Imagine being awakened in the middle of the night by the insistent ringing of your doorbell — and finding a naked, bleeding woman facedown on your doorstep, pleading for help.
That's what confronted Frank James of Killeen, Texas. An Army veteran of Desert Storm and Somalia, he recognized the three 9 mm bullet wounds in her back.
"Oh, my God. ... Get a blanket!" he called to a family member. As he dialed 911 and shut the door behind him, he told his children to stay inside.
He covered and stayed with the 24-year-old woman — who had been abducted by a stranger and raped — and protected her until police and rescuers arrived. After she was saved in hours of surgery, he and his family visited in the hospital.
The woman was our Omaha-born daughter, at the time a first-grade teacher at nearby Fort Hood. On a night of horror that also saw many heroes, Frank was her first. We have stayed in touch over the past decade, honoring his friendship and his role in helping to save Bridget's life.
And now we honor his life, which has ended at 53 — far too soon. He will be buried Monday at a military veterans cemetery in Killeen, home of Fort Hood, the largest active-duty armored post in the U.S. Armed Services.
It's not just that he responded on that night in the way you would hope; he also continued to show over the years what a good man he was.
"He was always who we thought he was: a hard worker, always looking out for his family," Bridget said over the weekend from New York, where she is a literacy specialist at a public school.
She and boyfriend (now fiance) Eric Strauss, an ABC News producer who worked on her "Prime Time" story of survival and had interviewed Frank, visited him and his family three years ago when Bridget was in Texas to speak for a crime-victim rights event.
"I had called and said we wanted to stop by, and Frank said, 'You come over anytime you want,' " she recalled. "When we got there, he gave me a big hug, and was always just so easy to talk to. We sat and talked about family things."
Frank and Dennette James first met in English class at Northeastern High in Elizabeth City, N.C., where he played football. After graduation in 1977, he enlisted in the Army.
Home on leave that Christmas, he dropped to a knee and proposed, giving her a ring. But her mother said she was too young, still a teenager.
Frank eventually served two tours in Germany but never lost touch. When he was assigned to Fort Hood in 1988, he asked Dennette to join him. They married on March 16, 1990.
He soon went to the Persian Gulf for Desert Storm, and served in Somalia in 1993, blocks away from the "Black Hawk Down" helicopter shootdown.
He retired from the Army in 1997 and since has worked for defense contractors. Two weeks ago, he went to Iowa City to be certified to paint military aircraft.
While there, he called Dennette from a hospital, saying doctors thought he could leave in a couple of days. But she soon received a call that he was in a coma and his organs were shutting down. She and other family members got there before he died.
The results of an autopsy won't be known for weeks, but she said Frank had had heart problems.
In the days since his death, she said, fellow workers and others all have said that he was humble and "always had a smile for everyone, always a pleasant word."
Nine years ago, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation flew Frank and Dennette to Omaha because Bridget was being honored. When introduced to the audience of 650, he received a standing ovation.
But there was a surprise for Frank. On the mantel of his home in Killeen sits a 1993 photo from Somalia of Frank with Gen. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
For the 2003 banquet, then-U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska had arranged for a framed letter, whose writer commended Frank "for your bravery and compassion in coming to the aid of Bridget Kelly."
The letter continued: "You are a hero. Let me also take this opportunity to thank you for your service in the uniform of our beloved nation. With best wishes, Colin L. Powell," U.S. secretary of state.
The funeral of (Ret.) Staff Sgt. Frank E. James will be held Monday at Comanche Chapel on Fort Hood, with arrangements by the Crawford-Bowers Funeral Home. I will attend. Among Frank's survivors are son Donte' and daughter Nikkiya.
Frank took a risk in opening his door 10 years ago. The gunman had driven Bridget's car to pick up two friends, intending to return and show off Bridget's dead body — but she made it 200 yards from a field to Frank's door. Her attacker was arrested and sentenced to life plus 40 years.
As Bridget said of Frank on one of her TV interviews: "I have often thought that that was exactly what I needed at that moment — a soldier."
On Saturday in New York, my daughter was measured for her wedding dress. On Monday in Texas, a man we'll never forget will be buried — a brave former soldier who responded in her time of need.
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