Military News

Carrie French came home 5 months too soon

Rick French visits his daughter once a week. He tells Carrie how he's doing and that he loves her and misses her. Then he spruces up around her grave and says goodbye.

It's been five months since Cpl. Carrie Lee French was killed by a roadside bomb while serving with the Idaho National Guard in Iraq. Seeing the members of the 116th Brigade Combat Team returning home from their 10 months in Iraq is bittersweet for French's family.

"On one hand we're really happy they're all coming home and that they'll be back safe with their families," said Paula Hylinski, Carrie French's mother. "And at the same time you know yours isn't coming home."

When she sees reports of troops returning, Hylinski said, she sometimes forgets that Carrie will not be among them.

"I watch the television, you see the soldiers coming down the plane and, just for a split second, you're waiting for her face," she said.

Carrie French's return came terribly early for her family. The 19-year-old died on June 5 and was buried at Canyon Hill Cemetery in Caldwell on June 15, barely a year after she graduated from Caldwell High School.

French was serving as an ammunitions specialist with the 145th Support Battalion in Kirkuk when a roadside bomb exploded next to the vehicle she was driving. She was the first Idaho woman to die in Iraq and was posthumously promoted to the rank of corporal.

Rick French is so haunted by his daughter's death that he has been unable to return to his job in a print shop, from which he took leave in June. He said he'll never get over her death, but it has gotten easier.

"I don't cry any more until I really sit down and think about it," he said.

Carrie French died while escorting a convoy, an assignment she fought for after initially being put on more mundane, safer assignments around her base in Iraq, her mother said.

French died doing what she wanted to do, Hylinski said.

"She said, 'I didn't go over here to mow lawns and make coffee. I want to go out on the convoys,' " Hylinski said. "I understand that because I raised my girls to be strong and not let anyone say you can't do that because you're a woman or you can't do that for any reason."

French died on the fifth of June, and the fifth of every month opens emotional wounds anew for Hylinski.

"You try and stay as busy as you can so you don't think about how crummy it is, but there's a lot of days when ... " she said, trailing off to regain her composure. There's a lot of days when it just invades."

Both her parents pause when asked what they think of the war. Both said they are proud of their daughter's service. Rick French said he hopes the U.S. finishes the job in Iraq, so that his daughter's death is not in vain.

Hylinski's response: "I understand, I think, the need for them to be there."

It can take years for families of slain soldiers to learn to cope with their loss — especially the loss of a soldier as young as French, said Chaplain Maj. Thomas G. Westall.

"Five months has barely begun, that's yesterday for a family and they have years to go," said Westall, who served 24 years as an Air Force chaplain. "As time goes by it will be less painful but you'll never forget."

Watching soldiers from a lost loved one's unit walk off the plane back home can be especially hard for a family, Westall said.

"It can be a horrific event as well as thankful that their fellow soldiers have come back," he said.

Thinking about the troops coming home recently brought Rick French to tears. Greeting the troops at the airport could be overwhelming, he said.

"It would bring back a lot of emotions if I do go out there, so I don't know if I will or not," he said.

Hylinski has placed a fresh yellow ribbon on the gate of her Caldwell home for the 116th's homecoming but said she won't be at the airport.

She wants to meet with her daughter's fellow soldiers "when the time is right."

"This is supposed to be a happy time, you know, and I don't want to rain on their parade," she said.