Carrying a burden of war
In a sense, Donleigh Gaunky's journey home from Iraq has never ended.
A soldier with the 101st Airborne working in Army intelligence, Donleigh was on his second tour of duty in the war-torn country when his life was irreversibly interrupted on November 17, 2005. That's the day his youngest brother, Alex, a private also in the 101st Airborne serving in Iraq, was wounded in an ambush and flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
That same day, Donleigh was on a flight heading out of Iraq for Landstuhl in hopes of seeing his brother. It wasn't until he touched down in Germany that he found out Alex had died from his wounds.
Donleigh ended up escorting his 19-year-old brother's body home to Sparta, while his oldest brother Adam, a sailor serving in Iraq at the time, and his twin brother Robert, who also was in the Navy and an Iraq veteran, made their way home.
All four brothers were graduates of Sparta High School and the community came out in droves to support the family.
Alex's brothers were scarred by the loss, but none likely as much Donleigh, who suffered survivor's guilt that at times has been debilitating.
In an effort to convey the plight of Gold Star families -- families who have lost a son or daughter in war -- or maybe as a way of mending his own spirit, Donleigh penned a book about those fateful two weeks in 2005, where his family's life changed forever.
The book, "The Longest Journey Home: A True Story of loss and Duty During the Iraq War", recounts those days. Published by Westholme Publishing, it is fittingly scheduled for release on Veterans Day.
"The book has been a long time coming," said Donleigh. He points out it's release coincides with 12th anniversary of Alex's death.
Donleigh takes the reader through his realization of Alex's death, the escort flight home, the wake and the funeral, after which both Donleigh and Adam had to return to Iraq to finish out their tours.
Donleigh said he's always been comfortable talking about that time in his life but feels it's difficult for others to hear.
"Either because they thought I was going to be uncomfortable talking about it or they just didn't know what to say or how to respond to it and it became kind of off-putting," he said. "They would have to walk on eggshells around me afterward."
The hardest part of his life following Alex's death has been survivor's guilt associated with a burden he carries for Alex's death.
"I've only gone to his grave a couple of times because it's a physical reminder of this promise I made my mom shortly before I started my second deployment," he said.
That promise, which his mother never asked for, was to keep Alex safe.
"I just did that on my own accord to my mom before I left. Not being able to do it the way I think everybody would have hoped follows me around," he said.
That burden, he insists, has diminished but will always be there. He hopes the book helps people understand the ripple effect that follows families after the loss of a loved one on the battlefield.
While the book won't be released until Saturday, anyone interested can pre-order it on the Amazon or Barnes & Nobel websites.