IT’S BEEN THREE AND a half years since Staff Sgt. Ronald Phillips Jr. was killed in Iraq.
On Saturday, his parents will see his face again.
Ron and Wanda Phillips will head to Columbia that morning to participate in the unveiling of portraits of South Carolina’s fallen soldiers painted by artist Karen Langley at the Village Artists gallery.
“Karen felt compelled to honor the families of these brave young men and women as a thank you for their dedicated service, which protects the freedoms we all enjoy,” the group said on its Website. “It was Karen’s intention to paint these portraits anonymously; however, someone at Fort Jackson caught wind of the idea and it is now public knowledge.”
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Ron and Wanda Phillips don’t know which photo of their son was used to complete the portrait. It was chosen by another of their children.
They don’t know quite what to expect. But they believe Langley’s gesture is more special than many others.
“She just wanted to do it,” Ron Phillips said. “Because they sacrificed, she sacrificed. Those are things that mean more to us because when people just do something, even when they don’t have to, it touches you more; it’s a whole new ball game.”
That’s what his son – and the others who will be honored Saturday – did, Phillips said, sacrificed for strangers even though it was not required.
“If he had to do it all over again, he’d do the same thing,” Phillips said of his son. “It goes a step beyond when you lay down for somebody you don’t know. That was a part of his job.”
During the recent 10-year anniversary of the Iraq war, there was plenty of debate and discussion about the causes of the war and its toll and its costs and what it means for the country moving forward.
But Phillips remains where he was shortly after getting the message in 2008 no parent of a soldier wants – that a child was killed in combat.
He wasn’t interested in the debate then and isn’t now.
He wants his son to be remembered, for people to understand that his life and death mattered, counted for something important, no matter how history judges the war.
He’s hoping to see another family whose wounds are fresher, their son taken last year, either at Saturday’s event or at a retreat for families of fallen soldiers in Ridgeway later this month.
Phillips wants to be able to comfort them the way others helped him through the hardest moments.
Though he and his wife continue their daily struggle of having lost a son, he also remembers the good times, including the jubilation in his son’s voice when he called to say “we got him” shortly after former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was found in a hole.
“We have hard days and good days with this whole thing,” Phillips said. “Some of my days are a lot better than others.”
But recalling that conversation with his son, and how long ago it now seems, “I was thinking the war would have been over by now,” he said. “In war there are going to be casualties; we just didn’t know it would be ours. The 5,000 others [who were killed] are all in the same fraternity.”
Some members of that fraternity will be reunited, in a sense, in a Columbia art gallery, their likenesses – as imagined by a selfless artist honoring their selfless acts – unveiled and preserved in frames worthy of their sacrifice.
“He fought for freedom, as well as the soldiers that survived; no greater love,” Phillips said. “He was a good guy.”