizabeth videotaped him getting ready.

"What do you recommend I do when I'm really lonely and miss you a whole lot?" she asks.

Brian looks down, thinking, then faces the camera. He has grown a beard, to help him fit in with the men in Afghanistan, where beards once were the law under Taliban rule.

"Look at our beautiful daughter," he tells Elizabeth, "and be thankful that we have her and know that I'll be home shortly. And it's only 209 days now until I'll be back... "

Three days later, on July 10, 2009, Sgt. 1st Class William Brian Woods left Fort Bragg, one of 88 Green Berets in his National Guard unit, headed to a military camp in the Ghazni province in southeastern Afghanistan. The Taliban controlled most of the area, on the road from Kabul to Kandahar.

Within a day or two, Brian would be at war, fighting alongside soldiers in the Afghan Security Force, helping prepare them for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

It would, he promised Elizabeth, be his final tour of duty.

Thursday: Ambushed by the Taliban.

Reach writer Elizabeth Leland at eleland@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5074.
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