The war in Iraq is at the top of Felicia Dumas' mind today. It's at the top of her mind every day.
Felicia Dumas, the principal of Lakeside Middle School, holds a portrait of her son, Chief Warrant Officer Russell Holmes, who is a Black Hawk helicopter pilot stationed in Iraq. Dumas is waiting for him to return to the United States in December.
Photo by Scott Trubey
Dumas, the principal of Lakeside Middle School, should be a familiar face to many Columbia County parents and pupils. Those who know her also know her commitment to honoring veterans. Her school holds a widely attended Veterans Day celebration.
But it runs deeper than that.
Her son, Chief Warrant Officer Russell Holmes, is a Black Hawk helicopter pilot stationed in Iraq.
"He was the little boy that had energy and always was a risk-taker," Dumas said of her son. "If someone was jumping off the trestle at one height, he had to go higher."
Growing up, Holmes, who turned 25 on Friday, dressed in camouflage and dived behind cars pretending to be a soldier in battle. His mother said he never considered a career in the military. He was interested in his music. The Army was too structured and too disciplined, he once told her.
High school was a difficult time for Holmes. He was a gifted musician but not a gifted student. He played saxophone in the marching band and loved playing jazz. A call by his mother to an Army recruiter landed him an audition for the Army band in January 1999.
After graduating from high school, Holmes began basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., on Oct. 26, 1999. He reported for music school in Norfolk, Va. After five months of training, he transferred to Fort Wainwright, Alaska, as a member of the Army band.
Dumas said she was proud of her son's accomplishment and his role in the Army.
"That's the good thing about the band; as a mom you think, 'Oh he's in the band, at least he's safe,'" she said.
At Fort Wainwright, while earning his sergeant's stripes, Holmes entered Air Assault School, training to rappel out of helicopters into combat situations. Months of grueling training later, he graduated, one of only 63 out of more than 200 to make the cut. He was no longer the kid who "went into the military to play the saxophone," Dumas said.
During a call to his mother on Sept. 11, 2001, Holmes said he was considering changing his role in the military from the band to air assault or piloting helicopters.
"He called to tell me he was going into Special Forces, and I got hysterical," she said. "I was just scared to death because I knew that the Middle East, all of that was heating up.
"He had just gotten involved in flying when Sept. 11 came along. I began to worry that if this really happens and we go to war, he's going to go."
In 2003, Holmes left Fort Wainwright for Fort Rucker, Ala., to enter warrant officer school, the first step into aviation school. Dumas said her son graduated in the top of his class and entered aviation school. It was difficult, but Holmes persevered.
"The further he went, the more I realized how much he wanted it. Then I became afraid he would not make it because he wanted it so bad," she said.
Dumas said flying became Holmes' life. He graduated aviation school at the top of his class and received his first choice of primary aircraft: Black Hawks. In July 2004, he transferred to Fort Bragg, N.C.
Last Nov. 9, Holmes called his mother. Dumas said her mother's intuition gave her a clue that something had happened. Her son was going to Iraq.
"I was fine on the phone," she said. "I was proud but emotional at the same time."
Holmes deployed to Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, and was assigned to B Company 1-159th Aviation Unit.
His role usually is to fly in support of the infantry. He flew support for the Iraqi elections in Baghdad and flew the point helicopter for Condoleezza Rice's entourage when she toured Baghdad, his mother said.
Communication with her son halfway around the world is tough.
"He e-mails once a week or once every other week, and calls whenever he can," Dumas said. "Whenever I e-mail him, I try to remind him how much we love him."
The distance and infrequent communication and news from Iraq are difficult for the warrant officer's mother.
"Last week, there was a report of a helicopter down, and I heard it at the very end of a broadcast and didn't get any information," she said. "Your heart just ... you feel like you can't breathe.
"And of course everything was fine with Russell, and the pilot in that particular crash was OK. It's not just my son; it's everybody's sons and daughters that are there. When you have one there, every time you hear one is injured or killed it feels personal."
She experienced that feeling after the death of Augusta resident David Jones. Dumas said a relative of Jones is one of her pupils.
"I was taken off guard," she said.
Despite missing her son, Dumas said, she is proud of what he has accomplished.
"I would like for other kids who think high school is tough to know you can do something," she said. "You have to put your mind to it. Russell struggled in high school. Once he found what he loved, he didn't let anything get in his way."
Today, Dumas said, "I will be thinking about all our sons and daughters and mothers and fathers that are in Iraq and Afghanistan. I feel like they are the heroes of today and are ensuring that our children will have a free world and a safe United States."
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