His Life

Justin's early years

Justin was born on June 14th 1977 we were at his sister Jacqi’s swim and gym class at the YMCA when I went into labor.  Jeni his oldest sister was also attending her swim lesson in the big pool.  We went ahead and finished the swim lesson and rushed home to put the girls in their P.J.s and pack a suitcase and dropped the girls off at my mom’s and dad’s and on to the hospital.  We didn’t have long to wait before our beautiful baby boy was born.

Justin was a mellow, easy going baby, loved to cuddle and would wrap his long arms around us as though he was our security blanket. He had problems with ear infections but other than the usual childhood illnesses was very healthy.

We were ecstatic to realize we had just had a real boy.  My husband’s family is large has 7 boys and 3 girls but I came from a family of 4 girls, my mom was an only child and her mom came from a family of 4 girls and we were just sure we would continue the tradition.

Being the youngest our little fella was just a bit spoiled the girls just doted on him and would go as far as curling his hair, putting barrettes in, polishing his nails and they all loved to play dress up for hours and hours.  Justin always being the husband, Dr. Professor.

Justin loved being with his dad, Grandpa Lee, and great grandpa Dutch and Uncle Larry while they were going about various repair projects or home remodeling projects.  He learned so much from them as far as home care, car care.  As a result after the guys had remodeled our bathroom, I went in to find Justin with his little hammer pounding on our brand new marble sink and he had successfully put in a few chips.  I always treasured them, later, as his special mark but he was in big trouble at first.  He also was allowed to pound on various things down the basement but he had a special fondness for a certain area in the basement under the steps and soon created a pretty sizeable hole in the cement.

Justin looked forward so much to our trips to Waterloo to his grandma and grandpa Duffy’s’, he and  grandpa Vern were good buddies he would take Justin and they would have a guy’s day and go out driving and visit various of grandpa’s friends and favorite places.  The highlight was always stopping for an ice cream cone on the way home.

Grandpa Duffy had a wonderful Irish wit and twinkling brown eyes, he would spin yarn after big yarn and Justin would sit in awe at all the wonderful Irish tales, this is where Justin received his sparkling Irish, devilish hazel eyes and the great Irish wit and ability to spin tales true or not.

Justin started preschool at the YMCA his sister Jacqi also went there as she was only 18 months older. This is where he met his favorite early school teacher Ms. Detweiler they remained good buddies for years after.  He also met his best friend Danny Sandtree.  In second grade Justin had the biggest crush on his teacher Mrs. Barrett he was in such agony that whole year as no matter what he could never impress her with his work. Justin attended Seton Catholic those first years before we moved to Nebraska.  The teachers were wonderful and all every single one came to his visitation and some his funeral.

Reading was a favorite subject of Justin’s he and the girls would sit the girls on either side of me and Justin on my lap and I would read while they were very small and then they would take turns reading as they learned.  When the kids were sick we would all cuddle in bed with the sick one and read stories, tell stories or watch TV. These were such cozy, wonderful times.

Justin joined the boy scouts starting with Webelos and on through grade school and first couple years of high school, he loved to go out camping, fishing and enjoyed these times with his friends such as David Heronic, his dad Joe and the wonderful counselors.

Soccer was organized while we lived in Illinois and Justin’s dad Joe was an assistant coach they really enjoyed those rainy, wet game days, for some reason it always seemed to be raining.  Basketball Justin started in at the YMCA as did all the kids it was such a wonderful program for the kids and they have many great memories.  Baseball was a very big sport all three children played and thank goodness we had a beautiful sports complex and most games all three played right there or we would have been running over the whole city.  Justin always looked so cute with his blond hair, dimples and uniforms and so very proud when he hit the ball, made a basket or goal.

Justin received his first holy Communion such a special day, he dressed in his suit had his picture taken and the Bishop came as well as his Grandmas, Jean and Doraleen and Grandpas, Lee and Vern, and so many of the family such a special day to remember.

Vacations we started taking when Justin was 2 years old, we would go up every year to St. Germaine Wisc. And stay in an A frame cabin.  The kids loved it there all the fishing, swimming, canoeing and bike riding as well as horseback riding. Justin was so small the first year he slept all swaddled in quilts and sleeping bags on the floor at the end of our bed, there was just the right amount of space between the bed and wall.  The second year and four years after he stayed with the girls upstairs in the loft and camped out.

Our son would get so excited about our vacations or just traveling to Grandma Duffy’s house or other places we would have to not tell him and pack his things and ours and hide them or he would be sick.  One year he had an especially bad ear infection and we stopped in Georgia at the nicest emergency center and they gave us enough antibiotic till the morning.  That night Justin and I were up all night in the motel giving him cooling baths as his fever spiked so high but thankfully broke early morning.  We were on our way to Disney/Epcot Center so stopped and picked up ear plugs; we knew we would never be able to keep him out of the water as the kids swam like fish.

Justin loved as most boys do his action heroes, Transformers he collected during that time and going to the mall could bring on anxiety for him as he couldn’t stay away from the toys stores and mom and dad wouldn’t give in to his wants.  He would play for hours, playing war or rescuing those in distress.  Dukes of Hazard were another favorite and he collected the General Lee cars large and small models.  He also loved the little Match Box cars and our neighbor boy gave him a whole box full of his old match box cars.

As Justin grew older and read more he collected several great books for boys and I saved many of them as well as his cars, baseball cards and several items he took care of and collected from his boyhood.  We were able to give his books to his stepson Mason after he died for Justin saved all his mementos in a storage unit.  Mason was struggling at the time trying to learn to read and he picked up Justin’s books and began to read in earnest.

Justin loved to treasure hunt, he would go through the big garbage bins in the alleys and was a genius at finding things that were useful or we needed and just pretty paintings, and once a cute ceramic Easter Rabbit that I kept for years first inside then out on the porch, he would come home all smiles with his treasure ohhh the beautiful smile and dimples.

Birthdays for Justin were always special being born in June first of all he was born on Flag Day which was very special. It was also close to Father’s day and his adopted Uncle Tony’s birthday so we would celebrate it all together and it would be a huge family gathering.  Often it was warm out and we would hold it on our huge front porch shaded by trees. Many times we would celebrate at his Adopted Uncle’s cabin on the Mississippi and it would be a wonderful all mens celebration.

Growing up Justin had inherited problems with bed wetting, I would get up every 2 hours to take him to the bathroom, not give him anything to drink after dinner.  It was always so embarrassing for him but he knew it was in the family and dealt with it stoically.  As he grew older it could get hilarious trying to wake him as he was in such a deep sleep and we often joked back and forth about it.  Once he reached a certain age I had to ask his dad to take him as he started to be ornery and fight waking up.  Then one day he just grew out of it, he would wake up himself and his bladder grew where he could retain.

This could have gone such a different way but we were able to deal with it in a comfortable, routine way and the day he grew out of the bedwetting was a joy to behold for him.  To see that big smile every morning when day after day went by and his bed was dry. His great victory!

Family reunions were always held down home in Southern Illinois where we would all gather with many, many Aunts, Uncles and Cousins from Illinois, Minnesota where most of the families were located.  It was huge with homemade fried chicken, ice cream, jams and sides that were to die for.  Justin, his sisters would all play ball games, listen to music or just run and enjoy the day and all their favorite cousins.  Justin needed to be watched as he would eat and eat and make himself ill.

Justin loved school and was able to learn pretty easily, he did have some attention deficit problems but we worked these out.  He was very social and had many friends in grade school; two special friends were Juan and Danny.

Then came the time that his dad’s factory was merging with another and his dad was transferred to Nebraska, a small town of Cozad of about 5,000 people.  It was so hard to leave all our family, friends and our beautiful home we had lived in for 17 years and it was especially hard for Justin to leave his grandparents as they were so close but yet the girls and Justin were so excited about our new adventure.

Once we arrived Justin was out roaming as he liked to do with his friends, he didn’t have much trouble making them and found a lost black lab. He brought him home we didn’t have a human society so I contacted the police, they asked us to keep him and we asked around as they did.  They called after two weeks said we could keep him.  We were all in love with him by then and Justin and “Black” as we called him were inseparable, they roamed together, slept together ( black would have nothing to do with the fancy dog house the school industrial arts built).  It was as if they had been destined to be together.

Justin's life

We moved to Cozad, Nebraska 23 years ago with Joe’s work through Tenneco.  We came by station wagon with our border collie, Brandy and a gerbil, rabbit and two plants.  Jeni was to be a junior in high school.  Jacqi was to be a 6th grader and our Justin the youngest was to be a 5th grader.

This is where Justin met his best buddy Ramon Hernandez and they remained great friends throughout their school years. 

Justin was always active in sports from gym and swim classes at the YMCA where he learned to swim as his sisters did at 3 months.  He played soccer, basketball, and when he was older football and was thrilled when Kearney, showed interest in him for a college scholarship.

Justin chose to go a different route and wanted to study Criminal Justice.  His first year he admitted was a wasted year as he chose the wrong path to fun, drinking and gambling.  He chose on his own to come home and go to North Platte and spend two years getting his basic requirements in and driving back and forth to school and he took up his old high school job at “Pizza Hut” as shift manager to keep him busy and keep him from getting side tracked.

Once he felt the success of graduating from North Platte he was feeling that he was strong enough to continue on at Kearney in the Criminal Justice program he so wanted to achieve. He would only go if he could drive back and forth from home and continue working with Kathy Hosick, his boss at pizza hut who he so admired for her skills and talent with managing.

Justin successfully completed his collage requirements and graduated.  His life took a different route as he met the love of his life, Jean and her son Mason, they were the center of his universe and he took a job at Eaton in order to provide more money than police work would.

Justin loved to work and had several jobs; he worked while in high school in the factory his dad was a manager of shipping in, on the line, again with his friend Ramon.  They would often come home so greasy and dirty but he loved it.  He worked at our hamburger joint, “Haymaker” and of course his beloved Pizza Hut but Eaton was his absolute favorite as a grown man with wife and child.  He became a supervisor on the night shift and felt fulfilled.

He and Jean lived in various apartments while Jean went to college and he made sure Mason went to the best day care. He loved his life as a step dad and husband.  They bought a lovely starter home but alas the story ends as Jean decided to leave Justin and give Mason back to his dad and departed.  This was such a difficult time for Justin, not knowing where to turn or what to do but he kept on working, went to counseling and after a while moved in with roommates.

He decided to take a second job as with all the businesses at this time money and over time was being taken away. He became a bouncer and a bar back occasionally at Cunningham’s Journal his favorite place to hang and play pool.  While Justin was going to college, Jesse his brother in law moved to Cozad with our daughter Jeni and their two sons.  Jesse was a black belt in Shitoryu, Japanese style karate.  Justin began taking lessons and soon became Jesse’s assistant teaching the children.  Justin enjoyed this so much and so enjoyed getting to go to tournaments with Jesse even coming back with a black eye and several trophies.

With this knowledge of Karate, and with Jesse’s teaching to use pressure points rather than force to stop aggressors Justin was able to use these techniques as well as his wonderful Irish wit and gift for calm talk and listening skills to talk down the unruly.  The friends at Cunninghams called him the “Shepherd” as he was so good at watching over those that needed help friend or foe.

Justin life was still to take another turn, he was always such a kind hearted son, friend and he loved to be a hero, always dreamed of it and his favorite movies were of the hero and he practiced this in real life.  He made the decision one day to move home from his apartment with his friends and sold much of his things and put the rest in storage.  He said he was not going to be here long; he was driving back and forth to work during this time.  I could tell as we talked that he was in deep thought about something but he wasn’t ready to divulge it yet.

One day our Justin came home and announced to his dad and I that he had made the decision to join the Army.  Since the day of 9/11 he had been wanting to do something to help his country and he decided now was the time.  He chose to go in as a regular enlisted man rather than officers training with his degree.

Justin went through basic training with some difficulty due to his age, he had hip and foot stress fractures but he recuperated and went back and went through the process.  We were just so very proud of our beautiful son and the strength and perseverance he was showing. 

Then he decided he wanted to try for airborne and his letters home were filled with excitement and aw at the thrill and danger of Parachuting he so enjoyed his first jump and those after.  His next adventure was to try for special forces but alas it was not to be the first time but he decided after Iraq he was going back to try again and was working out very hard with his running buddy, Jeremy Smith.  If Special Forces didn’t work out his C. O. wanted him to go into officer’s training.

Justin wrote home often mostly in basic and while in country and once in Iraq he switched his old mom and dad to a new way of communicating by Yahoo Chat, it was such an exciting way to write because we were holding several conversations at once.  It was just so wonderful to know that he was right with us at that moment.

With his criminal Justice background, he volunteered for a newly formed unit, Personnel Security Detail, and was accepted.  He loved his job and he was very impressed with his officer’s especially Col. McGuire who became his mentor.  Justin received his SGT stripe just 18 months into enlistment.

Justin was killed June 2nd 2009, he was off that day but due to an illness of one of the other SGTS, he volunteered to take his place.  They were having a very important meeting with the Iraqi General and were already late and before leaving a problem with the trucks occurred, Justin instead of having one of the enlisted men go under the truck chose to go instead and figured out the problem and fixed it so they could make the meeting.  Enroute they passed an empty Iraqi check point which was unusual.  Once past his Humvee was hit by EFT  from the side.  EFT is a launched IED.  Justin was killed instantly.  His gunner sustained sever leg injuries and the second in command, Lt. Col. Shinner minor shrapnel wounds to the face.

At this time Major Dan Kuhn our Casualty Assistance Officer entered our life, without his guidance and support we would have been lost.  He and his wife Miriam were there for us from the devastating news of Justin’s death through the trip to Illinois and back again to Nebraska through the memorial in July and after.

Our friends Teri and Bob Coenen and Cinda and Dale Hyladky stayed with us every minute and took care of so many details as did our neighbors and friends Rae Vonne Drieling and Judy Cummings.

Justin’s funeral was held in Illinois as our families are from there.  Justin was very close to his grandparents in Illinois especially his grandpa Lee and also his grandparents in Iowa esp. his Vern.  We felt he would want to be close to them and to all the family; he has a lovely place of rest at the Rock Island ARSENAL.

The 82nd airborne and Chaplain came to honor our son and stood honor guard 24 hours a day and were his pall bearers.  There were 17 brave young men as well as Justin’s personal escort SGT. Anton.

The Illinois Patriot Guard was there to accompany Justin from the transport plane and at the funeral home and throughout, they are wonderful and hard working. 

All the family were able to attend and Joe’s wonderful musical family sang and played all Justin’s friends from the early days at school and every one of his teachers attended from preschool through grade school when he left Illinois.

Justin’s best buddy Rob Pangaro spoke as they had promised they would speak at each other’s funeral.  He brought with him his lovely wife Stephanie and Justin’s love Tess.

Justin had a lovely memorial in our beautiful home of Cozad, Nebraska.  So many from our beautiful town came on such a hot day and filled the gym.  Father Don had the mass, the bishop attended and the Chaplin from the 82nd airborne flew all the way in again.  Jaymie Schilken wrote a beautiful song, “Shepherd” she was so inspired by Justin’s story and sang this at the memorial.  The music played by Kathy Halouska and singing by Holly Cummings was inspiring.

We could not have come through all this without our wonderful families, many of whom wrote daily, or called or emailed for two years after.  All those friends, towns’ people, “Fallen Angels”, soldiers families and just many many who sent cards and letters and prayers.  The Gold star members really have helped us through as well as the Army support groups.

Through the generosity of so many Justin’s memory will live on through, yearly scholarship fund at Justin’s High School and by a scholarship fund started by one of Justin’s fellow SGTS. John Palmer and through the generosity of his fellow soldiers and families, our families and Tenneco and Eaton and the many who could ill afford to give at a difficult time and did. The Scholarship in Justin’s name is at Kearney College and benefits one person a year who is interested in Criminal Justice, Nursing or ROTC.