PIKEVILLE, KY, US
CPL, CO B, 1ST ARMOR BN, 68TH ARMOR REGIMENT
11/21/2003, BALAD, IRAQ
He traveled in his green dress uniform, in a gleaming oak box. His buttons were polished, his handsome face meticulously preserved by the Army mortician so his family could have an open-casket funeral. Cpl. Gary Brent Coleman, age 24, was supposed to arrive Thanksgiving weekend for a two-week vacation from war. He came home early.
He was born and raised in this Appalachian county, like his father before him. On Sunday, he was buried here, in the Eastern Kentucky hills that he died for.
On Nov. 21, near Balad, Iraq, Coleman and two soldiers were chasing a vehicle they considered suspicious when their Humvee flipped into a canal. Coleman was trapped inside and drowned. The others survived.
The military awarded Coleman the Purple Heart, for wounds received in action, and the Bronze Star, for meritorious service; two medals in fine boxes that will go to his 20-year-old widow, who found a husband and lost a husband in less than a year.
Kirsten Sinley and Brent Coleman married in March, three weeks before he left for Iraq as a tank driver with the 4th Infantry Division Mechanics, based at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, Colo. Coleman didn’t tell his family he was getting married. He just did it. He joined the military the same way.
In Pikeville, hundreds welcomed him home, solemnly filing into the high school auditorium where his casket sat on a high stage, nestled by white flowers, next to his maroon football jersey, No. 25, and his battered game helmet.
He was already a hero in this town, where high school football is a way of life and those who play well are never forgotten. Coleman was short for a running back — 5 feet 6 inches and 190 pounds — but he ran like a rabbit; the all-time leading rusher and scorer in Pikeville history.
They called him “Rocket” for his ability to find a hole and plow through it, his beefy legs pumping like pistons. They also called him “Stumpy” — “I guess because I’m short and fat,” he said, grinning from ear to ear, when the local television station named him player of the week in 1996, the beginning of his senior year.
In Iraq, his platoon called him “Hollywood” because his physique and his demeanor warranted it. He was easy on the eyes and built like a fireplug. He loved to lift weights and his head seemed to sit directly on his soldiers. In a photo he mailed home, he stands on his tank, naked to the waist, in a smiling, he-man pose that shows off his muscles.
“He didn’t lack for confidence,” said his father, Gary Coleman, a stoic man with piercing blue eyes that held firm against tears. But behind those dry eyes was a flicker of dread and the dawning realization that he had just boarded a slow-moving train of grief.
At J.W. Call’s funeral home Saturday night, where his son’s body lay in its casket for visitation services, Gary Coleman sat with Sandy Newsome, the woman in his life. He thanked each crying woman who kissed his cheek, and shook the hand of every plainspoken man who leaned down and said, “Sorry, buddy.” Coleman was the first soldier from Pikeville to die in Iraq since fighting began in March. More than 100 coalition soldiers were killed in November, the bloodiest month yet. With casualties have come complaints — about everything from troop strength to the military’s policy of not allowing photos to be taken during the journey home for soldiers killed in Iraq.
His father will not discuss the politics of this contentious war, or if he wishes his son had gone to Iraq.
“He served his country. He never complained. He was made for the military, physically and mentally,” Gary Coleman said. “He said he had a job to do.”
His son signed up two years ago, after studying military brochures and making up his mind. That was his way.
“Nothing surprised me about Brent, because he was always doing things that surprised me,” said his mother, Janie Johnson. He was 13 when his parents divorced, and he decided to live with his father when his mother moved 20 miles from Pikeville.
He was a positive thinker, a man of action and not of brooding. He didn’t show fear, his Army buddies said, even under fire. Whatever he felt, he kept it to himself.
“I never did see him cry,” his father said. “He might break down by himself, but he never showed it.”
After his boy left for boot camp, Gary Coleman rattled around the house, lost and lonely. “I just survived,” he said. “He was my roommate, my best friend and my child.”
He has another child, Jason, who is one year older than Brent and lives in San Francisco, where he manages a restaurant. Though Jason left home at 15, the brothers were close. In an old photograph displayed next to Coleman’s coffin, two moon-faced little boys stand with their arms entwined, wearing only underpants and shoes. Brent is wearing his father’s cowboy boots, which reach his hips. Jason is wearing his mother’s high heels.
Pikeville is the kind of place where people know each other and talk about each other. This can be comforting or irritating.
“I really want to get out of this town,” Coleman told his mother. He needed direction and purpose in his life, and he didn’t think either could be found in this city of 6,500.
He came back the night before Thanksgiving. The local funeral director, who knew Brent Coleman all his life, arranged for him to be carried home from the Lexington airport.
On Sunday, under a maroon canopy at the base of a hill, the U.S. Army gave Cpl. Coleman a military graveside service. A 21-gun salute shattered the warm, blinding sunshine. A chaplain read the 23rd Psalm.
Gary Coleman sat next to his daughter-in-law, a young woman he had never met until three days ago, when she arrived in Pikeville a widow. She stared straight ahead, looking at something only she could see.
A young man played Taps on a silver trumpet, and the sergeant’s wife broke then, her chin bent to her chest, her small shoulders shaking and her face covered by falling blonde hair.
Gary Coleman fought to keep his face expressionless. He stared at his son’s casket, but did not break. One hand rested on his leg. The other was held by Sandy Newsome.