One by one, the CIA operatives' remains were carried over the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base, their bodies in metal cases draped in pressed American flags. Under orders not to shoot video or take photographs, the families of the dead stood off to the side, shivering in overcoats on a frigid January day and watching for the removal of their loved one.
Jean and Mary Wise waited behind a roped-off line, listening to the cascade of sobs closing in on them. For six years, the Arkansas couple had endured repeated deployments by their three sons to fight the nation's wars, first in the deserts of Iraq, then in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Unlike in World War II, when the draft meant that nearly everyone had family members and friends risking their lives, the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan have been waged by 2.5 million volunteers — less than 1 percent of the U.S. population.
The Wise brothers were among those who raised their hands, eager to serve in conflicts that left most Americans unscathed and eventually uninterested. Their embrace of the military, fueled by patriotism, swagger and restlessness, confounded Jean and Mary. And in Afghanistan — the longest war in U.S. history — the Wises would pay a higher price than all but five known American families.
At Dover, the couple's oldest son finally appeared, the second-to-last of the dead: Jeremy Wise, 35, an ex-Navy SEAL and CIA security contractor.
He'd been one of seven Americans killed by a suicide bomber at a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, on Dec. 30, 2009, in one of the deadliest attacks on agency personnel in decades. The carnage at Khost could be measured not only by the number of bodies that had been flown to Dover, Del., but also by the powerful men awaiting them, including then-CIA director Leon Panetta, Gen. James "Hoss" Cartwright, then the Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman, and senior executives from Xe Services, one of the CIA's most secretive contractors and Jeremy's employer.
Jeremy's 28-year-old widow, Dana, stood next to the other Wises as a white-gloved military team slowly carried her husband's remains to a transport truck. His younger brothers, Ben, a medic in the Green Berets about to leave for Afghanistan, and Beau, a Marine who had flown home from Afghanistan, clasped each other's arms.
"I can't believe this. I am going to be the oldest now," Beau remembers Ben telling him, as frost cut through the air.
Three days later, at Jeremy's memorial service at a Virginia Beach military chapel, Ben and Beau strode up to the dais in uniform, side by side. Ben wanted to speak, but asked his younger brother to take over if he fell apart in front of hundreds of mourners. Instead, Ben spoke with firmness, in a gruff, almost rumbling whisper.
Unlike his sister, Heather, who recounted the time Jeremy went surfing during a hurricane and the childlike way he played ninjas with his 6-year-old stepson, Ben kept his eulogy short.
The Green Beret described how he'd relied on Jeremy. He "always seemed to find me right after a mission, when I was exhausted," Ben said. And he paid tribute to Jeremy's unshrinking candor. "You would get his honest opinion, whether you wanted it or not."
Ben called him "Jerms" and Jeremy called him "Benny." Jeremy had been his confidant, his rival, his co-conspirator, his inspiration.
"I can't imagine my life without my big brother," Ben said. "What a mess I'd be in had God not used Jeremy to set me back on the right track more times than I can recall."
He paused and looked up. "Jeremy, I miss you, and I love you, brother. And [I'll] see you again."
- - -
One by one, the brothers enlisted, and one by one, they went to war.
First, it was Ben, off to the Army at 23 in 2000. Next it was Jeremy, who entered the Navy at 27, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Finally, it was Beau, who joined the Marines just shy of his 25th birthday in 2008. Together, between 2003 and 2012, they would spend more than 1,600 days in Iraq and Afghanistan, a choice that bewildered their parents. They wanted their sons to go to college and pursue a profession like that of their father, Jean, a head and neck surgeon.
"What is it about you boys? You could be lawyers and doctors. Who put this in you?' " Mary asked Jeremy, who dropped out of medical school at the University of Arkansas to become a Navy SEAL.
Jeremy reminded his mother of the nights she'd sat by their bed when they were boys, reading them biographies about Gen. Douglas MacArthur and other military leaders. Who got them interested in the military? "Mother," she remembers Jeremy telling her, "you did."
The Wise boys had grown up in El Dorado, Ark., a small city about 100 miles from Little Rock, in a family of deep religious faith and blond good looks. In a 1987 portrait, Jeremy 13, Ben, about 10, Heather, about 8, and Beau, 3, are lined up with their hands cupping their chins, looking like a brood of Sears catalogue models.
Jeremy and Ben, born three years apart, shared a king-size bed. As soon as Beau was old enough, he would creep into their room and sleep on the floor beside his big brothers.
It was Jeremy who taught Beau, nearly 10 years his junior, how to fire his first weapon, a .22-caliber rifle. Hunting, fishing and playing guitars in the church worship band were the staples of their childhood.
But after high school, all three brothers struggled to settle on a direction. Jeremy won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point but only lasted a semester before enrolling at Liberty University in Virginia, then transferring again to Hendrix College in Arkansas. Ben, who once had hoped to become a missionary overseas, jumped from Hendrix to Southern Arkansas University before dropping out and becoming a waiter at a Little Rock steakhouse. Beau, a percussionist who earned a music scholarship to Southern Arkansas, partied too much and dropped out.
Over time, each brother came to see the military as the solution. It offered the action they craved: "I just want to kick down doors. Shoot machine guns. Blow things up," Beau told Jeremy. And it promised a sense of purpose, especially after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon burned.
Suddenly, a nation — and a family — were going to war.
- - -
They'd been running for miles in jungle boots and camouflage when Jeremy's legs buckled and he collapsed on the powdery sands of Coronado Beach. He'd suffered heat stroke in a place where physical weakness isn't tolerated: the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training program in Coronado, Calif.
The grueling six-month course requires men to run without knowing for how long, swim several miles in the frigid Pacific and go days with almost no sleep. The vast majority of candidates fail.
By mid-2002, Jeremy had become one of the washouts, stunning his fellow SEAL trainees. "He could do at least 40 pull-ups, maybe more, from a dead-hang," says Brooks Crenshaw, a close Navy friend of Jeremy's. "He was a stud."
Jeremy was ordered to a kind of Navy purgatory, Crenshaw recalls, forced to serve as a glorified janitor and live with the other SEAL dropouts in a separate barracks until a slot opened on a ship.
But Jeremy refused to accept his fate. He asked for a meeting with Ryan Zinke, then the Naval Special Warfare Center's No. 2 officer, and requested another chance. In his eight years in that job, Zinke says he gave that to about 10 people, out of about 2,500.
"Jeremy convinced me he was worth a second shot. He wasn't intimidated by me," Zinke says. "Jeremy had an inner strength, the one thing you can't train."
Mary knew her sons were in danger in Iraq, but she didn't press them for details. She couldn't bear to know.
Ben reached the war zone first, just as attacks on U.S. troops were escalating sharply at the end of 2003. He was in the infantry then, being dispatched all over Iraq in an armored Stryker to hunt down insurgents, uncover weapons caches and transport money out of banks in Baghdad to safer depositories in Turkey.
In January 2004, Ben wrote a series of comical dispatches about his war-zone life to Jeremy, still training to become a SEAL. "I smell like a bag of dead cats," Ben declared in a "Dear Jerms" letter, "but apart from that, things are good." He signed the letter, "Benny Out."
Jeremy, who had been assigned to the Virginia Beach, Va.-based SEAL Team 4, arrived in Iraq more than a year later for high-risk special operations.
Back in Arkansas, Jean followed the war news closely, while his wife took the opposite approach. Whenever he started talking about what he'd read online or in the newspaper, Mary halted him. "No, Jean, I can't," Heather remembers her mother saying.
"I wasn't watching a lot of television then," Mary acknowledges. "I was careful because it rips up your sleep."
She told Heather that she was struggling to focus on her music classes at Southern Arkansas University. "I know I should be doing my homework," her daughter remembers her saying, "but I can't think. "
Mary treasured the calls she received from her sons — immediate proof that they were doing fine. They rarely talked about Iraq, she says. Instead, Mary would tell them about their Arkansas friends and trade insights about Christianity.
"I just cast myself on the Lord," she says, praying that her boys would be brought home safely.
When Jeremy returned to Iraq in late 2006 for his second tour, he and his SEAL team arrived as a civil war was breaking out between Shiites and Sunnis. Executions, kidnappings and roadside bombings soared.
Amid the tension, Jeremy's fellow SEALs valued his humor, like the time he carried a life-size cardboard cutout of John Wayne to a bar and bought it a drink.
But sometimes he irked the other guys. He'd show up late for meetings. They nicknamed him "Wikipedia" because he was always spouting random trivia or reading Plato or Goethe.
"The guys would be talking about women, and it would be pretty shallow and chauvinistic, and Jeremy would pipe in with something off the wall," says Judson Kauffman, a former member of SEAL Team 4. "Everyone would say back, 'What? You're so weird. We're talking about chicks.' "
Jeremy wasn't interested in conversations like that. Just before leaving for Iraq, he'd fallen in love with Dana Prusinski, a government contractor sales rep in Virginia Beach. He and Ben had met her at a sports bar, where she was serving drinks part time.
"Jeremy, you need to talk to her," said Ben, who was training to become a Green Beret and visiting from North Carolina. "There's something different about her."
By the time he returned from Iraq in 2007, Jeremy wanted to marry Dana and be a father to her 4-year-old, Ethan. He proposed at El Tapatio, their favorite Mexican restaurant, and arranged for a surprise afterward.
Jeremy's youngest brother, Beau, and Dana's little boy were waiting in a car outside. Beau turned on his phone's video recorder as Dana scooped Ethan out of the car and carried him over to Jeremy, their faces lit up by the restaurant's neon sign. Ethan was bewildered by his mother's tears.
"Are you really sad?" he asked.
"No, I'm so happy," Dana said, as Bryan Adams music played from the car radio. "Sometimes Mommy cries when she's really happy."
Jeremy smiled at Beau, and the two brothers could not stop cracking up.
By the end of 2008, Jeremy and Ben were serving in different parts of Iraq, and Beau had enlisted in the Marine Corps, angering his mother so much that she didn't talk to him for two weeks.
Beau says his older brothers sometimes shared their frustrations with the war. U.S. forces, they complained, weren't attacking with enough force. But Jeremy managed to excite Beau about military life anyway. "He said he couldn't believe he was getting paid to do what he was doing," Beau recalls.
Even so, Jeremy found himself aching for his new family during his third deployment to Iraq. He'd be gone for Thanksgiving and Christmas. He'd miss watching Ethan tear through gifts on Christmas morning. Instead, he celebrated the holiday at a SEAL party, where he was caught having a drink with teammates and punished with grunt work, Dana says.
"He was livid," she says. "That was the last straw." In September 2009, after five years as a SEAL, he let his Navy contract expire — a relief to his wife and parents.
But their reprieve from worry didn't last long. During Jeremy's job search, Dana submitted his resume for a shooting instructor position, based not far from their Virginia Beach home, with Xe Services, the company formerly known as Blackwater and now known as Academi.
Jeremy knew vaguely about the company's tainted history, according to Dana, but he was immediately sold on a job far more dangerous than teaching marksmanship: becoming a Xe security guard for the CIA in Afghanistan.
The pay was about $700 a day, more than three times what he earned as a SEAL, Dana says.
As they said goodbye a few weeks before Christmas in 2009 outside Norfolk International Airport, he asked her not to come inside.
"Dana, this is good. . . . We'll pay for our bills," he said as she cried. "This is good for us."
- - -
The base in Khost was buzzing.
At the CIA outpost near the border with Pakistan, the agency believed it was on the verge of a breakthrough in its frustrating hunt for Osama bin Laden. A Jordanian doctor who had supposedly penetrated al-Qaida's leadership was coming to Forward Operating Base Chapman to be debriefed.
Jeremy was among those selected to greet the man the CIA called its "golden source." But some CIA officers complained about the meeting's security arrangements. Senior officials, including the Khost base chief, had approved a plan in which the informant would not be body searched before coming onto the base. Any pat-down, the agency feared, would make their spy feel unwelcome.
"Dana, I'm really hurting now," Jeremy wrote his wife in mid-December, without offering an explanation. "Pray for me."
Feeling alone, Jeremy called his youngest brother, Beau, by then a Marine lance corporal in Helmand province. Jeremy, playing a secretive role in the war against al-Qaida, and Beau, deployed as part of President Barack Obama's surge, marveled that they were both in Afghanistan at the same time, and that Ben would soon be there, too. It would be a sibling trifecta in the war zone. The last time the three had been together was in 2008 at Ben's Green Beret graduation at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Beau knew Jeremy was somewhere up north working for Xe, but not exactly where. He sensed that Jeremy was uneasy, but Jeremy wouldn't say why. Then his big brother had to go.
"When will you be home?" Beau asked.
"Sooner than you will," Jeremy said.
Five days after Christmas, Dana was about to take Ethan to run errands when two men from Xe appeared at her house. Their pronouncement that Jeremy was dead shocked her so much that she kept pressing her visitors over and over: "What happened?"
Her husband, she later learned, was among those waiting when a red Subaru pulled up bearing Humam al-Balawi, the jihadist whom the CIA thought it had turned and whom it decided not to search in advance. Beneath his flowing kameez tunic, the Jordanian pediatrician had strapped on a suicide vest filled with 30 pounds of homemade explosives and hundreds of nails. Jeremy and another Xe colleague drew their guns as soon as Balawi balked at getting out of the car on the side where they were standing. As he emerged from the other side, they shouted at him to show them his palms. Instead, he declared in Arabic, "There is no god but God," and hit the detonator.
It was Jeremy's sister, Heather, who had to call Ben. He was hosting their parents at his home in Washington state, where his wife, Traci, had just given birth to their first child, a son named Luke.
"Jeremy's gone," she told Ben.
Ben swore, Traci remembers, and then "he was motionless." Later that day, she says, "I asked him, 'Are you feeling this?' He said, 'I have to stay strong for my parents.' "
Mary and Jean went from celebrating Christmas with their first-born grandson to mourning the death of their first-born son. "We just sat in the kitchen. I couldn't even cry," Mary says. "Jean's lips were quivering."
Jeremy had sometimes been hard on Ben, who was four inches shorter and less physically imposing than his charismatic older brother. He'd been infuriated in 2000 when Ben announced he was joining the Army as a grunt instead of an officer, pushing Ben up against the wall of their Little Rock apartment to express his disapproval. And he'd initially questioned Ben's decision to marry Traci, a divorcee five years his senior with two children.
Through every fraternal throw-down, though, Jeremy had remained Ben's inspiration. And now he was gone.
It took a little longer for the news to reach Beau, who was with his platoon mates in Afghanistan, poised to pounce on a Taliban safe haven. The lead gunner in the turret of an all-terrain vehicle, Beau was so amped up for the assault that he'd given himself a mohawk — a "warhawk," he called it.
But on New Year's Day, his convoy returned to base, where Beau was ordered off his truck. Instantly, he thought he was in trouble. Was it the mohawk? The other members of the platoon were stripping off their gear, but he kept his helmet on until he was summoned to the base's command operations center. A chaplain was waiting for him. Beau knew this conversation had only one destination.
"Is your brother Jeremy Jason Wise?" the chaplain asked him.
"Yes," Beau said.
At Dover Air Force Base, Dana begged to see her husband's body. Not a good idea, she was told. She also demanded to know what had happened to Jeremy's wedding band. It was made of tungsten. Tungsten can't explode, she insisted.
All she got back were some of Jeremy's clothes and a diary. She scanned a few pages. There was a lengthy list of items he had needed as a CIA security guard: "Glock w/3 mags. Low-pro commando vest. M-4 suppressor. Tactical Folding Knife w/hook capability."
"Jeremy's Concept of Reality," another diary entry read. "I believe that the universe has a beginning. So do physicists. A beginning not for just life, but for space, time, light and energy."
Jeremy's remains were being stored while the Wises lobbied to have him buried at Arlington National Cemetery. But since Jeremy wasn't an active-duty service member, didn't retire from the military and didn't earn a Medal of Honor, Silver Star or any other top military honor, he didn't meet Arlington's eligibility requirements and would need an exception.
The Wises figured he had a shot: Three of the slain CIA officers had received exceptions. But Arlington rejected the Wises' request. The cemetery lacks the space to bury private contractors and Jeremy's service "did not present extraordinary circumstances" justifying an exception, the Army explained later in statements to The Washington Post.
To Jeremy's parents, the decision has always felt like whiplash: Arlington told them their son's service wasn't extraordinary enough. But Jeremy's name was entered into the CIA's Book of Honor and a star for him was carved into its iconic Memorial Wall. In 2011, the CIA also awarded Jeremy the Intelligence Star "for extraordinary heroism."
Eventually, the family settled on burying Jeremy at the Albert G. Horton Jr. Memorial Veterans Cemetery, about an hour west of Virginia Beach.
In the days leading up to the funeral on April 1, 2010, Ben and Beau were not sure they'd go. The brothers were in different parts of Afghanistan, with no way to check if the other was planning to attend.
Beau decided he had to be there. At Kuwait's Ali Al Salem Air Base, where service members often catch charter flights home, he dropped off his Kevlar and waited to pick up airplane tickets. Suddenly, a bearded guy in a baseball cap and Oakley sunglasses bumped into him.
"Beau!" the guy said.
"Oh, my God," Beau said, suddenly recognizing his unshaven brother. "Ben?"
"I didn't think you were going to be able to make it!" Ben said.
The brothers embraced, awestruck by their coincidental reunion and relieved that they'd made the same decision not to forgo Jeremy's funeral.
On a warm spring day, Ben and Beau gave their older brother one last gift: They served as his pallbearers.
- - -
Traci Wise reeled off a list of marital problems to her counselor at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. More than six months had passed since Jeremy's death. Ben, now home from Afghanistan, seemed checked out, absorbed in his computer and obsessed with guitar amplifiers, which he liked to build from scratch.
Plus, he drank, Traci says. He'd down so many Captain Morgan-and-Coke cocktails that he was finishing a bottle of rum every two days. He didn't resemble the caring man she'd fallen in love with. Back then, he'd been so attentive, opening car doors for her and courting her kids with pizzas and games of Mouse Trap.
In the marital counseling sessions the therapist recommended, Ben voiced fury at what he saw as the needless loss of his brother.
If Ben blamed the CIA for allowing a suicide bomber near Jeremy, Traci resented the Army for its hold on her marriage. Her bitterness dated from 2009, right after Ben's return from his second stint in Iraq. That's when he found the courage to tell her what he'd done: He'd re-upped. They were just two months from their wedding, but he hadn't talked to her about it. Instead of leaving the military in 2010, he wouldn't be out until the fall of 2013.
"You've got to be kidding me," she says she sputtered. "Why?"
He wanted to make sure he could support her and her children, he told her. And he wasn't ready to give up the sense of mission that came with being a Green Beret.
Despite her anger, they married in March 2009 in a small chapel with a view of Puget Sound. Ten months later, on the heels of Jeremy's memorial service, Ben left for the country where his brother had just died.
If Traci took any solace from Jeremy's death, it was her faith that his sacrifice somehow protected Ben from harm. In early 2011, as Ben geared up for his second deployment to Afghanistan, Traci tried to ignore her usual anxieties.
"I let my guard down," she says. "I just thought, 'This can't happen to the same family twice.' "
Once again, there were two Wise brothers in Afghanistan, fighting a war that had dragged on for 10 years.
"I just got back from some hairy stuff; never been in a full all day knock down drag out like this one," Ben wrote to his younger brother in September 2011. "I schwacked at least one guy, and one of the SEALs with me got two I think. These guys weren't like the punks we've fought in the past. They could shoot, they had excellent fighting positions and were well disciplined and coordinated."
"Glad you made it through the other day," Beau emailed back. It was his second deployment as a Marine, and he was exhilarated by it: "I don't know, Ben . . . I feel this is my place. Like God put me here ya know."
Ben, by contrast, was increasingly miserable. "Oh Beau, Beau; I miss you man," Ben wrote to his brother at one point. "I had a dream about Jeremy last night, and I woke up hurting pretty bad; I've been thinking about you and Jeremy all morning."
Ben shared his struggles with an old friend, Chris Cook, telling him over Facebook, "This deployment has been a rough one, and I feel like I've almost bottomed out a few times."
He was three weeks away from going home when he volunteered for an operation with about 50 Afghan commandos to capture a Taliban leader. The Taliban suspect was holed up along with other enemies in a village near Mazar-e Sharif in northern Balkh province.
Intelligence reports warned about the mission's worst-case scenario: enemies attacking from one of the caves west of the village's homes.
On the morning of Jan. 9, 2012, it took just one hour for the worst-case scenario to begin unfolding. At 7:30 a.m., AK-47 gunfire rang out from one of the caves. An Afghan commando was killed, then a second man took a round of fire in his face, says one of Ben's teammates, an active-duty Green Beret who agreed to describe the operation only if he wasn't identified.
Ben bandaged the commando's purple face and helped him to a dry riverbed for the medevac. Meanwhile, Apache helicopters gouged the caves with laser-guided Hellfire missiles. After the caves had cooked for hours, Ben's fellow Green Beret didn't think anyone could still be alive, but he ordered the Afghan commandos to check anyway. They flatly refused.
Ben offered to go first. He tossed a fragmentation grenade inside the cave, then swept around the corner and sprayed gunfire. But gunfire rattled right back, smacking Ben in his body armor and slamming him onto his back. As he writhed on the ground, more bullets pierced his legs.
Air Force Capt. Blake Luttrell fired into the cave and tossed a smoke grenade for cover, then grabbed Ben by his vest, pulling him to safety. "My gut feeling was that he was going to pull through it," says Luttrell, who was awarded a Silver Star for his actions that day.
Down by the riverbed, Ben's comrades prepped him for the medevac. His fellow Green Beret applied tourniquets and taped a fentanyl lollipop painkiller to his finger, easing him into a haze.
Ben asked which parts of his body might be missing. "Everything's good," his friend assured him.
"I don't know what went wrong," Ben told him. "I don't know what went wrong."
Traci didn't recognize him.
Ben had been flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. By the time Traci and Beau reached him on Jan. 14, his legs had been amputated. His blood had turned septic. His brain was damaged, and his kidneys were failing.
At least eight rounds of gunfire had riddled Ben's thighs, pelvis and abdomen. Beau was keeping his parents and sister updated on Ben's condition as Jean and Mary headed to the airport. With his medical background, Jean knew how serious his son's condition was. But Mary and Heather refused to believe that Ben would not make it, Beau says.
Ben's face was so bloated that he no longer had a jaw line. He appeared as if he had gained 50 or 60 pounds. Traci gently stroked his swollen left arm. She leaned over and whispered into his ear, the only part of him that looked familiar.
"I told him there was nothing on Earth that I could give him that was as amazing as what was awaiting him, and the struggles he'd have here on Earth weren't worth it," she says. "I told him that it was okay for him to go."
By the following morning, he was being kept alive by shots of epinephrine every 60 seconds. His liver was failing.
Beau asked the doctor if Ben could be kept alive long enough for Mary and Jean — who were an hour or two away from landing in Germany — to say goodbye. "The doctor just said he could take him back to surgery and make his pain worse, or we could let him go," Beau recalls.
A decision had to be made. Beau held Ben's left hand. Traci hovered on her husband's right side. As a chaplain prayed next to the bed, they watched him die.
- - -
One by one, the men in charge of the war learned of Ben's fate.
At the Pentagon, the name inside the casualty folder marked with the big blue "X" looked familiar to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his chief of staff, Jeremy Bash. A Green Beret named Wise from Arkansas? He had to be another Wise son — a realization that startled Panetta, who'd been CIA director when Jeremy was killed, and stunned others, too.
"Oh, God," Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos remembers thinking when he was told by an aide that Ben was the second Wise brother to die in Afghanistan. "It took my breath away." He wrote the family a letter of condolence, as did then-CIA Director David Petraeus and Lt. Gen. John Mulholland Jr., then the commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
The Wises are not the only family to lose two children in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts that have cost almost 6,800 U.S. military and civilian lives. At least five other families have endured the deaths of two sons, according to a Defense Department tally, though only three have been identified in media reports. The Hubbards, from California, buried two brothers who died in Iraq, one in a 2004 roadside-bomb explosion and the other in a 2007 helicopter crash. The Westbrooks, from New Mexico, lost one son to a bomb in Iraq in 2005 and another to insurgent fire in Afghanistan in 2009. The Velezes, from Texas, mourned one son killed by enemy fire in Iraq in 2004 and another who shot himself in Afghanistan in 2006.
After Ben's death, Panetta called Mary and added a personal note to the Pentagon's formal letter: "I am so very lost in the emotion of losing another son of yours to combat. As the father of 3 sons, I cannot imagine the pain you must be feeling. And yet, I know that like Jeremy, Ben was doing what he wanted — to fight for all of us. He is a true American hero and patriot. God bless him and you."
Beau practically had the 747 to himself.
It was late January, and Beau was on his way to a familiar place: Dover Air Force Base. He left the plane's upper level to scan the hollowed-out fuselage below, its floor lined with tracks securing seven metal cases draped in U.S. flags. One held Ben's body. The others belonged to six Marines who had been killed in a helicopter crash.
Seven cases — the same number when Jeremy's body had been brought home two years earlier.
At about 1:45 a.m. on Jan. 23, 2012, the 747 touched down in Delaware. Beau joined his parents and, to his surprise, the commandant of the Marine Corps. Amos and his wife had traveled to Dover to salute the six Marines killed. They also wanted to offer their condolences to the Wise family.
Beau grew nervous about meeting his boss. He hadn't shaved and was wearing the wrong attire, his desert camouflage uniform. Plus, he dreaded what promises Amos might give his parents about his future deployments.
Amos, wracked from having just spoken with the grieving families of the six Marines, approached Mary and just held her. "I am very, very sorry," he remembers telling her. He thanked Beau for his service, and then looked at his mother.
"He's done with combat," Amos vowed.
Mary was grateful for his words; Beau was not. "My heart sank a little," he says. He'd become what the military calls a sole survivor, a World War II-era designation popularized in recent years by the Steven Spielberg movie "Saving Private Ryan."
Beau recoils when people compare him to the movie's title character, a young soldier whose three brothers have been killed in World War II and whose rescue has been ordered by Gen. George Marshall.
"This isn't World War II. We weren't drafted," he says. "Ben and Jeremy would be furious (at the reference). We enlisted. We all knew what we were doing, and we were told many times not to. But we all wanted it."
This was especially true for Beau, who thrilled to the percussive sound of machine-gun fire, who found pleasure in disassembling and re-assembling his .50 caliber weapon each day, who embraced his fellow Marines as if they were another set of brothers.
At 5:15 a.m., Beau, Mary and Jean took their places on the tarmac at Dover in almost the same place they'd stood two years and 19 days earlier. Ben's remains were the last to come off the plane.
Seven white-gloved members of an Army "carry team" approached the 747, their steps growing louder and louder. Ben's case was lowered on a mechanical ramp. Senior military leaders and a chaplain approached, bowing their heads for 75 seconds in prayer. Then the case was marched 33 steps to a box truck, whose blue interior lights cast a glow on the flag.
Beau says he watched the ritual with one thought: "Really, God? Really? Again?"
Before leaving for Afghanistan, Ben had gone over his final wishes with Traci. He wanted to be buried in a suit, not his Class A uniform. He wanted a Bible placed on top of his body. And finally, he wanted to be laid to rest in Virginia, next to his older brother. They'd be side by side, just as they'd been as kids in El Dorado in their king-size bed.
On Jan. 27, the Wise family journeyed back to the Albert G. Horton Jr. Memorial Veterans Cemetery and experienced it all again: the rifle salute, the flag folding, the bugler sounding the haunting notes of taps.
As the family climbed into their limousine to leave, Jean caught the attention of the cemetery director, Dan Kemano. He wanted to make sure his boys would be buried together, as Ben had wished. But Kemano told the Wises that the cemetery had made no such plans. That would require exhuming Jeremy's casket, because the grave sites next to him had already been claimed by other veterans.
Mary felt wrung out and desperate. She pulled out her cellphone and called Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe's office in Little Rock, reaching his military liaison, an Iraq war veteran named Jason Smedley.
"We are out at the cemetery in Virginia right now, and we just had Ben's burial service," she remembers telling him. "We were informed by the cemetery director that they will not bury our sons together. Jason, I have given this country the ultimate sacrifice. We have given this country two sons. Jason, I am throwing myself at your mercy. Will the governor call Governor McDonnell in Virginia?"
Kemano, meanwhile, was making calls of his own. His staff had told the family's Army liaison days before that the side-by-side burial wasn't feasible, he says. He presumed, since he hadn't heard from the Wises, that they had dropped the request.
Now he presented Jean and Mary with two options: The cemetery could bury Ben that day, or Ben could be returned to the funeral home for a few days, while he conferred with his bosses on what to do. The family told Kemano they wanted their sons reunited.
Four days later, on Jan. 31, Ben was buried. Two days after that, on Feb. 2, it was Jeremy's turn.
Out came the grounds crew, the backhoe, the shovels and the chains needed to lift the concrete case holding Jeremy's casket from seven feet of earth. Then Jeremy's remains were wheeled about 20 grave sites away. In Garden Section 4, Grave site 25, Row 16, his casket was lowered back into the earth, right next to Ben's.
After the grounds crew finished, Jean and Mary knelt between their sons' grave sites to pray. Then Jean draped his right arm around Jeremy's headstone. Mary, dressed in a black straw hat, laid her left hand on Ben's headstone.
They never wanted to forget this moment. So they looked straight ahead, their somber gazes fixed on a camera capturing their grief.
- - -
One by one, the Wises struggled to move forward.
Dana remarried and gave birth in November to a girl. But Ethan, now 10, sometimes still longs for Jeremy.
His mother posted a school journal entry he'd written about faith and patience on Facebook last year. The child's entry read: "I remember when my dad told me to wait in line. It took a long time. And I remember when I was asking god why did my dad haff to diy and I'm still wading for a answer."
Traci, now 41, has placed enormous photographs of Ben in uniform all over her house so that Luke will have a connection to his father. For a while, the preschooler brought her to her knees by asking, "Who is that? Who is Daddy? We never see him."
Beau and his wife, Amber, live about an hour from Traci at Naval Base Kitsap Bangor in Washington state, home to a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and Trident missiles. The Wise family's sole survivor asked to be posted there for his sister-in-law's sake.
But he still wishes he could return to Afghanistan to kick down doors and blow things up. He questions why his brothers are gone and he isn't. "It should have been me," he told his wife after Ben's death.
The 30-year-old sergeant has spent much of the past two years working as a clerk at the base's Leatherneck Lounge. There, in a yellow-walled snack shop where Marines eat, watch TV and have their pick of energy drinks, Beau signs off on food deliveries and keeps track of the cash. Some days, he leads training sessions in martial arts and marksmanship.
At home, he brews his own beer, storing the barley and hops in an R2-D2 soda chiller, an homage to the "Star Wars" movies he and Ben watched obsessively as kids. His wife custom orders bottle labels that read, "Wise Ass Honey Badger Ale."
Beau tries not to complain or dwell on what he's lost. His parents, he says, have lost more. "I still have my wife and parents. But how does a mother lose two sons? How does a father?"
Jean, 68, and Mary, 63, rely on their faith that Jeremy and Ben have been reunited. "I can visualize it," says Jean, who suffers from Parkinson's disease. He imagines them in heaven, teasing each other and wrestling as they did when they were boys.
In November, the Wises gathered on a hilltop overlooking El Dorado, where two granite benches were being unveiled on Veterans Day, one engraved with Jeremy's name and the other with Ben's.
Before the ceremony, Beau and his parents stood by the benches, still draped in black cloth, greeting old friends. The bleachers on the south lawn of the community college, which is home to the town's Sept. 11 memorial, filled with veterans who wanted to pay tribute to the family's sacrifice. One of them, a woman who had served in the Navy and once belonged to the same church as the Wises, approached Beau.
"I am sorry about your brothers," she said, before echoing the words Ben had once spoken about Jeremy.
"You'll see them again," she promised.
"Yes, ma'am," said the Marine.