It wasn't supposed to be this way for James and Daphanie Kinlow.
Sweethearts since their days at Lincoln County High School, the couple had moved to McDuffie County seven years ago to raise their family.
Spc. James Kinlow poses with a vehicle in a photo he sent back to his wife.
Sunday night, Spc. Kinlow - a reservist with the Georgia National Guard - died while on patrol in Iraq, the victim of a roadside bomb that demolished the Humvee he was in.
His death came just weeks before the 35-year-old soldier was set to return to McDuffie County on a two-week hiatus from the rigors of battlefield life.
"I feel like I've just been cheated out of my life," his wife said through tears Tuesday night. "We were supposed to grow old together. ... When you can finally smooth out the edges and you are supposed to have the American dream, he's gone. You are supposed to buy your house and your white picket fence and ... he's gone."
Spc. Kinlow is survived by his wife and two children - Chauncey, a rising sophomore at Thomson High School, and Chelsea, a rising fifth grader at Norris Elementary School in Thomson. His parents, Alchester and Carrie Mae Kinlow, his sister, Sophia, and his niece, Kendra, live in Lincoln County.
The Kinlows came to McDuffie County in 1998, and her husband was a "jack of all trades," Mrs. Kinlow said. First, he surveyed land, and then he worked as a forklift operator at The Eubank Company in Dearing. His last job was as a driver for Allen Freight Services in Jacksonville, Fla.
Spc. Kinlow was born in Ft. Meyers, Fla., but grew up in Lincoln County. He graduated from Lincoln County High School in 1988 and always loved the Red Devils football team. Even when his son started playing for the Thomson Bulldogs, Mrs. Kinlow said.
"With James loving the Red Devils, we had been trying to hang up our red and white and trying to bleed black and gold," she said.
The news of his father's death hit Chauncey hard, she said, causing him to consider hanging up his football pads if his dad couldn't be there to watch. But a Monday night visit from other football players changed all that.
Senior Kelcey Neal - still sweating and smelly from the evening practice - told his teammate quitting wasn't an option.
"He said 'You're coming back if I have to put you on my back and carry you,'" Mrs. Kinlow said between sobs. "You just don't expect that out of high school kids."
Later in the evening, teammate Phillip Bonner also stopped by the house.
"He told Chauncey, 'I'll be there. I'm going to be there for you. I'll be there at the funeral. I'll be there at school. I'll be there at practice. Your daddy is a hero to me,'" she said. "He was just the sweetest little boy."
Mrs. Kinlow has been employed by the McDuffie County Board of Education for nearly a decade, working her way up to the system's payroll manager. It was at work Monday that she got the news about her high school sweetheart, said McDuffie County Superintendent of Schools Mark Petersen. He said the pall still hangs over everyone in the office.
"These folks around here have known her for nine years," he said. "You know, that's family."
Perhaps the hardest part for Mrs. Kinlow is knowing her husband was planning to come home Aug. 15 on a two-week leave.
"He said 'Don't tell Momma, don't tell the kids, I'm going to surprise everybody and just show up.' I was sitting on that," she said.
Spc. Kinlow was part of the Thomson National Guard unit that spent a year or so in 2003 working homeland security at Fort Campbell and Fort Bragg. Then orders came late last year, removing him from the Thomson unit and placing him with a Valdosta unit. That unit was sent to Iraq in May.
Spc. Kinlow is the third soldier with ties to McDuffie County to die in the Iraq fighting. In November 2003, McDuffie native Command Sgt. Maj. Jerry Lee Wilson was killed when his vehicle was attacked in Mosul.
A year later, First Lt. Dan Malcolm, Jr. - who attended Thomson schools until his eighth grade year - was killed in Fallujah.
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