The war hits home: LWHS grad is killed on duty in Iraq

Sitting in a downtown café, Susan Sutter speaks openly about her son Jacob Herring.

"He was proud to be a soldier," she said. "He loved discipline and was proud to wear the uniform. His goal was to complete his mission and come home."

Tragically, Jake didn't have that chance. On April 27, 21-year-old Kirkland resident Jake Herring died near Mosul, Iraq. Arriving the day before with his Stryker Brigade unit at a possible bomb site, a man in the crowd tossed an anti-armor grenade in Herring's vehicle. Herring, a 2001 Lake Washington High School graduate and a captain of the football team, died the following day.

Hundreds of friends and family members filled the Lake Washington High School gym for a memorial on May 8. They remembered a young man who cherished football, had a great sense of humor and was a generous friend and brother. A scholarship was established in his name at the high school to help provide financial support to one football player each year.

Along with several friends, Jake Herring had joined the Army only four days before the September 11 terrorist attacks. Rather than immediately regret his decision, Sutter said that the attack only reaffirmed why he signed up in the first place.

By all accounts, including numerous letters from soldiers in his unit as well as his commanding officers, Herring was an exemplary and loyal soldier. While highly regarded, he had no intention of re-enlisting when his time was up. He planned to use the G.I. Bill and go to college. He was interested in studying investing and real estate.

On May 30, close family members and friends took Jake's ashes to a piece of family property near Lake Chelan. It was a place Jake cherished; according to his mother, being in the outdoors was very important to him. It was his wish, he told his cousin a few weeks before leaving for Iraq, that his remains be scattered there should something happen to him.

"When the two soldiers knocked on my door it was the most earth shattering experience of my life. Time stood still. I still see them in my apartment four weeks later," Sutter said.

She had been in fairly regular contact with Jake since he was shipped to Iraq from Fort Lewis last October.

"We were able to e-mail each other every few days," she said. "I'd know when he was back from a mission. There were practical details, too. I was paying his bills, so I'd let him know when his credit cards were paid off. I took care of his truck while he was gone."

To help Jake stay in touch with home, Sutter clipped the sports sections from the Friday, Saturday and Sunday editions of the King County Journal and sent them over with magazines and other goodies.

"It gave me something to do - I was always scoping out things to send over. I once sent over 54 rolls of toilet paper," she said.

Sutter said she, along with Jake's brothers Joe, 19, and Nick, 14, have been profoundly touched by the generosity offered from friends, family and even complete strangers. She's received numerous letters from families of soldiers in Jake's unit and many from Lake Washington High School graduates, people she has never met. The manufacturers of the Stryker vehicle sent a letter. Numerous people from the Army have offered assistance.

"I think that's been the most amazing thing," she said. "You think you're your own little island, and you go about your day, but we're connected to people we don't even know. As a single mother I am pretty independent, so I've been very grateful for everyone's generosity. The community has been truly amazing."

Later this month, Sutter will move from her two-bedroom apartment off Market Street to a rental house nearby. The owner lowered the rent so she and her family could move in. Joe, who now lives nearby, will move back home.

"We're going to get back under one roof and regroup and try to heal as a family," Sutter said.

When the family moves into the new house they will set up a special room for Jake.

"We need a bigger place. Of course, we have all of Jake's belongings. I want to create a place for Jake's friends to be able to come over and see his things, sit in his couch and get close to him. A place where they could come back and get a Jake fix," she said.

Sutter said that later in the year, when Jake's platoon is likely to return to Fort Lewis, she plans on having them over.

"When the guys in his platoon get back, they want to come visit, and they want to share with us all the stories they have of Jake," she said. "I can't wait for them to come home and hear the stories. That's another connection to Jake for our family."

While the support has been invaluable, there is no pretending that the days are not difficult.

"I function. I do the daily routine. It gets a little easier over time," she said. "You find yourself functioning and you don't really know how you did it."

Sutter said she has been asked what she thinks about the war since Jake lost his life.

"I say I'm proud of my son," she said. "He was trying to protect the country because that's what he swore to do. He wasn't concerned about how you voted or about your religious life. I'm proud of my son for following through on his commitment. But that was Jake."

Her family is coping with Jake's loss as best they can.

"There's not one minute of every hour when I don't think of him. So many things remind me of him. I hear his voice. As the parent, as the mother, I'll carry him with me forever. But I'm further along than I was two weeks ago. I think, too, what's keeping us going are the good memories, the funny stories. It gives us the momentum to get through whatever we're doing that day."

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