Brandon Wallace's younger sisters knew it was hands off when it came to his guitars.

Now there is one guitar Rachel Wallace Tucker longs to hold. It's the black Fender her brother bought while stationed in Iraq with the Army's 1451st Transportation Company.

He played it for his fellow soldiers when they needed comfort. And one of her brother's Army buddies, Sgt. Jacob Blaylock, played it at her brother's memorial service last April in Iraq.

That month, Wallace, 27, switched places with Blaylock, 26, in their military convoy. It was their last mission, and Blaylock wanted a break from riding at the front. When an improvised explosive device hit the humvee, Wallace and another soldier were killed.

Blaylock left Iraq two weeks later, taking with him Wallace's guitar and overwhelming guilt.

Back home in Houston, Blaylock, an aspiring musician, tried to play the guitar. It brought only tears.

Music was one of many bonds between Wallace and Blaylock. Both were only sons who grew up with two sisters. Both were pranksters. And both showed early interest in the military - as a young boy, Wallace spent hours playing with his GI Joes; in family pictures, Blaylock wears his father's Army helmet and a diaper.

Wallace joined the Army after graduating from Crystal City High School in 1998 as a way to pay for the police academy.

Blaylock joined at age 17, shortly after learning his girlfriend, now his estranged wife, was pregnant.

When their unit returned from Iraq last April, Blaylock and several other soldiers vowed to visit the families of comrades who didn't come home before joining their own families.

"He told me, 'I've got one more mission, Mom,'" Jackie Blaylock said. "And that was to meet the Wallaces."

Brandon Wallace's parents remember Blaylock's visit. "He wouldn't look at me," Rick Wallace said.

As the soldiers were about to leave, Rick Wallace said he placed his hand over Blaylock's heart and said, -"'You know something, I've got a problem with you and this guilt you are carrying.'"

Rick Wallace added, "It was like the whole unit needed to hear that. They needed to know the father of the boy he traded spaces with was OK with it."


But Blaylock wasn't OK.

He tried to rewrite the story, telling friends and family that it was Brandon Wallace who asked to switch places with him the night he died. But he told his girlfriend, Heidi Plumley, "It should have been me."

In September, Jacob was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. But rather than turn to treatment, Jacob Blaylock ended the guilt the only way he believed he could: He shot himself.

At his funeral, Blaylock's family learned what really happened the night Brandon Wallace was killed. It helped them understand. "I think he felt embarrassed and guilty," Rick Blaylock said.

A note Rick Blaylock found in his son's truck said: "I have worn this fake smile for too long now. It's too heavy. I can't hold it in anymore. I need peace. I have too much pride to go see someone for narcotics to help this."

The Veterans Health Administration estimates as many as 5,000 veterans a year commit suicide.

Jacob Blaylock's suicide hit Rachel Tucker hard. "My heart was crushed, because I was thinking, 'My brother gave his life for yours, and you took yours,'" Rachel said from her home in North Carolina.

Then she thought of her brother's guitar. She had little hope of getting it back.

Shortly after the Blaylocks buried their son, his medications from the VA arrived in the mail. They also found the guitar among Jacob's things. It became their mission to find the Wallaces and return it.


Last weekend, at the Blaylocks' invitation, Robin Wallace drove 600 miles round-trip from Festus to Lowell, Ind., to meet the family and collect the guitar.

"He looks like you," Robin Wallace told Jackie Blaylock, through tears.

"You look like (your son), too," Blaylock replied as they embraced in the family's kitchen.

They pored over pictures of their sons, spreading them across the kitchen table. They watched video footage of Brandon that Jacob had stored on his computer. They laughed at scenes such as surprise Silly String attacks.

But when the memorial tribute to Jacob began to play, tears started to flow. Jacob's 8-year-old daughter, Lilly Jo, can be seen gleefully bouncing on a trampoline in the opening and closing scenes. The tribute to her father is set to music he wrote and performed.

Then Rick Blaylock led Robin to a room where Jacob's belongings, including his uniform, boots and medals were on display.

Rick Blaylock reached just beyond his son's dresser and turned to Robin Wallace, extending her son's guitar. She covered her face with one hand, and with the other clasped the guitar where her son's hand once strummed the strings.

"Thank you so much for sharing this back with me," she said, burying her head in Rick Blaylock's chest.

"It's no problem," he said choking back tears. "We know you would have done the same for us."

"I want you to know something," Robin said, composing herself. "My son knew he wasn't coming home. He wanted Jacob to come home to Lilly Jo. My son loved your son very much."

For about four hours, they exchanged tears, hugs, laughs and cigarettes. Robin Wallace told them that her younger daughter, Sarah Beth, is pregnant and that doctors had believed her other daughter, Rachel Tucker, would never be able to have a baby, but she learned she was pregnant five days before Jacob's suicide.

"These pregnancies have breathed new life into our family," Robin Wallace said.

Even before she knew Jacob Blaylock's daughter's name, Tucker had plans to name her baby Lilly if a girl, or Josiah if a boy.

"We've been calling it Lilly Jo for now," Robin Wallace told the Blaylocks.

As Robin Wallace's visit came to a close, Rick Blaylock placed Brandon's guitar in her back seat as gently as though it was a newborn baby.

"I will always remember this day," Robin Wallace said. "It's almost as if Brandon passed on the guitar to Jacob, and now Jacob has passed it on to Rachel."

This week, Rachel Tucker plans to visit her mother's home.

Her brother's guitar will be waiting.