The knock on the door of their Toms River home was the one the Harveys had been dreading since their son James was deployed to Afghanistan in January.
Just days after they’d received his sergeant stripes in the mail for their son’s upcoming promotion – and on the brink of the president’s announcement that troops would be withdrawn from the country – Susan and James Harvey learned that James, 23, had been killed in action when insurgents attacked his unit with small arms fire on Monday in the Ghazni province.
“As soon as my mom opened the door, she knew. They didn't have to say anything,” said Harvey’s sister Christine in a phone interview. “It’s mind-numbing. It’s still surreal for us.”
The Harveys lowered the flag on their Bayview Drive home and, learning the tragic news, their neighbors followed suit – one even played Taps.
Harvey was a 2005 Arthur L. Johnson graduate, where he played lacrosse for two years, was well liked, a good student and had many friends. He lived on Conger Way in Clark after moving from Union with his parents and three older sisters – Christine, 35, Robin, 29, and Tracey, 25. (The Harveys moved to Toms River in 2007.)
Harvey went on to study at Lincoln Tech, work as a mechanic and then as a substation operator for PSEG. But joining the Army was always on his mind. He enlisted in January 2009 and was deployed to Afghanistan in January of this year.
The Harvey family’s pain is only mitigated by the knowledge that James – more often known as “Jimmy” – died with honor, doing what he loved.
“Jimmy wanted to do this right out of high school,” said Christine. “I do think 9/11 might have had a little to do with it. He was trying to find out where his knack was after high school and the bottom line was it all kept leading back to the Army.”
“It was something he felt he had to do,” said Tracey.
Harvey’s father had also served in the Army after enlisting during the Vietnam War and was stationed in Germany for some time. “My parents weren’t surprised when he wanted to enlist,” said Christine. “They were supportive, but of course they were worried.”
Harvey was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division out of Fort Knox, Kentucky. He was a model soldier and moved through the ranks quickly, ascending to corporal in just two years. “He fit right in,” said Christine. “He took it very seriously. If you mocked the Army or made any kind of condescending remark, he was first to defend it.”
Harvey was deployed in January, his first deployment, and would have been in Afghanistan for a year.
He looked forward to getting there, writing on Facebook that he “can’t wait to be ‘Boots on the Ground.' ” Harvey used the social networking site to keep in touch with friends and family and updated his status regularly, often with a sense of humor. After a month of deployment, he wrote, “So Afghanistan, definitely an awesome vacation spot, never a dull moment.”
The Harvey family is grateful that James was able to come home for R&R for a few weeks just last month. "When he was home, he was in a good mood," said Christine. "We had a barbecue and he spent lots of time with friends and family. We made a point to all get together."
Friends say Harvey was anxious to get back to the Army and even went to the shooting range while he was home, though he was nervous about retaliation after Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2.
"I was worried," said Christine. "He was worried. Even though he was excited about Osama's death, he felt it gave a false sense of hope, and he knew it was going to make his job harder. Once he went back in May it was a lot of action. He wasn't as talkative as he was in the beginning. He was busy."
"I asked him, 'When do you think you guys are going to get done?' " said Tracey, "and he said not anytime soon."
The way friends and family talk about Harvey – dependable, disciplined, a thrill-seeker, passionate, would give you the shirt off his back – it seems no surprise he joined the military. He loved paintballing and the video game Call of Duty, camping, fishing ("as long as something was biting," says Tracey) and the outdoors. He was a Boy Scout. Tracey and Christine say he felt like he had found his perfect fit in the Army.
His sisters depict Harvey as all you could ask for in a brother. “He was always there for us,” said Christine. “Sure, he’d moan and complain the way brothers do when you’d call him to come help you fix a flat, but he’d always show up.”
He bonded easily with his 5-year-old nephew Ryan. “Jimmy turned into a 5-year-old around him,” said Christine, who struggles with how she’ll break the news to her son. And though he was their little brother, Harvey was more often the big brother type – not only for his sisters, but also for whoever needed a ride, a hand, a friend.
"He was probably one of the best guys I knew," said Jessica Kraft, 23, who met Harvey through mutual friends seven years ago. Kraft remembers a night when she hurt her back and couldn't drive home and Harvey and a friend came and picked her up, brought her ice, and let her hang out until she felt better. "And he was a goofball. He was really funny. But he would open his house for anyone who needed something. He was a very loving person and someone you wanted to be around."
"The best trait about him was dependability," said another friend, Brian Scarpellini, 22. "It didn’t even matter if you two were in an awful fight. If you needed him for any reason, he was always there. And he was also well-known for diffusing fights among friends." Scarpellini says Harvey's death has already brought their group of friends closer and made them realize how important it is to keep in touch.
Kraft, Scarpellini and other friends describe Harvey as the life of the party and the home he shared with friends in Scotch Plains before enlisting was often the location. During the times he came home from Army, Harvey would still let loose with friends, but remained focused – after a night out, while everyone else would still be sleeping off the buzz, he’d already be up and out for a run. "I've never met someone who enjoyed being in the Army so much," said Kraft. "He absolutely loved it and was almost fiending to go back last time he was home."
"When he decided to join the Army, I was surprised because it was like he had a set life in a sense," said Scarpellini. "He didn’t have to worry. He worked for PSE&G and he was doing well for his age. The career that he had was very promising. But I think everyone knew he was looking for something else."
His sisters say Harvey’s tough-guy exterior belied a deeply emotional center. "With his personal life, he was quiet," said Christine. "Even with his friends, he wouldn't really show his emotions. And he couldn't because he actually was so emotional. He was a big mush, so he had to have that facade."
"He was very mature for his age," said Scarpellini. "I’ve always known him just to drive when he was upset. He found a lot of scenic overlooks and routes we didn’t know, and when he was upset would go hide in one of those spots. Even though he was active and at times very loud, what he always really wanted was tranquility."
Today the family will meet the plane carrying their son’s body at Dover Airforce Base in Delaware. Funeral arrangements at O’Brien Funeral Home in Wall are still being finalized. Harvey will be awarded the Bronze Star for heroism and the Purple Heart and has been posthumously promoted to sergeant. He would have turned 24 next month on July 21.
"Jimmy was very proud of what he did," said Christine. "As much as we all are hurting, we all are very proud. It takes a strong man to go off to war and not many men are willing to do it voluntarily."
"He always had to make sure everyone was safe, in a sense," said Scarpellini. "A lot of people only look out for themselves nowadays, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason he died was because he was looking out for someone else."
In the wake of Harvey’s death, friends are still writing to him on his Facebook wall, their notes of love and sorrow echoing in a now-silent space. But Harvey’s earlier messages suggest how he might reply: In February, he wrote, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”