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Army Sgt. David A. Ruhren

Died December 21, 2004 Serving During Operation Iraqi Freedom

20, of Stafford, Va.; assigned to 276th Engineer Battalion, Virginia Army National Guard, West Point, Va.; killed Dec. 21 when his base dining facility was attacked in Mosul, Iraq.

Mother refuses to let fallen son’s birthday go by unnoticed

By Rob Davis

The Free Lance-Star

STAFFORD, Va. — Sgt. David Alan Ruhren hardly celebrated his 20th birthday. He was on a mission in the hills outside Mosul, Iraq, and became so ill he had to be flown out.

Someone took a picture of the Virginia Army National Guard soldier when he returned to base. It now sits in a frame in his mother’s North Stafford home. He is in uniform, and he looks sick, a telling scowl hanging on his face. The brown landscape behind him is desolate, the sky an empty white.

The day was another reason he was looking forward to his next birthday. He wanted a huge party. He wanted to buy alcohol for the first time. He wanted all the things every 21-year-old wants.

Tuesday was David Ruhren’s birthday. His mother, Sonja, says she would not allow that day to slip by unnoticed.

Four months have elapsed since two people in uniform came and pounded on her door at 3:30 a.m., bringing news that her son — her best friend, her golden boy — was dead. A suicide bomber had walked into the mess tent where Ruhren was stationed and blown himself up.

Ruhren and 13 other U.S. service members, including National Guard Sgt. Nicholas Mason of King George County, were killed.

With that late-night knock, all Ruhren’s plans — his 21st, college, marriage, children — were gone. A single mother’s dreams for her boy were gone, too.

Before her son died, “you could feel the life in this house,” she says, sitting inside her Lake Arrowhead home. “You don’t have that anymore. It’s empty, and it’s quiet.”

Sonja Ruhren is 42 years old, and surrounds herself with the things her son left behind. A silver cross hangs around her neck. Her son was wearing it the day he died.

Only she does not say this. She does not say killed, the “K-word,” she calls it. “The day he was hurt,” she will say.

She gets through her days with the help of Mountain Dew and Marlboro Lights. Some days are good. But during bad days, she leans on her brother, her friends and two U.S. Army casualty officers.

Sonja is finding her own ways of coping with this loss. When David was in Iraq, she pretended he was at college. Now he is gone, and she pretends he is in Iraq.

Down a spiral staircase in her rec room, Sonja has enclosed his uniforms —his dress greens and his desert camouflage — in hanging glass cases. The doors swing open, so she can touch her son’s clothes.

There are pictures, too, of David and his comrades. There he is, sitting atop a concrete bunker. There he is, bathed in Middle Eastern sunlight. There, behind a frame, is the last letter David wrote to Sonja. It arrived on the day he died.

A corner of the room is empty. David ordered a motorcycle while he was in Iraq with the Guard’s 276th Engineer Battalion. He dreamed of riding it to the Vietnam War Memorial. Sonja says she will ensure the bike gets to the wall during Memorial Day weekend. Then it will rest in this corner.

Upstairs, his room is as he left it. His bed is made, his favorite brown jacket resting on a pillow. The light is on in his fish tank, his fly fishing rod is nestled above the door.

There is one difference. A cardboard box of belongings from Iraq sits on the floor.

Amidst the cards and pictures and G.I. Joe toys are two pillows wrapped tightly inside a plastic bag. These were his pillows in Iraq. His mother pulls them out occasionally and puts them to her nose. They still smell like him.

The flag that graced David’s casket is tucked away in his closet. His mother cannot bear to see it, or touch it.

In her computer room, Sonja feels at ease. This is where pictures of her son — she calls him Davey — surround her. He is not in uniform. In here, he is a son, a cousin, a grandson. Not a soldier.

Sonja knows many people see her son simply as that: Sgt. Ruhren.

“But he was my kid,” she says. “I just don’t want people to forget that he was a person. He had the same hopes and dreams that every kid has.”

Like celebrating his 21st birthday. On Tuesday, Sonja Ruhren planned to release balloons over Lake Arrowhead, where her son loved to fish. Then she was to go to Quantico National Cemetery and take David the bottle of Southern Comfort he would have bought.

She visits frequently, sometimes four times a week. She wants to explain to him what happened that December day, what went wrong, how the bomber got into the tent. These are answers she doesn’t have yet. Until she does, she will go to him, lean in close and tell him: I’m sorry.

On Tuesday she planned to visit, and sit in that open field, and know he is gone. But she will continue to speak about him in the present tense and kiss his gravestone. And though she knows a time will come when she’ll have to let go, that time isn’t now.

Someday the projects will be finished, all his belongings will be back from Iraq and everything will be organized the way she wants it. But not yet. Not on his birthday.

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2002   2001

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