Memory Day: A Gold Star teen meets her long-fallen father

(Photo: Courtesy of the Wood Family)

By Chris Field

On November 20, 2003, CPT George A. Wood, then the company commander of the 1-67 “Death Dealers” of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, was killed by an IED in Baqubah, Iraq. CPT Wood left behind a wife, Lisa, and a 3-year-old daughter, Maria.

I never met CPT Wood; I only knew him as “George” or “Woody.” 13 years earlier, CPT Wood and I played college football together at Cornell University, toiling on the offensive line. About a month before George was killed, our college coach, Pete Noyes, invited me to write an article for our college football newsletter about George’s transition from a college football behemoth into a position of military leadership in Iraq.

Sadly, he died only a few weeks after it was published and probably never read our distant salutation. It grieved me that soon after recalling our wonderful time in college, he was gone. The next thing I was asked to write was his obituary.

A year later, our team held George Wood Day to commemorate our fallen friend. Old teammates, coaches, military colleagues and George’s family all gathered in Ithaca, NY to memorialize a great man and a stellar example of non-negotiable values and austere dedications. We all agreed: Woody was our brother, a driven warrior at Cornell and beyond. He died as he lived, devoted to the mission in front of him.

I’ll never forget the words of George’s then 4-year-old daughter when she saw the photos of George that the team displayed. “That’s not Daddy!” she squealed.

It was an easy mistake for a youngster to make: George played college football at upwards of 320 pounds but had leaned out to about 200 pounds for his military—and parenting—career. Those words, initially cute and funny, became vaguely upsetting. Though we were trying to do something uplifting for her, she didn’t recognize the man we were talking about.

And despite our best intentions, when we all returned to our lives, things went quiet, as they often do. I didn’t speak with Lisa for several years, though through the grapevine, I heard that she had remarried, and that she and her new husband had started a family of their own. It was gratifying to learn that she had found love again and had slowly rebuilt her life.

But with the advent of social media, we reconnected a few years ago. It was apparent that she had married a man who didn’t want to replace George but who warmly welcomed George’s memory into their lives. George was a giant of a man, and an even greater soul, and I maintain a deep admiration for Lisa’s husband, John, who knew he was tasked with safeguarding the widow and daughter of a man who cast a long shadow.

(Photo: Courtesy of the Wood Family)

About six months ago, Lisa began contacting some of George’s old friends and colleagues, asking for a favor. She was planning on putting together something like a “memory box” for her daughter and asked people to relay stories, anecdotes, photos, videos or anything that would give their daughter a more complete impression of her father.

I forwarded some old newsletter articles I’d written about George and offered some stories we shared. But one particular observation seemed to capture what I admired most about George. I told Lisa, “George had the highest IQ to GPA ratio [high IQ, low GPA] of anyone I’ve even known. Learning was central to his life, classes were not. He simply didn’t care about small-change issues like ‘going to class.’ I suppose you could frame this to Maria like: ‘His priorities were always in focus and everything else he let slide.’ What was trivial to him was given its due.”

“Your dad blew off class a lot. . . ” It’s not exactly the sort of thing you tell a teenager. And George most definitely turned that around when he entered grad school. But I was hoping that the point Maria took from it was that her dad lived his life with a clear and inviolable set of principles and priorities. George had an encyclopedic knowledge of history, especially military history, weapons, warfare and the like. What would the nuances of 19 century literary criticism mean to such a person? George simply preferred to measure his efforts by the standards of his toughest critic: Himself.

I forgot about Lisa’s project and thought it had come and gone without any fanfare. But this past Saturday, I saw the result of Lisa’s efforts on Facebook. To celebrate their daughter’s 17th birthday, Lisa presented Maria with a box  filled with letters, photos, videos, and other memorabilia that painted a robust picture of her late father.

As Lisa told me, “Most kids grow up never really knowing their parents, or the details of their childhood and college days. But they have the adult parent and it is enough. When you lose your parent as a little kid, it’s knowing him or her as others remember that gives you that relationship you lost…”

As soon as Maria opened the box, she saw an album with a photo of the three of them on the cover and immediately knew what the box contained. Maria paused for a few moments, trying to compose herself, but the joy and grief and pain and elation overwhelmed her.

The photos say it all. They depict a scene that’s both sad and beautiful, triumphant and tragic. Heartwarming and heartbreaking.

(Photo: Courtesy of the Wood Family)

She opened the album to the first page. On it was a birthday card George had sent her when he first arrived in Iraq. “Happy Birthday Ria,” George had wished her on her 3rd birthday; it wasn’t until her 17th that she’d read those words. Her mother had kept the card sealed up with other keepsakes and felt that the time had come for her to see it.

The covers of several of the DVDs had photos of George holding her, and Maria realized she was about to see the first video of a father she only knew through photos. Over the next day or two, she read through the various letters Lisa had collected, prompting many questions and conversations.  She braced herself when she began watching the DVDs, hearing her father’s voice for the first time. Having seen hundreds of photos of her father, video allowed her to finally hear the tone of his voice, his mannerisms, and his facial expressions. To finally see. . . him.

Recalling memories is the process of making the past present again, bringing the past into the present. But time is the enemy of memory. Time erodes the sharp corners of recollection. And when you don’t have any clear memories of something, when something was only vaguely present at the time, sometimes you need help. When you’re not even three, and your father spent a good chunk of your life deployed, memories of him become faint images informed by stories and imagination.

But if I’ve learned anything as a military spouse, it’s that the military doesn’t forget. Ever. I’d like to personally thank CPT Wood’s fellow soldiers who took the time to contribute a letter, transfer video footage, or forward a story to help brighten Maria’s special day.

On this Memorial Day, when many Americans acknowledge our fallen service members as a hazy abstraction—that is, if they do at all—one Gold Star child is able to delight in a fully realized portrait of her own father. Only now, as a young adult, she may be able to embrace her father in his full depth, flesh and blood, warts and all, for perhaps the very first time.

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30 Replies to “Memory Day: A Gold Star teen meets her long-fallen father”

  1. Jancey Terry says:

    What a beautifully written tribute to a great man. Thank you for this. They say time heals all things but the loss of someone so big in a person’s life can be very difficult. I will never forget the day we found out about Cpt Wood. My husband was shattered with sadness and regret. He was and still is highly respected by those he served so honorably with. All our love to his family. George and the others we have lost will never be forgotten.

  2. Michael Salazar says:

    This is very touching. I served with CPT Wood in Germany 🇩🇪 around 1999-2000. He was well know in the Battalion and was liked as well. During that time he was serving as our company XO. He knew so much of our maintenance readiness when it came to our tanks. His ability to maintain the readiness of our equipment and then transform into a warrior when we had to face our enemy in the box (maneuver area) was by far the best i have ever witness in my 20 plus years serving in the Army. George than you for friendship, thank you for becoming a role model for others to emulate, and most importantly thank you for your service sir! I SALUTE YOU!! 🇺🇸

  3. MAJ Angel Flores says:

    I never met the College “George” but I did know the Captain Wood who embodied the military mind and historian. As a brand new Second Lieutenant under his command I came to know him as a great leader that enlightened a lot his soldiers both in mind and in spirit. Those of us who were fortunate enough to know him are all the better for it. As for me I still carry his memory and his wisdom with me to this day and rest assured that I will always remember.

  4. Santagata says:

    Thank you Chris! Beautiful words!!!

  5. Scott Sears says:

    Thank you again Chris.

    Scott Sears (Lisa’s brother / Maria’s uncle)

  6. Pete Noyes says:

    Thank you Chris for writing this loving tribute for George and his family . It was my honor to coach George at Cornell University from 1990 – 1992. The pleasure was all mine – George was a great offensive lineman and an even better person and teammate !! We love George, along with Lisa and family, forever !
    Pete and Carol Noyes

    1. So good to hear from you coach. George had so many fond memories of you!

  7. ken potash says:

    Great Job. George was a wonderful person and this is a perfect tribute on memorial day.

  8. Rich George says:

    I had the great pleasure of knowing George both on and off the field at Cornell. George was the kindest and friendliest person I have ever known.
    In 1992, we played on the offensive line together. For part of the season, when not playing left guard, I was at right guard alongside George and our center Troy Thompson. Those who have played the offensive line know it is a tight brotherhood. Offensive linemen are players who sacrifice all they have for the benefit of the team valuing discipline, perseverance, and work ethic. George was the epitome of the ideal brother on the line. He never waivered from working hard and sacrificing for the team. It was hard for all of us to learn of George’s passing. But, those who knew him weren’t surprised that he would be the one to sacrifice so much for his country… for all of us.
    I will never forget George, and I keep his memory alive by telling his story to my children.

  9. Eric Penttinen says:

    Thanks Chris, great stuff. George was a great teammate and a great guy. He worked his butt off every day on the field, and he always had a smile for everyone off of it. Our team and our country were lucky to have a man like him, and he’ll never be forgotten. We owe everything to warriors like George.

  10. Richard Perna says:

    These words about George are a fantastic tribute to him as man a husband and mostly a father .it made me very emotional .I knew george through my brother .I always liked him ,and because of my brothers relationship I personally felt I knew him better than I should have .I’m ever grateful for knowing him and to call him brother from a military point of view.

  11. John McNiff says:

    I was sitting in a barber shop waiting to get a haircut when I read this tribute to Woody. As tears began trickling down my face I was asked if everything was alright and I proceeded to tell everyone about my old teammate George Wood. Beers were quickly passed around from the fridge in back and a bunch of strangers toasted to a fallen hero. Thanks for writing this Chris and much love to Lisa and Maria.

    1. Oh I love that!! Thank you for sharing.

  12. Aaron Sumida says:

    Cornell football blood runs deep and far. Tears and love passionately run hard as I read the tribute. Great reminder and celebration this memorial day weekend.

  13. Such a beautiful tribute for his daughter to always cherish!

  14. Pete Reynolds says:

    Thanks Fields. What a great article. George Wood and family will be in my prayers over this Memorial Day. I was lucky to know such a great guy.

  15. Shevaun abbott says:

    This was so heartwarming and beautiful. I of course crying and cried. I had the pleasure of working with George’s mother for a few years before she retired. She is a kind and wonderful woman who raised a one of a kind son. I never met George but I am positive that he is everything and more than you described. I am happy that Lisa did the box for their daughter. I have things set aside for each of my kids for my husband to give as a sediment of me. You never want to think that you won’t see your kids grow up, but tragedy happens. As a child of a military family I will be remembering all that are no longer here, because they were protecting us. God bless George and all other servicemen and women.

  16. Peter Lee says:

    Had to come back after first read. College football coach, o line @Cornell. Looking at my 17 year old daughter. Thanks for sharing. Thanks for serving to all in harms way please come back.
    Pete Lee

  17. Chris Martin says:

    Chris, thank you for taking the time to write this, it was extremely moving to read and remember Woody. I fondly recall hanging out with him, Tabasso and Hans throughout my North Campus days, having lengthy discussions about everything and nothing at all. I think it’s great what you and others have done for his daughter, and for Lisa in keeping his memory alive for their family. RIP Woody.

  18. Valarie Adams says:

    I love that Maria was able to hear stories of her daddy, and it’s even more awesome that she got to see and hear him. Lisa, what a great gift. Love y’all!!!!

  19. Michael "Mikey" Babula Jr says:

    These are all really wonderful. Cornell, the Army, fatherhood and being a husband were all things George excelled at. Bit before he was any of those things he was my big brother, the greatest person I’ve ever known or met, ever.
    I was fortunate enough to witness this man, Georgie, as we refered to him as, achieve all of these things. He always made time for Matthew, Brian and myself o fish or watch Conan the Barbarian.

    I cherish the memories of my brother Matthew and I getting to go into the locker room at Cornell. Or the day he received his commission. The day that stands above them all is the day he became a dad.
    I find myself so very fortunate to have known him and more so to call him my brother. I don’t typically post on these forums but the words written about him here were so beautiful I felt compelled to do so. I hope I contributed to his memory a little more today. God bless you all for these wonderful words about my brother.
    Strength and Honor

  20. Michael "Mikey" Babula Jr says:

    These are all really wonderful. Cornell, the Army, fatherhood and being a husband were all things George excelled at. But before he was any of those things he was my big brother, the greatest person I’ve ever known or met, ever.
    I was fortunate enough to witness this man, Georgie, as we refered to him as, achieve all of these things. He always made time for Matthew, Brian and myself o fish or watch Conan the Barbarian.

    I cherish the memories of my brother Matthew and I getting to go into the locker room at Cornell. Or the day he received his commission. The day that stands above them all is the day he became a dad.
    I find myself so very fortunate to have known him and more so to call him my brother. I don’t typically post on these forums but the words written about him here were so beautiful I felt compelled to do so. I hope I contributed to his memory a little more today. God bless you all for these wonderful words about my brother.
    Strength and Honor

  21. Jim Hofher says:

    George was a great teammate, as shown by the heartfelt responses to Chris’ tribute to a fallen American. George was a lovable Big Red bear, and aptly, by the description in the article, an athlete-student rather than the other way around! From upstate NY to American hero, he will always be loved, and remembered, on Memorial Day, and every day. To Maria, your Dad was truly a terrific guy, a giver, a friend to so many. Be assured that his LIFE left an imprint upon those he knew….

    1. I never replay to anything but to NOT reply would do a disservice to George. I was proud to be called his father or BABS which he would call me . If their was a blueprint on what a respectful, loving ,caring person, father,son and a dedicated person should be it would be George. He made me a better person and a better father. From football at Notre Dame and getting 3 triple burgers at Wendy’s on the way home, at 10 o clock at night and then wanting to study Spanish says a lot ,and those who know me know how much I love to read and study. Then on the way he went to Cornell and have the honor to watch him play football and excell was something I can’t explain. I got to go to Germany and got a history lesson that was second to none and also to see Italy, Austria and if it wasn’t for George wouldn’t of see any of these countries. George and I would get spegetti ice cream every night.To see George interact with someone who was high on the food chain or at the bottom he didn’t miss a step treated everyone equally. I have a LOT of great memories from the Father’s Day card that I got from him while in Iraq to the letter saying we are going hunting when he gets home to going to Florida playing 100 games of basketball in the driveway. I can say this I Miss you very much, love you, and this country is a MUCH better place to live in because of you !!!!

  22. Jim Knowles says:

    That O-Line group was as special as any I have seen in all my years of college football! George was a true stalwart and a real hero. I was honored to be a part of George Wood Day. It was a great tribute to a great man. Cornell Football is fortunate to have his legacy with us forever .

  23. Jim Case says:

    Thanks Chris for giving focus to this Memorial Day. Will always keep George and his family in my thoughts and prayers.

  24. Dennis Ginley says:

    Chris: Thank you once again for writing an excellent tribute to George. He was an inspiration to everyone who knew him. His passing opened the eyes of many to the threat posed by IED’s, and inspired the use of other technologies for location, identification, and defeat of that threat. In this way, George continues to serve his fellow service members, of whom vast numbers have avoided serious harm as a result. His memory and his inspiration have been with me at each of the 135 military installations I have visited in my career. Many toasts have been raised, many more to follow.

  25. Barry Strauss says:

    Thank you, Chris, for this very moving article. George was my student in history classes at Cornell, for which I feel very fortunate. I honestly don’t remember his grades, although I think they were good, but his intelligence and passion shone through in everything he did. He was a big guy, as you know, but he had a pixie smile! Okay, maybe he wouldn’t have admitted to that. It was a privilege to know him and a pleasure to watch him, from a distance, mature into a young scholar of ancient history. He was kind enough to stay in touch by email and I really enjoyed following his research, just as I admired his service. His loss was devastating. I will also count knowing him as one of the high points of my career as a teacher. My thoughts are with his family, always.

    1. While I was very pleased (though hardly surprised) to see the praise and gratitude for George’s service and character from his Cornell teammates, coaches and staff, your comment meant the most to me. In addition to the instances of flat and uninspired writing, I don’t feel great about that remark concerning his grades. When people hear about a collegian’s underwhelming GPA, they think ‘hangovers and hacky sack’. In George’s case, if he was neglecting his studies, it was almost certainly because he was pouring over a dense text chronicling the tactics of Admiral Nimitz and the Pacific Fleet, or some such thing. Not many academically disinclined undergrads go on to study Ancient Greek and Latin, and aspire to a professorship at the United States Military Academy. So, thank you for your input.

      I’d heard second-hand stories of George’s scholarship and discoveries while he was overseas. If you’re not familiar with his ‘Army research’, I thought you might enjoy this account, sent by a fellow soldier, to George’s mother. (Sincere apologies to his family if I am betraying any trusts.)

      “George had so much talent and passion, it inspires me as much today as it ever did. As an example, I was watching 60 Minutes last night, and one of the stories was about a woman who’s changed the game of Archaeology in recent years through the use of satellite based infrared imagery (The infrared reveals changes in vegetation growth/density of soil that one can’t see with the naked eye revealing clear patterns where structures once stood). I know from discussion that George was combing through satellite imagery of Syria/Iraq in 2002/2003 and finding Roman locations. An amazing story that I witnessed first hand was back in 1999/2000 when George discovered his first Roman fort. He wheeled and dealed to get some Apache pilots that had been training in Hohenfels to fly over likely fort locations he had speculated existed on the Danube river near Regensburg based on his historical research. He had the Apaches use their FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) imaging to take photos of the ground at the locations. Looking at the imagery, the layout of the structures was apparent. This is how he found that Roman fort there near Regensburg. A modern day “Indiana Jones”… The infrared imaging concept is brilliant and it’s amazing what this archaeologist from the 60 Minutes piece has accomplished, but I’m just staggered that nearly 20 years ago, when we barely even had dumb cell phones let alone crowd sourced publicly available satellite imagery, that George was able to use his imagination, initiative and charisma to pull off what he did. George is so inspiring.”

      Again, my sincere thanks for being part of the Cornell family that rallied so vigorously to offer his family its praise, love and support.

  26. Thank you thank you thank you!!! George was in ROTC with me, words cant say enough about him. To see his daughter brings me such joy!!!!

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