U.S. Navy Lieutenant James Potter of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, was elated to be home for the holidays after spending nearly two years in harm's way aboard a ship that was in and out of the Persian Gulf more times than his mother wanted to know.
To commemorate his return, his family had planned a special reunion last Saturday in Las Vegas, and all was going according to plan.
Potter arrived Saturday at the Los Angeles International Airport, where his fiancee met him. His parents and favorite uncle and aunt were waiting for them at Harrah's Casino in Las Vegas.
And topping off the reunion was a special gift for his mom: rare concert tickets for Canadian diva Celine Dion.
He was so excited that he forgot to fasten his seat belt when he stopped for gas just outside Las Vegas. Then came sudden brake lights on Las Vegas Boulevard, and the SUV Potter was driving veered and rolled across the highway.
Potter, 30, who had survived nearly two years of continuous overseas duty, was thrown from the vehicle and died instantly. His fiancee, Rose Torres of San Diego, who was wearing a seat belt, suffered a broken nose and bruises.
They were five minutes from Harrah's.
“That's what gets me,” his mother said Thursday. “I was so afraid for him the whole time all this war bit was going on. Never would I think he would come home and be in this senseless accident. And we were five minutes from seeing him.”
The news sent shock waves through Beaver Falls, where Potter had excelled in academics and athletics at Beaver Falls High School. His parents, George and Paulette Potter of North Sewickley Township, were highly regarded employees in Big Beaver Falls Area School District. He had retired as assistant superintendent and she as a high school guidance counselor. The family is regarded as a pillar of the community.
“It broke my heart when I heard,” said lawyer Rick Mancini, Potter's high school football coach. “He was the kind of young man that if you had a son, you'd want him to grow up to be like that.”
Potter's accomplishments read like an American Who's Who: graduated 10th in his class; served on student council, as senior class secretary and as an officer in numerous other school organizations; lettered in football for two years and track for four years, played on the basketball team; named to National Honor Society; selected for the Pennsylvania Governor's School of Business at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania; attended the New Mexico Military Institute; graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy; lieutenant in the Navy; participated in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
He also was accepted to the U.S. Military Academy, but a severely broken wrist he suffered playing high school football kept him out in one of his few life setbacks.
“He was his parents' pride,” said Angela Manno, who went to high school with Potter. “When they talked about Jamie, they just gleamed.”
Ellwood City lawyer Joseph Bellissimo, a family friend, said Potter planned to go to law school after completing his six-year commitment to the military in another year or so.
Potter, he said, wanted to return to Beaver County and open a law practice.
“This is a tragedy like nobody can describe,” Bellissimo said. “This area lost a great individual, who had every intention after serving his country to come back here and serve the people of this region. We lost something that can never be replaced.”
Army Col. Eugene Palka, deputy head of the department of geography and environmental engineering at West Point and a Beaver Falls native, said he knew Potter since he was a child. The two families were neighbors and longtime friends.
Palka and Potter had an ongoing bet on the annual Army-Navy football game. If Navy won, Palka had to send Potter an Army T-shirt, and vice versa. Palka said he's been on the losing end over the past couple of years, including this year.
“He was truly an All-American young man,” Palka said. “What bothers me most is I know the anticipation that he was feeling and his parents were feeling whenever he was deployed, and knowing that they were finally going to have their reunion, and for this to happen this way just had to be terribly difficult.”
Paulette Potter, who described Jamie as the easiest of her four boys to raise, said her son was born on Veterans Day 1973 and always wanted to be in the military. He will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in January.
When the family returned from Las Vegas, a neighbor brought Paulette Potter last Sunday's issue of The Times and pointed out that Jamie had donated to the paper's annual Give-A-Christmas campaign in “loving memory” of his grandmother, Margaret L. Moss, a well-known civic activist in Beaver County for years.
“It makes me feel good to know that he is with her right now,” she said.
Service for Potter
26 December 2003
Seats are available on a chartered bus going to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., for the burial service of U.S. Navy Lieutenant James Potter, who was killed in a traffic accident on December 13, 2003.
Tony Dvorsak, a friend of the Potter family, said about 20 of Potter's friends and relatives have already registered for the January 7, 2004, trip, and organizers are trying to fill the bus.
The trip costs $40 per seat, and the registration deadline is December 31, 2003. Any money left over will be donated to the Jamie Potter Memorial Scholarship Fund.
Anyone interested in registering can call Dvorsak at (724) 843-7697 or Ellie Cockfield at (724) 846-4408.
The McCarter Transit bus will leave from the Burger King restaurant at 720 Shenango Road in Chippewa Township at 4 a.m. on January 7, 2004, and return that evening.
Potter, 30, was a 1992 graduate of Beaver Falls High School and a 1998 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. He had served aboard ships deployed to the Persian Gulf during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
POTTER, JAMES ALBERT
- LT US NAVY
- DATE OF BIRTH: 11/11/1973
- DATE OF DEATH: 12/13/2003
- BURIED AT: SECTION 66 SITE 1116
- ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard