Everyone has a story to tell and ours is not much different from many other military couples dealing with a decade of war as well as infertility issues. Our journey began shortly after Julie and I married in 1998 as we began our new life together. We resided in the small community of New Market, Alabama and like most newlywed couples we wanted to settle into our new house and get our finances in order before thinking about starting a family. As Julie reminds me from time to time I am a spender while she is a saver in this newly formed union.
At the time of our marriage I was 34 years old and Julie was 29. Most people our age already had several children but at the time in our lives we did not seem to be concerned about the fact that we were approaching “middle age” which would make having children harder as well as placing us in a higher risk category for birth defects and the possibility of threatening Julie’s health while carrying a child. In 2000 I accepted a full time position with the National Guard and we left north Alabama to move to central Mississippi. Our future seemed very bright as we anticipated our move and new life there.
Our day to day life at this point seemed to be great and uneventful; we both worked and spent our off hours in church activities and enjoyed hobbies such as scouting, civil war reenacting, and horseback riding. We had also decided to totally renovate our newly purchased forty year old farmhouse which turned into a major undertaking and months of living in dust and construction debris but was well worth the decision.
In 2003 the War on Terror was in full swing as a result of the attacks on September 11, 2001. I was a 20 year veteran and was currently serving as the Administrative Officer at the local National Guard armory in our hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. As a matter of fact, Julie and I were having a conversation one night a few months after the attacks and she mentioned that she had thought about joining the military but had not pursued it because of her advanced studies in veterinarian medicine at Auburn.
I told her that she was still young enough to look into joining if she was interested and so she agreed to take a direct commission if the Army would take her. After tons of prayers, paperwork, and physicals Julie was sworn in at the rank of Captain in the Veterinarian Corps in July, 2003. Our life seemed to be moving in a peaceful and joyful direction during this period. Julie was working as a Veterinarian at a local animal hospital and besides working for the Guard I served as a volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America as a Scout Master with Troop 87 at my church.
It was this point in our lives that things began to unravel and our world began to change in a negative way. First, my unit was mobilized in December, 2003 for service in southwestern Iraq (in what was known as part of the “Sunni Triangle” which was probably one of the most volatile areas of that country). We would serve there in during the height of the war (2004-05) in and around Al-Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baghdad and would become famous for the bloodshed during the early months of 2004.
Julie remained at home and continued to work until she too was mobilized in June of 2004. Although this meant that our home in Philadelphia would be mothballed and our animals (horses, dog, cat, chickens, and goats) would have to be cared for she was sent to Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center (CSJFTC) to serve as the post Veterinarian. It was about the time she was mobilized that she found out she was pregnant with our first child. I remember how she broke the news to me over the telephone and how excited I was. I was on cloud nine for several days as I tried to mentally prepare myself for fatherhood. This excitement would turn to deep depression as I received news from her that she had miscarried the child. My heart was broken but I continued to focus on my job in Iraq.
Besides the fact that I was half way around the world fighting a war and Julie was three hours from our home her beloved mare birthed a foal that ended up being euthanized due to a freak accident (which resulted in a broken leg while being left alone). When I returned in February, 2005 I tried to recoup my life as it had been prior to 2003. Julie was still mobilized at Camp Shelby and would remain there for another three years; the scout troop I had left with twenty-eight scouts was down to four; and within a few months I was command directed to move three hours south to another position within my command forcing us to make a decision to sell our small farm in Philadelphia.
In May, 2006 we moved to south Mississippi and continued to stay involved in our church but abandoned our hobbies (horses) because we did not have the time required or barns to handle this pastime. It was during this time that we continued to pursue having a baby and made multiple trips to Jackson, Mississippi for invetro fertilization treatments. In December, 2006 Julie found out she was pregnant. We held our breath for the first few months hoping that she would not miscarry and finally accepted that she would carry the baby full term. When we found out that the baby was a girl we decided to name her Ella (after my Great Grandmother) and Marie (after Julie). On August 24, 2007 Ella Marie Formby was born at Wesley Hospital in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She weighed 5 lbs and was 21 inches long and was perfect in every way.
Julie was a wonderful mother and she and Ella were able to spend six weeks getting to know one another before Julie had to return to work at Camp Shelby. Julie’s parents came and stayed with us for a month which allowed them to get to know Ella as well as being a blessing to us. Ella was a beautiful child both physically and spiritually and brought our family pure joy and happiness for the time she was on earth. She was smart and loving to all that knew her-she never met a stranger.
In the fall of 2010 I was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan as part of the president’s surge strategy to wipe out insurgent activity in that country. Julie and Ella moved to Alabama to be close to her parents. This turned out to be a blessing because only a few months after arriving home her father died of a massive heart attack hours after Ella’s 4th Birthday party. The deployment seemed to last a lifetime as I was separated from Julie and Ella but we made it and in late summer 2011 I made it home safely.
At this point we began searching for a home closer to my job because we had been living on family property and my commute was approximately 89 miles one-way. In July, 2012 we found a small farm near Sumrall, Mississippi and decided to move there mainly because the school system in that area was wonderful, as well as the fact that I was a lot closer to my work.
We enrolled Ella in Sumrall Elementary School kindergarten in the fall and she seemed to love every day she attended. We also found a church and became very active in the church there. I had also decided to re-enroll at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana and continue to work on my Masters Degree in Divinity (which I had started in 1991).
Our lives seemed to be getting back on track after 10 years of stress, when on January 25, 2013 our lives would be changed in a tragic way by the selfish free will choice of one individual. That 10 second collision changed our lives forever.
from left to right: (our car from the front, Ella being held by a fireman, last photo taken before the accident, another view of the car)
"Arise, shine; For your light has come! And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you. For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, And deep darkness the people; But the Lord will arise over you, And His glory will be seen upon you. The Gentiles shall come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising."
Friday, January 25, 2013 was a beautiful day. The weather was clear blue skies and a slight cool breeze with temperatures in the mid-60's most of the day. Julie called me early in the day to remind me we would be meeting friends that night at The Back Door Restaurant, one of our favorites, located about 25 miles away in Columbia, Mississippi. I arrived home around 4:45 PM and rushed in to shower and change clothes prior to leaving that evening. As we walked out, we talked about our plans for the next day, which included working in our flower beds, attending Ella's first Upward Basketball game at the church, and then taking her to the 3 PM birthday party of her best friend, Gracie.
That particular evening, we decided to take the 1940 Chevrolet Master Deluxe Sedan, aka "Ole Bess", a car I had purchased 20 years prior. It was ideal for the for the short drive we were making with a full moon coming up. We arrived at the restaurant as scheduled and had a wonderful visit. As we started to leave approximately 7:50 PM, I stopped and showed my friend my car, and we talked beside her for about 10 minutes. We hugged, said our goodbye's, and all piled into Bess for the ride home.
As we made our way through the small town of Columbia, all three of us were in awe of the brightness of the full moon. Ella was the first to comment saying, "Look at the moon guys!" We all talked about how beautiful it was and the fact that it was so brilliant that evening.
As we turned onto Hwy 44 heading east, we again discussed the plans for the following day while Ella continued to comment on the moon. I began telling her that the moon would dance through the trees and follow us all the way home. About 10 miles into the drive, I made a remark to Julie that it was very unusual to not see very much traffic on this highway. We had scarcely passed any vehicles since leaving the city limits of Columbia. Just about the time I said that, Ella reminded us that it was Friday night, and that she would be sleeping with her Mommy (a new tradition we had started a few weeks before). She added, "Daddy, you'll have to sleep in the guest room, because you snore!" We all laughed and continued our small talk.
It was at this point I noticed a car approaching from behind at a very high rate of speed. I glanced down at my speedometer, and Ole Bess was holding steady at her top speed of 50 MPH. As the car moved within 100 yards or so, I looked at Julie then glanced down to my left and said, "Honey, this fool is going to attempt to pass me on a double yellow line!" I began to move my car off the road to allow the person room enough to pass if they chose to.
Those words had barely left my mouth when the approaching car impacted ours at such a high rate of speed, that it threw Julie and I forward violently. Our car was lifted and began spinning out of control. I yelled, "Hang on!" All I could hear were Ella and Julie screaming. I turned the steering wheel hard left to correct the spin, but the car was uncontrollable. Then I saw the a huge oak tree directly in front of us as my car came out of the spin. I attempted to miss the tree, but the car slammed into it, ripping off the right side of the car as it absorbed the impact. Then we hit a second oak tree head-on which caused the car to violently flip, throwing Julie out.
As the car stopped, I was stunned. The car was lying on its right side trapping Ella and me inside. I yelled for Julie but she did not answer. Ella began screaming again and crying for her Mommy. I grabbed for her and unbuckled her seat belt. I could smell gasoline and knew we needed to get out of the vehicle. I yelled for help because my left arm was broken and I could not open the driver's door, which was now directly over my head. Finally, a good Samaritan yanked the door open from above and assisted me in getting myself and my daughter out. Once out of the car, Ella seemed fine for the moment, so I ran towards my wife's lifeless body about 20 yards from where the car came to rest. As I rolled her over, her entire front skull was visible and looked as if she had been scalped. Her eyes were half opened and fully dilated. She was not breathing, and I yelled for someone to please call 911. I remember screaming something to the effect of "She's gone!"
I then ran back to Ella, and it was at that moment a lady said, "Mr. Formby, I am one of Ella's kindergarten teachers!" When she called Ella's name, Ella ran to her. It was then that I began to hear my Julie moaning in pain, so I ran back to her. She ask me to roll her on her side because she was having trouble breathing. I kept begging someone to please call 911, and they reassured me help was on the way. In what seemed like hours I finally started hearing the distant sounds of sirens coming. Within a few minutes, Julie was airlifted to the local hospital by helicopter, and Ella and I were transported by ambulance.
Ella died on February 4, 2013 from head injuries sustained in the accident.
I want to say first how grateful I am to the first responders and the neighbors who stopped to help us at the accident scene. I also want to say thank you to our church body who has loved us like we’ve been with them for six generations instead of just six months.
I would like to talk just a minute about being Ella’s earthly Daddy, and then I want to tell you about her Heavenly Father…
As her earthly Daddy, I did everything in my power to protect her…
Like the time last summer she came running in the back door screaming that the rooster had attacked her. When I examined her legs she was bleeding. I calmly walked to my room and grabbed my 12 gauge shotgun, stepped out back to find her attacker. When I asked Ella to show me which rooster had done this terrible deed she said, “That one Daddy” (pointing) and I aimed and shot him. It was at that moment I felt a tug on my shirt and she said, “Wrong one Daddy, you shot the wrong one!”
As her earthly Daddy, I tried to teach her about God and His beautiful creation, which included not only the flowers that she loved, but also the trees, sun, wind, moon, and stars. For several weeks prior to her death we would lie under the stars and talk about how God had not only created the stars but named everyone of them. I would say to her, “Ella, have you ever just stopped to imagine just how 'big and powerful' our God is?” She would just stare up into the Heavens as she snuggled up to Julie and me in the large blanket we were under and reply, “No, Daddy tell me!”
The Holy Scriptures tell us, “He [God] counts the number of the stars; He calls them all by name. Great is our Lord, and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite.” (Psalm 147:4-5)
I continued to explain that some people attempt to sell stars to the public but, “the stars belong to God, and He has already named them.” Then I would tell her that God is very real, even though we can’t see Him, just like the wind is very real even though we can’t see the wind. Like when the wind comes in the form of a tornado, in all it’s power, and blows a house to the ground: although we can’t see it, it’s very real, and very powerful. "Ella, do you understand?” “Yes, Daddy” she replied. I had no idea that she would go to her kindergarten class the next day and tell her classmates that they had better believe in God, or He would blow their house down with a tornado. I could just imagine a classmate saying, “I believe Ella, I believe!”
Now, to some, Ella’s death feels like a tragedy, and the earthly events are tragic no doubt. But, God knew giving someone free will would result in the events that led to our daughter’s death. And He moved in eternity-past to counter that free will choice TO GAIN HIS GREAT VICTORY FOR HIMSELF AND FOR HIS KINGDOM. So yes, this feels like a tragedy; but Julie and I have never practiced a faith in our Great God based on feelings. Feelings can easily deceive us, and so we cling to our faith based on God’s WORD AND HIS PROMISES.
God promises He will SUSTAIN us, and ,so far, He has. We believe this promise for tomorrow also. He promises He will EMPOWER us and that He is a VERY PRESENT HELP in time of trouble. He has promised everything we need for LIFE and GODLINESS, REGARDLESS OF CIRCUMSTANCES. He has promised ETERNAL LIFE for those of us who place our trust in the salvation of Jesus Christ. Up until now, I thought I understood that sacrifice. But now I understand that sacrifice even more: the loss, BUT ONLY FOR A TIME, of a most precious, beloved only child, Ella Marie Formby.
My prayer is that everyone within my hearing will embrace our Lord’s sacrifice and enjoy the real life that’s to come. Now I know we are tempted to ask WHY? Why did this have to happen? There are many things about our great God that we don’t understand; He tells us His ways are mysterious. But we will not focus on what we don’t know about our God. No, instead we will focus on what we DO KNOW. And what we know is that if God could have glorified Himself by healing Ella this side of glory, He would have done exactly that, and He would have done it with the same ease as when He created her the first time. But, since in His great love and wisdom He did not choose to do that, we know that He will glorify Himself more and draw more people to Himself for eternity in taking her home to be with Him.
Yes, for Julie and I, our family, and others who loved Ella, there is immense pain. But from that pain will come huge, magnificent, supernatural gain! Yes, there is sorrow tonight, but there will be joy in the morning.
Ella means “light” or “torch” in the Greek and Hebrew, and Julie and I know unequivocally that our commission as long as we have breath is to stand up daily, reach down, pick up Ella’s torch, march out ahead and not waste a single opportunity to further our Lord’s Kingdom.
We covet your prayers for us; there are many hard days to come (we DO know this). However, we will persevere! WE WILL FINISH THIS RACE, EYES FIXED ON JESUS, UNTIL OUR EYES SEE OUR ELLA AGAIN IN GLORY!
Don't miss this beautiful slide show from Ella's funeral featuring the song "How Great Is Our God" by Chris Tomlin.