Memorial Day: 6 stories of area servicemen who died serving their country

Countless Butler and Warren county soldiers have died fighting for their country.

Communities throughout the region have erected street signs honoring the soldiers, and the parents of those men and women say their children should be honored every day, but especially on Memorial Day.

On this Memorial Day 2020, we look back on those lives and how their deaths impacted their families.

“We don’t want them to be forgotten’

Carolyn Jones Hibberd, whose son was killed more than nine years ago, said she does everything she can to keep his memory alive.

She founded Adam’s Hope, a non-profit that sends care packages to deployed troops, and a living room wall is lined with portraits, pictures and proclamations, all testaments to her son’s military service and ultimate sacrifice.

“We don’t want them to be forgotten,” she said. “We want to hear their names said.”

Her son, Cpl. Adam D. Jones, 29, a 2000 Valley View High School graduate, was leading his platoon on a night foot patrol when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

On April 27, 2011, there was a knock on Hibberd’s door. She looked out and saw two Marines standing on her porch. They were there to deliver the worst news to any parent.

“I just knew,” she said. “You know. If your child is in the Marine Corps there is no reason for two Marines to walk up to your door in the middle of the night except to tell you they’re gone.”

His death “totally devastated” her and left her in deep depression, she said.

“Didn’t want to live,” she admitted. “There is nothing worse than losing a child. We are not supposed to lose our children. That’s not natural.”

The death of her son and youngest of four children sometimes seems like yesterday, sometimes a lifetime ago, she said.

“It depends on the pictures I’m looking at,” she said. “All those memories flood back.”

‘You aren’t suppose to bury your kids’

After Capt. Bartt Owens was killed more than 18 years ago, his mother, Penny Owens-Taylor, became a member of the Gold Star Mothers Club, reserved for those who lost a child in the military.

“That’s a club you don’t want to be a part of,” she said. “No mother wants to feel that pain because it just never goes away. You aren’t suppose to bury your kids.”

Owens, a 1990 Franklin High School graduate, was killed on Feb. 22, 2002, in a helicopter crash in the Philippine Islands. More than a month after the crash, his body was recovered and returned to the United States. He is buried at Woodside Cemetery in Middletown and his name is listed on the Veterans Memorial.

Owens-Taylor has lost both of her sons. Her oldest son, Brett Owens, died in 1987 when he was 23. Brett and Bartt were named after the Maverick brothers from the popular TV series.

At Franklin High School, Bartt Owens was a member of the National Honor Society, earned a 4.66 GPA and graduated in the top 2 percent of his class. He also was the senior class president, ran cross country and track, and played on the golf team. He had dreamed of serving in the military since the ninth grade and hoped to be elected a congressman or senator.

He graduated from West Point, was commissioned a second lieutenant, then married Leah, his high school sweetheart and the only girl he ever dated.

His mother called him “a remarkable son. He never was in any trouble. He was the son any mother would want to have.”

Ohio 122 from Atrium Boulevard in Middletown to Wilson Farms Boulevard in Franklin Twp. is named “Capt. Bartt D. Owens Memorial Highway.”

‘My greatest fear came true’

Julia Lockaby said when her son joined the Marines, she knew he was “going to give all he had to give.”

That’s exactly what happened when Lance Cpl. William “Billy” D. Spencer saw his squad leader wounded in an Iraq shootout. He did the only thing he could do: He tried to save his commanding officer.

But Spencer was killed in the process, hit by enemy fire on Dec. 28, 2006, in Al Anbar province.

“My greatest fear came true,” his mother said.

Nearly two years later, he was awarded the Silver Star — the U.S. military’s third-highest honor — in a ceremony at Nashville State Community College.

Spencer, a rifleman, was three months into his Iraq tour when his squad went out on a mission to investigate a suspected enemy sniper. When his squad leader went down in an ensuing firefight, Spencer was shot trying to drag him to safety.

Both died from their injuries.

Spencer’s father, David Spencer. and step-mother, Dawn Spencer, lived in Middletown. He died in 2017 and she died in 2018.

A stretch of Ohio 73 between Franklin and Middletown is named in Spencer’s honor.

Right after his son’s death, David Spencer talked about receiving the news after hearing a forceful knock at the door.

“I didn’t want to answer it,” Spencer said at the time. “You could tell that it was a Marine behind the door. I didn’t have to look. I knew right then something was wrong. Either my boy was seriously injured or he was gone.”

When Spencer opened the front door of his Middletown home, there stood Gunnery Sgt. Leon Michiline.

Spencer didn’t need to hear the numbing news. He already knew.

“He almost hit the floor,” said his wife, Dawn.

William “Lil’ Bill” Spencer was born in Cincinnati where he lived with his mother. He attended Milford High School through his freshman year. He moved to Tennessee to live with his father and stepmother and graduated from Henry County High School in Paris, Tenn. He attended Murray State University in Kentucky, then joined the Marine Reserves to help pay for college.

“He loved being a Marine,” his father said. “He always said that was his great accomplishment. You could tell, even when we wrote back and forth, that he was a different man.”

‘This is what I was born to do’

Timothy Michael Bell Sr. described his son as “the last of the John Waynes, but tougher.”

His son, Marine Lance Cpl. Timothy M. Bell Jr., 22, of West Chester, was killed Aug. 3, 2005 when his amphibious assault vehicle was attacked by an improvised explosive device while he was conducting combat operations south of Hadithah, Iraq.

Also killed were Marine Lance Cpl. Eric J. Bernholtz; Lance Cpl. Nicholas William B. Bloem; Sgt. Bradley J. Harper; Sgt. Justin F. Hoffman; Cpl. David Kenneth J. Kreuter; and Cpl. David S. Stewart.

Bell was the nephew of former Cincinnati Reds third baseman Buddy Bell and cousin of Buddy Bell’s son, David, manager of the Reds. He was a grandson of Gus Bell, Reds outfielder from 1953 to 1961.

His family told the Associated Press Timothy Bell Jr. wanted to be a Marine since he was 6. His bedroom was filled with Marine posters and memorabilia. A camouflage Marine blanket covered his bed.

When his parents took him to deploy for training with his unit, he had just one message for them, said his stepmother, Vivian Bell. “He just said, ‘This is what I was born to do,”’ she said.

‘We didn’t even know about the Purple Heart’

On Memorial Day 2018, decades after Thomas Murphy was among the tens of thousands of unaccounted-for American soldiers from World War II, he was buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Hamilton.

Chantel Oliver said a military medal and faded, yellowed newspaper clippings were all she and her siblings knew of their uncle Tommy until a call late in 2017.

“We knew of him, but by the time I was born in 1956 … it was never spoken about because it was just so painful,” said Oliver. “In those days, everybody didn’t yap about their feelings like they do today. They just kept it private.”

Murphy, a Butler County sailor, was killed nearly 77 years ago during World War II. His burial included full military honors and was much different than the one that took place in 1943 after he was killed by a gunshot wound during Tarawa, a battle in the Pacific Theater.

Murphy, a Navy pharmacist’s mate who administered medical assistance to personnel, was 22 when he was buried in what was known as Cemetery 27, or the “Lost Cemetery.”

During a construction project in 2015, Cemetery 27 was discovered underneath a parking lot on Tarawa. Murphy’s body was recovered and his identification was officially confirmed in 2017.

Oliver’s parents, Lester and Juanita Oliver, died in 1990 and 2011, respectively. It wasn’t until after Oliver’s mother died when the family started to learn more about their uncle.

“We didn’t even know about the Purple Heart until my mother died,” Oliver said.

She and her siblings found the medal awarded to those wounded or killed in battle along with several newspaper clippings about her uncle.

“I just about lost it,” she said. “My uncle’s life, in a nutshell, was in this little box with these ancient newspaper clippings.”

And that was all they knew about Murphy until an official with the Navy called Oliver’s older sister, and designated next-of-kin, three years ago saying their uncle’s remains had been found 77 years after his death.

“We were like, ‘What?’ We thought it was fake,” Oliver said.

Oliver said it was odd to bury an uncle she never met.

“It makes you sad that our father isn’t here to see his brother buried, and his mother, and my mom,” she said. “My dad didn’t really have any relatives so there’s no connection to my uncle. No one that knew him, nobody that spoke of him, so it’s very bizarre learning and trying to read everything online, or from the Navy to learn about somebody and their death.”

‘Memorial Day taken on a new meaning’

In the 15 years since John Prazynski lost his son, he said Memorial Day has “taken on a new meaning.”

And this year, because of the coronavirus, the family won’t make its annual trip to Arlington Cemetery to pay tribute to Marine Lance Cpl. Taylor Prazynski, a 2003 Fairfield High School graduate.

Just after midnight on May 9, 2005 — Iraq is eight hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time in the United States — Taylor’s parents, John Prazynski and Claudia Pierce, who were divorced, received simultaneous knocks on their doors. They were told their son was killed in an explosion while serving in Karmah, Iraq.

His father said the last 15 years has seemed like “eternity and today at the same time.”

He has spent a lot of that time honoring his son. He never refuses an interview.

“No one truly dies if you keep telling their story, saying their name,” he said. “As long as they’re still being remembered.”

In 2011, a portion of Ohio 4 in Fairfield was dedicated in his memory.

Over the years, for countless times, Prazynski has heard the phrase: “Time heals all wounds.”

He disagrees: “Time allows you to feel numb vs. constant pain.”

Even now, Prazynski said there are times when people stop him in public. He may not know their name. But they know his story.

“They will say, ‘We’re still praying for you and your family,’” he said. “My village has a new meaning. We haven’t walked this along. The village has shown up in a huge way. I will be forever thankful.”

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