Mother tries to cope with how her son died

European Stars and Stripes, Darmstadt, Germany

Joyce Middleton’s universe has collapsed to the size of a 3-by-5-inch photo of her smiling soldier son standing next to his Bradley fighting vehicle.

Since the morning that her teary-eyed husband and the Army’s casualty notification officer showed up at her employer with news that her son had been killed in Saudi Arabia, she has relied on this image of her “gutsy little boy” to help her cope with how he died.

Cpl Jeffery Middleton, 23, and Pvt 2 Robert D. Talley, 18, both members of the 2nd Armd Div (Fwd) from Garlstadt, Germany, were killed Feb. 17 when a lieutenant colonel in an Apache helicopter fired Hellfire missiles at their Bradley fighting vehicle and a nearby M113 armored personnel carrier. Six other soldiers were wounded in the attack.

A military investigation identified Lt. Col. Ralph Hayles, commander of the 1st Inf Div Apache battalion, as the man who fired the missiles. Hayles was relieved of command Feb. 21, officials said, because the attack violated division guidelines prohibiting commanders from operating weapon systems in combat.

“If there is justice in this world, this is it,” the mother said in a telephone interview from her Oxford, Kan., home. “But, seeing this officer relieved of his command doesn’t change what has happened. Jeff’s still gone.”

In the Middleton home, there’s a wooden clock that Jeffrey made when he was a sophomore at Oxford High School. The clock has a few nicks, and it doesn’t keep perfect time anymore, but it’s a precious treasure for the dead soldier’s mother.

“He was thinking about the Army even then,” she said. “The clock is in the shape of an armored division triangle.”

Jeffrey came by his military career naturally. His father served in the Army during the 1960s as an ordnance specialist, and his grandfather served in World War II.

He played fullback on his high school football team, ran track, was a student council member and sang in the choir. His mother said he did all the things young men do, including falling in love.

Jeffrey married Gina Steven on Feb. 18, 1989. Two years later, to the day, an Army officer stood before the 22-year-old woman and told her that her husband was dead. Gina Middleton said that coping with her grief hasn’t allowed her much time to ponder the circumstances of her husband’s death.

“Right now, I don’t want to think about who killed him,” she said from her parents’ home in Leesville, La. “But, it is ironic that (because he’s been relieved of command) this commander will get to come home safe now.”

After news of Jeffrey’s death spread through his hometown, classmates from high school created the Jeffrey Middleton Memorial Scholarship Fund.

“Jeffrey joined the Army because he wanted to finish college, and the Army’s college fund was to help him do that,” his mother said. “He’d be proud to know students will get money for college in his name forever.”

Despite the bitterness that the mother said her family struggled to overcome, the Middletons supported the war.

“We taught Jeff to love his country,” Joyce Middleton said. “After he joined the Army, he said more than once that he’d give his life if he had to.”

The military promised to give the Middletons a full report of what happened in the desert. But no one has told Joyce Middleton how to cope with the thought that the young man in the picture, smiling next to his Bradley, is gone forever or told his widow how to sleep without having nightmares.

And no report or explanation will stop his mother from reliving, time after time, the last words her son ever said to her.

“Don’t worry about me, mom,” she said he told her in a phone coversation the week before his death. “I’ll be OK.”