CONCORD (AP) – Mary Catherine Wheeler had a bad feeling when she
heard a television news report that a U.S. Army gunner had been
killed in an attack in Tikrit, Iraq.
The mother of 12 later found out her only son in the military,
22-year-old Donald Laverne Wheeler Jr., died Monday in a
rocket-propelled grenade attack in Tikrit.
“I said if it is not us with an Army guy coming down the
driveway, it will be another driveway and we will learn compassion
during this fight for those who have sacrificed,” she said
Mary Catherine Wheeler, known as “Mary K,” her husband Don, some
of their children and other relatives gathered at the family’s
house in Concord, 15 miles southwest of Jackson.
The family told stories about Donald Laverne Wheeler, known to
them as “D.J.,” as they sat in the living room filled with
Wheeler’s senior pictures and military photos.
“He was the first one to want to make you laugh,” Mary Catherine
Wheeler said with a grin after telling the story about the time he
danced around the house wearing a grass skirt and coconut bra from
Donald Laverne Wheeler – named after an uncle killed in the
Korean War – was an Army specialist in the 4th Infantry Division
based in Fort Hood, Texas.
Mary Catherine Wheeler said her son joined the Army after the
Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He also was inspired by his
grandfather, who was a World War II veteran, she said.
“Nine-eleven happened and he thought the military would help him
be a stronger, better person,” Don Wheeler said about his son.
Donald Laverne Wheeler enlisted in the Army in November 2001,
transferred to Fort Hood in April 2002 and was sent to Iraq in
March 2003, Fort Hood spokesman Cecil Green said.
The attack that killed Donald Laverne Wheeler on Monday took
place when assailants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S.
Army patrol in the Tigris River city 90 miles north of Baghdad.
Despite her son’s death, Mary Catherine Wheeler said she wants
the military to finish its duty in Iraq.
“We need to keep going at it,” she said. “We can’t quit now with
all the loss of life, that would be a waste.”
The 6-foot-5 gunner graduated from Jackson Lumen Christi High
School in 1999 and was an offensive lineman on the Titans football
team that made the regional finals.
Lumen Christi coach Herb Brogan described Wheeler as “a good
solid, hardworking kid.”
Mary Catherine Wheeler said her son, who was called “Sunshine”
by some of his fellow soldiers because of his big smile, frequently
sent letters from Iraq. He often asked his mother to send him candy
and $1 bills to hand out to children in Iraq, she said.
Mary Catherine and Don Wheeler said yesterday their son had a
strong belief in God; he brought his Rosary and prayer book to
Iraq. Their house is filled with pictures of Jesus Christ and
statuettes of the Virgin Mary.
“He’s got so close to God over there,” said Mary Theresa
Stevens, Donald Laverne Wheeler’s aunt.
“The last letter he sent was so full of his spiritualness.”
Donald Laverne Wheeler’s body will be flown back in five to
seven days. The family will plan a funeral when his return date is
more concrete, his mother said.
Since he left for Iraq, Donald Lavern Wheeler has missed his
brother’s high school graduation, his sister’s wedding and other
family events, including the birth of his niece.
“That’s part of the sacrifice and he embraced it, even with
tears in his eyes,” Mary Catherine Wheeler said.
His family created a 5-foot-tall blown up photo of him on
cardboard and placed it behind the head table at his sister’s
wedding. The large photo stood in the Wheeler’s living room
“When he came home I was going to have him stand beside it and
see how much taller he looked because that’s not as near as tall as
he is,” Mary Catherine Wheeler said.