KALISPELL, Mont. — An injured soldier who struggled daily to overcome the physical challenges left by an explosion in Iraq died early Sunday morning in his sleep, just two weeks before a home being built for him and his family was due to be finished.
Sgt. Kevin White, 29, leaves behind his wife, Juliane, and a 15-month-old son, Liam, who now will move into their new home without him.
White, a paratrooper in Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, was the most severely injured of the soldiers involved in an April 2007 ambush of their convoy in Iraq.
He was in his second tour when a piece of a rocket warhead went through his shoulder and into his lung. He also sustained a brain injury.
He was released from duty with a medical retirement, and the extent of his injuries made it impossible to work. With medical bills mounting and his wife pregnant at the time, White's in-laws, Ann and O.T. Green, decided to build them a house next door to their home near Lakeside.
The Greens took out a second mortgage on their own home, emptied Ann's retirement account and started building in 2010.
"We're about two weeks away from being finished," O.T. Green said.
The White family has been living with Greens while the home was being built.
It will be a couple of weeks before the results of an autopsy are known to determine a cause of death, Green said.
The family is thankful to have some happy memories from the day before White's death. They all had gone to a gun show at the fairgrounds in Kalispell, where White had purchased a pocket watch.
"He was happy and upbeat," Green said. "He signed up to go turkey hunting with a group of other veterans."
As they left the gun show, White announced in the parking lot: "We need a group hug."
So the entire family gathered together for what would be their final embrace.
"It's a wonderful memory to have," Green said.
Saturday evening, Green and his son-in-law took a walk-through of the new home, determining where wiring for the TV and other electronics would go.
"He went to bed about 12:30 or 1 o'clock," Green said. "Juliane came down about 11 the next morning and said she couldn't wake him."
Family members tried to revive him, but he had already died.
"He had so much going for him," Green said. "He was so upbeat. I've always told my family, 'Life is like playing a card game. You never know what card is coming out of the deck, but you have to deal with it.'"
Capt. Steven Wilson, the commander on the ground the day White and other soldiers were injured, called White an outstanding paratrooper and a team player with impressive leadership skills.
"He took initiative and had the kind of personality that you could trust him to execute the mission," Wilson said in a phone interview from Fort Bragg, where he now works with the Warrior Transition Battalion. "He was a 'glass half full' kind of guy, a good guy all around, very intelligent."
Wilson said on the day of the attack, White and others in his convoy were making condolence payments to Iraqi citizens whose property had been damaged. They had stopped at an Iraqi police station when they were ambushed.
In a January interview with the Daily Inter Lake, White detailed his injuries, explaining how a hematoma in his head had calcified and turned to bone, "so I have a random bone in my brain that's pressing on my optic nerve."
White also told how he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Despite the severity of his injuries, the federal government declared him as having a low-ranking disability — so low that he didn't receive enough in disability payments to live on.
White's wife has a heart condition that limits her ability to work. Green said Juliane was scheduled to have a procedure done in Spokane, Wash., this week that now will be postponed so she could say her final goodbye to her husband at a celebration of life service planned Friday.
Green said his son-in-law was one of the military's "walking wounded."
"To look at him, he looks fine, but there's a lot that's not showing," he said in January.
The Greens rallied community support for the home-building project and raised between $2,000 and $3,000.
"My wife wrote a thank-you note to every person who contributed," Green said. "Even Sarah Palin sent us $5."
Glacier Bank has been wonderful to work with, he noted. But the reality is the Greens are "up to our necks" in mortgage payments.
A housing fund set up earlier will remain in place. Donations can be made to: Kevin Housing Fund, in care of Flathead Bank of Lakeside, P.O. Box 769, Lakeside, MT 59922.
"We'll take care of his family," Green said. "That's all we can do now."
Information from: Daily Inter Lake, http://www.dailyinterlake.com