He was a 21-year-old American, an Army private stationed in Italy. She was an 18-year-old local girl who spoke little English. They met at a club in 1994. He asked her to dance. She said no.
“He didn’t give me a choice,” Monia Wilke said recently, recalling their meeting. “He grabbed my hand and we danced.”
Two years later, Monia and James Wilke were married. Last month, Monia became a widow after 15 years of marriage.
Chief Warrant Officer James B. Wilke died Oct. 10 in the Persian Gulf city of Doha, Qatar. The cause remains under investigation, but was not related to combat, officials say. He was 38. A funeral was held Oct. 22 in El Paso, where the couple lived.
“All I’ve been told is that it was natural causes,” Monia Wilke said. “I’m still in shock.... He was a wonderful person. A determined person. A person who always saw the positive side of a situation. He always had a smile on his face.”
The 19-year Army veteran, who worked as an air weapons system technician, was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command at Ft. Bliss, Texas.
Wilke was born in the Bay Area city of Fremont on Sept. 23, 1973. His family later moved to Ione in the western Sierra foothills, and he graduated from Argonaut High School in nearby Jackson.
“As a teenager he was very creative. To earn money, he would go to the golf course and dig out the balls in the pond, come home, clean them up and sell them to the golfers,” said his mother, Patricia Gomes of Reno. “He was a very good student [and] played football for the Argonaut Mustangs. His nickname was ‘Smooth,’ ” she said, stretching out the vowel sound.
Encouraged by his stepfather, Robert, a former paratrooper, Wilke enlisted in the Army while in high school. He graduated in 1992 on a Friday and was on a bus to basic training that Sunday.
As her friendship with the young soldier turned to love, Monia said her family in the northern Italian city of Vicenza didn’t want her to marry James because they feared what eventually did happen — marrying a career Army man would take her away from home.
“They were against it, but I didn’t care. I followed my heart,” she said.
Wilke was a dog lover — the couple’s rescued golden retriever Riley was like a baby to him. His prized possession was a red 2007 Corvette. He was a huge NASCAR fan.
“It was his passion,” his wife said. “Religious people go to church on Sunday. His religion was NASCAR on Saturdays.”
In July, Wilke returned to El Paso on leave to celebrate the couple’s 15th anniversary. Their marriage had been marked by long separations between deployments. They talked about the future: He would retire from the Army next summer after 20 years and get a civilian job.
“We were going to have a more normal life. Have more time with each other,” his wife said. “I thought we were going to grow old together. Now, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
In addition to his wife, mother and stepfather, Wilke’s survivors include two brothers, Larry, of Reno, and Gary, of Fremont.