He believed in the fight, his family said, until he entered the war zone.
By Carrie Budoff
Inquirer Staff Writer
He went to war as a believer.
A proud professional firefighter and conservative Republican, Spec. John Kulick watched the World Trade Center burn and collapse, stealing thousands of innocent lives. He believed in the war against terrorism, and, at 33 years old, he decided to help fight it by joining the Pennsylvania National Guard as an infantryman 10 days before the Iraq invasion.
Kulick thought he'd rediscover the certainties of life that had begun to slip away after a difficult divorce and a separation from his young daughter.
Instead, daily life in a war zone delivered only more murkiness, more doubt. To his family, he expressed concern about poor equipment, misguided tactics, and slow progress in stabilizing the country against a seemingly invisible enemy.
On a two-week break in June, he sat at a local steak house and told the waitress that her boyfriend, a soldier preparing for deployment, should avoid going, family members recalled.
Kulick seemed to reflect the complicated nature of war now dominating the debate in Washington: He had misgivings, but he clung to the idea that somehow the United States could make a better Iraq, even as he began to accept that he might not make it out alive.
"If it's my time to go, it's my time to go," he told his mother during their last phone call, on Aug. 9. "I'm all right with that."
Ottavia Pell-Kulick, sitting in a Shore rental a world away, admonished him for thinking that way.
"Just know that I love you," he said before hanging up.
She walked onto the back porch. Alone, she prayed.
"Please, God, let him be safe," she whispered. "Please send him home to me safe."
As a child, Kulick rushed out of the house every time he heard the firehouse alarm. Wearing a red plastic helmet, he'd hustle down York Road in Abington on his Big Wheel, pedaling mightily to keep up with the engines roaring by.
Kulick sought refuge in the firehouse years later, as a teenager struggling with his parents' divorce. He volunteered over the years in Hatboro, Horsham, Warminster and Ambler and became a paid firefighter in Whitpain in 1998.
His fastidious personality fit the field.
He was a guy who tied the shoelaces on his boots before placing them in the closet. He designated positions on his plate for food - vegetable at 3 o'clock, sandwich at 6, dessert at 9. He kept an immaculate appearance. White teeth, polished boots, tucked-in shirt.
In 1994, Kulick married Jill Simpkins, the daughter of a retired Navy commander. She was attracted to his gregariousness. But their relationship dissolved in June 2001, and he was devastated by the divorce.
Jill Kulick said she feels responsible for rushing them, both "stubborn and temperamental," into marriage. His work hours created tension. She wanted to stay home with their daughter, Amanda Mae, now 8, but they couldn't afford that.
John Kulick entered a "pre-midlife crisis," said Bryan Pearsall, a close friend from Warminster.
They were still dressed in their firefighter uniforms. Kulick grabbed his partner, Donald Lynch, after finishing their shift at 2 p.m. and drove to the Plymouth Meeting armory.
It was March 10, 2003. A day earlier, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had made clear on NBC's Meet the Press that the United States would invade Iraq with or without the United Nations' support.
"Are you sure you guys want to do this?" the recruiter asked the men, 30-somethings with stable jobs.
"Absolutely," said Kulick, who was then living in Harleysville.
The 9/11 attacks pushed Kulick into action, though he didn't act on impulse. He studied his options, listing the pros and cons on Post-it Notes.
Personally, Kulick considered the timing right.
"He felt like a failure in so many ways," though that was not the case, said Earl Simpkins, his ex-father-in-law, who talked with Kulick before he enlisted. "There are a lot of people who don't realize the contribution they are making."
His time was also running short. In 2003, recruits older than 35 needed a waiver to join.
A few friends called him crazy. His father backed him. His mother cried the first time she saw him in uniform, stoic with an M16 on his shoulder.
"My son saves lives," she thought at the time. "He couldn't kill anybody."
Although Kulick joined a Stryker brigade not fully capable for deployment until 2008, he was asked in spring 2004 to fill a vacancy in Alpha Company of the First Battalion of the 111th Infantry, which was headed to Iraq. He initially declined, having just returned from boot camp.
Days later, they called again.
"It was, 'Let's go. This is what I signed up to do,' " said Lisa Pearsall, Bryan's wife, who considered Kulick her best friend.
In a Dec. 10 e-mail, Kulick wrote:
Hey again from the sand dune,...
Well, yesterday we were visited by our Sec. Of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for you non-republicans. Nice guy. It made national news and their were some pretty bad questions asked to him by the soldiers that are creating a big stink in the Military. We still don't have all the equipment we need before we go over the berm, and I hope we get it soon.
Kulick sounded upbeat, at first.
He requested care packages of Tastykake chocolate-chip bars and beef jerky. He congratulated friends and family on milestones. He playfully lamented living conditions at Forward Operating Base Summerall in Beiji, 155 miles northwest of Baghdad.
"The toilets don't flush with toilet paper so you have to put it in a trash can next to the toilet. (Smells great)," he wrote in a Dec. 17 e-mail.
But just days after crossing into Iraq from Kuwait, Kulick relayed a grim assessment: "Reality has struck."
A suicide bomber drove through the base's gate, and two mortar shells landed just outside.
"Thank the Lord they can't aim right," Kulick wrote.
More ominous news followed two weeks later.
"They tried to blow me up last week by an IED (roadside bomb) while on patrol," he wrote on Jan. 5, "but they're not going to get rid of me that easy."
His e-mails revealed complicated emotions.
In February, he wrote the wife of a Guard friend saying that her husband was "better off staying home."
"I'll switch places with him if he would like," Kulick said. Not long after, he said Iraq was "very depressing and you get homesick fast. I don't want to leave my family and friends again."
But a month later, he wrote that a batch of thank-you cards he received from third graders made him "feel really proud to serve here."
Small gestures pleased Kulick. He paid special attention to the Iraqi children, handing out toys and pens on patrols. His platoon sergeant, Anthony Kelly, said Kulick became a mentor to younger soldiers and used his emergency medical skills to assist injured civilians.
"John saved a lot of lives," Kelly said.
In May, Kulick's mood seemed to turn darker. His grandmother died. He had been quarreling with his ex-wife. U.S. military deaths spiked, hitting 80 that month, the highest since January, when 107 soldiers were killed.
"Things went down hill here the past two weeks," Kulick wrote on May 21. "It's been really bad. Stress is really getting me from... here and the homefront."
But he did have something to work toward: a two-week break in mid-June.
First, he went to the dentist.
Then, he bought a suit at Men's Wearhouse for a christening, picked up his daughter in Dillsburg, Pa., and settled in for barbecues, parties, and a trip to the Jersey Shore.
Friends found him at ease.
His family saw a man who was far more somber at times than ever before.
Privately, he confided in his parents and former father-in-law.
Iraq was a "hell hole," Kulick told them.
When they swept a town, the insurgents would return just days later. Foreign fighters were allowed to slip easily through unsecured borders. Army leadership seemed disorganized and disconnected from the ground. Certain tactics, such as 3 a.m. house raids, created a new generation of terrorists.
The military seemed to scrimp on armor but served filet mignon and lobster tails once a week. At first, the unit entered Iraq with crudely assembled armor, but the vehicles were upgraded over time, said Spec. Edward Greene, 28, of Gloucester City, who served with Kulick.
"I think his greatest disappointment in the Army was the way that the soldiers were treated," Jill Kulick said. "John had the same concerns that we all have here, and that is the fact that it doesn't look like we've really accomplished a lot in the improvement of the Iraqi people's lives and in eliminating terrorist activity."
His mom described him as "disillusioned" by a sense of helplessness.
To others, he indicated a continuing support for the mission.
"I think that the world is a much better place without Saddam," he wrote on Aug. 4 to Michael Tremoglie, a Whitpain resident who corresponded with Kulick. "Someone needs to be the Police in this world and the only superpower is us. The 1800 soldiers did not die in vain, and the war was justified. It's sad but I think the American people forget their feelings they had after 911."
As meticulous as ever, Kulick prepared for the worst. Before returning to Iraq from his break, he secured his will in a plastic storage bin, where his father would later find it resting on Kulick's perfectly folded suit from Men's Wearhouse.
On Aug. 9, Alpha Company tried working as if nothing had changed, even though three days earlier, the unit had suffered its first combat deaths: A roadside bomb had killed two soldiers.
He called his mother, father and daughter. He e-mailed his older brother, Jim Jr., and his sister-in-law, Susan:
I am ok. The two that died were very good friends of mine from our unit. We are all devastated. Their memorial will be tomorrow. Other than that no new news. I hope everyone is doing ok there. I will be home the first or second week of November. Less than 90 days. Take care and please let everyone know I am fine. Thank You.
After sundown, Kulick set out with his unit to check out reports of shelling a few miles from the base.
They were moving north in four humvees when insurgents unleashed a complex attack, detonating a bomb buried under the road. Riflemen opened fire from a line of trees to the east.
The explosion killed Kulick and three others in the vehicle. Only body parts were recovered.
Spec. Edward Greene, who wasn't on the patrol but heard eyewitness accounts, said the vehicle had a basic armor kit.
"But to be honest with you," he said, "it wouldn't have mattered."
Jim Kulick Sr. lay in bed, unable to sleep. A day earlier, his son had told him what would happen if he died.
"You will know it is me when you hear a knock on the door," Kulick had told his father.
That knock came at 6:30 a.m. Aug. 10.
"I am here to inform you that your son, Spec. John Kulick, was killed last night in Operation Iraqi Freedom," the officer said.
"That can't be," his dad said. "I just talked to him not too long ago."
Dazed and disbelieving, he took a seat at his kitchen table in Rockledge, where he wrote weekly letters to his son, always signing the return label "Proud Army Dad Jim Kulick."
Eighty miles away, in Brigantine, Kulick's mom got the news from an officer at the other end of a telephone line.
In shock, she threw the phone across the living room and ran toward the beach, ripping a "Support Our Troops" bracelet from her wrist. She buried it in the sand.
Hundreds of people lined York Road - the same street where Kulick had chased fire trucks as a child - for his funeral.
A procession of fire engines carried him to his grave site. A UPS man stopped his truck and saluted. More than 60 towns sent firefighters in dress blues and white gloves.
"I wish he could have seen it," Jill Kulick said. "This would have shown him."
The mystery surrounding his death had made it harder for friends and family.
They weren't able to view his body. Details of the bombing have been contradictory. They question why he enlisted.
His friends channeled their grief into raising more than $25,000 for a memorial fund for Kulick's daughter.
His father, once a war booster and Bush supporter, turned against both.
His brother maintained for weeks that he would join the military - to avenge Kulick's death. Eventually, he backed down.
"Life was pretty simple, and I knew where I stood on everything," Jim Kulick Jr., of Doylestown, said. "Now it has been turned upside down. Someone blew my brother up, in a foreign land. It's not normal."
They felt desperate - for answers, emotional stability, relief. And they were willing to try anything.
So one month after their 35-year-old son's death, John's parents ended up where they least expected: at a Germantown interfaith service organized by antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan and her Bring Them Home Now Tour.
His mom wept. His dad looked uncomfortable, drawing back as people probed for details of his son's death.
He scribbled onto a piece of paper: "PEACE NEVER CAME," referring to his emotions and the war. He later tucked it into a hymn book and left.
Contact staff writer Carrie Budoff at 610-313-8211 or firstname.lastname@example.org.