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A soldiers death: Ill go

• Brandon Tobler joined the military to pay for art school. Then the 19-year-old volunteered for Iraq duty to save others.

His boyhood wars were always dramatic. Brandon Tobler loved the dramatic. He loved riding in a friend's pickup and rolling down the passenger side window to playact a war scream to the world.

'He had a great scream,' the friend, Stan Atkins, remembers with a smile.

Tobler loved playing a soldier, a soldier in war, a soldier blazing away in the face of death.

'He wanted that death scene,' says Janssen Kuhn, who has known Tobler since both of them were 3 years old, growing up in the South Tabor neighborhood of Southeast Portland.

But they were only games, of course. Games played by a boy who had such an inherent gentleness that he once tried to persuade his father to shoo away a bunch of wasps in their back yard rather than kill them.

At 19 Brandon Tobler found himself in the sands of southern Iraq Ñ a soldier who still looked like he belonged on a freshman high school debate squad Ñ not because he was a tough-guy soldier, but because he figured soldiering was the door to his future.

He joined the Army Reserve after graduating from Franklin High School in 2001 because he hoped it eventually would pay for the art degree he wanted to earn one day Ñ a degree his struggling, working-class family would never have been able to pay for.

'He was just going to go and do what he had to do,' says his aunt, Adele Tom, who remembers her last phone conversation with Brandon three weeks ago. 'But he was scared. He was very nervous.'

In the end, Tobler knew none of the drama of a boyhood war game. There was no theatrical death scene.

As if to underline the haphazardness of war, Spc. Brandon Tobler Ñ Oregon's first casualty in the Iraqi war Ñ died somewhere in southern Iraq last Saturday night, in a blinding sandstorm. He died in a vehicle accident.

The Humvee in which he was riding, part of the 671st Engineer Company's supply convoy heading north toward Baghdad, was dealing with near-zero visibility. The Humvee slammed into a large Army vehicle stopped in front of it. The Humvee driver, Beaverton's Spc. Heidi Dennis, was seriously injured. Tobler was killed instantly.

And just as instantly, Tobler's family and friends Ñ like the family and friends of Portland native Gregg Stone, an Air Force major, and the two dozen other U.S. soldiers who have been killed so far in Iraq Ñ were left to make some sense of war and sacrifice and searing personal loss.

'You watch it on TV and you visualize the military car coming to your home. You've seen it happen in movies Ñ and it happened to us,' says Scott Tom, the brother of Brandon's mother, Gail.

'When she came home (Sunday) night there was a military car in the driveway Ñ and three very kind, compassionate military people who basically came with the news that has changed our lives.'

Tom pauses. 'Our lives will never be the same.'

• • •

I feel that if I can make a difference out here, then I have done my part. If I can save one life, if I can do something that makes a family sleep easier at night without fear, then I have done my purpose.

Ñ part of the last e-mail Brandon Tobler sent his parents, in late January.

• • •

Tobler, the only child of Leon and Gail Tobler, came from an Army family. His father served in Vietnam. His grandfather Tommy Tom served in World War II and during the Korean conflict.

But Tobler did not envision the Army Reserve leading to a long military career, Scott Tom says. Instead he saw the Reserve's education benefits as the only way he'd be able to attend art school after he finished his stint.

Still, when Tobler speculated in recent months about being sent to the Middle East, 'he said he was scared Ñ he'd be crazy not to be scared,' Scott Tom says. 'But he knew the risks when he put on the uniform, and his comment was: 'It's my job. It's what I do.' '

Until the day after his death, Tobler's family always thought he was called to be among the 671st members to serve in Iraq. But the Army officials who told the family of Tobler's death also told them he had volunteered for the duty.

'A lot of the (671st) members were married and had families, and he stepped up and said, 'I'll go,'' Scott Tom says.

While Tobler was as apprehensive as anyone about the dangers in Iraq, he also was torn about his duties, some friends and family members say.

His company's job was to supply Army fighting units. But they seldom would be near fighting; the boyhood warrior felt strange about that, friends say.

'If he was going to go to war, he would want to be out there on the front line,' says Angela Larisch, another of Tobler's childhood friends.

Scott Tom says he's not sure about that.

He does know, he says, that 'a lot of these young men and women in the military don't realize their mortality. É But when they get to these places, all of a sudden the bullets are real Ñ they're not watching them on TV. And the convoys are real and the sandstorms are real. And accidents happen.'

And in the end, of course, death is tragic however it comes.

'Whether you die from a bullet or you die taking supplies to the troops É in my mind, it makes absolutely no difference,' Scott Tom says. 'Brandon is a war hero. He died serving his country.'

• • •

I just want you guys to know that I miss you guys a lot and love you guys even more and I thank you both for the person you made me become and all of the things you have struggled to get me over the years.

Ñ Brandon's January e-mail to his parents

• • •

Eventually, of course, tragedy is transferred home.

Gail Tobler saw the unmarked silver car with government license plates in her driveway after Adele Tom gave her a ride home Sunday evening from a visit to the Toms' home. Leon Tobler was already inside. And Gail immediately knew what the car meant.

'Gail had ahold of my arm and she was screaming at the top of her lungs: 'Not my baby, not my boy,' ' Adele Tom says. Gail and Leon Tobler have not publicly spoken about their son's death.

'Brandon was the light of their life,' Scott Tom says. 'And they're both devastated.'

Some of Tobler's friends, meanwhile, have more angry feelings Ñ about why Tobler was in Iraq in the first place.

Janssen Kuhn and Tobler had drifted apart in high school, but they were becoming friends again before Tobler left for Kuwait.

'When he left, I didn't expect him to come back, somehow,' Kuhn says.

'The night he left, I hugged him. I never really hugged him before. And I started walking home, and I just had this feeling that I'm not going to see him again.

'He shouldn't have died,' Kuhn says, 'not in a car accident in some country he didn't want to be in É for a purpose that I don't think Ñ I know Ñ he didn't understand.'

But a soldier's beliefs are more complex Ñ and simpler Ñ than that, Scott Tom says.

'Brandon really never approved of war, (but) he loved the military and he loved his country,' Scott Tom says.

• • •

If you see a soldier, one of my comrades in arms, please thank them for the service they give. Pray for them because we as soldiers give up sooo much to come out here and sometimes make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom. And soldiers could always use more encouragement and thanks.

Ñ the end of Brandon's final e-mail to his parents

• • •

Since Sunday, the family has been dealing with the details, talking to the media, making arrangements for a funeral that won't happen until Brandon's body comes home Ñ which could be another week because of the danger of flying in to retrieve the bodies from where they were taken in northern Kuwait.

The funeral will be at Redeemer Lutheran Church on Northeast Killingsworth Street in Northeast Portland. They could have had the service at a church closer to Willamette National Cemetery in Southeast Portland, where Brandon will be buried near his grandfather, Scott Tom says. But Redeemer Lutheran is their family church.

And this will give a young soldier one final bit of drama, after all.

'By God, I want a long processional,' Scott Tom says. 'I want everybody to get in line, and after the service, I want the processional to go down Killingsworth and I want it to go down the freeway, and I want people to know that Brandon is home. And we're putting him to rest.'