An American Hero Goes to Fallujah
For Shane Kielion (search), the decision to join the Marines was not difficult: His grandfather had been a Marine, and a family friend was a recruiter.
On the day of his grandfather's funeral, Shane settled the matter and the young man who grew up in Omaha signed up on Dec. 3, 2002.
“He wanted more advancement opportunity ... wanted to make a better life for himself, for me,” April Kielion, the woman he had dated since they met in high school and married the following spring, told FOX News.
Don Armstrong, Shane's father-in-law, recalled the young man's reason for going into the military: "He said it was a feeling he had ... an obligation to the country, to the world, himself.”
The newlyweds had just found out April Kielion was pregnant when the Marine was notified he'd be leaving to fight in Iraq for a second tour of duty.
Shane and fellow members of the U.S. Marines' India Company (search) were responsible for weeding out insurgents in a volatile area ahead of Iraq's first democratic elections, post-Saddam Hussein.
He was being sent into Fallujah (search).
Love, Marriage and the Marines
The former high school quarterback with a fetish for Nike Air Jordans met his future wife their freshman year at Omaha South High School (search). A friendship between the jock and the cheerleader soon formed.
"They did everything together," said Cindy Armstrong, April's mother, who described how her daughter would drive Shane to school every day and even do his homework.
"Where one was weak, the other was strong, and vice versa. So they were well made for each other," Cindy Armstrong said.
The two developed a relationship that lasted beyond their 1999 graduation. The couple got engaged on their last weekend together before Shane was to leave for Iraq on his first tour of duty.
Don Armstrong described Shane's mischievous method of getting his father-in-law alone to discuss the plan.
"He called up and said he had car trouble and he wanted to come and go for a ride. And I hopped in and he said, 'Take off.' And, and I started listening to the motor. And he goes, 'No, no. I want to talk to you about something,'" he said.
"He wanted my permission, to marry ... my daughter. And I said I would be proud to give it to him. Yes, it was a moving time," Don Armstrong said.
Shane and April Kielion dined at a steak restaurant in Omaha, where he had planned to propose using a fortune cookie; April, however, was disinterested in the Marine’s "lunch" leftover and only became curious about his fortune when he refused to read it out loud, claiming it was bad luck. He offered to let her read it, though.
“Will you marry me?” April said the fortune read. “It was amazing.”
After he arrived in Iraq, staying in touch was not as difficult for the two as it was for other military families because Shane often was at headquarters and could more easily access a phone. Plus, they wrote letters.
“He wasn’t out on patrols a ton. … We talked quite a bit. And he called me the Saturday before they went into the city [Fallujah], and we talked for a good 15, 20 minutes,” April said. “He said they were going in and that, you know, just to watch the news.”
They talked about what was happening back home in Nebraska. And they talked about April's pregnancy and the new addition coming into their family.
Shane had been around for some of her pregnancy — in between tours of duty in Iraq — accompanying his wife to the doctor's office and waiting on her "hand and foot," she said.
“Just the look in Shane’s face … he was just so proud and so excited,” April said of his reaction after an ultrasound appointment during which the doctor told the couple they were having a boy.
So the child would know his father, April said she taped him before he returned to Iraq.
“I videotaped him reading children’s books to our son, because I told him that the best gift I could give him was that his son would know him when he returned,” she said.
Life-Changing 30 Minutes
Shane Kielion and members of the U.S. Marines’ India Company comprised the “tip of the spear” in the Battle of Fallujah in November 2004. The seven days of combat, centered in what was then an Iraqi insurgent stronghold, took place ahead of Iraq’s democratic elections.
As Shane, a corporal, maneuvered himself on top of a house in Fallujah, a sniper’s bullet hit him just under his helmet. He died instantly.
“It was pretty severe,” said Capt. Brian Chontosh, an officer commanding Shane's unit.
Chontosh, who had prepped his men for months ahead of the assault on Fallujah, recalled Kielion’s contribution: “Y'know, talk about bravery. And he was going right at 'em. He was going right at 'em. He wanted to get in position to shoot his gun at them to allow somebody else to do their job.”
In the fight for Fallujah, 71 American soldiers and Marines were killed and about 425 wounded, 60 percent of whom have returned to duty.
Among the India Company casualties were J.P. Blecksmith of San Marino, Calif., a second lieutenant, Lance Cpl. Antoine Smith of Orlando, Fla., and Shane Kielion. Read more about them by clicking here.
Passing Over, Coming In
In Nebraska, as India Company was at war in Fallujah, April Kielion was in a hospital. Shane, 23, was shot by a sniper 30 minutes before his wife gave birth to their child via an emergency Caesarean section. The baby's name was Shane Kielion Jr.
“He came out just screaming," April said of her son.
“It was the most amazing sound, you know, ever. And I remember, you know, laying on the table and telling the nurse, ‘OK … get the Red Cross message through. … My husband's over there. I don't care what you have to do — do it now,’” she said.
But the Marine would never receive the message.
“It’s pretty safe to say that, uh, Shane Kielion was passing over as his son was coming in,” said Lt. Col. Pat Malay, commander of the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, which includes India Company.
Jubilant friends and family members anticipated Shane's call to inform him of his new baby boy.
“We were just waiting for a phone call from Shane,” April said. ”Everyone, you know, is like, ’Has he called yet? Has he called yet?’” she said.
After seeing Shane Jr. for the first time, Cindy Armstrong remembered: "I said, 'He looks just like Shane.' And he did. And he still does, to this day."
"It was a very happy time," she said.
But the joy was cut short when two Marines in uniform showed up at the hospital.
That was when April Kielion’s father entered the room.
“I said, ‘April, sit down,’” Don Armstrong said he told her. “And she goes, ‘Why, dad? What are you here for?’ And then she saw the Marines standing in the doorway, and she said, ‘No, dad. No.’”
“It was tough," April said. "I mean, it's like, how can you have such a high and then such a low at the same time?”
Cindy Armstrong described her daughter's words after first hearing the news: “'And I am a widow, at 23.'''
After comforting their daughter, Cindy and Don Armstrong accompanied the Marines to Shane's parents' house.
"Well, Pat [Shane Kielion's mother] opened up the door and looked at me and says: 'What are you doing here?' And then she kinda looked around and saw the, the men in uniforms, and collapsed on the floor," Don Armstrong said.
“I had my son on Monday morning, and I went home Thursday afternoon," April Kielion said.
Her husband’s body arrived at the mortuary the following Saturday.
“I told my family and made it very clear that I will be the first one in that room,” she said. “I don't care if they have to lock the door for 12 hours. I don't care if there’s a hundred people out there. I don't care.
"I will be the first one in that room. … I had made everybody wait outside. You know? And I just walked in, and I had the baby with me. And it’s just, I floated there.”
April described the moments alone as she and Shane Jr. entered the room.
“I put a picture in there of our son, with him. … I would give anything to be back at that moment because, you know, at that moment, it’s like I felt so close to him. But … it was tough,” she said. “I talked a lot.”
Thousands lined the streets at the funeral, including some who didn’t know Shane or April Kielion, taking their children out of school to attend the ceremony.
“When the procession, uh, from the church to the cemetery, people just lined the streets — the whole route — and had signs and … yellow ribbons and balloons,” April said.
“It was like saying goodbye for the last time ... and it was just real tough.”
Shane's Memory Lives On
Wearing a shirt in support of her son-in-law, Cindy Armstrong said the high school Shane and April went to hung up Shane's football jersey, planted a tree in his honor and set up a scholarship.
"They had a benefit here, oh, a couple of months back, at a local place. And they were selling all these T‑shirts. And they were selling these ribbons to put on your — magnetic ones for your car. And then, they were also selling dog tags that have Shane’s picture on them ... on the back, uh, they have little Shane’s picture, that are really cute," Cindy Armstrong said.
"He’ll always be here; he’ll always be a part of our lives," she said of her son-in-law, adding that Shane Jr. is a constant reminder of his father in appearance and personality.
"I think that’s what’ll keep Shane alive, around all of us, forever," she said.
Added Don Armstrong: "He even acts like Shane."
April Kielion agreed: “It’s the eyes that, you know, he’ll look at me a certain way, and it’s like, wow. That’s not you. That’s, that’s your father."
FOX News' Brian Gaffney, Greg Palkot, Grace Cutler and Betsy Petrick contributed to this report.