The three Blackhawks took off from Doha air base in Kuwait before dawn on a nearly 500-mile flight to the war-torn Iraqi city of As Samawah.
Though it was early in the morning on that October day, the temperature already had reached a sweltering 105 degrees inside the helicopters.
Shortly before noon, the Blackhawks touched down on the outskirts of the city, about 175 miles southeast of Baghdad. Twenty-five soldiers and one civilian poured out into the stifling heat — made worse by winds that kicked up swirling dust.
Jim Butler and his military escort trekked the final two miles on foot to a main intersection on the south end of As Samawah. Butler’s journey — which had started three days earlier at Kansas City International Airport — had come to an end. The Wellsville man found himself standing at the crossroads where his son’s life had ended 6 1/2 months earlier.
U.S. Army Sgt. Jacob Butler, 24, Wellsville, became the first Kansan killed during the U.S. operation in Iraq on April 1, 2003.
Killed at war
Jim Butler was sitting on the couch, watching TV, when he heard a car pull into his Wellsville driveway about 10:40 p.m. April 1, 2003. He heard two car doors shut. He listened to the footsteps mounting his deck, and two somber-looking men appeared at the sliding glass door.
“I opened the door and said, ‘Is he hurt real bad or is he dead?’ They just held their heads down,” Butler said. “I’ll never forget the sound of their footsteps on my deck as long as I live.”
In the weeks that followed, Jim and Cindy Butler learned more details about the events leading up to their son’s death.
Butler was riding in the second of three military Humvees as part of a calvary reconnaissance unit that was on a scouting mission when their northbound vehicles reached the intersection in As Samawah. A rocket-propelled grenade — fired from the other side of the river to the west of the intersection, struck the first Humvee, immobilizing it with soldiers inside.
“Jake ordered his driver to pull their Humvee up in front of the Humvee that had been hit by the RPG to block it from more incoming fire,” Butler said of his son’s actions. “Jake had his driver pull it up so that the passenger door where he was sitting was facing to the west.”
Butler said he learned from some of the soldiers who had been there that day that 25 to 30 Iraqi soldiers started firing their weapons at his son’s Humvee.
“Jake was shot in the head — the bullet went clear through,” Butler said. “I was told Jake fired one-and-a-half clips from his M-16 before he was killed.”
Soldiers in Butler’s unit put their fallen sergeant in for a Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in shielding the crippled Humvee from enemy fire.
“The military turned down the Medal of Honor request, but they did award him a Silver Star and a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart,” Butler said. “The military treated him real well, and they’ve been very good to us ever since the day Jake died.”
Butler decided shortly after his son’s death that he would keep a promise he made to Jake and visit the site where he was killed.
“I told him before he went to Iraq, that if something happened, I would visit the site where he was killed, and I meant to keep that promise,” Butler said.
With Jake being the first Kansan killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, then-U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback went to see Jim and Cindy Butler.
“He was a real nice guy,” Butler said of Brownback. “I told him I wanted to go to Iraq to see the site where Jake had been killed, and he told me ‘Maybe after the war.’ But I had made up my mind I wasn’t going to wait until after the war.”
Butler obtained a passport and all the necessary paperwork and vaccinations required to travel to Kuwait. On Oct. 10, 2003, he boarded a plane at KCI airport and traveled to Chicago, where he took a direct flight to Amsterdam, and then flew on Kuwait Airways to Kuwait City.
But when he arrived in Kuwait City, he said the military brass did not greet him with a warm welcome.
“I’m sure they were just looking at me as being a disgruntled dad, but that’s not why I was there. It really turned into a debate between two groups of soldiers — one group wanted to deflect me back onto a plane for the U.S., and the other wanted to let me go in since I had come all that way,” Butler said. “Twenty-five soldiers volunteered to take me to the spot where Jake was killed, so they labeled it as a military mission and sent us in with three Blackhawks.”
A promise kept
When Butler arrived at the intersection, he looked across the Euphrates River where the RPG would have been fired. He studied the pipeline bridge, labeled as such by the military because a pipe two-feet in diameter ran parallel to the bridge.
“I got the exact coordinates from some of the soldiers he was with,” Butler said. “I wanted to stand in that same spot and feel the air that was there and experience the smells that were there, and see the same things he would have seen.”
Before Jake Butler, a 1996 graduate of Wellsville High School who joined the Army in 1998, shipped out for Iraq, he and his father built a radio/CD player he could wire into his military Humvee so he could listen to music.
“They filmed everything, and we were given the 8 mm film from Jake’s Humvee,” Butler said. “He had a picture of his mom and me stuck to the front dash, and John Lennon’s song “Imagine” was playing on the radio we had made.”
Butler said he took more than 200 photos and shot video to document the 45 minutes he had spent at the intersection.
He started writing a book about his journey, which he had substantially completed by 2005.
“I’d never written a book before, and I kept working with it and had Jake’s old girlfriend, Sara, help me clean it up,” Butler said. “After several years, I was ready to try and have it published.”
Tate Publishing Co. expressed interest in the book and rushed it through the process, starting about seven months ago, so it could be in print by the 10th anniversary of Jake’s death, Butler said.
The book, titled “Beyond Honor: A Promise Kept,” is available for purchase through Tate Publishing’s online bookstore, www.tatepublishing.com
Cindy Butler said she was proud of how her husband’s book turned out, and said she supported his trip to Iraq.
“I wasn’t going to try and stop him,” Cindy Butler said. “I knew he had made that promise to Jake, and he intended to keep that promise.”
Butler said he hoped people would understand why he wanted to write the book, which he said partially was his way of coping with his son’s death.
“I wanted it to be a legacy for Jake and me,” Butler said.
On Monday, the 10th anniversary of Jake Butler’s death, Jim and Cindy Butler plan to have a memorial service from 2:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Wellsville Cemetery along with family, friends and several soldiers from Jake’s unit.
“The soldiers are coming in from California to the Carolinas — they have families and are scattered across the United States now. Six of the guys coming were with him the day he was killed. Anyone who would like to come to the cemetery is welcome to attend. I don’t look at it as mourning his death, but rather as a celebration of his life.”
The celebration will take on a different tone than the somber occasion on Oct. 13, 2003, when Jim Butler stood on the bank of the Euphrates River.
“A Col. Snow was with me, and he had the CD player, and I played Jake’s funeral music,” Butler said. “I played seven songs. Jake wanted ‘Sgt. MacKenzie’ played at his funeral, and I also played ‘Be Home Soon’ and ‘Proud to be an American.’”
The seventh and last song Butler said he played as he gazed across the Euphrates that day was Lennon’s “Imagine.”