January 23, 1981 to August 13, 2007
When my brother left to train for his second tour in Iraq, our greatest fear was that he would not return. Sadly that fear was realized for our family, but in a very unexpected and seemingly more tragic way. Jonathan Forde was a son, brother, uncle, devoted boyfriend and loyal friend. He was a strong, healthy, fun-loving and conscientious young man with a sense of humor that caused peels of laughter wherever he went. We grew up in Northern Virginia and had a normal childhood – school, sports, friends and a great family. In high school, J was a phenomenal athlete and excelled at anything he played, especially lacrosse. After graduating, he attended James Madison University and later transferred to the Engineering School at VCU in Richmond, VA. After 9-11, when we lost a close family friend in the attacks, J was inspired to help fight for his country, and that’s when he decided to join the Virginia National Guard as a Combat Engineer.
Like everything he did, J excelled in the Army and quickly rose in the ranks from Private to Specialist. He was a sharpshooter, a leader to his men and someone who, we learned later, his fellow soldiers would have given their lives for. Shortly after joining the military, J was activated to serve a 13-month tour in Mosul, Iraq doing bomb sweeps. Thankfully he served his time in Iraq and returned safely home. We noticed the difference in him immediately – he had become a man – and we truly believed that his time in Iraq helped arm him with the confidence he needed to succeed and be happy in life.
J was home for two years before being activated a second time, which was a big blow to him as he now had a serious girlfriend, a good job and great life. He was just coming into his own. He did not want to go back to Iraq and leave his friends and family for another year and a half, but he was committed to the Army and did not complain. On July 22, J was shipped out from West Point, Virginia for a month of training in Wisconsin before being deployed to Iraq, where my sister, mother, step dad, dad and J’s girlfriend Brandy went to say goodbye. That was the last time we saw him alive.
Our nightmare began two weeks later on August 13, 2007 when at 5 p.m. a doctor called my mom from Franciscan Skemp Hospital in LaCrosse, Wisconsin to tell her that J had been admitted with flu-like symptoms. The doctor said he had a fever of 105, his blood pressure kept dropping and they did not know what was wrong with him, so they were running tests. In the meantime they had him on antibiotics. Feeling incredibly far away and helpless, she asked if he was going to die. The doctor said, “No, he is not going to die but it will take him a long time to recover from this.” J was awake and aware of his surroundings, but exhausted and in pain. My mom was able to speak with him and he told her his muscles ached, but he was okay and not to worry. He also spoke with my dad and Brandy, and said his neck and feet ached but he was fine. After the initial call from the doctor, my mom called me and my sister, and I remember thinking that maybe if he was sick he wouldn’t be able to go to Iraq, which of course would be a blessing to us. Little did we know how severe his infection was, and that it was already too late.
A few hours later, my mom got a call from another doctor that J had taken a turn for the worse. They still didn’t know what was wrong. His temperature was not dropping and he was in a lot of pain, so they had sedated him. Getting really worried, we booked my mom and husband on the first flight out to Wisconsin the next morning. We all wanted to go, but ironically my sister was scheduled to give birth to her baby girl the next morning by c-section. J’s niece and goddaughter, Maggie. So the rest of us decided it was best to stay back to support my sister while my mom and husband went to be with J. An hour later my mom got another call from the doctors, who said they think J, has bacterial meningitis and they were transferring him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester via helicopter as there was nothing more they could do for him there. Waiting to hear back from the doctors was haunting for us. We had no idea if J would stabilize, or what it all meant. We knew almost nothing about bacterial meningitis and had no idea how deadly it could be. At 10:30 p.m. my mom got the last and most devastating call from the doctor. He told her that he had terrible news, and after administering CPR for one hour, Jonathan arrived at Mayo with no pulse, and he was dead. It took less than 24 hours for the infection to set in and kill my brother. He was only 26. It was only after his death that we learned of how the day’s events unfolded. Earlier that day, J had reported to the military doctor with a fever of 105, and was then sent to the local ER in Sparta, Wisconsin. There he was treated with antibiotics for flu-like symptoms. When his fever dropped, J was released, only to be readmitted later that afternoon by ambulance. His fever had returned and he was very weak and achy, and it got worse from there. We still don’t know how J contracted the disease, though we do know it’s more common in Army barracks and universities, where soldiers and students are in close contact with each other. Thankfully, no one else in his unit was infected. After the autopsy, we learned that J died from Meningococcal Meningitis, and though his death certificate does not state which strain, we were told by the Army it was strain B. Unfortunately, the Army failed to give him his meningitis shot in May, two months before he died.
My family was devastated. Our little hero would not return to us safely as we had hoped, and was instead shipped back to us in a coffin. My mom and husband did not end up going to Wisconsin as planned and instead stayed home to make arrangements for J’s funeral. My sister had to give birth to her baby the next morning, which was very difficult for her. But we truly believe that with death comes life, and little Maggie – along with her cousin Sebastian – have been little saviors for us all. Jonathan Forde was posthumously promoted to Staff Sergeant and buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery.