10 years after soldier's death, wife grateful for Opelika community's support
Originally Published on oanow.com
Sara Falligant | Opelika-Auburn News
On what would have been her husband’s 32nd birthday, Janina Taylor turned off of U.S. 280 and wound down Lee Road 249. She turned left into the lot at St. Mark’s Christian Episcopal Church in Motts and parked her silver minivan. Taylor’s two oldest children, 13-year-old Xavie’r and 10-year-old Aaliyah, raced up the hill to a small cemetery, stopping when they spotted an etched football and a nod to the Green Bay Packers on one stone.
aylor knelt down at the adjacent grave and adjusted the small American flags that had tilted to cover “Christopher James Taylor, Sgt., U.S. Army, Iraq.”
Sgt. Christopher Taylor, then a 22-year-old Opelika resident, was killed in Balad, Iraq, with two other soldiers during a mortar attack on July 24, 2005. Friday will mark a decade since his death.
“As far as the memories I used to have with him when we were in school, and of course us getting married, it doesn’t seem that far away,” Taylor said. “But as far as his death, it does feel like it was a while because I have the kids growing up so fast. That reminds me of how long it’s actually been.”
The couple met at Opelika High School and started dating senior year. They would sit next to each other in class and were teased by peers who identified their relationship years before the Taylors could.
“People used to joke and say, ‘I saw your husband at the store,’ or whatever when they would go out and see him,” Taylor said. “But back then, before I was into him, I used to think that was pretty gross. Back then, he was like a brother to me.”
Christopher was killed just shy of the couple’s fourth wedding anniversary.
The sergeant was born to military parents in Fort Benning, Ga., and wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps. Christopher’s dad, James Lee Taylor, said he told his son the Army was a great way to provide a stable start for his young family. He joined in 2001.
“His life was cut short. He loved it. He loved to serve; it was his second tour,” James Lee Taylor said.
He and Janina Taylor both remember where they were the day their worlds caved in. For Janina, who received the news at her mother’s house, learning her husband had been killed was surreal.
“It was like me looking at myself reacting to the situation,” she explained, thinking hard and searching for the right words.
For her father-in-law, who was at work, the news simply wasn’t true.
“These two chaplains came,” James Lee Taylor said. “Being in the military, I knew what it meant. They only come when something bad happens.
“Once they told me, it shocked me. ‘This ain’t for real.’ But I knew it was real. It’s a big ol pill to swallow. Sometimes I catch myself thinking real hard. I just end up doing other stuff to keep it off my mind.”
The Opelika High School Class of 2001 chipped in to pay for flowers, and rumors started to spread of a Kansas church that was planning on picketing at Christopher’s funeral. They didn’t, but Janina Taylor saw the signs of a few Wesboro Baptist Church members on the way from Christopher’s memorial service to the graveside.
“I never knew these people even existed. I was even hearing talk of there being a possible protest; thank God it didn’t come to that,” she said. “They did what they were able to. They held signs, whatever hateful signs. Disgusting, I think. They claimed that the reason of their protest (was) because God is punishing America for allowing such sin to take place in America. I just found it to be very inappropriate. I don’t see how that tied in with his death. Not just his death, but any military personnel’s death.
“At first, it bothered me. But for the most part, I was too emotionally traumatized because of his death to pay them any attention. Losing my husband, my best friend for so many years. That was pretty much petty to me. Unfortunately, I heard that they would rally at other people’s funerals, travel to wherever in the United States. Again, doesn’t make sense to me.”
Once the funeral was over and Janina was presented with the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Good Conduct Award and Combat Action Badge her husband earned, she found herself a widow at 23. Looking back, the now modelesque mother of three knew having a military spouse came with a unique set of challenges and dangers. But she wasn’t ready to have the word “widow” attached to her name.
“To hear people call me a widow at such a young age, that was very weird to me,” Taylor said. “I’m used to the word widow being associated with older people who lose their husbands due to natural causes. Never would I have imagined being widowed, first of all, and then losing my husband at such a young age. Also the terrifying thought of raising my kids. I guess that set in later on for me.”
She remembers sitting in military spouse meetings with Christopher, where an older soldier would give the young couple advice on finances, work duties and how to deal with the unthinkable.
“I remember this like it was yesterday, when they were telling us about what to expect after the loved one dies,” she said. “I said to my husband at the time that I would never marry if something was to ever happen to him. And I remember him telling me sternly, ‘I don’t want my son growing up without a father.’ I’ve been single for 10 years, for the most part.”
The couple’s only son, Xavie’r, asks if he’s the spitting image of his father. Taylor says her son has memories of playing video games with his late father, who would never plug in the controller, and she laughs.
James Lee Taylor says he can see his son in his two grandchildren, especially when they’re being silly.
“My son, he was just funny. He was always a funny guy,” he said. “His legacy was in his son. He’s funny.”
The family recently spent time in Birmingham speaking on behalf of the Children of Fallen Patriots organization, which will help pay for Xavie’r and Aaliyah’s college. Janina Taylor calls it a godsend.
She’s also thankful to the community that has stuck with the family for the past decade. This Memorial Day, the OHS Class of 2001 sent a special gift to Taylor and her children. She said she’s grateful to the community “for being so supportive of our local hero and what he has done, which is give the ultimate sacrifice for our country.”
At St. Mark’s, Taylor sat with her husband. She sighed, closing her eyes, stood up and walked back to her car and children.
“It’s still hard, especially raising a son by myself. Being a single mom of three is one of the hardest jobs, if not the hardest job to be bestowed upon us as parents,” she said, pausing to think and laughing a little. “It’s one of our most exercised blessings.”