December 9, 2001

Family's heartache too big for words

Sister recalls big brother's strength, childhood pranks

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   It seemed as though even the heavens shared in the grief for America's fallen heroes Friday. A light rain mixed with tears as the family of Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald Davis stood in the driveway of their Watauga home to deliver a statement to the media.
   Davis, 39, died Wednesday after a 2,000 pound bomb dropped from a B-52 bomber landed about 100 yards from U.S. troops.
   Linda and Lon Davis, mother and father of "Donnie" Davis, his brother Danny and his sister, Debra Sams and her husband, Tim, held on to each other as Sams read a prepared statement:
   "Our family would like to send our love and prayers to the families of the two team members that were killed and the other soldiers that were wounded serving with my brother. We talked to my sister in law, Mi Kyong, this morning. She wanted everyone to know that Donnie was the kindest and most wonderful father and husband that anyone could ask for.
   "We want to express our appreciation for the outpouring of love and concern during this time. There are no words to express the pain and heartache that we are experiencing at the loss of our beloved son, brother and uncle.
   "Donnie's greatest accomplishment was his expertise as a solider, second only to his family. He loved riding his Harley, skydiving, fishing with his son, bragging about his beautiful daughter, working in his yard, just spending time with his family. He leaves behind his wife, Mi Kyong, his daughter, Christina who is 14, and his son Jessie, who is 10.
   "Special Forces will be holding a private memorial service Monday, Dec. 10 at 9 a.m. at Ft. Campbell. The funeral arrangements are incomplete as of right now, but Tetrick Funeral Home is handling all of the arrangements.
   "Thank you so much for being here."
   Asked about the family's reaction to the flags planted in the yard by a sympathetic community, Sams said:
   "There are no words to express how much support that we're given, how proud we are that people are doing this for my brother. There's not a word that I could use to express how wonderful my brother was. You could ask anybody in the community and there's nobody that could say a bad word. He was such a loving man. He's such a hero to my family. There's just no other words that we can say. Donnie would be so proud."
   Donnie's mother said the family brought his uniform home with them but they were told by the Army that they might not be able to open their son's casket for the funeral.
   "They told us to be kind of prepared. We don't know yet. We just have to wait and see."
   Members of Carter County Sheriff's Department have been stationed at the home to control the crowd that has steadily streamed past the house.
   "This is a well-respected family in the community and we're here to do what we can for them through a time like this," Sheriff John Henson said. "You can look at the flags and stuff and tell that these are A-1 people."
   Joe Morrell of the Tennessee Department of Transportation set up large flashing signs along the highway as a caution to drivers. One sign with flashing arrows located just before the entrance to the home carrys a wreath and flags. Another near Fairview Baptist Church flashed: "M/Sgt. Donnie Davis, U.S. Special Forces, "To Liberate the Oppressed."
   "He's Special Forces and that is the motto for the Special Forces, so I thought that would be a way to honor them," Morrell said. "I put them up ... to try to get drivers to slow down. It was a madhouse out here yesterday. I'm just going to leave all of these up until after everything's taken care of."
   Morrell planned to set up another sign at Range Elementary later Friday.
   "I didn't have much space on the sign, so I had to misspell 'Oppressed,' " Morrell said.
   Carter County Deputy Bradley Johnson grew up in the house next door to the Davis family.
   "I lived beside them from the sixth grade on, married my neighborhood sweetheart. I've played basketball here on this goal (in the Davis driveway) from the time I was in high school until 10 years ago with Lon and all of the rest of them." Johnson expressed the feeling of exasperation felt by so many others who wish there was something they could do to lessen the family's grief.
   "What do you say? Do you look them in the face and say, 'I'm sorry.' "
   He also was dismayed at the youth in the community who appear oblivious to what is going on around them.
   "I substituted yesterday in high school up at Hampton. I had a history class. The first thing I said when I opened my first session of class was, 'Are you young people aware what this county has suffered? What this nation has suffered?
   "They just looked at me. I said, 'Haven't you all listened to the news? We've got a local that has fallen just to give you the right to come in here and sit your keisters in this seat, even though you don't want to be here. You're just here to pass time, but I had a man lay down his life. He's dead to give you freedom and you don't show any concern at all. That is just unbelievable."
   Johnson said he was stationed at the family home until 1:30 a.m. Friday. "People were still driving by. Every flag you see here, there has been a single person that has walked out and stuck a flag in the yard. At 1 a.m., I had a car just park and two gentlemen got out. They had no flags, no nothing. I said, 'How are you doing, gentlemen?' They said, 'Fine, we just wanted to come by and silently pay our respects.'
   "We've never started a war, but we've always ended them," said Johnson, who was with the Navy Special Ground Force. "You don't run."
   He pointed to the red, white, and blue of the flags. "They have so much blood on those things, it's unbelievable. We take them for granted, I guess."
   Johnson has two sons that were in the Marines. They, along with Donnie and the Davises' son-in-law, Tim Sams, all were stationed in Saudi Arabia at the same time.
   "The special forces are an elite group. Each branch has them," Johnson said. "They all have special skills. They're harmoniously together. There's nobody that can beat them. They're the force of the world to be reckoned with. They're professionals. When they go in, they go in with a mission of accomplishment and eyes for success. There's nothing less, never has been, from Vietnam on."
   The death of a soldier is one of those things that happens in the military that always affects us, Johnson said. "It's a mother's and father's nightmare, to get that call. All of us have to expect that. But still it's hard to digest when a tragedy like this hits. The only thing I know you can say is it's the mark of a true patriot. He made the ultimate sacrifice and he upheld his oath to support and defend this nation. He gave everything he had."
   One of the Davises neighbors, Helen Slagle, came up with the idea of placing flags in the family yard. "I just wanted something that the whole community could be involved in. I got up yesterday morning and I had it on my mind."
   She began making phone calls and the ball started rolling. "Since then, people have been going by and putting a flag up," she said.
   Members of the American Legion brought several large flags and positioned them along the side of the yard. The VFW also brought flags and Fast Signs in Johnson City donated signs for the yard as well as the banner that adorns the chimney on the family home.
   Clifford Peters, fire chief of Stoney Creek Volunteer Fire Department and Dale Smalling, fire chief for Watauga, brought a flag pole and set it up so that the family would be able to fly a flag at half-mast in honor of their son.
   Peters said, "A friend of mine, Bud Roberts, has been building flag poles. I went up this morning and said, 'Bud, I need a flag pole.' He said, 'Take them a flag pole. He gave his life for his country.' "
   Donnie's sister, Debra, said late Friday that the family has not received a call from President Bush.
   "As far as I know, my sister-in-law, Mi Kyong, will be receiving a letter from the president. I was told that more than likely he would call her personally, I just don't know when."
   The family also is waiting for more details about Monday's memorial service at Ft. Campbell, Ky.
   "His unit, the 5th Special Forces, is the one over this memorial. I've got to ... find out exactly how we are supposed to get on base, and other family members that are coming to the memorial Monday, because it's under such tight security," she said.
   There are many emotionally draining details the family still has to work out. "We just more or less got back. People have been coming just non-stop. It's hard to get our thoughts together. We really haven't had any private moments that we can talk about things," Sams said.
   At Donnie's home in Clarksville, the family was besieged by reporters.
   "The military helped us a lot down there," Sams said. "They couldn't make the people leave, but they kind of gave them this ultimatum: 'If you don't leave, you'll never be on Ft. Campbell's premises again for anything.' So they respected that.
   "They were good, don't get me wrong. Nobody was disrespectful. Some of them would be kind of pushy. We would say one thing and they would just keep on going with it, but over all, everybody has actually been very nice and very sympathetic.
   "I know everybody wants to know the type of person Donnie was, and I understand that, and I want everybody to know. If I could go overseas and talk every language in the world, I would do that."
   Sams said she has many childhood memories of her brother to treasure.
   "Donnie was the practical jokester of the family. He was always doing something funny to get a laugh out of anybody. I remember being asleep on the couch and my mom was making spaghetti one night for supper and while I was asleep, he got the noodles out of the pot and stuck them up my nose and in my ears. When I woke up I had spaghetti noodles in my nose. He was the kind of person that was always doing things like that."
   Of the three siblings, Donnie was the most outgoing, Sams said. But he was also the strong one of the family.
   When their grandfather, uncle and aunt passed away, she said, "We leaned on him. He took all of the hurt for everybody. That's just how he was. He didn't like to see anybody hurting. He would do anything to take the hurt away. Even when we were young. He didn't like to see us in trouble. Of course, when he was mad at me it was OK. He didn't like mamma or daddy fussing at us.
   "He was my big brother. Danny is the oldest, then Donnie, and then me. So I was the baby sister, and, yes, I got a lot.
   "They really looked out for me. I was a freshman when Donnie was a senior in high school. I was so scared, you know, a freshman going to high school. And all of his friends would pick on me -- in a nice way, not being mean -- and he would say, 'Hey, that's my sister. Leave her alone. Don't you touch her.'
   "When I got to the dating stage, one of his friends wanted to take me out and Donnie just refused. He said, 'No way. That's my sister, you are my friend. You are not going to go out with my sister.' He kind of put a stop to that. Of course, I wanted to go out with the guy."
   Sams said her sister-in-law is holding up pretty well. "The last time I talked to her, which was this morning (Friday), she said she slept pretty good and that she got some rest. But her parents are in from Korea and are with her. That was the only reason, too, that we came back so early was because we knew her parents were going to be with her. She had no family here. So when her parents got there, that made us feel better then that we could come back and make the arrangements that we needed to, but leave her with family.
   "Of course, friends and neighbors have been wonderful, but in something like this, family needs to be together and we definitely wanted family to be with her so we could do what we needed to do here."
   Donnie will be interred at Happy Valley Memorial Park, according to Sams.
   "We still haven't heard when the body will be here," she said.