Tristan Baker Willis lost his dad, Spc. Ryan T. Baker, in a copter crash in 2003, when Tristan was 2. Trying to create memories of the father he never really knew, he looks at newspaper clippings about his dad. - Shelley Mays / The Tennessean
By Heidi Hall | The Tennessean
SPRING HILL -
After Spc. Ryan T. Baker's Black Hawk helicopter went down in Iraq, the Army sent a letter to a toddler living in Franklin.
"Master Tristian Willis," it read, misspelling his first name. "On behalf of a grateful nation and a deeply saddened Army, please accept our condolences over the death of your father."
Tristan's mother, Brooke Willis, covered it in plastic and slid it into a forest-green scrapbook with the words "United States Army" on the cover. Over the years, she added every picture of Baker and newspaper article on his death she could find. She wrote a poem from her 2-year-old son's point of view and carefully trimmed out the colorful letters to spell it out across two pages.
Today, eight years later, Tristan has that scrapbook, its cover falling off, almost everything inside bearing the smudges, rips and wrinkles of being pulled out hundreds of times by a fidgety little boy who wishes he knew his hero dad.
He also has an 8-by-10 framed picture of himself sitting on his dad's lap, one box of his dad's clothing and a growing commemorative coin collection that started with a handful shipped back with the body.
And that's about it, all that's left to document the life of a 24-year-old helicopter crew chief stationed at Fort Campbell, the soldier whose rocky relationship with a local college girl resulted in Tristan's birth.
His helicopter was shot down on Nov. 15, 2003, and his grave is in New Jersey, too far to visit on Memorial Day.
"My mom tells me a lot about him, and Grandma Baker does, too," Tristan said. "He was a hero. He was the one serving our country for our freedoms and rights."
Tristan can repeat his mother's memories as though they are his own. He was born Nov. 11, 2001, Veterans Day, but his dad, conflicted about being a father, didn't visit him until just before Christmas.
"He has the Baker nose," the young soldier observed.
Son shows his pride
Two months later, Baker was fighting in Afghanistan. He left Fort Campbell determined to find Osama bin Laden and was so brash with the people he encountered that fellow soldiers referred to saying the wrong thing as "pulling a Baker."
He was back in Tennessee in August, eager for a solo overnight visit with his son. Even six months at war couldn't prepare him. The diapers were so pungent that he threw up.
Then Baker was off to Iraq. He came home for two weeks in October 2003 for his father's funeral and a reunion with Tristan.
A month later, Brooke Willis' phone rang. She doesn't remember what was said. Only Grandma Baker's voice being drowned out by the sound of her own screams.
She started the scrapbook days later and eventually moved her family to Spring Hill and finished the psychology degree that Tristan's birth interrupted. She raised her son to be proud of a father he would never know.
That pride fueled Tristan's trip to a Spring Hill Board of Aldermen meeting this month to ask if his dad could be included in a banner program meant to honor active-duty military. Aldermen are considering changing the program to include the war dead and plan to discuss that at a June 11 work session.
But this Memorial Day, Tristan will eat barbecue at his grandparents' house in Franklin. He'll say a prayer. And he'll send a letter of his own, attaching it to a helium-filled balloon.
"Dear Dad: I am wondering how you are doing in heaven. I hope you are having a tremendous time. Sincerely, Tristan."
Contact Heidi Hall at 615-726-5977 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter @HeidiHallTN.