Oil City soldier's grieving family honors son by sharing his love
By JUDITH O. ETZEL

4/13/04

Special Thanks to The Derrick for Allowing this Story to be Posted

Photo by Jerry Sowden - Surrounded by flags and yellow ribbons that adorn the front of their home, Burton and Donna Kephart embrace after talking with guests about their son.

The Kephart family is eager to talk, to share the love and pride they have for a revered and now lost son.

Jonathan Kephart, 21, a U.S. Army specialist who served as a military policeman, died Thursday of injuries he received in a roadside explosion in Iraq. He was the first area soldier to die in Iraq.

Standing on the porch that wraps halfway around his Willow Street home in the Siverly section of Oil City, Burton Kephart wants to tell the story of his son, the second eldest of four children.

Group after group of reporters, photographers, neighbors, friends and others move hesitantly at midday toward the young serviceman's dad as he invites them inside. He is framed on his porch by bright yellow ribbons tied to support columns and an American flag ruffled by a light breeze.

Kephart has a way about him that is gentle, yet sturdy, a bearing that suggests the visitor needs to hear him out because he has truths to share about someone dear to him. It would be too devastating to both listener and teller to turn a deaf ear.

He is casual, wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt with faded letters spelling out "USA - Freedom Is An American Tradition," and is unfailingly polite as he ushers guests into his home.

Inside a cozy entryway, Kephart struggles with his emotions but worries more about his guests.

"If it hasn't happened to you, then you don't really know what to say to someone like me. It is so hard on everybody when they talk to us. But it's all right. Don't worry about it," he tells his visitors as he begins a round of introductions to his wife, Donna, and her parents, Bob and Pearl Mains of Apollo.

He is a native of Altoona and served in the Navy from 1969 to 1971, a period that included a deployment to Vietnam. His wife grew up in Indiana, Pa. Soon after they were married, the Kepharts began teaching in Christian schools.

That vocation led them to Faith Baptist Church and Academy on Horsecreek Road in Cranberry Township. Donna teaches "all subjects" at the junior high level and algebra for high school students. Burton is a truck driver for Lezzer Lumber Co.

The Kepharts and their four children have lived for five years in Siverly, a neighborhood where young Jonathan joined his friends to play basketball.

"Jonathan, though, had his life wrapped around his school where he was a point guard on the basketball team. He was a very good ball player. And he loved computers," said his dad.

Graduating in 2000 from Faith Baptist Academy, Jonathan attended his alma mater's School of Theology and worked as a painter for Big Foot painting in Franklin. In December 2001, he joined the U.S. Army.

"He felt the service would help him grow up and mature," said Kephart.

Jonathan chose the military police branch, said his mother, "because he liked police work and wanted to become a policeman after the service." In June 2002, he was assigned to an Army base in Germany.

His overseas duty kept his father busy.

"I wrote to him every week. Jonathan didn't write. He telephoned. But I wrote and oh, I will miss that now," said his father, standing in a front room where one wall is covered by family photographs. Along another wall is a table filled with a growing assortment of food and flowers brought somberly by neighbors and friends.

In Germany, Jonathan frightened his mother with remarks about the famed Autobahn and its high-speed traveling.

"He bought an old BMW and told me how much fun it was to speed on the highways there. I said back to him, 'That's not something you tell your mother,' and he laughed," said Donna Kephart.

Pointing to the most recently taken photograph of Jonathan, Donna Kephart described her son as "very quiet and extremely serious, but more thoughtful than any child could possibly be."

Although intrigued with being in Germany, Jonathan was often homesick, said his mother.

"Jonathan really missed his family badly. He told his brother and sisters that and didn't really share that with his parents. But he did say that the kids were growing up and he was missing it and that bothered him," she said.

Jonathan arrived April 3 in Iraq and called his family that day.

"He said he was settling in and he was fine. He told us he was busy doing missions. It was so good to hear from him," said his mother.

Less than a week later, the Kephart family was notified Jonathan had been seriously injured in a roadside explosion. As his parents were trying to find out his condition, they were told he had died of his injuries.

One of the first local people to respond to their tragedy was Oil City Mayor Ed Sharp. In response, Burton Kephart has asked the mayor to join the family at their son's funeral.

"He's the mayor of our city and his support for us means a lot. In his position, I think his participation with us would honor Jonathan," said his father.

As visitors prepare to leave a saddened home, Jonathan's parents and grandparents offer their hugs to those who listened to their sorrow as they make no distinction between giving and receiving.

"If there is anything I want to be known about his death it is that we support our country and we do not waver in the support of our troops and this war because we must not forget 9-11," said Burton Kephart, his face crumpling but his voice steady.

As his hands clasp a departing visitor's arms, Burton Kephart said, "I'm lost in not writing to him and praying for him. We loved him so and we want to honor him by sharing his story."