EDITOR’S NOTE: As I looked through social media, I came across a post that shared the photo of Josh Pearce of Guymon, Okla. I never met Josh, but I wrote about him – a little about his death, but much more about the short life he lived. Josh died Feb. 26, 2006, in Iraq, where he was fighting for our freedom. I wrote this story the next day for the Guymon Daily Herald. At the end, I will include the sentiments I had that day. In my career, I’ve written about triumphs and treasures, murders and losses. At the request of Josh Pearce’s family, I met with them a day after the loss of their loved one. It was one of the toughest stories I’ve ever told. God bless our heroes.
Joshua Pearce lived each day as if it were his last.
He smiled often, loved always and enjoyed all that he did. He was voted “Life of the Party” and “Best Looking” as a senior at Guymon High School in 2003. His gregarious nature was contagious, family members said Monday.
“He made everyone feel like you were his best friend,” said his mother, Becky Hilliard.
Josh Pearce was a soldier and proud to serve his country. He died Sunday doing so, killed as his vehicle ran over an explosive device in Iraq. He was 21.
“He just always wanted to be a soldier,” Becky Hilliard said, noting that he joined the U.S. Army after graduating high school.
Pearce had been in Iraq for six months. His brother, Jeremy Pearce, has been serving in Iraq, too. Josh was a vehicle commander and forward observer, and Jeremy is a sergeant in a tank unit. They return to U.S. soil this week.
“My oldest son is bringing him home,” Becky Hilliard said.
A single yellow ribbon is wrapped around a single tree in front of the Hilliard’s Guymon home. Inside, friends frequently visit, offering comfort and condolences to the family as it mourns.
A son’s words
Joshua Pearce wrote often to his family. His mother says she talked with him every day, whether by e-mail or instant messaging or by phone.
In a letter he wrote for the public on Sept. 11, 2005, Pearce said, “I do not want to die, but if that’s what I was put on this earth to do, then everyone should know that I went for a cause that in my heart was worth dying for.”
It helps, some, to know Josh died doing what he loved, that he was proud of his service, that he loved his country.
But when young men die, it’s never easy.
“This is what he wanted to do,” Becky Hilliard said. “He wouldn’t want us to be here crying.”
But tears are there, and they will continue to be there. No matter how noble the cause, no matter how much pride there is, losing a loved one brings out several emotions. That’s what it was like at the Hilliard home Monday.
“He told me he was doing this so his nephews didn’t have to do it,” said his sister, Heidi Barncastle. “He was the kind of person who would do anything for anyone and everyone.”
Despite the tears, smiles emerge easily for Joshua Pearce’s family. The remembrances serve as a coping method, but more, they serve as reminder of how he lived each day.
“He always kept us laughing,” Barncastle said.
Stories of kitchen dishes buried in the backyard because they were too dirty to clean to Josh’s painting the water tower to his lighting things on fire exorcised the tears and provided hearty laughter. He and a group of male friends even performed as the Spice Girls in a contest once.
Rick Hilliard, Pearce’s step-father, said there never was a “step” relationship – “He’s our dad in our eyes,” Barncastle said of Rick. Rick and Josh shared a close bond.
“He was my little turd,” Rick said, smiling through his grief. “We had our clashes, but we hugged and loved …”
His words trailed off, but the sentiment was there.
“Rick was Josh’s favorite person in the world,” Becky Hilliard said, “and he had no problem telling people that.”
A son comes home
Services are yet to be scheduled for Joshua Pearce, born Nov. 23, 1984. Both Josh and Jeremy requested that if they were to die in action that they receive a hero’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.
“You never saw Josh frown,” Becky Hilliard said. “In every letter, he wrote that he’s still smiling. That’s just who he was.
“He was the most amazing, genuine and gentle person.”
The family will have a large memorial service at the First Baptist Church in Guymon, though details have yet to be ironed out.
The surreal nature of Josh’s death is still new to the family. Time will heal, they know, but the pain is strong.
“It’s just not reality, I guess,” Barncastle said. “I keep thinking I’m going to wake up and it’ll all be a dream.
“My brothers have always been invincible to me.”
Rick Hilliard plans to do everything in his power to keep this from happening to the family’s oldest son, Jeremy.
“I don’t know how we’re going to do it,” Rick Hilliard said, “but we need him here. This is just too much.”
The Hilliards have four other children: Jeremy Pearce, Brandon Widows, Heidi Barncastle and Shanese Hilliard. Their family will come together to mourn, to love, to remember.
“I never let him say ‘goodbye’ on the computer,” Becky Hilliard said. “He could say, ‘See you later,’ or something like that, but never goodbye.”
Goodbye is inevitable, but a solder is coming home.
I know I’m supposed to be unemotional, but I just couldn’t help it this time. As I saw the emotion in their eyes as we talked about Josh today, tears kept appearing in my eyes. Not very professional, I know, but I can’t deny my human feelings. I came home and kissed the love of my life, who had me lean on her for just a few minutes. I went back to work, attended a meeting and began writing at 2:30 this afternoon. I struggled at first, but by 3, I had an idea. I ran with it and completed the story in 45 minutes.
I cried all the way through it.