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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Families across the country are gathering to celebrate Easter today, but in a Nebraska family, someone will be missing again this year.

As the nation marks five years of war in Iraq, the family of Marine Captain Travis Ford is preparing for the fifth anniversary of his death. Sarah McCammon of NET Radio traveled to southwest Nebraska to find out what's changed in five years.

SARAH MCCAMMON: Travis Ford always believed he'd go to war one day. He left Ogallala, Nebraska, to join the Marines after graduating from high school in 1991, just after the first Gulf War ended. His sister-in-law, Becky Ford, says Travis knew he could face combat.

MCCAMMON: He always said this is what you train for. He said you train for the inevitable, and the inevitable someday will come.

MCCAMMON: That day came five years ago, just as the war started. Travis Ford was in Iraq just over two weeks when he was killed in a Cobra helicopter crash near Baghdad on April 4, 2003. He was 30 years old, Nebraska's first service member to die in the war. Older brother Todd Ford says the loss, so soon after the war began, was quite a shock.

MCCAMMON: It takes the wind right out of you, you know.

MCCAMMON: Today, Ford says the passage of time hasn't changed his long- standing support for the war, but he adds it's hard to say whether it was worth his brother's life. Still, he and Becky have no qualms, he says, about their son T.J's plans to join the Army Reserve after he graduates from high school in May.

On a recent cool, sunny afternoon, the Fords sit together around a picnic table at a park in the quiet town of Grant, Nebraska. Travis spent much of his childhood here before moving 20 miles north to Ogallala in seventh grade. Becky Ford says the park still holds memories of when Travis was a teenager and her children were small.

MCCAMMON: And at Easter time, they'd hide the eggs, and Travis would go out. A lot of times the Easter egg hunt was done, he'd gather everybody's eggs and say, go hide your heads, and he'd dump all the eggs out again. Look, the Easter bunny came. And then the kids would go, wow, we didn't see him. We'd go find eggs again out here in the park.

MCCAMMON: Five Easters and plenty of other important dates have now passed without Travis Ford. Along with his family in Nebraska, Ford also left behind a wife, Deon, and daughter, Ashley, who live in California. Deon remarried, and Ashley, who was almost 2 when her father died, will soon turn 7.

Before Travis Ford left for Iraq, he made a video for his family. On a recent fishing trip, his brother, Todd Ford, had that video in mind.

MCCAMMON: One of the things that I've always - like me and T.J., when we go out and do stuff, we go out and go fishing, and Matt was with us this year. We carried four poles, and one pole was always Travis. We'd go out and go hunting, there's an extra gun in the vehicle, and that's Travis, you know. And that was one of the things Travis said on his video. He goes: Always carry an extra pole, extra gun. You never know.

MCCAMMON: Travis is never far from their thoughts. Family members say most holidays, they make the hour-long trip east to the military cemetery where he's buried and leave flowers at his grave.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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