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Airman deployed to Haiti, died in quake

By Laurie Ure, CNN Pentagon Producer
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Killed on duty in Haiti
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Air Force Lt. Col. Ken Bourland was among those killed in January's Haiti earthquake.
  • Bourland died inside the quake-ravaged Hotel Montana
  • Bourland's wife went to Haiti to stand near where her husband was last seen alive
  • Peggy Bourland says she's "unsure" what the future holds

Washington (CNN) -- Air Force Lt. Col. Ken Bourland hugged his wife, Peggy, goodbye and headed out for his two-day mission.

The date was January 12, and the destination was Haiti.

Neither knew it would be the last time they'd see one another.

Upon his arrival in Port-au-Prince, Ken Bourland sent his wife an e-mail saying he had settled into his hotel room.

Ten minutes later, Peggy Bourland and the couple's three sons began watching television back in their suburban Fort Lauderdale, Florida, home. That's when the news broke: Haiti had been struck by a major earthquake.

She describes the panic that set in.

"I sent him another e-mail, you know, 'Please tell me you're OK'," she recounted to CNN. "And, at that point, I didn't get anything back."

The ensuing minutes and hours turned to days of waiting.

"It was painful not knowing," she said. "But not knowing, you still had hope. You still had hope that he could possibly be under there just surviving, just doing everything he could to survive."

Eventually, Peggy Bourland began to fear the worst.

Lt. Col. Ken Bourland worked at the Caribbean desk at the U.S. Southern Command. His job involved helping the Haitian military with security issues concerning both countries, such as combating illicit drug trafficking, uncovering money laundering and distributing humanitarian aid.

Bourland had been to Haiti previously, and this trip was to be a 48-hour mission escorting a new commander to meet his Haitian counterparts.

His e-mail to his wife of five years was titled, "Wow. Haiti."

"He actually had seen what true poverty was. And it was a life-changing experience for him," Peggy Bourland recalled.

"And he said that he wished that my son, Chance, and I could have been there to see it. I could tell from his e-mail he was moved, beyond words, at what he'd seen," she said.

Ken and Peggy Bourland hold sons Charley and Andrew. Ken Bourland died in the January earthquake in Haiti.
Ken and Peggy Bourland hold sons Charley and Andrew. Ken Bourland died in the January earthquake in Haiti.

Army Lt. Col. Chris Thomas worked with Ken Bourland at Southern Command. The two traveled to Haiti together and were in their respective rooms at the Hotel Montana when it came crashing down.

"We arrived Tuesday morning, met with the ambassador at the embassy, and got briefings," Thomas told CNN in an interview at Southern Command's headquarters in Miami, Florida.

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"Ken and myself then went back to the Hotel Montana, and that was the last time I saw him," Thomas said.

Thomas stayed on the hotel's top story, in a fifth-floor corner room. Ken Bourland's room was on the second floor.

Thomas recalled the horrible events of that afternoon.

"I was standing in the middle of the room, and the building just erupted," he said.

"The room just shook so violently, and the noise was deafening," he said. "I rushed to the door, and the door and the wall fell on top of me. As the building pancaked, I guess I rode it down."

Thomas suffered a broken arm, a separated shoulder and a torn ligament in his knee.

But in the immediate aftermath of the quake, no word from Bourland.

After two weeks, Peggy Bourland was emotionally exhausted from waiting and worrying. She took a military plane to Haiti to stand near where her husband was last seen alive.

"I just felt like, if that was going to be where he took his last breath, that I owed it to him and our kids to be there, to see it, to pray for him," she said.

Once she got back home, she continued to wait for word about her husband's fate.

Eventually, "they called," she said, tearfully recalling the moment when she got the definitive word that her husband had died in the earthquake-ravaged Hotel Montana.

Immediately following the phone call, she worried, "Oh my gosh, how am I gonna make it through this? What am I gonna tell my boys? You know, how am I going to explain this to them?"

Bourland served in Iraq in 2004.

His safe return there holds a certain irony for his wife. "To make it home from a real war zone, and be taken like that. It's just ... it's hard," she said.

"He was honest, confident," she said of her late husband. 'He was very dedicated."

Peggy Bourland is unsure of "where I go from here. It's still just kind of, every day I get up, take a deep breath and ask, 'How are we gonna get through today? What are we gonna do'," she wonders. "Never, never ever would I be prepared for this."

"It's so vivid in my mind, him giving me a hug, kissing the boys," Peggy Bourland said. "I still see him walking out the door Sunday on his trip. And you know, 'Bye! See you when I get back. Love you! Love you, too!' "

Asked about the necklace she wears, she said, "This is Ken's wedding band, one of the things they identified him with. I wear it around my neck, to keep him close to my heart, always."

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