Family copes with war loss
Connecticut Post Online
Article Last Updated:05/27/2007 05:04:07 AM EDT

At first, Jordan Pierson's voice on the phone sounds hushed. It's as if it comes from a kid hunkered down past lights-out at sleepaway camp. It feels like it belongs to a boy under a tent of blankets in a rickety wooden bunk bed who is careful with his movements. So he speaks softly. But he appears to be listening, too — tuned in to the desert night — for signs that trouble stirs. That was the first call.

For most of his life, Pierson has known trouble on a first-name basis. He's never run from it. Rather, he's cruised headlong into it, like the time he was 11 and jumped in front of a pickup truck in a show of parental defiance. He got some bruises. The truck suffered a punctured radiator.

The next time he calls his parents' house in Milford, the satellite phone has some static. The air crackles like someone is crunching plastic wrap into the receiver. Still, the pitch of Pierson's voice is just above whisper. He makes small talk — "everything is fine here" into the answering machine. Biding his time for someone to grab the phone if they are in hearing range.

The answering machine beeps again.

Tears slide down Michael Amendola's unlined face as he listens to his best friend's voice. Pierson's dad, Eric, looks like he is close to crying, too. He glances toward the room where his other son, Ethan, is playing a game. The door is shut. And he's glad his funny, precocious 12-year-old is not part of this audience.

The answering machine beeps a dozen more times. And the caller is always Jordan Pierson.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

"If you're home, pick up the phone," he commands. He sounds a lot more assertive now. Just like a Marine. Semper Fi. Tough and in control.

"OK I'm gonna be home in 60 days."


"I should be coming home in less than two months."


Just about all of the saved calls on the answering machine are from Jordan Pierson. It's a voice mail memorial.

" Everything's fine here See you soon." But that never happens.

Amendola turns around so no one can see his face.

Beverley Pierson runs a hand through her brown, shoulder-length hair as she sinks into an armchair.

"Memorial Day, huh? Every day is Memorial Day for me," she says. "I live with one foot in the grave now. I don't think there will ever be a time when I won't feel his absence and his presence. Jordan did all of his good deeds in secret. He kept a low profile that way. We didn't know till after he died all the things he did."

Not until fellow Marines and old buddies of Pierson's started telling her stories about a side of Pierson the family never knew. How he taught himself to speak Arabic so that he could become a linguist for his platoon. How he refused a lighter duty assignment that would have put him in a much safer place for the last two months of his time in that country because he didn't want to leave his newbies, 18-year-old Marines. That he diligently read intelligence reports from all over Fallujah, Iraq, each night and would brief his fire unit even if that left him sleep-deprived. For months, Beverley Pierson has kept herself busy with her youngest son's sports and activities, work and by organizing all of the thousands of condolence cards, notes, pictures and items people have sent her family into a dozen carefully arranged scrapbooks.

"This one's my favorite," she says of the scrapbook that chronicles her 21-year-old son's funeral. It contains the eulogies friends and families delivered at his memorial service and burial at Arlington National Cemetery on a warm September day on the brink of the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Al-Qaida jump-started Pierson's military ambitions.

Gathered at his best friend's house hours after the attacks, Pierson listened as their high school buddies pounded the kitchen table, talked about retribution, war and bombing the terrorists back to the Stone Age. He didn't say much. Instead, he kept his thoughts to himself, especially the ones about feeling powerless, an altogether alien emotion to him.

"Rolling Stone and some of the other media describe Jordan's age group as 9/11 patriots, inspired to serve the country because of the terrorists' attacks on American soil," Eric Pierson says of his son. "He was committed to stomping out terrorism. He saw cowardice in what was done. He viewed it as a threat to our country. Jordan would say 'you have to stand up,' and that was what he intended to do."

For Jordan Pierson, a kid who liked to make his own rules and get his way whenever he could, thinking about the future was a foreign concept. He didn't spend a lot of time pondering it. After the 9/11 attacks, his perspective changed 180 degrees. It was a far cry from his childhood.

"He was a tough, tough kid to parent. He liked to live on the edge. I just always had a feeling he would die young. I knew it when he was little. He ran our house. You couldn't control him," Beverley Pierson says. "He wanted his way all the time. And he could never sleep — not for like the first five years of his life."

By the time he was 8, doctors diagnosed him as having oppositional defiance disorder. "We divorced and later remarried. He was tough on us and it was hard for us to deal with," his mom says. "I think he spent at least half his life in therapy for it."

Yet, Pierson was also "brilliant," she says of her son. "He could pick up languages like Arabic, French and German. The Marines gave him a sense of purpose and structure to his life," she says. "I think he realized he needed to be broken by them to rebuild himself and have a future."

Her voice trails off like some of her son's voice mail messages. Dangling. Expectant. Waiting for someone, maybe herself, to pick up the thread of her thought. What's not captured on the answering machine are the conversations Pierson had with his family, the ones in which he talked about his plans for attending the upcoming Marine Corps Ball. How he needed his dress uniform pressed. And could his mom please, please, please hang it from his bedroom door. Once in a while he'd tell them that they'd never guess where he was at that moment — standing inside the palace of one of Saddam Hussein's sons watching fellow Marines fish the bodies of Uday Hussein's mistresses out of a man-made moat around the palace. Another time, Pierson remarked that he witnessed an insurgent with a shoulder-launched explosive device attempt to destroy a building, misfire and succeed by becoming a suicide bomber. There were body parts and blood strewn all over the street. Call it morbid fascination. Pierson told his parents and his best friend's mom, Gloria Amendola, that he ran down the street because he had to see what the weapon did to the man's body.

Gloria Amendola, who has known Pierson's mom since the two of them were in elementary school in West Haven, always knew there was something different about Jordan Pierson. "When our boys were little, 5 years old, Michael would draw kites flying in the sky. Jordan would sketch AK-47 shells, guns and artillery," she says. "His artwork had an amazing amount of detail. You could tell he had a curiosity from a ways back about the military, weaponry and war. He also loved history and strategy, too."

Pierson considered Gloria Amendola his second mother. He always referred to her as "Glo." At the same time that he could be a royal pain to his family, he also fascinated those closest to him.

"Jordan had a way of just jumping into things in life," Gloria Amendola says. "I remember a time when I took the boys out in a paddleboat when we lived in Florida. There were some stingrays in the water. Where another kid might hang back, frightened of them, Jordan would jump in the water to swim with them and check them out. Jordan grew up and was getting his life together. He was still sorting out what he wanted to do with himself, things like go back to school and go into some kind of business. He died way before his time. But he also lived every day of his life. Not everybody can say that."

Long before Pierson enlisted with the Marines in 2003 during his senior yearat Joseph A. Foran High School in Milford, there were signs — like mile-markers on a highway — that pointed to where he was headed. From the time he was in kindergarten on up, he loved to dress up like GI Joe. He'd march around in his green-and-khaki camouflage duds and wield toy guns, squint and fire at whoever was playing "the enemy."

In the summer, he loved to play with supersoaker water guns, dousing his friends in the backyard under a steady stream of water until they collapsed soaking wet in the lawn. He prided himself on his video game skills, as having the fastest trigger finger, bar none, among his friends. He adapted Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun"into his own "Jordan's Got A Gun." He would sing or hum it when he was on the verge of pounding his friends, fellow war gamers or paintball quarries into oblivion.

Consider the screen name he used to correspond with his older cousin Michael Jones — SNIPE2XTREME — which attested to his love of guns. "He was an excellent shot. He won a lot of marksmanship awards for his shooting. He had remarkable aim," Jones says. "I think all those years of playing video games and paintball and stuff helped." Even the subjects of Pierson's school projects revolved around weaponry.

For one assignment built around the theme of depicting growth and movement, Pierson came up with a novel execution that nearly got him expelled from middle school. Other classmates presented posters. They featured items like flowers blooming, leaves unfurling, caterpillars becoming butterflies and how they fit in nature. Pierson had none of that feng shui. Instead, he turned in a flipbook that he designed. It took him hours to render all of the illustrations and plot out where on the page the drawings belonged. As the reader thumbed through the sketches, they were treated to bullets bursting out of an AK-47, arching through the air and exploding. The shells in the drawings weren't aimed at a target, human or otherwise. There were no people in any of the pictures. Nevertheless, Pierson's teachers deemed the flipbook "inappropriate" and a "violent" expression. It wasn't the first, or the last time a school summoned Pierson's parents.

"When a meeting begins and the first thing they say to you is 'What's going on in your home?' that's not a good start," Eric Pierson says. For exercising his free speech rights, Pierson won a short suspension from school. It's not clear whether he considered that a punishment or a reward.

He was never a big guy. Not even in the framed photographs in his parents' living room, taken after boot camp. In those pictures, Pierson wears his best Hulk Hogan grimace as he wrestles his younger brother. But a year or so before he enlisted as a Marine reservist, he started bulking up his gangly 5- foot-8-inch frame, by running, working out in the gym and lifting weights.

Three months before his graduation from high school and his upcoming 18th birthday, Pierson enlisted as a Marine reservist. And the guest of honor at his backyard graduation party turned out to be a Marine recruiter in dress uniform. From his days in boot camp, to 29 Palms, the Marines' faux Iraqi village in California where Pierson trained before shipping out in March 2006 for Fallujah, he kept up a steady stream of correspondence with a couple of friends and relatives.

Michael Amendola saved all six of Pierson's letters.

In one of them, Pierson mentions he had to run across a rooftop to join fellow Marines in combat with Iraqi insurgents. Then the insurgents closed in and Pierson explains he did a "forward slide feet first to the ground like you see in baseball. It was quite funny actually."

And as spring turned to summer in Fallujah, Pierson started to picture his future. He envisioned returning to school at the University of Connecticut, where he would be a resident assistant in one of the college's dorms, directing students instead of Marines. On Aug. 25, 2006, as the Marines' Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, rounded a turn on foot patrol, a sniper perched on the fifth floor of a bombed out six-story building took aim. This is downtown Fallujah, a dusty outpost, a bombed-out ghost town, once known for its abundance of mosques. These days, Fallujah is a shell of its former self with drab factories, boxy concrete buildings with a few outdoor markets that struggle to feed and clothe those who remain. "In Fallujah, the east-west streets are all named for women. The north-and-south ones are named for men," says Maj. Vaughn Ward,Pierson's rifle commander. "So, you always know which direction you are heading."

Even now, the four-lane main street, dubbed Fran, that traverses the downtown area looks like a patchwork of pockmarks that Marines like Pierson saw every day they ventured out past the concertina wire safeguarding their compound. What greeted Pierson on the main drag there were craters from where mortars or improvised explosive devices landed, charred spots where suicide bombers set cars ablaze, and strewn human body parts.

"There was a feeling in the air that the insurgents intended to engage us," Ward says. "It wasn't anything you could see that was that obvious on the street."

The temperature was in the 110-degree range around noontime, nowhere near the really high temperatures the Marines were accustomed to in August. The body armor under their fatigues chafed. Charlie Company rounded a turn, making a left from Elizabeth onto Isaac Street. The Black Water Bridge stood about a quarter mile away. They could squint in the afternoon sun and envision the bodies of the two American private security officers who were ripped out of a catering truck in 2004, beaten, burned, decapitated and then hung from the truss bridge.

This day, Pierson, an expert marksman, patrolled to the right of Ward. He was sweating in his sand-colored military fatigues, the ones with the long sleeves that covered a tattoo of an AK-47 shell on his left arm and the phrase "LIVE BY IT" and "DIE BY IT" lining it. "He was on my right flank, less than 10 feet away from me," Ward says. "And I remember looking over and seeing that Jordan was busy doing his job, ensuring that his Marines were following his orders."

From the fifth floor of the six-story building on their right, a sniper raises what Marines believe was a Dragunov bolt-action rifle, looks through its precision scope, and fires a round that strikes Pierson just below his right shoulder in his collarbone — a place his body armor doesn't cover. It ricochets inside him to come out the other end just below his left armpit. "I think he was dead before he hit the ground," Eric Pierson says. "It was that fast."

Pierson's platoon commander and another Marine dove into the line of fire to pull Pierson out of the sniper's range, Ward says, while more shots rang out behind them.

"The first shot from the sniper was intended to distract us," Ward says, "so they could attack us from the rear and try to divide us."

The bullet the sniper fired was a 7.62-millimeter round, the same type an AK-47 uses. For all eternity, Pierson's name and his role in Operation Iraqi Freedom are carved into a smooth white marble tombstone in Section 60, Grave 8421 at Arlington National Cemetery. But it's the tattoo of an AK-47 shell and the words that surround it: "LIVE BY IT, DIE BY IT" that are his epitaph.