TF Titan 333rd Military Police Brigade personnel take a break from their duties in Afghanistan. Sgt. Maj. Eddie Wheaton III is on the back row, fourth from the left.
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — Personnel with the TF Titan 333rd Military Police Brigade here were in a particularly boisterous mood as they looked over a batch of cards sent to them from back home by a bunch of elementary school students from Carrollton.
The MPs laughed among themselves as they read the messages on the cards aloud, then tacked them up on the wall of their base camp. But everyone noticed the change that overcame their operations officer as he started to tack up a picture of an 8-year-old boy grandly saluting the American flag.
As the puzzled soldiers gathered around, alarmed by the stricken look on the officer’s face, they, too, were stunned to silence.
Taped to the back of the card featuring 8-year-old third-grader Will Garrett’s photograph was the youngster’s obituary. Two days after the photograph was taken, Will had been killed in an automobile accident.
“Everyone had been laughing and joking, in a good mood,” Operations Sgt. Maj. Albert “Eddie” Wheaton III, a Lee County High School graduate, said in a phone interview from the air base. “All of a sudden, you could hear a pin drop.”
The members of the 333rd overcame their shock over the death of the Carrollton youngster by deciding to do something to honor his memory.
“When I saw what had happened to that young boy, I immediately started thinking about my own family,” Wheaton, a 25-year National Guardsman currently serving his sixth deployment, said. “I immediately said, ‘Maybe we can do something to show his family how much we appreciated his card,’ and everyone started throwing ideas around.
“We all wanted to do something.”
Sometime this week, the 333rd’s response to Will’s tragic death will be memorialized with the delivery to the Garrett family of an American flag — a flag that flew over a combat zone in Afghanistan.
“That’s something we normally do only for the family of a soldier,” Wheaton said. “But this really affected us. We took a photo (of the brigade), and our captain (Carolyn Krotowski) wrote a letter to the family telling them how much (Will’s card) meant to us.
“After we got that, everyone kind of took a step back. It was a reality check. For me, I reflected a little more about my family back at home. There are no words that any of us could say that would erase the hurt of that family, but our goal was to send them a memento to let them know how much (Will’s) card touched us.”
Sgt. Maj. Wheaton’s father, Al Wheaton, a businessman who grew up in Lee County but moved to Ball Ground in north Georgia 21 years ago, said he’d contacted officials at Will’s school, Oak Mountain Academy in Carrollton, and at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, where Will’s funeral was conducted, after hearing the tragic story from his son.
“They told me the school there was consumed by this story, by what had happened to that young boy and by what Eddie and his fellow soldiers had done for the family,” Al Wheaton said. “A lady at the church told me there were no words to express the gratitude they felt for what (the 333rd) had done.”
The elder Wheaton said he’s always been proud of his son, who has worked with the sheriff’s department in Tallahassee/Leon County, Fla., for the past 23 years in addition to his service in the Guard.
“As a parent, (what Eddie and his fellow soldiers) did was incredible,” Al Wheaton said. “But it doesn’t surprise me. That’s the kind of man he is. What they did has touched that community and everyone else who’s heard about it. I know when I called the lady at the church up there, I went over in my head what I was going to say about a hundred times, and every time I did I would tear up.”
In addition to sending the battle flag memorial to Carrollton, Eddie Wheaton said one of the MPs in his brigade also made combat bracelets worn by many soldiers in Afghanistan for the students in Will’s classroom.