Westholme Publishing
Finalist for the 2017 Army Historical Foundation Distinguished Writing Award


The Hardest Journey Home
A True Story of Loss and Duty During the Iraq War
Donleigh O. Gaunky

$24.00 Hardback

  • 144 pages
  • 5.5 x 8.5
  • 9 b/w illus.

About this Book

“Fewer and fewer Americans have any close association with anyone serving in the Armed Forces. Donleigh Gaunky offers a heart-rending glimpse into his family as he, and they, grapple with the loss of Donleigh’s younger brother on a battlefield in Iraq. Every American should read this and learn what ‘Thank You for Your Service’ really means.”

—Gen. Carter F. Ham, USA, Ret. President and CEO, Association of the U.S. Army

 “Sergeant Donleigh Gaunky’s moving memoir speaks to everyone who has lost a loved one in defense of our great nation. It serves as a reminder that freedom is not free, and it is our responsibility to continue to care for our service members, veterans, and their families. I am touched that Fisher House provided a refuge for Sergeant Gaunky during such a difficult journey.”

—Ken Fisher, Chairman and CEO, Fisher House Foundation


In November 2005, while analyzing action reports at his base in Baghdad, Iraq, Donleigh O. Gaunky froze. His younger brother Alex’s unit had been hit by the enemy. Almost immediately, arrangements were made for Donleigh to meet his wounded brother in Germany, but Alex succumbed to his injuries before he arrived. Instead, Donleigh was asked to assume the role of remains escort. A remains escort is usually picked at random from the appropriate branch of service or is someone with a relationship to the deceased, most often from the soldier’s own unit. Rarely—if ever in modern times—is the escort an immediate family member. In The Hardest Journey Home: A True Story of Loss and Duty During the Iraq War, Donleigh O. Gaunky describes the events that unfolded over the course of a few days, from the front line in Iraq to the Landstuhl military hospital in Germany to their hometown in Wisconsin, where he arrived with his brother’s body on Thanksgiving Day. In an effort to keep his mind off the tragedy and remain focused on his task, the author describes the protocol for escorting a body home—paperwork, appropriate attire, the proper use of the flag, when and where to salute—as well as how his divorced parents coped with the loss of one of their four sons serving in the military. Relying on commercial flights to bring Alex home, there was no military reception when they first landed in the United States and the author learned how little his brother’s sacrifice meant on a national level. But he was uplifted by his town’s response to his family’s loss when they unexpectedly lined the streets to pay their respects to one of their own. An important and moving story, The Hardest Journey Home reveals the human cost of a long, seemingly invisible war.

DONLEIGH O. GAUNKY completed basic training on September 13, 2001. Assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, he was later reassigned to the 205th Military Intelligence Battalion, Fort Shafter, Hawaii. Gaunky served two tours of duty in Iraq between 2003 and 2006. After leaving the service, he earned a BS in political science from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. He remains an advocate for veterans and survivor issues, with a particular emphasis on veteran suicides, a topic on which he gave a TEDx presentation in 2015.



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