Sunday, May 26, 2002

In the past 4 1/2 months, Jennifer McCollum and her parents have attended a Marine memorial service with 1,500 people in San Diego, a funeral with 1,100 in South Carolina and another service at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. The death of her husband, Capt. Daniel McCollum, and six other Marines in a plane crash in Pakistan last January was a national tragedy she shared with all Americans.

But your first wedding anniversary as a pregnant widow is something you go through mostly alone.

Jennifer and Dan McCollum were married last May 26 on Memorial Day weekend at Virginia's Marine Corps Base Quantico in a full military to-do. One month before giving birth to their first child, sorrow and sweetness co-exist in the 28-year-old.

McCollum was co-piloting a KC-130 tanker plane that crashed into a mountain near Shamsi Air Base in Pakistan Jan. 9 during the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Jennifer admitted to her father, Bill Harkey of Cape Girardeau, she has cried every day since.

It's painful to remember, but she doesn't want to forget. "Talking about Dan is my favorite thing to do," she said in a phone interview from her home in San Diego.

"We're at a loss about what to do for their first anniversary," her father says. "There are no cards that express that sentiment."

Jennifer has no plans.

"My plan was not to make any plans," she says. "I'll just take the day as it comes."

The plane was the first big American loss in Operation Enduring Freedom, the response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The cause of the crash still has not been released.

Fellow members of the plane's detachment in the Middle East erected a memorial on the mountain where the plane went down. A skull and crossbones flag, the squadron emblem, was hoisted above the memorial. Another memorial has been installed at squadron headquarters at the Marine Corps Miramar Air Station in San Diego. Clemson University, Dan's alma mater, planted a tree in his honor at its botanical garden in a ceremony presided over by university president Jim Barker.

Jennifer put a marble bench near Dan's cemetery plot in Irmo, S.C. It reads: "In loving memory of Capt. Dan McCollum. To the World he was a hero. To me, he was my world."

She thinks the protracted mourning process and the different memorials have helped. "Other people are sad with me," she says. "Ultimately there are places across this country quite literally that I'm going to be able to take my son and show him, 'This is how important your dad is.'"

The Harkeys are a military family who lived all over the world before settling in Cape Girardeau. Bill retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel. He says he couldn't have asked for a better man to marry his daughter.

Describing his daughter walking down the aisle at her wedding, he said, "I don't think I've had a prouder moment in my life."

The pastor who married them, an old family friend of the Harkeys, asked Jennifer to tell him about Dan before the wedding. When she finished, the minister asked, "Does he come with a white horse, too?"

"It was a gray plane," she said.

McCollum was a black belt in karate who instructed other Marines in martial arts. He joined the Corps after graduating from Clemson University with a degree in mechanical engineering and graduated first in his class at flight training school.

As a teen-ager he was an Eagle Scout and a top wrestler in high school.

He was modest, too.

"I didn't even know he was voted best-looking in his class until after he died," Jennifer says. "Those things weren't important to him."

His wife was.

Ten days after McCollum died, two dozen roses arrived at Jennifer's house on her birthday. Dan had ordered the first dozen before his death. The base florist contributed 12 more.

Met at a wedding

Jennifer met Dan at a wedding on Sept. 11, 1999. She was a friend of the bride, he a friend of the groom. "We were both smitten with each other right from the get-go," she says. Fellow pilots came from all across the country to McCollum's wedding. They held the swords that formed an arch as the couple left the chapel at Quantico.

Because he did so well in flight training school, McCollum could have chosen to fly fighter jets but picked transport planes. That's because tanker pilots have a better home life than most other pilots.

The longest mission he expected to go on was a week. That expectation for their life changed on Sept. 11.

"You just kind of know," Jennifer said.

The couple didn't plan to start a family right away. But the day after the terrorist attacks, Jennifer started talking to Dan about wanting to have a baby. "I said, 'I can't imagine you leaving without me having a piece of you to hold onto.' Little did I know how true that would be."

Dan was supposed to leave with the first group heading to the Middle East, but his deployment was delayed two months. Jennifer became pregnant during that time. Her parents think God intervened.

Her mother came out to visit when they thought Dan initially was going to be deployed. She told her mother, "Mom, I've got it good. Sometimes I'm scared that I've got it too good."

Jennifer had an ultrasound performed before Dan left on Dec. 7, so he did get to see his baby. He was already proud, Bill says.

The coincidences of dates -- They met on a Sept. 11, he deployed on Dec. 7, the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor -- escape no one in the family.

McCollum flew 50 missions in the month he was in the Middle East. He was due to return to the States in March or April.

Blurry days

The days after her husband's crash are blurry for Jennifer. The Harkeys and their other children, 19-year-old Brett and 13-year-old Katie, immediately flew to San Diego.

She received so many calls she had to cancel the call-waiting function on her telephone. She remembers the smell of cookies being baked and coffee being made. Visitors urged her to eat, including three big, tough Marines who went to a grocery store to get her chicken-and-stars soup they heated for her. The image makes her laugh a little.

Jennifer doesn't think she's very tough, but her parents disagree. Dan died on a Wednesday. Two days later, a crew left Miramar in San Diego to replace the plane that had been lost. Jennifer made them sandwiches.

Dan told Jennifer's parents her strength was one of the reasons he married her. "I knew when I was gone she could handle things," he told them.

Someone told her the memorial and the funeral must have been the most difficult days of her life, but the trauma has seemed more generalized to Jennifer.

"Every day is a difficult day," she says.

The Harkeys moved to Cape Girardeau after he retired from the military in 1995. Bill is from Senath, Mo., originally, and Jenny grew up in Vanduser, Mo. Jenny's mother, Alma Mayfield, lives in Sikeston.

Jennifer lived in Cape Girardeau with her parents for only about nine months after graduating from college in Virginia in 1995, working at a Christian preschool, at Outback Steakhouse and at Blockbuster. She then took a job working with orphans and children with AIDS in Romania. She settled in Virginia on returning to the United States.

Her parents hoped she'd move to Cape Girardeau after the tragedy but understood when she said she couldn't.

"As much as I like Cape when I come home, and I call it home, it's not my house," she says. "Right now my support system is the Marines." Army brats might be the only people who understand how much like a family the military is, Jennifer says, and the aviation side of the Marine Corps is even more tight-knit.

"They really are like brothers."

The numbness she felt at first has started to leave, but Jennifer isn't sure feelings are preferable. There are still some things she isn't ready for.

"I can't lose my husband and my house in the same year. It's where Dan and I put our roots down," she said. "... If I moved it would mean I would have to go through his closet very soon and box up the clothes in his drawers. I'm not ready for that yet."

Dan's is still the voice on her answering machine.

Her religious faith is helping her find some peace while some other women she knows who lost husbands are still angry.

Jennifer has a degree in child development and was working for the San Diego Children's Hospital as a child development specialist when her husband was killed. She has not returned to work and doesn't intend to after her child is born.

She and Dan had discussed child rearing before they were even serious about each other.

He said he'd want her to stay home. "I said, 'Cha-ching.' It was one of those filter questions for me," she said.

She and Dan had picked out girls names but hadn't really talked about names for boys. The decision was easy after Jan. 9

"It's going to give this little guy another way to feel related to his dad. He'll never have known him," she said. "But he can go to Arlington cemetery and say, 'That's my dad.' Or to Miramar and say, 'That's my dad.'"

Outpouring of love

Jenny Harkey teaches nursing at Southeast Missouri State University. Her specialty is obstetrics. She plans to be in San Diego to help her daughter most of the summer.

The Harkeys were moved by the outpouring of love and affection for their daughter and son-in-law, from tough Marines, from their church and from the local community.

"Seeing how the military family reaches out, it's been awesome," Bill says. "But I would not volunteer to go through this again."

They had never talked with Jennifer about the possibility of Dan losing his life in the Middle East. Military families know it goes without saying.

"It's one of those things you don't discuss," Bill says.

But the Marines did discuss it with those who were leaving for the Middle East. They gave the flight crews the option of filling out papers with their spouses that answer frightening questions. "If something happens, who do you want to come tell you?" is one. "Where would you like to be buried?" is another.

Dan didn't bring one home. When she found out about the papers and asked him why, he said, "I thought it would make you too sad."

When he later brought the papers home, she never filled them out.

He did show her where his will was.

Someone asked Jennifer how she was going to spend today. "I wish there was a manual to say, on this day you're going to get up at this time. ... I wish it was laid out for me," she said. "Almost the same goes for being a single mom in this position. How many books are there out there for 28-year-old widows?"

On Memorial Day, the Harkeys plan to remember their son-in-law and to think about their grandson.

"It will be a day of mourning and a day to recognize we're not the first and won't be the last," Bill says.

"... Being a veteran, it's almost like a holy day."

Jenny isn't worried about her grandson coming into a world that many say was changed forever Sept. 11.

"Every generation has something they have to deal with," she said. "Our parents had the Nazi regime in Europe and Pearl Harbor. I don't know if the world has changed. It just keeps reinventing itself."

Bill is already buying gifts for his grandson, including a DVD with every episode of "Davey Crockett" on it.

"It's a miracle a child is being born," he says.

Jenny added: "It's also a reminder of everything that's good."

335-6611, extension 182

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: