DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald
Warrant Officer Will “Billy” McCotter was eager to head for his new post in Hawaii when he finally got that pain in his stomach checked out.
Sgt. 1st Class Jim Thode was investigating a suspicious wire along a road in Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device detonated underneath him.
McCotter died three months later, on Dec. 26, 2010, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He was 26.
Thode died instantly Dec. 2, 2010, and a helicopter came to remove the body. He was 45.
The men are gone, but the families still grieve – and they certainly don’t forget. If you visit the Durango Veterans of Foreign Wars post in the next few days, you’ll see McCotter’s and Thode’s faces among 183 on display. The exhibit honors Colorado soldiers, and soldiers with Colorado parents, who have died while serving the U.S. military since Sept. 11, 2001.
“Any way we can keep his memory alive, we want to do that,” says Eve Taylor of Pagosa Springs. Her son, Jim Thode, was a Farmington police sergeant who served in the National Guard.
“It’s a great way to honor these guys,” says Jill Bohren of Durango. Her son, Billy McCotter, grew up in Durango and joined the Army in 2003 at age 18.
The exhibit is sponsored by the VFW and the Blue Star Mothers of Durango, comprised of mothers who have a child in the military. For the last seven years, the Durango Blue Star Mothers have held a weekend retreat in Estes Park for Colorado’s Gold Star Mothers, whose children have died while serving in the military. During these retreats, the Blue Star Mothers have collected pictures of 183 “fallen heroes.”
“When you lose a child, that loss lasts forever,” says Betty Wiley, with Blue Star Mothers of Durango. “You don’t ever get to a point where you’re done grieving. You never reach a time when you say, ‘Now I’m back to normal.’”
Thode grew up in Tucson, Ariz., and joined the Army reserves while still in high school. He earned a degree in criminal justice from the University of Arizona and in 1996 took a job with the Farmington Police Department. A few years later, his mother and stepfather, Ron Taylor, moved to Pagosa Springs. Earlier this month, the couple traveled from Pagosa Springs for an interview at the Herald.
In Farmington, Thode worked as a patrol officer, trained recruits in shooting technique and was head of the SWAT team. In 2009, he was named Supervisor of the Year.
Meanwhile, he trained with a Blanding-based engineer battalion of the Utah National Guard, with whom he spent 14 months in Iraq in 2003-04.
In 2010, he led his Blanding “kids” to Forward Operation Base Salerno in the province of Khost in Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistan border. The platoon had changed since 2004.
“It was a whole new crew of youngsters who had never seen battle,” Eve Taylor says. “He called them his kids. He wanted to keep his kids safe.”
The company’s job was to sweep the roads with a slow, huge truck equipped with bomb-detecting devices. It was a daily task, as guerrillas would set IEDs during the night.
On Dec. 2, 2010, the platoon’s Afghan interpreter noticed a wire on the side of the road. Thode followed the wire into a field. That act in itself was telling, says Ron Taylor.
“He felt responsible for them. ... He could have told someone else to go out. That wasn’t Jim.”
Thode, husband of Carlotta and father of two children – Ashley, 20, and Thomas, 10 – all of Kirtland, N.M., was the only one who died in the blast.
“It was a really hard loss for us,” Joshua Lewis of Duchesne, Utah, a squad leader with the platoon, said in a National Guard news release. “Thode was like a father to us. He would come around every morning and shake your hand with a big smile on his face. He was such a good platoon sergeant.”
Eve Taylor says that when she asked her son what to send to Afghanistan, he’d suggest shoes for the local children, which he’d distribute through the interpreters.
“He was just honest,” she says. “A man of faith, integrity. If he told you something, it was the truth.”
At the Herald’s request, the Taylors brought pictures, medals, commendations and awards to the interview.
“I mean, these are nice trinkets,” Eve Taylor says. “I’d rather have my son.”
Will McCotter is buried in Section 50 at Arlington National Cemetery, Bohren tells me at a local coffee shop. She holds up fairly well during an hourlong interview, but the tears and the emotion are always close to the surface.
She shows me a framed photo of Billy – most everyone but her called him Will – when he dressed up as a clown for Halloween in 1987. He was 3.
“That costume is buried with him in his casket. That and his favorite little teddy bear, McCarthy.”
A more recent photo, taken by his sister Michelle McCotter on her cellphone, shows Will McCotter driving, in fatigues, with his dog Buddy’s chin on his shoulder. It was shot not long after he’d graduated from officer school and been certified as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot. It was Aug. 31, 2010, and after taking leave, he was set to report to Schofield Barracks, home of the 25th Infantry Division, on Oahu, Hawaii. But he’d been suffering abdominal pains for weeks – “He wasn’t a complainer,” his mother says – and on Sept. 20 went to the emergency room at a hospital in Miami.
He was diagnosed with Stage IV stomach cancer.
McCotter had joined the Army before he graduated from Durango High School in 2003. Months later, he was in Iraq, and one of his first assignments was to guard a toxic waste dump. Bohren has no proof but conjectures this led to his stomach cancer.
He suffered a bullet wound in Fallujah, Iraq, during his nine-month tour that included a visit to Saddam Hussein’s palace. In 2004, he served in Afghanistan for three months. After a four-year stint in Washington, D.C., during which he was part of an Honor Guard and one of his roles was to help perform military funerals, he attended Warrant Officer Candidate School in Alabama.
He graduated from officer school, learned to fly Black Hawks and had sent his belongings to Hawaii for his next post. There was a good chance his unit would deploy to a war zone.
“He was ready,” Bohren says. “He would’ve felt his death was more honorable if he died defending his country than dying in a hospital bed.”
He never got to Hawaii. He began chemotherapy in Miami. In early October 2010, after a procedure to remove excess fluid apparently led to an infection and sepsis, he was quickly airlifted to Walter Reed. He survived, but it complicated his cancer treatment.
The highlights of his days were when his family – his mother, stepfather, Ken, sister and three brothers – and friends came to visit.
As Christmas came around, and McCotter’s health declined, Michelle McCotter arranged through special permission for one more visitor: Buddy. The 21-month-old Weimaraner was flown from Arizona. The reunion occurred Christmas Eve.
“Billy got out of his wheelchair and he walked over and sat on a bed, and Buddy crawled up next to him,” Bohren says. “Christmas Day, Billy couldn’t get out of bed to do that.”
William Joseph McCotter Bohren, age 26, died the day after Christmas.
In the two interviews, one aspect stuck out over everything: the parents’ pride.
“If you wanted to write a book about the perfect leader,” says Ron Taylor, “Jim would be the perfect model.”
Says Bohren: “I was so proud of him. His choices, his accomplishments, and everybody loved him. They thought the world of him. Just an amazing guy.
“Friend to the end.”
firstname.lastname@example.org John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.
Courtesy of Michelle McCotter