Remember the glory of the spirit, the valor and sacrifice of our fellow countrymen. This Memorial Day, I want to share with you five sobering stories from Jim Sheeler’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Final Salute: A Story Of Unfinished Lives.
Bringing Them Home
As the motorcade escorting the body of Christopher “Doc” Anderson made its way toward his hometown, about an hour away from the Denver airport, the three sailors who served as pallbearers jumped into a white van, which then pulled in behind the limousines.
Police officers and firemen saluted as they left the airport, bathed in the flashing emergency lights.
“This is so cool that they do this,” said Storekeeper Third Class Ben Engleman. “This is so amazing.”
At one freeway exit, fire trucks and ambulances parked on the overpass, lights flashing. As the procession exited the interstate, the lights burned even brighter.
Along the highway, cars pulled over, along with firefighters who continued to salute.
Then there was Longmont’s Main Street.
At Twentieth Avenue and Main, the flags began: kids holding plastic flags, Korean War veterans holding worn American flags, bandana-clad Vietnam veterans holding POW/MIA flags.
At Eighteenth and Main, groups held candles and signs. GOD BLESS OUR SON. THANK YOU. A boy held his candle to his mother’s light to light it as the hearse passed.
At Seventeenth and Main, hands over hearts. Hats over hearts.
“Dude, this is giving me chicken skin,” Petty Officer Rick Lopez said, shivering inside the van. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
At Fifteenth and Main, people came out of a restaurant to watch the procession. The blue lights of the police cars and the red lights of medical cars shone on the Christmas decorations wrapping the trees of downtown.
Outside it was about 40 degrees. Still, the crowds continued to line the streets: more children with wobbly salutes, a woman with a walker, a couple who embraced in a hug as soon as the hearse passed.
They drove in silence for a few minutes and then Petty Officer Lopez spoke again. “You know,” he said, “sometimes I wish they would do this for us when we come home alive.”
Inside the funeral home, a few feet from her son’s casket, Debra Anderson held tight to a single photo.
”I had to have my picture of my smiling Christopher,” she said, staring at the photo and then the casket.
While Christopher was deployed, his parents talked with at least once a week—mostly for only a few minutes.
“You could hear his smile in his voice. You could hear it on the phone,” his father said. “He was going back to work, back to do his job, back to doing what he wanted to do.”
Inside the funeral home, Debra leaned into her husband of twenty-six years, wiping her face with a tissue.
“My boy, my boy,” she said. “Christopher said he’d be okay. He promised he’d be safe, Rick—he promised me. I miss him. I miss the phone calls. I miss him terribly. I want to talk to him.”
“Hey,” Rick said softly, “now we can talk to him anytime we want.”
“Ooooh,” she moaned. “My heart hurts. My heart hurts. It was my job to take care of him. I shouldn’t have let him go. I shouldn’t have let him go.”
“You were going to stop Christopher?” his father asked. “Since when?”
They both managed a smile and their eyes again fell on the casket.
As the family told Christopher stories from chairs in a corner of the room, the corpsman’s younger brother, Kyle, stood at the front of the casket, refusing to leave his place, patting the rough, wrinkled flag.
The brothers had grown up as opposites; Christopher the well-dressed go-getter and Kyle the rebel who shopped at thrift stores. They fought like most brothers fight. Sometimes, they fought worse than most brothers fought. They hadn’t spoken while he was in Iraq.
As the family continued to share stories, sniffling and laughing, Kyle refused to move from the casket.
“Why don’t you come over here with us?” Rick asked him. “Why are you standing there all alone?”
Kyle looked at his father, his eyes red, and patted the casket again. “I’m not alone,” he said.
More than sixteen hours after John Dragneff’s day began, the skinny sailor walked into the room and handed Christopher’s parents a condolence card:
Instead of saying, “I’m sorry for your loss,” I wanted to say, “Thank you” for Christopher. We claimed each other as brothers.
“You did good, John,” Rick said. “You did good.”
Debra Anderson grasped the young man’s hand and looked into his eyes.
“I’m glad you came with him. It’s what he wanted. You did a good job. You got him home,” she said, gripping his hand even tighter. “Thank you for bringing him home.”