By Ben Cunningham
Assistant Metro Editor
A glance at the slim Saks youngster named Donnie Belser in the mid-1990s
would have yielded few signs of the strapping soldier he'd later become.
But no one who knew the spirit inside him would have been surprised.
Capt. Donnie R. Belser Jr. died Feb. 10 in Iraq, after his unit was attacked
with small-arms fire in Baqubah, a town north of Baghdad. He was 27.
Friends and family remembered him last week as good-natured, a hard worker
with a sense of humor who faced down challenges with steady resolve.
Brandan Belser said his older brother was someone he looked up to. He
followed Donnie all his life, he said.
“What he did, that's what I did.”
Both brothers attended school in Saks, where their father, Donnie Belser Sr.
settled the family after retiring from the Army. They'd lived the military life,
shifting from base to base, from Georgia to Germany before landing at Fort
McClellan. Their parents had wanted them to be able to stay in one place for the
rest of their school years.
Donnie's footsteps led Brandan to the band in middle school, and then to the
high school wrestling team, where Donnie was the state champion 130-pounder his
senior year. Brandan followed his brother into military service, too. While
Donnie became an ordnance officer after graduating from Jacksonville State
University with a degree in criminal justice, Brandan joined an engineering unit
in the National Guard.
“He looked out for me,” Brandan said. “Anything I did, he'd protect me.”
Brandan said troops in combat followed his brother just as teenage athletes
had when he captained the wrestling team. The boys' coach, Eric Mackey, now
superintendent of Jacksonville City Schools, remembered the same quality in
“He and one or two other kids really held that team together. They expected a
lot of each other,” Mackey said.
The size and physical skill that earned Belser his championship in 1997 as a
senior weren't evident in the small boy who joined the team as a ninth-grader,
Mackey said. But he had excelled in the classroom and in the band room playing
tenor sax, and he'd excel on the mat, too.
“He was determined to be very good, and he made himself the best that he
could - the very best in the state.”
Mackey said he remembers Donnie's smile as he came off the mat a champion,
having defeated an opponent who'd beaten him the year before.
“That's the happiest I've ever seen anyone in my life,” Mackey said.
The boys' mother, Phoebe Belser, said challenges like that attracted Donnie.
“He just liked to see what he could do,” she said. “He loved the discipline.”
After high school the next challenge was college, and JSU's Army ROTC
program. While there, Belser met his wife, Marshawn, and the two were married as
he finished his last year of school. In 2001 he earned his degree and a
commission in the Army. Signing up to serve was something Belser had long said
he wouldn't do, according to his mother.
Donnie Belser Sr. served 22 years in the Army, and his oldest son long said
he didn't want to spend the time away from his family that the Army would
demand. Again, though, the challenge drew him.
“He did it, just like his daddy,” Phoebe Belser said.
She said her boys seemed drawn to the Army because of its unique sense of
“That's what they loved,” she said. “After they joined, that's what they
The Army stationed Donnie in Germany and Virginia before posting him at Fort
Riley, Kan. A deployment to Kosovo first took him into danger and away from
Marshawn and their daughter, Morgan Dior, now age 6. Then came a deployment to
Iraq in 2003 while the family was in Germany. Brandan was in the war zone, as
They both returned, and Donnie and Marshawn had their second child, Myles
Then, in August 2006, the Army ordered Brandan back to Iraq.
Myles had his first birthday Feb. 9, the day before his father died.
Services for Donnie Belser Jr. will be today at noon at New Rising Star
Baptist Church, 7401 London Ave., in Birmingham. Burial will follow at Jefferson
Memory Gardens in Trussville. Arrington Funeral Home of Birmingham is in charge