We live in the land of the free because of the brave.
Those words might best caption a gallery of photographs on display during the Memorial Day weekend in the serenity of Greenwood Mausoleum’s Independence Chapel.
The traveling exhibit, “Remembering Our Fallen From Texas,” includes images of the almost 600 Texas sons and daughters who have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars since 2003.
Behind their photos are many more unseen faces, those of the loving, proud families the fallen leave behind.
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Army Cpl. Rhett Butler, 22
He was named after a character in Gone With the Wind, the novel and epic movie about determination, perseverance, courage and sacrifice.
Rhett Butler embodied those noble themes. Even as a boy, he was infatuated with the military.
He loved war movies. He dressed up in camouflage. Perched in a tree, armed with a toy machine gun, he stood watchful and ready to defend the homeland of Somervell County against any foreign enemy.
During his senior year at Glen Rose High School, he tried to enlist in the Army but failed the pulmonary test.
Disheartened, Butler later moved to Fort Worth and lived with older sister Shawna Westbrook. He took culinary classes at Tarrant County College. But he longed for a purpose only military life could offer.
Butler attempted to enlist again. He passed the breathing test but was told he needed to lose 12 pounds in two weeks.
The determined teen began jogging every morning and evening on a high school track accompanied by his sibling. He dieted, eating mostly chicken breasts and salad.
One night that summer, his deadline near, Butler took drastic measures to shed the last drops of water weight. In the kitchen, he removed his shirt and wrapped his arms and upper torso in yards of clear plastic wrap. Then he climbed into his car, rolled up the windows and turned the heater on.
“You’re crazy!” his sister told him.
Butler returned her gaze with his big easy grin.
He took that 1,000-watt smile to the Middle East, where he served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Army Cpl. Rhett A. Butler, 22, was killed July 20, 2007, when the armored vehicle he was driving struck a roadside bomb northeast of Baghdad.
“So many young people don’t really want to do anything with their lives,” Westbrook said. “Rhett knew he wanted to be somebody. He wanted to be a success. He chose to be on the front lines. He died for his country.
“To me,” she reasoned, “that is success.”
Westbrook had to break the news to her son, C.J., who was only 5.
The soldier’s funeral was held at the Glen Rose High School auditorium. The city renamed a street for him — Rhett Butler Drive. Two years after his death, family and friends stood in the pouring rain in Heritage Park, where a memorial to Butler was unveiled.
Westbrook led a visitor into a room of her home. A cabinet displays a fallen hero’s personal effects. A dusty cap. A combat boot. A pair of spectacles. His Army dog tags. His Purple Heart.
The American flag that draped Butler’s casket remains neatly folded into a tight blue triangle, spangled with white stars.
Shell casings from an honor guard’s rifle salute are lined up like soldiers in a single row.
The day after Westbrook learned that her brother had been killed, a fresh wave of heartache washed over her when she opened her email. On the screen was the soldier’s final letter to her.
Her tears blurred her brother’s last words.
“Don’t ever let C.J. forget about his Uncle Rhett.”
Army Pfc. Ervin Dervishi, 21
Kujtim and Shpresa Dervishi moved several years ago from their Fort Worth apartment to a home 21/2 miles from Laurel Land Memorial Park.
They wanted to be closer to their eldest son.
Their hero lies at rest in that garden of stones.
Every day is Memorial Day for the Albanian-born family, which lost Army Pfc. Ervin Dervishi on Jan. 24, 2004, while he was on patrol in Baiji, Iraq. Only hours before a rocket-propelled grenade struck the soldier’s Bradley Fighting Vehicle, he made a telephone call to his home.
“The price on an American soldier’s head is pretty high right now,” Dervishi told his brother, Saimir. “I might not make it back.”
Dervishi, 21, died on an operating table in a combat support hospital.
He never got to drive the shiny new black Chrysler Crossfire that his family bought for him to celebrate his scheduled return home in March.
A 3-inch-thick photo album sits atop a living room table.
Turning the pages, Saimir spoke with feeling about his brother’s plan to attend college and pursue his dream of a career in law enforcement. He talked about Ervin’s belief in righting wrongs. His love of freedom. His smile — lighting every photo. His sense of humor. His good nature, as sweet as his mother’s baklava.
“We are very proud,” Shpresa, the mom, said simply.
Her husband agreed, speaking in his native Albanian.
The Dervishis, even in tragedy, consider themselves lucky. The family members left their homeland and resettled in North Texas in 1999 after winning the immigration lottery. They applied for U.S. citizenship.
They lived in Waxahachie before moving to Fort Worth the year of the 9-11 attacks, which upset Ervin and shook our nation to its core. Dervishi joined the Army five months after graduating from Western Hills High School in 2002.
A family member visits the cemetery each day.
The soldier’s absence is like a presence in the Dervishi home.
But a triple blessing helps fill the void.
Saimir glanced up from the scrapbook and smiled at three 6-year-old girls wearing matching pink T-shirts. He is the father of triplets — Evina, Emi and Ensa.
“God took one away from us and gave us three,” Shpresa told Saimir the day the girls were born.
“We see him [Ervin] in them in so many ways,” Saimir said of his brother, and countryman. Soon after his death, Pfc. Ervin Dervishi was granted American citizenship.
Army Pvt. Clarence Spencer, 24
Memorial Day is more than a work holiday and the end of a long weekend to celebrate the start of summer.
Memorial Day became the most meaningful date of the year for Juanita Spencer Cole after two uniformed soldiers from Fort Hood appeared one evening outside her home in the Stop Six neighborhood of Fort Worth.
The officers asked to step inside.
At their gentle urging, Juanita sat down at her kitchen table.
Clarence Spencer, her only son, had served three tours in the Middle East as a Marine and then returned to Iraq after joining the Army.
He never told his mom about the dangers he faced or the emotions he experienced as a combat soldier, even though she urged him to share his thoughts and feelings with family.
He chose simply to reassure her, again and again.
Spencer ended every long-distance telephone conversation, every letter, every email with the same message: “Mama, no worries. No stress.”
But on Feb. 4, 2007, the mother was gripped by confusion and rising fear.
The visitors produced a blue folder.
Then one officer conveyed the news.
Juanita shrieked in disbelief and fainted.
Army Pvt. Clarence T. Spencer had died that morning in Balad, Iraq — 7,000 miles away — from wounds suffered from small-arms fire. He was 24.
He left a daughter, Chania, then 5, and a mother who pledged to visit this weekend’s exhibit, which honors her son and other Texans who gave all to a cause greater than themselves.
She spoke proudly of the athletic boy who grew up beneath her wing.
Clarence lived close enough to Dunbar High to walk to school. He excelled as a leader in the JROTC program and starred as a defensive back on the varsity football team.
Spencer’s mother said her son was offered an athletic scholarship to Wichita (Kan.) State University but chose to become a Marine. He was wounded in action in 2003, she said, and received a Purple Heart. After his commitment to the Marines ended, Spencer joined the Army and asked to be stationed at Fort Hood so he could be closer to his family.
Among his mom’s prized possessions is a 2004 Mother’s Day card he sent from Fallujah. Spencer had fashioned it from brown cardboard, torn from a military rations box.
This cheerful woman refuses to part with any of her son’s belongings. After eight years, she still can’t bring herself to erase Clarence’s number from her cellphone. She struggles even now to accept that he is gone.
But she’s not embittered.
“I never ask, ‘Why? Why my baby?’” she said. “The military was something he wanted to do.”
So she bravely carries on.
Each morning she dresses. Goes to work.
Each night she whispers a bedtime prayer: “Mama, no worries. No stress.”
Juanita Spencer Cole falls asleep comforted by a single thought.
“He’ll always be my baby. Always,” she declared, her eyes shining. “I’ll see my baby on the other side.”
Memorial Day events
9 a.m.-5 p.m.: “Remember Our Fallen From Texas,” Greenwood Mausoleum’s Independence Chapel, 3100 White Settlement Road, Fort Worth.
9 a.m.: Grand Army of the Republic Monument, Oakwood Cemetery, 701 Grand Ave., Fort Worth. Service will honor the men who served in the Union Army from 1861 to 1865.
10 a.m.: Bluebonnet Hills Memorial Park, 5725 Colleyville Blvd., Colleyville.
10 a.m.: Laurel Land Memorial Park, 7100 Crowley Road, Fort Worth. Speaker is retired Lt. Col. Jack L. Mattson.
10 a.m.: Moore Memorial Gardens, 1219 N. Davis Drive, Arlington. Guest speaker is retired Marine Cpl. Aaron P. Mankin. Complimentary hot dog lunch after the ceremony.
10:30 a.m.: Remembrance Service for 12 British, Canadian and American volunteer pilots of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force in World War I, Greenwood Memorial Park, 3100 White Settlement Road, Fort Worth. Special guests include retired Canadian Forces Brig. Gen. David Kettle, now the secretary-general of the Canadian Agency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and Brig. Gen. Guy Hamel, Royal Canadian Air Force.
11 a.m.: Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, 2000 Mountain Creek Parkway, Dallas. Cemetery opens at 8 a.m.
6:30 p.m.: Mount Olivet Cemetery, 2301 N. Sylvania Ave., Fort Worth. Keynote speech by Navy Capt. Gilbert “Gil” Miller, commanding officer of Naval Air Station Fort Worth, and Mayor Betsy Price. The Moslah Shrine Band and First Christian Church Chancel Choir will perform, and the Lone Star Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans will do a rifle salute. After the ceremony, a motorcade will proceed to the East Northside Drive bridge for a brief service. Wreaths will be cast into the Trinity River. In the event of rain, the ceremony will be inside the funeral home chapel.