Staff Sgt. Nathan Cox, 32, of Davenport, Iowa died four years ago today. He was a well-loved and highly respected Soldier, husband, father, son and brother. He is sorely missed.
Nate attended Davenport Central High School. He joined the Army and served three years in Bosnia in the mid 1990s. He then went to work as a security officer for two years at the Genesis Medical Centers in Davenport before he rejoined the Army when he was 29 and decided to make it a career, serving for a year in Iraq before he was sent to Afghanistan in July 2008.
Nathan was E-6 staff sergeant of Viper Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas. He was very interested in foreign affairs and wanted to help the people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Known as a leader who took the time to listen to his soldiers, he had a magnetic personality that drew people towards him. Nathan married Annie Volrath Madden on July 15, 2005 in Eldridge, Iowa, and he loved to spend time outdoors, cooking for family and friends; sitting quietly with a cup of coffee contemplating life and all it's joys; sports; visiting with friends; just doodling; as well as being an avid reader and writer. The things that Nate loved and cherished most in life were his family; he was a very devoted son, husband, father, brother and solider. Nathan was also very generous, and during a period in his earlier years he shared a gift of life that he always carried with him in his heart and soul.
Staff Sergeant Cox died as a result of a roadside bomb in the Korengal Valley. He received many awards and during his military career, including the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart, posthumous. He is survived by his wife Annie, a daughter Sophia, at home; step daughter, Nichole Madden, and a step son, Jake Madden, a granddaughter Alyvia, his parents, Les E. and Jane M. (Corbett) Cox, Walcott, Iowa; a sister and brother-in-law, Hannah Cox and Carlos Encarnación, their daughter, Aryanne; his maternal grandmother, Rose Corbett; mother-in-law, and her spouse, Carolyn and Jim Hamilton; father-in-law, and his spouse, George and Marge Volrath; as well as sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law, Debbie (Dave) Kopf; Jay (Sheila) Volrath; Martha (Wade) Schneider; Liz (Dan) Allison; and Zack Volrath; a special gift, Katie, and numerous nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his grandparents, Jack Martin Corbett, and Lester and Ava Moore Cox.
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On Christmas Day, they planned to catch a movie and then spend a night by the fire at home, but for Nathan Cox’s wife and daughter, memories of him are never far away.
Sgt. Cox, a Davenport native, and one of his fellow soldiers died from an explosion along a road in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley on Sept. 20.
His wife, Annie, and 6-year-old daughter, Sophie, recently moved back to the Quad-Cities from Fort Hood, Texas. Annie found a house for them in Davenport and enrolled Sophie in a local school.
The transition has been a challenge, not to readjust to civilian life, but to their first holiday season without Nathan. Sometimes, tears still come with little warning.
A few days before Nathan’s death, Annie had a dream in which he died, and she told him about it.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry, sweetie, nothing is going to happen to me, these guys aren’t going to get me,’ ” she recalled. “I said you’re not in control of that.”
Annie, who is originally from Princeton, Iowa, said it was hard on their daughter when Nathan was first deployed to Afghanistan in July. Sophie was confused and told a friend her father was dead, her mother recalled. Annie had Sophie see a counselor, who helped her cope with her dad’s absence.
When news came of her husband’s death, Annie had to explain to her daughter that Daddy wasn’t coming back, but she thinks the counseling helped prepare Sophie somewhat.
“She was a little angry, a little sad and angry,” Annie said of her daughter. “He did a lot of things with Sophie. She’s got a lot of good memories.”
Annie said her daughter is making new friends.
“She’s happy and well-adjusted,” she said. “I don’t know how this will affect her in the future.”
Annie has her husband’s journal and an autopsy report. She knows what his life was like in the days and weeks before his death and read the details about how he died. She recently found out that his autopsy pictures are available, and she would like to see those, too, if only to bring her more closure.
“You can’t escape death,” she said. “I could have a million questions and how could anyone answer them?”
The narrow road
Right before the explosion, the four men were laughing about how their truck was bigger than the road and how they might fall off into the ravine if they weren’t careful.
Sean Hollins was driving. Nathan Cox was next to him in the passenger seat. The medic, Keith Young, was behind Hollins, and Joseph Gonzales Jr. was manning the machine gun behind Cox.
That’s all Hollins remembers. Young had to fill him in on the rest, although his memory was spotty. Hollins also has pictures of the mangled truck he was driving. The only seat left inside was his.
“I still don’t know how in the world me and Young are up and walking and talking,” Hollins said.
A tree caught most of the truck while Young and Hollins were thrown down the hillside toward a river. Young remembered the boom and waking long enough to see Hollins being airlifted out.
Before the attack, the men turned around short of their destination because they were getting reports of a possible ambush, Annie Cox was told. There were four trucks, and Nathan’s was third in line until they made the turn, and he waved the fourth to go ahead.
Annie said the men probably drove over the explosive on the way out, which is why she thinks someone was watching and set it off on their return trip. She was told the insurgents often target the first or last vehicle in the line.
Hollins said the men were using a metal detection device to scan the road for explosives.
“Sometimes, we find them in a different way,” he said.
They knew how dangerous the job was. As it turned out, Hollins and Young were the first men from their company to survive an explosion on that road.
“It’s always in your head when you go out on the road,” Hollins said of dying. “It’s always in the back of your head.”
Hollins suffered traumatic brain injuries and broken ribs. He underwent surgery on his spine and was laid up in a hospital at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, before he was sent home to Chicago in November. Young eventually went home to Kentucky.
Hollins said he still wants to go back to Afghanistan if the Army gives him a medical clearance.
“All of my buddies are back there, and I know how undermanned they are,” he said.
Annie said the last time she talked to Nathan was a few days before the explosion. He was running late for a meeting and just happened to catch her at home on a day she took off from work. He promised to call back soon, but there was a blackout at his base followed by a hectic schedule. They never reached each other.
When she later visited Young and Hollins at the hospital in Texas, she asked Hollins why Nathan didn’t get a chance to call. He said there just wasn’t time.
The military life
Annie and Nathan Cox met in 2001. For a while, he was looking at a career in law enforcement and worked in security for Genesis Medical Center. Eventually, he decided he wanted to join the Army and make it his career. He had served previously, right out of high school, and spent time in Bosnia in the mid-1990s.
“I don’t know if he didn’t care for the jobs out there, but he decided he was going to enlist,” Annie Cox said. “He said we would all go.”
The family went to Fort Bragg in North Carolina in 2005, and within two months, Nathan was deployed to Iraq. When he returned, they were relocated to Fort Hood, where they spent a year and a half together until Nathan was deployed to Afghanistan.
“He was in a lot of training, and he was gone a lot,” Annie said, adding that right before he left, he was in training at Fort Hood, which gave them more time together.
While Nathan was deployed, Annie worked as a family readiness support assistant, helping other soldiers and their wives with various needs. In that job, she realized the importance of being prepared in case something happened to her husband. She and Nathan discussed what they would do if he died, where she and Sophie might live and what kind of schooling their daughter should receive.
She said a lot of the soldiers’ wives don’t make such preparations and find themselves not knowing what to do when their husbands are killed.
“There are a lot of widows in Killeen,” she said, referring to the city outside Fort Hood.
Annie Cox knows in the years that follow a soldier’s death, they are often forgotten by all but those closest to them.
“I don’t want anyone to forget Nathan or to forget what sacrifice we made as a family,” she said. “And it’s not out of heroism or anything. He wanted to do that. Our Army right now is a volunteer Army, so the people that are there want to be there. They don’t want to be war heroes.”
Shortly before they were deployed, Sean Hollins and some of his fellow soldiers were arrested for a fight in Austin, Texas.
One of the first people to come see them at the jail was their sergeant, Nathan Cox of Davenport, who brought his wife and daughter along but had them wait in the car. Hollins was relieved to see him.
“Sgt. Cox was just like a dad to me,” Hollins said. “These weren’t just people I worked with, these were family.”
Annie Cox, Nathan’s wife, remembered how Nathan rushed to Austin to check on his men. She said as long as his soldiers were honest and confessed to any wrongdoing, he would do what he could to help them.
Hollins was driving the truck Sept. 20, when Cox and fellow soldier Joseph Gonzales Jr. were killed by a roadside explosive in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.
He told stories about Cox during a recent phone interview while recovering at a military hospital in San Antonio, Texas.
Hollins said it was also Cox who helped him with paperwork so he could go home when his father died last January. He said Cox’s influence went beyond that of being his squad leader.
“I wish I could be like him, I really do,” Hollins said. “He would make the best of any situation, and I enjoyed him being my squad leader.”
Joseph Gonzales Sr. of Tucson, Ariz., said Cox was an inspiration to his son as well. The teenager often talked about Cox when he called home.
“He mentioned Nathan a lot, that was his sergeant and he loved him,” Gonzales said. “He idolized him and wanted to be like him. (Nathan) was the type of soldier he wanted to be.”
Annie Cox said her husband would take time on his days off to work with soldiers who weren’t meeting weight requirements and would counsel them when they had problems. He also knew when to keep his distance and declined numerous requests to go out drinking with the men.
“He really looked out for the soldiers,” Annie said. “Nathan remembered being a young soldier like they were.”
Gery Ryan, a senior personnel service sergeant from Dubuque, Iowa, assigned as Annie Cox’s casualty assistance officer, has been in the military more than 20 years. He said younger soldiers are quick to recognize a leader they can trust.
“You always know they look up to those guys because they lead by example,” Ryan said. “You show me first, and then I’ll follow you. (Those leaders) give them that ease when they’re in harm’s way no matter what happens.”
Army held appeal
From an early age, his son was an “action junky,” Joseph Gonzales Sr. said.
At 12, he started working with his father in construction and enjoyed tearing things up with a sledgehammer. The Army appealed to that energetic side of his personality, but the decision to join still surprised his father.
“It’s something you didn’t want, but you back up what he wanted,” Gonzales said.
Once in the service, the younger Gonzales wanted to join the Airborne, but when he didn’t qualify, he took a liking to operating the machine-guns on the back of Humvees, his dad said. He stayed in touch with his family by phone as much as he could.
Shortly after the men arrived in Afghanistan, Gonzales told his father about one of the first fights they were in.
“Cox was up there telling everyone to get to their guns,” Gonzales said. His son “ran to the Hummer and started nailing everything as fast as he could.”
Any time Gonzales’ family expressed their concern for his safety, the teen assured them he would be OK, thanks to Cox.
“Every time he told us not to worry because his sergeant was over there a couple of tours,” Gonzales recalled. “He said he’ll know what to do.”
Hollins said it was by chance that Gonzales ended up in the same truck with him and Cox the day of the explosion because Gonzales was in a different squad at the time.
When the two were neighbors at Fort Hood, they would hang out on occasion. He remembers Gonzales sending paychecks home to his family in Tucson.
Staying in touch
In the weeks following their sons’ deaths, the parents of Nathan Cox and Joseph Gonzales stayed in touch and shared information.
“I’m even continuing to learn things I didn’t know,” said Jane Cox, Nathan’s mother.
Both families have found talking to one another comforting.
“I find it a relief because she is a parent of a son who was with him,” Gonzales said of Jane Cox. “There is a little bit of relief between us.”
“He’s more or less just checking on our family and seeing how we’re doing,” Jane Cox said of Gonzales. “It’s kind of light conversation. We’re both kind of in the same spot.”