In Aaron Xavier Wittman’s senior year at The Citadel, his yearbook quote was “If you don’t live for something, you will die for nothing.” His father, Duane Wittman, said it was shocking that he chose this quote, but that it was also a prophetic sign of things to come.
Sgt. Wittman became the first U.S. casualty of 2013 in the War on Terror when he was killed in Kyogyani district, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan on January 10, 2013. It was his second tour in Afghanistan, and he was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star with V for Valor posthumously.
His mother, Carol Wittman, said looking back on her son’s life, the signs that he would die young were there: a fan of costume parties, Aaron once dressed up as Anthony Edwards’ character, Goose, from “Top Gun”; Goose died in the film. And right before his second deployment to Afghanistan, the family attended and ran in the second annual Jeffrey A. Reed Memorial Fund 5K Run; Aaron won the race. His mother also said he had about a bad dream about dying.
“I think all the signs were there: he won Jeffrey Reed’s run just before he left, he was Goose, I mean looking back…” Carol said. “I think he knew and was just trying to prepare us and we just didn’t want any parts of that.”
Aaron’s sacrifice will be recognized November 6, 2016, as the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution to rename the West Hundred Bridge Road Bridge – which is over the CSX railroad tracks – the “Sergeant Aaron Xavier Wittman Memorial Bridge”.
“Chester proper is divided by railroad tracks. Many of the people that Aaron grew up with go over that bridge daily,” said Dorothy Jaeckle, Bermuda District Supervisor. “I thought what a great reminder to all of us to see Aaron’s name on a daily basis. The Wittman family has given so much on a local and national level. The naming of the bridge gives Aaron Wittman a permanent place in Chester Village.
Aaron Wittman was born in Burnsville, Minnesota, an army brat who lived in Virginia and Saudi Arabia before moving back to Virginia when he was eleven years old. He attended Carver Middle School and eventually L.C. Bird High School. After the family settled in Chester, his mother said she dragged Aaron to cotillion classes.
“I wanted him to have manners, I’m from California and I was like this is a whole different world out here,” Carol said. “The other kids were too old [to go] so we sent him to cotillion and he learned how to properly dance and order food. It was a good experience for him.”
After his time at Bird, Aaron attended The Citadel, following in the footsteps of his father, his brother, Nicholas, and sister in law, Rikki. Duane said Aaron and Nicholas also went to The Citadel Summer Camp when they were younger and they became counselors when they were teenagers.
They used to have … a Citadel summer camp … for kids and [Aaron and Nicholas went] down there for a week [or two] and it was all sports,” Duane said, “but it was [moreso] under a military regime because [the] counselors were all cadets or somebody that graduated already.”
Aaron enjoyed and excelled during his time at The Citadel and both parents said he equally loved Charleston, the city the college was located in, just as much. Aaron came from a military family – Duane was in the Army for 20 years, Carol was in for 3, Nicholas is a Major in the Marines and has been in for 12 years, and his sister, Amber, was in the Navy for 10 years – and while at The Citadel, he joined the South Carolina National Guard. When he was a second semester senior, he was activated and chose to deploy to Afghanistan in 2007, where he served for one year. After returning to the US in 2008, he eventually graduated in 2009 and enlisted in the Army in 2010. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment at Fort Stewart, Ga.
Aaron deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 and had made plans to propose to his girlfriend – whom he met at Fort Benning, Ga. when he was in the U.S. Army Special Forces Pre-Selection Program – and attend Officer Candidate School after he returned. He had hoped to get married six months afterward, but those plans never came to fruition.
Though the Wittmans struggled in the beginning with Aaron’s death, they both say they have accepted it and have found ways to honor him. They established the Aaron X. Wittman, USA, ’07, Memorial Scholarship in addition to the upcoming bridge dedication. The date of the ceremony is significant; it would have been Aaron’s 32nd birthday and the fourth anniversary of when Duane said goodbye to his son at Fort Stewart.
Duane, who will be speaking at the ceremony, said that particular bridge is appropriate because he looks at it as the bridge between Thomas Dale High School and L.C. Bird, two schools his son attended at the same time.
“What’s interesting is we live like three blocks away from the border line to go to Dale … and all his buddies, so many of them grew up on the Dale side, they all went to middle school together … and [they] grew up playing soccer together … and his girlfriend was over there,” Duane said. “So what he did, smart boy, [he] figured … out how to get an exception to policy so he could go to Thomas Dale at the same time. He went to [those two schools] at the same time, and so I look at it as the bridge … between Dale and Bird. He figured it out and beat the system.”
Carol said it is an honor to have the bridge named after her son, and she praised Chesterfield County for their support.
“I love the fact that Chesterfield County wants to honor their fallen citizens who have served their country,” Carol said. “From beginning to end, [they have] been stellar in receiving their fallen citizens to helping the families … [the] county has been … amazing. I had no idea they could be so kind and thoughtful and helpful through the experience. They have been impressive.”
Though Duane agreed with his wife about the bridge dedication being an honor, he also shared a more poignant view.
“Aaron didn’t get a chance to get engaged, get married or have children; we don’t get any grandchildren from him,” Duane said. “Is it the most important thing in life? No, but … that’s what it comes down to, and … are all these things substitutes for that? No, they’re not, but that’s the common theme: not everybody gets recognized and not everybody gets the opportunity to realize all their dreams, whatever [they] may be. Wars are fought by the young … and with that goes all these … unrealized dreams.”
Though Carol misses her son and admits that she sometimes talks to him, she said she chooses to enjoy her family and not get stuck in the fog of grief.
“I just feel like you have to honor their sacrifice and what’s in front of you, and I don’t know that you ever truly move on but to me,” Carol said, “it’d be so sad not to enjoy your grandchildren or your two surviving children or your husband, whatever the case may be … so time marches on and if you wanna get stuck, that’s kind of a sad thing, I think. You can either stay there or you can just be grateful for your family and friends around you and enjoy them.”
Duane echoed his wife’s sentiments about her choosing to move forward and said she got to the acceptance stage sooner than he did.
“It’s taken me a long time [to accept my son’s death], some days are worse than others,” Duane said. “Some days I lose it … but I work at home and so sometimes things happen and I just sit back, take two [or] three hours to think about it, come sit [on my back patio], get [myself] a cup of coffee and watch the world go by.” Aaron’s dog Midnight
In addition to Aaron’s family, his friends will also be in attendance at the dedication ceremony and Carol said her son kept the same group of friends throughout his life: Duane said when Aaron was younger, he and his friends would play army while wearing his old Army fatigues; Carol said one of those children will be speaking at the dedication. Robby Jackson was Aaron’s roommate and classmate at The Citadel and he will be a speaker as well. Stephen Prugh was the Maverick to Aaron’s Goose at the aforementioned costume party and he will be speaking at the ceremony; his brother, Daniel, will be doing the invocation and named his son after Aaron.
Aaron’s siblings have also named their children after him: there is Nicholas’ three-year-old son, Wyatt Xavier, who has his uncle’s middle name; and Amber’s two daughters, Georgia Aaron (who was born eight days after Aaron was killed) and Catherine Carolina – Carolina is the name Aaron said he would choose if he had a daughter.
For the dedication ceremony, Carol said she does not want it to be about mourning but a day for celebrating his life. She said the bridge will keep her son’s name out there.
“I wonder down the road [if] people are gonna go across that bridge and [wonder] ‘Who was Aaron Wittman? How did he get this bridge named after him?’” Carol said. “So … maybe they’ll google him and find out a little something about him, and if they do, good for them; if they don’t, well they’ll just keep wondering. It’s definitely gonna keep [his name] out there.”
And who was Aaron Wittman? The fun loving, kind, loyal, and unassuming man who was good company and would watch ‘Magnum PI’ on the couch while wearing sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt? Or the son whose parents used to call him MacGyver because he would always be creating different things?
His father summed him up in one word: “Unique,” Duane said. “Because you were [never] gonna figure out what was coming from him next but when he did it, you’d think about it later and you’d say ‘That makes sense.’ He did it the way he wanted it, he’d just think it through and it would come out that way. He’d always figure something out ahead of time and it was always unique, he just didn’t go with the pack … but yet he knew how to work with the pack. I don’t think he ever had an enemy … he figured out a way to always get along with people.”