CHARLOTTE, NC (Bruce Henderson/The Charlotte Observer) - First Lt. Leevi Khole Barnard's memory will live on at the North Carolina National Guard's Belmont Readiness Center, which dignitaries will rename in his honor Thursday morning.
But Barnard's family and friends have another enduring reminder: a song about him – and other U.S. combat casualties – by the Grammy-winning string band Old Crow Medicine Show. And there's a story behind the song.
The UNC Charlotte graduate from Mount Airy died at 28 when an improvised explosive device detonated in a Baghdad market on May 21, 2009. A North Carolina Guard artillery officer who was killed with two fellow soldiers, he had been in Iraq for only three weeks.
Old Crow's Ketch Secor has said he caught Barnard's name and hometown in a National Public Radio story about soldiers killed in Iraq. Barnard grew up in his grandfather's house in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, just above the state line, NPR reported. The two sometimes searched the mountains together for ginseng roots, which are prized in Asia.
Ararat, Va., is not far from Boone, where the band had once busked on street corners. Old Crow's beloved "Wagon Wheel" was Barnard's favorite song and was played at his funeral, NPR reported.
Hearing all that, Secor sat down and wrote a new song that he eventually played for Barnard's family. The fiddle-driven tune, "Levi," was about a soldier from the Blue Ridge thinking of home as he died "10,000 miles from a Southern town."
"You know, he hunted ginseng and he rode around on a four-wheeler and he listened to 'Wagon Wheel,' " Secor told NPR in 2012. "And so a song like this would be a tribute to not only Leevi but a whole lot of country boys that have found their way over to Basra and to Jalalabad."
Secor added in an interview with Paste Magazine: "The fact that he'd learned 'Wagon Wheel' meant a lot to us, because it meant we had reached the kind of person we had most wanted to reach: the kids our age who live in those mountains."
Icasualties.org says 110 North Carolina soldiers died in Iraq; the state's National Guard says 21 of its soldiers were among them. Barnard was among the last killed before Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S.-led invasion launched in 2003 to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein, ended in late 2011.
Barnard's family has described him as a quiet man with a dry sense of humor, the Associated Press reported. He loved playing church softball but also liked to read Plato and the ancient Chinese military treatise "The Art of War."
"He knew how to make you laugh, and if he didn't make you laugh, he knew how to make you smile," said Dianne Orr, a friend.
Barnard put himself through community college, NPR reported, and left UNCC in 2007 with a degree in political science, a minor in Arabic studies and a commission as a second lieutenant. He talked about becoming a high school teacher after his military service.
"Leevi could read and write Arabic and inherently understood the people and customs of the region," his obituary said. "He was uniquely gifted for his mission because of his superior cultural knowledge, warm personality and genuine desire to help the Iraqi people."
Thomas Barnard, his grandfather, added in the AP report: "To me, if there ever was a hero, he was a hero."