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Fallen Pilot's 10-Year-Old: Don't Forget my Dad

4:38 PM, Aug 9, 2011   |    comments
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A week ago, 10-year-old Braydon Nichols started to think about his dad and how much he missed him.

Army Chief Warrant Officer Bryan Nichols, a helicopter pilot, had been deployed for two months in Afghanistan.

The little boy, in the car with his mother running errands, brushed back his dirty-blond hair and ran his hand over his cheek.

Jessica Nichols looked over when she heard sniffles. Her son was crying.

"When is Dad coming back so we go camping?" he asked her.

Soon, she assured him. "Your dad is off fighting for this country."

The boy replied, "As soon as he gets home, we're going to go on a camping trip, just me and him."

Jessica Nichols cannot stop replaying that scene in her mind. That's because only a few days later, on Saturday night, she was cradling her boy who was crying once again. Except this time she could not tell him that his father was coming home. She had just received a call informing her that Bryan Nichols was one of the 30 Americans who died that afternoon when their Chinook helicopter was shot down in Wardak province in east-central Afghanistan.

"It was just so devastating that a week ago or so Braydon had that worried look on his face, thinking about his dad," she said.

"Braydon and Bryan were so connected. Braydon was like a little version of his dad."

Bryan Nichols and Jessica Nichols met in sixth grade. Bryan was a born military buff. His father was a soldier and served in Vietnam. Bryan enlisted in the military before high school graduation. A few years later, he and Jessica married and had Braydon.

Bryan worked his way up through the military ranks.

"He always wanted to be in the Army," she said. "He came across the Chinook and was so fascinated. His father flew Chinooks."

Bryan Nichols did three deployments during their marriage. It proved to be too much for their relationship, she said. They divorced when Braydon was 3, but remained close to raise Braydon.

Bryan remarried, and his new wife and Jessica all got along. They all loved and cared for Braydon, she said.

It was Bryan's wife, Mary, who contacted Jessica Saturday night to say that Bryan had died. "She was screaming," Jessica said. "She was screaming that Bryan was dead."

Jessica couldn't believe what she was hearing. She hung up. Her heart was beating hard. Braydon was in his room, still awake and playing.

Jessica walked toward the room, and stood by his door for a moment, overcome with grief.

"I went to my room and tried to figure out what was going on," she said.

Jessica pulled herself together as best she could and phoned her brother who lives nearby. He came to her house to support her.

Together, they called Braydon downstairs.

In his pajamas, Braydon stood in front of his mother and uncle.

"I said, 'Braydon, do you know much your dad loves you? Do you know how proud of you he is?"

Before she could say anything more, the boy wilted in her arms, sobbing.

"I said, 'I'm sorry ... your ... dad died."

The mother and son held each other and cried. An hour, maybe, went by. At one point Braydon got off the couch and ambled over to a Shih Tzu puppy, Lucy, that his mother bought him when his father got deployed.

He held the dog for awhile. Then he fell asleep for a bit, and she went out to their porch.

The night gave way to day.

On Sunday morning, Jessica and Braydon Nichols watched the national news broadcast the first reports about the downing of a Chinook helicopter. They listened to reporters say that 38 U.S. and Afghan service personnel were killed, including 22 Navy SEALs. It was the single deadliest loss for American troops since the war in Afghanistan began in late 2001.

"Braydon asked me why they weren't showing his dad's picture like they were showing some of the other guys," Jessica Nichols told CNN.com. "I told him it was because people had gone online and were posting photos."

That gave the boy an idea. The two went to the family computer. She pulled up CNN.com.

Braydon started saying, "iReport! iReport!"

Like his father, Braydon is an information sponge. He's always on the hunt for facts, his loves the computer, and he likes watching the news, his mother said. Braydon knew that he could post something about his dad on CNN.com's iReport.

So Jessica Nichols went to the iReport home page. Her son told her what to write.

"My father was one of the 30 US Soldiers killed in Afghanistan yesterday with the Seals rescue mission," she typed. "My father was the pilot of the chinook. I have seen other pictures of victims from this deadly mission and wish you would include a picture of my father. He is the farthest to the left."

See the iReport Braydon posted

He told her to sign his name.

Within hours, the iReport had become viral. Local news outlets across the country reported on it. More than 10,000 people on Facebook re-posted it. Twitter was abuzz about it. Many people left comments, expressing their sorrow for Braydon and telling him to be strong and that his father is a hero.

CNN.com began trying to get in touch with the person who posted the iReport to verify it, first reaching the boy's aunt. Sue Keller of Palco, Kansas, told CNN late Monday night that the boy wanted the country to remember his father not just as a soldier but as a dad.

On Monday night, Braydon's mother told him that a lot of people were talking about his iReport.

"He didn't say anything," she said. "He's been reading it over and over. He doesn't understand the people can post comments so I'm telling him that people are trying to talk to him. He just looks at the comments and then he walks away.

"He says, 'Mom, can we go watch a movie?'"

Late Monday night, Jessica Nichols said she couldn't find her son for a moment. He had disappeared in the house. She was yelling for him.

She found him in a closet, curled up on the floor, crying, going through a box of photo albums.

The boy said he wanted to take one of the photos and put it in his wallet.

He asked her, "'Can we go to be with Dad?'"

She replied that they would go to his father's funeral and they would be there for anything and everything the boy wanted.

"He said, 'Yeah, I'd like to go be with him when he comes home, and I said, 'OK, we will be.'"

 

CNN

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