U.S. Army Spc. Robert Wise grew up in Key West, and proudly joined the Florida National Guard at age 17. He was killed in Iraq 20 years ago this week, on Nov. 12, 2003, when a bomb exploded 10 feet from his Humvee in Baghdad. CONTRIBUTED

“I’d rather fight them there than here.”

That’s what Robert Wise told his dad, David Wise, upon learning in January 2003 that his Florida National Guard unit was being sent to Iraq to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom. His team arrived the following month in Baghdad, where Wise, a machine-gunner, headed a Humvee crew during convoys.

Nine months later, on Nov. 12, 2003, Wise was killed in action when a roadside bomb exploded 10 feet from his Humvee. His former teachers at Gerald Adams Elementary in Key West had just made plans with their classes, in honor of Veterans Day that year, to send letters and care packages to Wise in Iraq. But he died before the packages could reach him.

The Key West native who died 20 years ago this week became the first-ever Florida National Guard soldier to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the Florida Cross.

Spend just 10 minutes with David Wise, and you’ll feel as if you knew this son, with the giant smile and love of fantasy books that he devoured during down time in Iraq, sending letters home to his mom, Tammy, with the latest list of books he had read. 

“It’s been a long 20 years,” David Wise said. “It’s still raw, and you never get over it.”

But he brightens instantly when talk turns back to his son’s life, his commitment, his leadership and his smile. 

“This community has really supported us through all of this, as has the community in Tallahassee,” David Wise said. “Robert is honored literally from the top of the state to the bottom.”

A leadership award is given in his name each year at his Tallahassee high school by the Air Force JROTC. Amos P. Godby High School retired his No. 9 soccer jersey. Tallahassee Community College, where Wise attended classes, awards a scholarship in his name. HBO and The New York Times featured Wise in a documentary about the Iraq war and published a hardcover book called, “Letters from Home,” that includes letters from fallen soldiers. The Robert Wise Dolphin Pride Award is given annually to a graduate of Gerald Adams Elementary who exemplifies his traits of positive attitude, doing your best and having fun. And just off Highway 90 in Tallahassee, a road was renamed Robert Wise Lane. The Miami Heat honored Wise during their tributes to South Florida’s fallen soldiers. And the list goes on.

Wise grew up in Key West and attended Gerald Adams. After finishing eighth grade at Horace O’Bryant School in Key West, he moved with his mother to Tallahassee, where he attended high school and joined the Air Force Junior ROTC, which convinced him his future was in the military, which would then help him pay for college.

Wise’s mom was hesitant to sign his consent form when, at age 17, he wanted to enlist in the Florida National Guard. But upon hearing his determination, Tammy Wise signed the papers.

Both of his parents still take comfort in one of their son’s favorite historical quotes by Daniel Webster, “God grants liberty only to those who love it and are always ready to defend it.”

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.