I'm Already Home
by sarAdora
~~~~~~~

Tears and tight hugs were the norm as families said goodbye to their loved ones, the gymnasium at Fort Lewis Army base filled to capacity. A Stryker Brigade had been deployed and was headed for Iraq.

It would be the third tour for the unit but the first for a few new members of the well-trained fighting group. Robert M. was excited and scared. It was his first tour and his first time away from family and friends. He and Cheryl had married out of high school and now, three years later, she was carrying their first child. His mama had warned him to watch his back and to remember his prayers; his pa had reminded him about duty and country and honor and told his youngest son how proud he was of him.

Cheryl, her rounded belly on display, simply cried.

~~~
"If you’re reading this…
and my mama’s sitting there-
Looks like I only got a one-way ticket over here."

~~~

The flight overseas was long and tedious. Before they touched down, every member of the Stryker Brigade was exhausted from the trip. There was no reprieve; immediate orders to fall in had them dropping their gear in a makeshift tent, grabbing a few meals-ready-to-eat and lining up in formation to report to the man in charge.

"Everybody got their letters home?" the officer asked, his tone sharp, firm, and not-so-friendly.

They had been instructed to write last letters home in case they didn't make it back - a tradition originated during the Vietnam conflict by members of Navy SEAL teams. The commander of the Army Brigade had a history with last letters home. His father had been a Navy SEAL in Vietnam; he told his son how much that letter meant to families that lost loved ones. His son carried the tradition to the desert of Iraq when he rose in Army rank and instructed those under his command to write those letters just in case...

Robert M. turned his letter over, hoping like hell... Please Jesus...

"I expect to give these back to you when you fly home a year from now," their commander said, his tone still firm but with an edge of softness. He knew full well that some of these youngsters would be flying home in less than a year... to be buried.

"We're at war here and now," he barked. "Let me see what you're made of."

~~~
"Sure wish I…
could give you one more kiss-
War was just a game we played when we were kids."

~~~

Boot camp hadn't been fun. Training was hard, barely endurable in some spots, the drill instructors automatons when it came to driving the new recruits to the limit of their capabilities and pushing even harder. Looking back, it was nothing compared to the real thing.

Robert M. was fit, always had been, always the athlete pushing himself to be best, to be first, to be everything he was meant to be. At twenty years of age and in the middle of a war zone, his head was shot full of memories of his youth. Playing war games with kids in the neighborhood, hanging out at the Tacoma Dome, a sports arena not so far from Fort Lewis.

There was that time he and his friends had played hooky... his mama had grounded him, his pa had whipped him good and hard and made him write an apology to the school principal and to his teachers...

Cheryl moved to Tacoma in high school... He fell hook, line and sinker and when he pretended geometry was too hard for him to understand... and she tutored him... he stole a kiss and vowed she was his from now until the end of time. It took several more study dates and several more kisses before she agreed with him.

~~~
"Well, I’m laying down my gun…
I’m hanging up my boots-
I’m up here with God and we’re both watching over you."

~~~

High school graduation... prom night... driving all the way over to Alki Beach in a convertible with the top down. A six pack of Budweiser on the back seat, Cheryl looking prettier than any sweet little gal he'd ever seen.

"We'll remember this when we're old and have grandkids on our laps," Robert told Cheryl when they were parked on the beach. The night was warm, the moon shone just for them and the sounds of the surf gently lapped the shore to make a perfect setting for young lovers.

"Got to marry me, first, Robert," Cheryl remarked, her smile so sweet he thought he'd drown in it.

"Your Pa said if I get the job at the auto repair shop, we're good to go," he said with satisfaction as he pulled Cheryl into his arms. "My mama told me we could live with her and my pa till we can afford a little place of our own."

"It'll be a while before we can afford anything," Cheryl, the practical one, noted.

"When we get enough money for a down payment," Robert sighed. "I'd like a little cabin not too far from town, maybe on the edge of the woods."

~~~
"So lay me down…
in that open field out on the edge of town-
And know my soul…
is where my mama always prayed they’d ever go…
If you’re reading this –
I’m already home."

~~~

"Whatever happens, remember how much I love you," Robert told his wife three years later as he rubbed the protruding roundness of her belly. "I'll write when I can and you take care of this child. I can't wait for the baby to be born. Don't cry now," he murmured as he kissed her one last time. "Before you know it, I'll be home."

~~~
"If you’re reading this…
half way round the world-
I won’t be there to see the birth of our little girl."
I hope she looks like you…
I hope she fights like me-
And stands up for the innocent and the weak."

~~~

In no time the Stryker Brigade was in the thick of things. Robert and his buddies took turns riding shotgun on Humvees, clearing the roads of insurgents, routing out sniper nests. There was no such thing as a routine day. Fear ruled their lives, fear and the never ending hope they'd make it home. No matter how well trained, no matter how determined, there were roadside bombs, land mines, a sudden ambush in the midst of calm and mortar fire that came from out of the blue.

In rare moments of leisure, they read news from home on the Internet. They were perplexed that politicians wanted to tell the Pentagon how to wage war... politicians in their safe Capitol offices... determining what the foot soldiers should do. Of course they wanted to come home - who wouldn't? Robert knew what war was... it was an ugly conflict that kept him from home and his loved ones, but it was worth it. Worth everything because he had also seen the faces of the people he was trying to help, people hungry for freedoms he had always taken for granted, freedoms that America had always held dear.

~~~
"I’m laying down my gun…
I’m hanging up my boots-
Tell dad I don’t regret that I followed in his shoes."

~~~

It was his turn to ride the hood, the armor plated Humvee rolling at a moderate pace, Robert and two others crouched or on their bellies... Fingers trigger ready, Mossberg 12ga military shotguns on their shoulders and one determined soldier ready to fire the M240 Machine Gun that was mounted atop the vehicle's hood.

Their orders were to seek and destroy... three gangs of insurgents were killing innocent Iraqis in nearby villages. The Iraqi police asked for help.

A blast of mortar fire... a roadside bomb... a ringing in their ears.

~~~
"So lay me down…
in that open field out on the edge of town-
And know my soul…
is where my mama always prayed they’d ever go…
If you’re reading this –
I’m already home."

~~~

We want to tell the next of kin that their loved one is missing in action even if they're not. We want to spare them the anguish of learning about wounds that desecrated their loved one's body... missing body parts... wounds that bled out... If at all possible, we try to prepare families for inevitable death. Often, we are forced to inform them that their loved one died instantaneously and that they felt no lingering pain. They died... Always... with great solemnity and sincerity we tell them they died in service to their country.

And they did.

~~~
"If you’re reading this…
there’s gonna come a day-
When you’ll move on and find someone else and that’s okay.
Just remember this…
I’m in a better place-
Where soldiers live in peace and angels sing amazing grace."

~~~

Two men in uniform approached Cheryl's door...

We bargain with God. We lobby. We make promises. We forget to breathe.

"The Department of Defense... regrets to inform you..."

The medics that recovered Robert's shattered body and those of his buddies noted the tear that lingered on the young man's cheek. What was he thinking when the Angel of Death appeared? Did he have a moment to have a last thought when time stopped? Were there angels that escorted him into heaven? Did he look back and smile on his Cheryl and his unborn child as he stood at the heavenly gates? Did he get a halo and wings?

I don't know but I'll remember him.

~~~
"So lay me down…
in that open field out on the edge of town-
And know my soul…
is where my mama always prayed they’d ever go…
If you’re reading this –
I’m already home."
~~~
(Lyrics by Tim McGraw
)

~ End ~

I met Cheryl and her infant daughter at a fundraiser for surviving military wives and families. Where I live, in a coastal state, we have numerous military bases - Navy/Marine Corps, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard and of course, armories for the National Guard. We have support groups for each branch of the military - my focus is with the Navy - my husband is a sailor but many of us also contribute a little time and energy to supporting surviving spouses regardless of their military affiliation.

Cheryl still lives in Tacoma. Robert was buried in the National Cemetery in our state.

Memorial Day, Anzac Day, other Days of Remembrance... We are beholden to those that sacrificed all in the pursuit of freedoms... here and all over the world. We remember the sacrifices of our warriors with pride and to honor them.

~Sar~

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