It’s been 12 years for Wes and Julie Emch.
Twelve long years of dealing with the loss of their son, killed by an IED he thought had been defused.
Navy corpsman Lucas “Luke” Emch had gone to war to save people. He, like his father, thought the war was wrong, that the U.S. shouldn’t be in Iraq.
But Luke Emch was there, and he wanted to save lives. The weapon he carried, his father said, was never fired.
Luke Emch saved a lot of lives. At his funeral, Marine Staff Sgt. Tony Leno called Luke a “guardian angel” and credited him with saving his life.
“His teams cleared 5 tons of explosives,” Wes Emch said. “He treated 80 casualties.”
A lot of people are alive today because of what Luke Emch accomplished, but two hours before his unit was to have completed its final mission, a device designed to randomly kill people exploded and took away Wes and Julie Emch’s son.
The Tallmadge High School graduate was 21 when he died.
At first, Wes Emch said, the news was overpowering.
“I sat through stoplights and people would look at me,” Wes Emch said.
Julie Emch had similar experiences.
“There was a heavy fog … a darkness,” she said. “The first year, I went to an Indians game and … it was dark.”
Wes would go to Luke’s grave and read a book about the Battle of Thermopylae to his son.
For a few years, Wes and Julie Emch spent time with other Gold Star families, but as the years progressed, they moved on.
For a year, they moved to Colorado. They now live in Wooster and drive to their son’s grave site in the Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery every week.
“It seems like it happened yesterday, sometimes,” Wes Emch said. “I don’t have the intense flashbacks that you have when it was new, [but] it’s still an everyday thing. I still think about it all the time.”
There were anxiety attacks, too. Those have gone and some of the anger has subsided — and some of the guilt.
“I don’t cry as much; I still have my moments, of course,” Julie Emch said. “You don’t feel as guilty when you laugh.”
Both of Luke’s parents said they are now able to remember things about their son and smile about them.
His impersonation of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace from “Braveheart.”
His love of the Green Bay Packers and quarterback Brett Favre, who Luke insisted was better than Bart Starr.
Julie Emch remembers a time when the Packers lost a game and Luke didn’t want to go to school the next day, knowing the ribbing he would take.
“You can laugh over memories now,” she said.
On Monday, barring severe weather, Luke’s parents will drive his truck in the Tallmadge Memorial Day parade. The truck now has Lucas Emch’s face, and memorabilia associated with their son, painted on it.
It’s a piece of him that remains, a reminder and a testament. Also painted on the truck is Luke’s dog, J’Amy. Their ashes are buried together.
On the other side of the truck is the motto “Vis Vires Ac Decus” — strength and honor — that Luke had tattooed down his right side. It had to hurt, Wes Emch said, because his son had no meat on his bones.
Wes Emch said he hopes people will remember the purpose of Memorial Day as they attend events in Tallmadge and across the country.
“Memorial Day is to remember those Americans that were killed in combat, killed in service,” Wes Emch said. “It’s certainly not a day to buy mattresses.”
On a warm Friday at the cemetery where his son is buried, he points to the right, to a field of gravestones that were not there 12 years ago. He tells the story of the gravestones that are next to his son’s.
“He was smart, funny, compassionate and he had great potential, and it was all lost,” Wes Emch said. “It leaves us with a hole in our hearts.”
Alan Ashworth can be reached at 330-996-3859 or firstname.lastname@example.org.