Memorial Day: The story behind the picture

(See an update on this post.)

This is a two-part post. The first part below was written on Friday afternoon. I asked people on Twitter and Facebook to help me track down the family below. Within an hour, I found information I’ve been searching for for several years. That story is the second part of the post.


(© John Francis Ficara)

This picture of the family of one of the first soldiers killed in the first Gulf War is tattered because it’s been folded up and put in and taken out of my wallet occasionally for the last 18 years.

I cut it out of a Newsweek magazine in 1991 for personal and professional reasons. At the time, the news media described the cost of the war as “light.” Few soldiers were killed. I cut it out to remind me — as a writer of news — that there’s no such thing as “light casualties” when it comes to reporting on war.

I also kept it in case my then-young children ever expressed a cavalier attitude toward war. They never did.

The problem is I don’t know who these people are. I didn’t cut out the accompanying caption. The photographer, John Ficara, didn’t remember the name of the family when I contacted him a couple of years ago, and every now and then, he drops me an email to see if I’ve made any progress. I haven’t.

Every few months, someone writing a paper for school stumbles across a post I made on my personal blog two years ago and also asks if I’ve been successful in locating the family, to find out whatever happened to them? I tell them I’m still looking.

One of these days, what with Twitter and Facebook and the viral nature of the Internet, I’m hoping someone will recognize them. It’s impossible to look at their faces on this day, and not hope for the best.

Update – Thanks to the power of Twitter and Jodie Gustafson (via comment below) we’ve found the name — Gayle Edwards and her sons, at the funeral for Marine Capt. Jonathan ‘Jack’ Edwards. Armed with that, I’ve been able to find that he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on February 15, 1991. They were from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was killed Feb. 2 when his AH-1 Cobra helicopter crashed in the desert near the Saudi border with Kuwait as it escorted another helicopter with injured. He was the first Marine killed in the war. His mother is Sally Marsh Edwards of Williamstown, KY.


When Sally Marsh Edwards said “freedom is not free” to me when I talked to her on the phone this evening, it didn’t sound like a bumper sticker slogan. It sounded like the truth; it cost her her son, Captain Jonathan “Jack” Edwards, the first Marine killed in the Gulf War of 1991.

Once I found out the name of the family in the photo above, some minor investigating found the name of Capt. Edwards’ mother, and some campaign contribution records revealed her address and city. The phone book did the rest.

“Jack is our hero,” she told me when I called. He graduated from high school as a junior. He did so well on his ACTs that “the principal called and said ‘please let me graduate Jack now.'” He did and not long thereafter, Jack walked into her house with a uniform on. He’d enlisted.

He’d actually left active duty when the Gulf war known as “Desert Storm” — more recently referred to by some as “the good war ” — broke out, but was recalled to fly helicopters.

On the day he was buried (above) at Arlington National Cemetery, the wind chill was 16 below zero. “Gayle has a flag on her lap (in the photo) and the general gave me one and I remember that his tears were frozen on his cheeks,” she said.

“I got my miracle that day,” she said. As befits the military, graves are dug in proper order. One area fills up, they move on to the next area. As she paused at her son’s grave that day, however, she realized he had been buried — apparently by chance — head to toe to her own aunt, a secretary during World War II to Dwight Eisenhower, and Generals Bradley and Marshall. “There shouldn’t have been an open space available” there, she said. But there was.

The picture above, she says, “was on the cover of every newspaper in the country” the next day. She and her husband, who was severely handicapped by Multiple Sclerosis, were driving home and stopped at a rest area restaurant on the way home to Cincinnati. “I screamed when I saw it,” she said.

She’s not in the picture. She was in a van nearby with her husband. But another grandchild — a girl — is being held on the lap of her sister in the second row.

The youngest son, Ben, is wearing his father’s jacket. He spent some time in college after receiving a full scholarship to study art, and now owns a tattoo parlor in Virginia Beach. Older brother, Spencer, is in the sales business.

“Cincinnati was very good to us,” she said. The community raised money for Captain Edwards’ children.

He was the first killed in Kuwait. But someone had to be the last. “I wrote to the family of a soldier who died on the last day of the war,” she told me. “And we became the best of friends.”

Her husband died in 2000. He, too, was an historic figure in the battles of the Mideast. He was a pilot for Pan Am Airlines. In September 1970, he was on the flight crew of Pan Am Flight 93, hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Three other planes were hijacked that day, with intentions to fly them to an airstrip in Jordan. But the 747 was too big to land there, so it flew to Cairo, where it was emptied, and then blown up.

Mrs. Edwards is 75 now, and still working as a lawyer. She helps disabled people get the Social Security benefits to which they’re entitled. Many are disabled veterans.

She visited her son’s grave early this year. Out of the glare of the media that consumed her family’s privacy in 1991, a ceremony each year remembers those who died in the Gulf War. It’s mostly underwritten by the government of Kuwait.

The picture in the wallet (NewsCut)

  • Jodie Gustafson

    I’ve found a similar picture that identifies the woman as Gayle Edwards – widow of the fallen Marine Capt. Jonathan ‘Jack’ Edwards.

    Photo in Christian Science Monitor

    My own personal note:

    My father didn’t like to talk about his time in the Air Force during the Korean War – or what all his older brothers went through in the Army during WWII. In the past few years he has opened up much more and told our family of his experiences – the bad as well as the good.

  • Patrick

    Good to see some headway has been made. Bill’s photo is much more captivating. It catches all three trying to be brave, in a time where that’s impossible.

    Reminds me of:

  • Bob Collins

    In my conversation with Capt. Edwards’ mother this evening, she told me she remembers well getting a flag given to her by a general “who had tears frozen on his cheeks.”

    The wind chill that day was -16.

  • Wondering what I’ve got, what it’ll take, for my 13 year-old son and 16 year-old daughter to not have a cavalier attitude to war.

  • Bob Collins

    David: They’ve got their father. I’m done with this picture now if you’d like it. But you have to pass it on to someone else’s father in the future.


  • Congratulations on finalizing this story Bob.

  • Kristy


    Great story. Glad you followed thru with it. We need more of this kind of reporting, and these stories made public so we have a healthy realization of the cost of war.

    There is no good reason, unless the family requests it, that we shouldn’t be exposed to all the flag draped coffins going thru Dover.

    If we share in the “benefits” of war (like freedom, freedom from terrorists, freedom from other bad things), then we should share in the pain and heartache of said war, too.

    There’s a reason it’s called the UNITED States of America. We need to be united in the good and the bad.

  • Kim V

    What an amazing story. Congratulations Bob on some great detective work and journalism, for sticking with it, and for getting that closure.

  • tiredboomer


    In case you check back to this thread … Did any of your WWII uncles serve in the Navy? If so, did that uncle go through ROTC at St. Mary’s in Winona?

  • Dave

    Capt. Edwards was a good friend of mine I flew with him at NAS Glenview for a few years 88-91. He didn’t like flying Hueys as much as Cobras so he abused our planes making for the most exciting flying I ever experienced (next to Tim Okeefe and Maj Flores). RIP

  • bennett edwards

    this picture is of me and my family

  • Jenel Farrell

    This is an excellent use of social media to find archival information. Not just the names but peoples stories. Wow. Great work!

  • Elizabeth T

    The mention of the frozen tears sharply reminded me of the only time I’ve been to Arlington.

    I’m not sure exactly how cold the day way, but the wind chill was -45 down Pennsylvania Ave. A long story – it was Regan’s 2nd Inauguration & I was there w/ a marching band for the parade [that was canceled due to the temp].

    I will always remember the cemetery as freezing – the shutter of my camera kept sticking shut between pictures and, not being from MN then, my winter clothes were totally inadequate.

    I and my fellow students were in awe of the guard at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier who were out there in the arctic temperatures. I will never forget this devotion to the memory of those for whom we have no other offering of thanks. I am glad you managed to put a name to your photo’s unknown soldier.

  • Joe Murphy

    It is nice to see that people still care. The picture speaks volumes in the total cost of war.War continues long after the final shot is fired and this picture shows that. As a veteran of the Gulf War who has known the cost of it Thank You for all that you have done.