Army Pfc. Aaron J. Ward, 19, San Jacinto
Aaron J. Ward had a choice about serving in Iraq.
Because he was the last male Ward in his family, the Army offered him the opportunity to avoid going, he told his mother. He asked her what she would tell Army officials if they asked her opinion on the matter.
“It wouldn’t be normal if I said, ‘Yeah, take him,’ ” Debbie Ward told him. “But if you feel you need to do this, I’ll stand behind you.”
“I need to do this,” he told his mother. “I need to give the guys over there a break.”
Debbie Ward understood: “Aaron just always thought of everybody else.”
The 19-year-old Army private first class from San Jacinto, southeast of Riverside, left for Iraq at the end of February.
On May 6, he was killed when his unit was attacked with small-arms fire while cordoning off an area and searching buildings in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.
Ward was assigned to the 170th Military Police Company, 504th Military Police Battalion, 42nd Military Police Brigade at Ft. Lewis, Wash.
He had joined the Army in April 2006, inspired in part by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and his family history.
His great-grandfather was an Army Ranger during World War II. His grandfather served in the Army and Navy in Vietnam. Two uncles served in the Navy, one during the Gulf War. His sister Samantha was on a Navy ship off Bahrain, supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Debbie Ward, 47, was proud when her son enlisted. He hoped to become a career soldier or maybe use his training to become a police officer or firefighter.
“I really thought Aaron would excel in there,” she said. “He had no fear of anything.”
Ward quickly finished his studies to earn his diploma at Mountain View High School in San Jacinto and left for boot camp last July.
When he came back to San Jacinto on leave in December, he so loved what he was doing that he worked for two weeks at his recruiter’s office in Hemet, encouraging a new crew of young men to sign on.
It was around this time that his friendship with Kati Jakubac, 19, started to bloom.
Jakubac had met Ward in 2006 when one of her friends invited him to hang out with them at a Starbucks in Hemet.
“He seemed really intimidating at first -- a Mr. Tough Guy,” she said. “I was kind of afraid of him. But once I got talking to him, he was like a real teddy bear.”
When he left for Ft. Lewis, they started swapping flirty text messages. They exchanged about 7,000 text messages that February, Jakubac said. She was worried that she was causing problems for him on base. “He had to do a lot of push-ups,” she said. “But he said, ‘I’d rather get in trouble than not be able to text.’ ”
One night in February, she sent him a text message saying that she didn’t want him to leave. His reply: “I just wanted to let you know I love you.”
About two weeks later, he left for Iraq. Twice a day, or at least several times a week, he woke his mother and Jakubac with his cheerful voice.
“I would answer the phone at 1:30 in the morning and I would hear this voice, ‘Good morning, beautiful,’ ” Debbie Ward said. The calls always seemed to come in the middle of the night, but they didn’t mind.
Ward didn’t want them to worry, so he always told them it was boring in Iraq. “He said, ‘Don’t think of me going to Iraq, just think of it as me going camping,’ ” Jakubac said.
The last time Debbie Ward talked to her son was May 3. He called to say happy Mother’s Day in advance because he was getting busy on missions and wasn’t sure if he would be able to call later. He also said that he planned to ask Jakubac to marry him when he got home.
The next day, he called Jakubac. She missed him because she was busy talking to customers at the Greek restaurant she manages.
He died two days later.
Jakubac now thinks about how she would have said yes to his proposal and how she probably would be moving to Washington state, near his base.
She visits his grave at Riverside National Cemetery regularly and spoke on her cellphone one day as she was having lunch there.
“The hardest part of him being gone is not the not seeing him, but all the what-ifs,” she said.