Valley loss: Native son killed in Iraq
The Shenandoah Valley is down one hero.
Jason Redifer, an Augusta County native and 2003 graduate of Stuart Hall high school, was killed in action in Iraq on January 31.
Redifer, a United States Marine, was among three Marines killed in action on Monday morning. Two other Marines were wounded, the Pentagon confirms.
The group was engaged in security and stability operations in the northern quadrant of the Babil Province when an improvised explosive device detonated.
"We are devastated," said Redifer's mother, Rhonda Winfield, who said her son had been scheduled to come home on February 9.
Redifer, 18, joined the Marine Corps two days after graduating from Stuart Hall in May 2003. He turned down a chance at a prestigious White House guard assignment upon his completion of basic training that summer for the chance to make a difference, his mother said.
"He said he didn't have a wife and children at home, and people were leaving behind their families to go fight for their country. Certainly, he was in a position to be able to step up and do it," Winfield said.
"He didn't waver in it for a moment. Of course, when he was ready to go to Iraq, he's very home-centered, very family-centered, and he didn't want to leave anybody behind. But he knew that this was what he had signed on for," she said.
"Jason said he felt the heart and soul of the Marines was the infantry, and this is where he felt he could make the most difference," Winfield said.
NEWS- Jason's Christmas: Redifer gave up holidays for Marines
The following story was filed nearly two months ago before Monday's tragic news.–editor
BY CHRIS GRAHAM CHRIS@AUGUSTAFREEPRESS.COM
It wasn't the Christmas Eve dinner that Mom had expected.
"We had the whole family at the table, just sitting there, waiting," Rhonda Winfield recalled of the quiet December 24, 2002, family gathering that she'd planned.
There was only the one empty chair in the dining room of the Winfield family's Stuarts Draft home– saved for her son, Jason Redifer, then a senior at Stuart Hall in Staunton, who was late getting back from Richmond where he'd gone for an appointment with a United States Marines Corps recruiter.
"The plan was that I had signed for him to join the reserves," Winfield said. "He was going to go to college and do his reserve weekend once a month, two weeks in the summer, hopefully get a little something on his resume while he was getting his education, and then decide at that point if it was something that he wanted to do as a full-time thing."
Jason finally made it back from Richmond.
"He bounds in and has a sheepish look on his face. My first thought was that he had again wrecked the car," Winfield said.
"That's when he informed us that instead of going the reserve route, he had enlisted full active duty, and that he had decided he wanted to be in the infantry," she said.
Ten minutes later, "when I was finally able to breathe again," Winfield said, "I said, 'I didn't sign for you to do that.' Apparently, that wasn't an issue."
She paused. "So Christmas Eve dinner was held off just a little while."
Mom wasn't sure she was 100 percent on board with what son had done.
"But he could not have been more excited. Based on his testing results, he could have done pretty much anything he wanted to do. The recruiter confirmed that for me later on. But Jason said he felt the heart and soul of the Marines was the infantry, and this is where he felt he could make the most difference," Winfield said.
Flash forward to Christmas 2004– and again there's an empty seat at the Winfield family table on Christmas Eve.
Jason won't bound in late from a drive to Richmond this time around, though. He's in Iraq with his Marines unit serving as the unit sniper.
He had the chance at a cushier assignment in the White House guard.
"He'd undergone all the interviewing and everything for that and was offered that position. Of course, I was thrilled about that. I could just see 'CNN, live at Camp David,'" Winfield said, her voice rising at the memory of the good news.
"But no. He couldn't make a difference being a presidential guard."
Her voice was more measured now.
"I was really getting concerned at this point if he can make any good decisions with his life," she said. "He'd just chunked college out the window. But he said he had every opportunity in the world to get an education through the Marines, but first, he wanted to do something that really made a difference.
"So he, still now, has a really good outlook and attitude. He doesn't regret what he did. He e-mails my husband and says, 'Please tell Mom. This was my choice. This I'm proud of.' "
At his swearing in, he cited another reason for wanting to serve.
"When he was sworn in, the officer asked him what his motivation was," Winfield remembered. "He was asking everybody up and down the line. He said, 'I have two little brothers back home, Sir. I want to make them proud, Sir.' "
It was his thoughts of his little brothers– Courtland, 8, and Carter, 6– that saved his life earlier this year.
His aunt had given him a five-pack of Matchbox cars– with the thought in mind "that the smallest gifts that they could give the Iraqi children could make the biggest difference," Winfield said. "And that when you're trying to win hearts and minds, it's nice for them to think that you're human, too."
One morning his unit was out on foot patrol, Winfield said, and they saw a group of Iraqi children about the age of his brothers beside the road.
"They were on his mind," Winfield said. "So he dug down in one of his pockets and walked over and gave the car to one of the little boys to share.
"He said the little boy looked up at him, and this whole different expression came over his face. He said the biggest, brownest eyes just looked up at him and smiled at him. Then the little boy grabbed his hand and pulled him over to where the rest of the unit was marching along and stopped everybody.
"It took them a few seconds to figure out what was going on."
They were about to march into some explosives that had been placed along the roadside in a place that they "never would have guessed," Winfield said.
"They wouldn't have even been looking for it. They would have all just blindly walked into it. Jason said he didn't know what moved him more, that a 99-cent car made such a difference and saved the lives of everybody in that unit, or that those children were set to watch those men walk to their deaths."
Something his oldest brother, Justin Redifer, gave him before he left for Iraq got Jason through another tough time.
"Justin is in the Army, and he had just gotten a coin from a general for a job well done. When he got ready to leave, he said, 'Jason, this goes with you. But there's one condition. Bring it back to me. And don't bring it back in a box.' That was their big parting moment. I just thought that was so poignant," Winfield said.
"As it turns out, the day Jason lost one of his partners, the coin actually saved his life. It just happened to be in a pocket and deflected some shrapnel that would have killed him.
"He wrote his brother and said he had some good news and bad news. The bad news was he wasn't going to give the coin back to him intact."
Winfield mentioned that Jason had lost one of his sniper partners. Actually, he has now lost two in his six months in Iraq. His time in the war theater has changed him.
"He always just laughed, always wanted to make everybody else laugh," Winfield said. "He set off with the idea that if everybody would have the goal of making a difference, then there would be a difference made.
"Now when I talk to him, there's a much older soul there than his 18 years. I think he even feels the sense of having aged. His entire outlook about humanity has changed. He's always had a good sense of the important things in life. But that is absolutely defined now."
His latest trick was figuring out a way to convince Mom that it was going to be okay to have Christmas without him being there.
"I was having a really hard time with the holiday coming. Thanksgiving was hard, but especially Christmas," Winfield said. "But then he said to me on the phone the other day, 'It's going to be much harder for you all there than it will be for me.' I said, 'How is that?' He said, 'Well, we don't really get to stop and celebrate these times like you all do. One day is basically the same as the next for us.' He said on Christmas they'll say, 'Hey, it's Christmas,' and acknowledge it with each other, but it's not like they're sitting there missing us like we are them.
"After he said that, it gave me such a relief. And I thought, we can just celebrate when he comes home just that he's here. And that'll be enough."
Christmas 2004: Carter and Courtland Redifer joined their mother Rhonda in wishing a safe return of their brother, Jason, to their home in Stuarts Draft.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO