A spring breeze rocks the trees surrounding the Sarasota War Memorial. The sound of rustling leaves is audible over the soft din of traffic on nearby Bayfront Drive.
The memorial was built in 1924 to honor Sarasota’s fallen doughboys from World War I and was moved from Five Points to its current location at Bayfront Park in 1954. Many of the engraved bronze names on the stone monument are from Vietnam and World War II, and have faded over the years. Peter Woodall’s name has begun to fade a little, too, but it still looks newer than the rest. His name is one of three included under, “Global War on Terrorism.”
Elizabeth Woodall smiles as she walks up to the stone monument. She is a petite woman, with short jet-black hair. Her arms are filled with flowers, a small American flag, a photo of her son in his uniform and a teddy bear wearing a button with Peter’s face on it.
She has on large sunglasses, for which she apologizes, explaining that her eyes are red from crying. She speaks in a Polish accent but with near-flawless grammar, only stumbling on her words when she is periodically overcome with sadness and has to pause, wipe away the tears, catch her breath and continue.
At the base of the memorial, Woodall begins to arrange the items she brought. A middle-aged couple walking by stops to watch. They stay back and out of the way, obeying some invisible buffer. The woman reaches for her male companion’s hand when Woodall kisses her fingers and reaches out to touch her son’s bronze name.
The couple tentatively circles around the memorial. Their gazes drift between the names on the monument and the grieving mother. They don't say anything and walk away slowly, holding hands, looking back a few times.
“He was my baby,” Woodall says, cradling a photo of Peter in his Marine dress blues. “You know, people tell me I’m strong. But I don’t think I am, really. Some days I want to pull my hair out and just scream, ‘Why!’ People tell me I’ll get better and move on. But I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able.”
Sgt. Peter Woodall, a 25-year-old Marine and 2000 Riverview High School grad, was killed April 28, 2007, in Anbar Province, Iraq, while trying to destroy an enemy IED. His wife, Joanne, was living in Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, with their 3-year-old son, Jacob, at the time.
Elizabeth Woodall vividly remembers the day Peter died. She was at work when she received a phone call from her husband, Richard. He was crying and only able to tell her she needed to come home.
She began to fear the unthinkable; she pressed Richard to explain what was the matter.
And then he told her that her son had been killed in Iraq.
“I left my stuff at work and ran to my car, and I never drove as fast as I did that day,” Woodall says. “I was screaming and crying, and I couldn’t believe what was happening … I saw that car at my house, with the two Marines in their uniforms there to tell me what happened to my baby, and I told them to go away. I told them ‘No, go away.’ I wanted to jump from the sky to bring him back to me.”
Seven years later, the pain of Woodall’s loss is inescapable. She has tried to make a scrapbook out of some her son’s old photos and letters, but every time she opens the box with his things, she breaks down crying.
The most lasting legacy of Peter’s life, however, is not the grief he left behind, but the inspirational way in which he lived.
Woodall beams with pride when she talks about Peter. She describes a picture she took of him as a toddler; he’s standing tall in his underwear, saluting like a soldier.
“He was so little,” Woodall says. “He said, ‘Mommy, I want to be somebody. I want to be a Marine.’”
Woodall moved with her children to the U.S. from Poland when Peter was 8 years old. Life in America was a struggle. Woodall was a single mother who could barely speak English and had a hard time finding a job. She says Peter matured quickly and became a “papa” to his little sister, Katie.
Despite the hard times, Woodall says her children grew up with strong values and developed a deep sense of patriotism for their adopted country, which inspired them to both join the military (Katie was a student at Sarasota Military Academy when Peter died). When Woodall eventually remarried, Peter took the last name of his stepfather, Richard Woodall.
Peter’s best friend from high school, Wes Boland, remembers him as a prankster who loved to play paintball and knew how to have fun — but who also showed the qualities of a soldier from a young age.
“He was a good leader,” Boland says. “He had that demeanor about himself. People wanted to be around him — he looked the part, too.”
Peter first deployed to Iraq as an infantryman and was wounded by shrapnel, for which he received a Purple Heart. He briefly considered leaving the military to join the Florida Highway Patrol, but ultimately decided to stay in the Marines, joining the ranks of one of the military’s most dangerous professions — Explosive Ordinance Disposal, or EOD.
Things were different for Peter during his second deployment. His prior combat experience left a more realistic appreciation for the dangers he would be facing. And, this time, he would be leaving behind a wife and child.
“The most nervous I ever saw him was the last time I ever saw him alive,” Boland says. “It was in his driveway right before he left for Iraq. He knew he had some close calls over there, and he was definitely worried.”
Woodall said her worry for Peter consumed her while he was in Iraq. She would sleep with her cell phone under her pillow and was constantly glued to the news.
“He was on my mind every moment,” she says. “I would say prayers to please protect my baby … but he never came back.”
Peter is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The Sarasota War Memorial has become the rallying point for his family and friends to pay tribute.
Boland, now 34, visits the memorial on special events such as Peter’s birthday, July 1, or Memorial Day. He remains close with the Woodall family. He has Peter’s paintball gun and mask displayed on the wall in his living room as a reminder of his fallen friend.
“There’s rarely a day that goes by that I don't think about him,” Boland says. “He’s my hero.”
Joanne and Jacob Woodall now live in Pensacola. Katie Woodall, who has been in the Army for 10 years, is currently stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.
Woodall says her daughter recently confessed she still cries whenever she looks at Peter’s picture, but says, “Mommy, I'm going to do everything so that Pete would be proud of me. I'm going to try to make him proud of his sister.”
Seven years after his death, Woodall has found the strength to talk about her son, who maintains a constant presence in her life.
She wears a necklace with an engraved picture of Peter and a metal bracelet engraved with his name and the date of his death.
Woodall tries to visit the Sarasota War Memorial about every week to place fresh flowers under her son’s engraved name. She can feel his presence there, she says, and spending time beside his name makes her feel a little less sad.
“He said he wanted to serve his country and do something for other people,” she says, fighting through her tears. “We are very proud of him.”
Contact Nolan Peterson at [email protected]