Airmen work to bring home memory of fallen Soldier

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Tong Duong
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Seemingly lost, he turns to steal a glance at a friend, only to reveal his sad, puffy eyes and down-turned lips.

Behind the glass, loafing in each other's wake, the two seem to carry the memory of a lost brother.

For nearly three years, these two fish have occupied a small corner of the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group's contingency aeromedical staging facility waiting hall. And now it's time for them to go home.

Called Pitbull and Little Man, the fish and tank were donated by the family members of Army Sgt. Jesse A. Ault, a motor transport operator from the Virginia Army National Guard. Sergeant Ault was performing convoy operations April 9, 2008, on the outskirts of Baghdad when his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device. The 28-year-old died from his wounds.

As U.S. forces start their transition out of Iraq, 332nd EMDG staff members are working to reunite these fish with Sergeant Ault's wife, Betsy Ault; stepson Nathan, 13; son Adam, 4; and daughter Rachel, 3, in Virginia.

Staff Sgts. Brandon Smith and Joanna Boyd, 332nd EMDG CASF members, at first knew only that rotations of Air National Guard members have cared for Pitbull and Little Man since 2008. The duo dug deeper in hopes of locating a next of kin.

The beginning
Sergeant Ault's story unfolded through email conversations between Mrs. Ault and Sergeant Smith, revealing that the Ault's have a deeper connection to Iraq than just the fish.

Previously an Army staff sergeant herself, Mrs. Ault said she and Sergeant Ault met in 2003 when their units were combined for a deployment. The two grew close and fell in love while training to deploy to Logistics Support Area Anaconda, Iraq, now Joint Base Balad, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. At first she wasn't looking for a relationship, but he was persistent.

"(D)ang him, I just couldn't get rid of his sorry butt," Mrs. Ault said in an email interview. "He took me home to meet his momma during our last pass before we deployed. He told her I was the one, if we both made it back."

The Aults tied the knot after making it back safely and conceived their first son that same year. When Adam was only three months old and Mrs. Ault had one month of maternity leave remaining, she got the call that her unit would soon deploy.

While Sergeant Ault had already separated and was convinced they could lead a "normal life," Mrs. Ault had two more years of enlisted service.

"He, being the man he was, re-enlisted into my unit and volunteered to go," she said. "So, I stayed home with our infant son and he took my place, literally."

The day Sergeant Ault landed in Kuwait in 2007, he found out they were expecting another baby. He took emergency leave in January 2008 to witness Rachel's birth.

Soon after, he returned to Iraq and, in a sad twist of fate, was hit by an IED when his company was on its last convoy mission.

"He loved and boy did he live," Mrs. Ault said. "He was an amazing man who was loyal, dedicated and put his family first, then his country. To say I lost everything is an understatement."

Sergeant Ault was posthumously promoted to the rank of staff sergeant and awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Combat Action Badge, on top of the many decorations and awards earned throughout his military career.

Pitbull and Little Man
But why the fish?

In 2008, Air National Guard members at the Air Force Theater Hospital contacted the United Pet Group Tetra to see if it was possible to get a fish tank setup. In a happier twist of fate, Mrs. Ault's stepmother, Rena, was the one who received the emailed request. She is in charge of promotional offers, such as charitable events, for the company.

"For my stepmom to get the request right after we lost Jesse ... wow," Mrs. Ault wrote in the email. "Her only stipulation was that they dedicate it in Jesse's memory."

The fish were a way for Mrs. Ault and her family to give something back to service members stationed where the couple "swore" they belonged.

"It was a way for my stepmom and (me) to feel like we were doing something in his memory -- quite silly, yet very meaningful," she said.

Each rotation, CASF members -- who include active duty, Guard and Reserve members -- have taken turns caring for the fish. Members on this rotation even purchased replacement parts for the tank with their own money to ensure the fish stay healthy.

More than a memory
As the hospital's longest residents, Pitbull and Little Man have witnessed the harsh realities of war as countless hundreds of wounded warriors were wheeled past their tank. But, besides honoring the memory of a fallen warrior, these fish have also brought a piece of home and a little serenity to patients and staff members.

CASF member Tech. Sgt. Terrance Guidry noticed the fish tank in the corner, but was either in a rush to keep up with operations or too busy training new personnel to check them out. Then one day Sergeant Guidry sat down to watch the fish swim and noticed how much more relaxed he was afterward.

"That is how I get a quick dose of resiliency around here," Sergeant Guidry said.

Their presence had much more of an effect on Sergeant Guidry when he heard the story of how Pitbull and Little Man arrived in Iraq.

"I read the story and it hit me close to my heart," he said. "I sat there and thought about his family and how much they have lost. Sergeant Ault paid the ultimate sacrifice, and it's unfortunate that all of our wounded warriors do not make it home to their families. Now those fish truly have a deeper meaning to me."

Operation Homecoming
Mrs. Ault said that for her and her family, the fish and tank symbolize a lot.

"They mean so much to us," she said. "Balad was where we got our start. It was 'home' to Jesse and me. I did call my stepmom and let her know they were still there, and it made her cry in a sentimental, good way."

Having learned Sergeant Ault's story and the history of the fish, CASF members are working every angle they can to see these fish survive the long trip to Virginia.

Sergeant Smith said he has made it his personal mission to get the fish back to the States. CASF members, he added, would hate to see this legacy end just because their rotation will leave soon. He sought help from the 332nd EMDG superintendent, who commissioned Sergeant Smith to locate a small tank and a battery-operated aerator to keep the fish alive during transport.

As a Patriot Guard Riders ride captain, Sergeant Smith also contacted fellow Patriot Guard Riders in Virginia to pickup and escort the fish directly to the Ault home. The Patriot Guard Riders attend the funeral services of fallen American heroes as invited guests of the family.

One last hurdle, however, is customs clearance. Sergeant Boyd, the unofficial fish caretaker for this rotation, originally planned to fly the fish to the contingency aeromedical staging facility in Landstuhl, Germany. In the event CASF members cannot get a clearance from U.S. Customs, they will carry the fish to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, so Pitbull and Little Man can comfort wounded warriors there.

However, Sergeant Smith said he "absolutely" thinks it's possible to get the fish home.

"I spend a lot of my free time in support of my fallen brothers and sisters, and it would be my honor to see this out," he said.

While Pitbull and Little Man were sent to Iraq to boost the morale of wounded warriors and others who come through the CASF, Sergeant Smith believes their purpose is near complete.

"In essence, these fish have been deployed here for three years," he said. "They have done a great job, but the war is ending and it is time for them to go home."