Jamie Bell, a running back for Morristown High School’s 1993 state champs, wanted to “give something back” to everyone who kept him on the straight and narrow as a kid.
So, after studying criminal law at the University of Delaware, he joined the Marines. Ten years and two tours of Iraq later, he had a chance to pilot Apache attack helicopters for the Army.
Jamie returned to a hero’s welcome in Morristown this weekend after nearly a year of flying missions over the treacherous mountain passes of northern Afghanistan.
“I did a lot of praying,” said Jamie’s proud mother, Dorothy Bell, who helped organize a welcome home party Saturday at the Marion Sally Residence Center at Manahan Village.
Close calls? Jamie, 36, downplayed them.
“You live meal to meal, day by day, and count the days until you get home. You try to keep rested, and focus on what you have to do,” Jamie said.
The hardest part, he said, is being separated for long periods from his wife Lidia and their four children, daughters Dyani, 12, and Delena, 10, and 20-month-old twins Noah and Nede.
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“It’s difficult. You see them, and you come back a year later and they’ve grown up. You want to be there when they’re taking their first steps, when they’re going to swim classes,” Jamie said.
Yet he’s not complaining. He hopes to continue in the military “until they tell me it’s time to go.
“I like the camaraderie,” Jamie said. “The job itself is fun.”
‘I WILL FOLLOW YOU ANYWHERE’
Saturday’s well-wishers included Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty, who brought a proclamation of gratitude for Jamie’s service, and Jamie’s boyhood neighbor, Jetay Hutchins, who played basketball at Morristown High.
“He was the quietest guy,” Jetay recalled of his old pal. “He stayed out of trouble.”
Jamie’s wife Lidia has made sacrifices for her husband’s military career. When they met via an online dating service, Jamie was on a break from active duty and Lidia dated him with the understanding that he was leaving the Marines.
Then, Jamie got called to serve another tour in Iraq.
When he came back, Lidia said, they both enjoyed good jobs as managers in the private sector in Phoenix. She bought a nice home. Life was good.
And then Jamie asked how she would feel if he joined the Army to become a chopper pilot.
“I told him if that’s what will make you happy, I will follow you anywhere,” Lidia said. “Jamie is such a giving person. He wanted to give back and serve.”
While Jamie was in Afghanistan, Lidia pasted his photo throughout the house, so the twins would recognize their daddy. She called Jamie’s mother every day, Skyped with Jamie, and sent him old-fashioned letters and home-baked cookies.
Lidia manages the household, and tries to keep it stress-free when her husband visits.
“I want to make it a safe haven for him,” she said. That includes helping Jamie deal with difficult things he has seen and experienced overseas. “The most important thing is being there as a sounding board. I just listen. I don’t want to sound like I’m judging.”
Inspired by a female pilot, their daughters are considering military careers someday. Lidia said she would not discourage the girls; living in a military community has impressed her.
“Showing pride and love for your country–you don’t see that nowadays. It’s very admirable. instill that in their children. That’s different than in the civilian world. It’s completely different than what I expected,” Lidia said.
‘PICK YOURSELF UP AND MOVE FORWARD’
Despite instability in Iraq since U.S. forces pulled out last year, and tensions in Afghanistan that were exacerbated by the alleged March massacre of civilians in Kandahar by an American soldier, Jamie expressed confidence that U.S. objectives can be achieved in both regions.
“It’s definitely plausible to succeed” in Afghanistan, he said. “But it’s not just on the military side. It has to be on the economic side, and the sociological side. We could take terrain all the time. But if we’re not making their lives better there, it’s very difficult. It’s not a quick and easy fix.”
In Iraq, where Jamie served as an artilleryman, “we did our job to the best of our ability. We did what we needed to do to lay the groundwork for success in Iraq. I have no doubt about the prospects for success. I saw a lot of people do great things over there. Some gave up their lives.”
Video interview with Jamie Bell
Jamie returned to Fort Hood, Texas, last month. This week marks his first chance to show his wife and kids around Morristown, a place he remembers fondly.
“A lot of people love the city atmosphere,” said Jamie, whose rank is chief warrant officer second class. “Morristown was always in between. It’s not as crowded as bustling as New York City or Newark, but if you wanted to get there, you could. It still has a hometown feel to it.”
He is part of a local football tradition that includes his older brother Jeff, and more recently, his cousin, Shawn Bell.
Asked what he has learned since those days, Jamie offered this advice for Morristown kids:
“If you believe you can accomplish something, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t,” he said. “You can stay in a little box in life, and if you let people tell you that, you will. If you try something, you might fail. But just pick yourself up and move forward.”