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Hebert, fellow members of 173rd Airborne Brigade to be memorialized
SILVANA Army Spc. Justin Hebert died in Kirkuk, Iraq, Aug. 1, 2003, at the age of 20, and his sister Jessica isnt the only one who remembers him.
The Silvana native and paratrooper of the 173rd Airborne Brigade is one of more than 1,800 sky soldiers who have died in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, who are set to be honored by a national memorial to the 173rd in Ft. Benning, Ga.
To raise $500,000 for the memorial in the new Infantry Museum, Atlanta radio stations 105.5 and 106.7 FM put on a concert in the citys HiFi Buys Amphitheatre
Oct. 7 and invited the families of fallen members of the 173rd to attend, including Jessica Hebert.
While Hebert was excited to meet performers such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Big and Rich, John Anderson, Cowboy Troy and the Lost Trailers, she was more touched by the audiences show of support and the chance to connect with fellow family members of lost loved ones.
The crowd had crazy energy, Hebert said. There were thousands of people, waving flags and chanting, and it was like they stretched on forever. It was a surreal moment.
Hebert not only shook hands with former 173rd member Al Rascon, who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam, but also shared hugs with Debbie Yashinski, whose son Michael died in Kirkuk with the 173rd, Dec. 24, 2003.
Shes been a mother to me, as well, and taken me under her wing, said Hebert, who contacted Yashinski in January of 2004. Shes a great person whos made me smile.
Corresponding with the surviving relatives of sky soldiers who have been killed in action has been one way that Hebert has coped with her brothers sacrifice. Through support groups for the families of 173rd members, she began keeping track of soldiers in the brigade who died after her brother and sent e-mails to them so that they could talk further.
For the 24-year-old Hebert, her special bond with her brother is something that can never be replaced, not only because he was her only sibling, but also because it took most of their lives before they could develop such an affectionate relationship.
We got into the worst fights as kids, Hebert said. We grew up so close in age that there was a lot of sibling rivalry and we were so competitive that we drove each other crazy.
The turning point came when Justin returned from Army basic training, one week before Sept. 11, 2001, and Jessica saw how her younger brother had matured in those months.
For the first time, he wouldnt hesitate to thank me, or say that he loved me, Hebert said. When he went into the service, there was a major change in how much he respected other people and himself. He acted like a grown adult and it felt like we were on the same page.
Hebert echoed the sentiments of those who had served with her brother, whom she reported as recalling how smart he was, and what a smartass he was. She still laughed as she remembered his laugh, even though it makes me want to cry, and described his ability to memorize the statistics and values of the sports trading cards that he collected.
He was big into sports, especially soccer and baseball, Hebert said. He loved to talk about snowboarding and chicks. The last time we saw each other, on my 21st birthday, he rubbed it in my face that hed been able to drink legally before me.
That meeting took place Jan. 7. 2003, while the last phone call Jessica Hebert received from her brother took place March 26, prior to his entry into Iraq. The 173rd had been deactivated in 1972, but was reactivated in 2000 in Vicenza, Italy, more than a year before Justin Hebert became a member of the brigade. While Justin inquired about his sisters life and begged me to send him junk food, like chips and Sour Patch Kids, and pop, like Mountain Dew and Red Bull, he shared relatively few details about his own experiences.
He just said how badly he wanted to come home, Hebert said. We wanted to get out of the country town where we grew up, but its who we are, the products of this little town.
Three weeks after he sent his last letter to his sister, Justin Hebert was killed in action when his convoy crossed the Tigris River at a place nicknamed the bridge of death by American troops, because of the number of casualties suffered there. Jessica Hebert heard from her brothers fellow soldiers that he was driving the rear vehicle in the convoy and sped up under attack, to get the truck full of people he was carrying out of harms way.
He was killed, but the others in his rig were only wounded, Hebert said. Right before he died, he was singing a song. He always sang when he drove, even though he couldnt sing. The only song he could sing in tune was Bryan Adams Everything I Do, and he knew every line. Every time I hear it now, it makes me smile.
Hebert has since attended the dedication for a memorial to the fallen members of the 173rd in Vicenza, June 23 of this year, and declared that I will forever be supportive of our troops, no matter what theyre fighting for, but she grieves for the family that she lost.
Im always envious when I hear people talking about their brothers or sister, because I still miss my brother so much, especially on holidays, Hebert said. He had such a big heart and thought the whole world was his friend. I want to continue to do all I can to express my love for him as much as possible.