They said their goodbyes, wiped away the tears and returned to duty. After that, there could be no more grieving. When you live in a combat zone, if your mind isn’t there on that street then the next upturned rifle might be your own. In war, to dwell on the dead is to endanger the living. Still, they’d had their chance to grieve and for most that was enough to carry them through the deployment.
In Tallahassee, a crowd numbering in the hundreds gathered in the main hall of the National Guard armory. The symbolic rifle, kevlar, boots and dog tags sat at the front of a dozen rows of folding chairs. A large photo of Robert sat on a stand by a podium and a projector flashed images from Robert’s life on the wall. One after another, people stepped up to the podium to speak, a chaplain, a general, a sergeant major, a congresswoman. They gave speeches that would have made Robert scoff. Then his parents; his father’s emotional speech drew tears and applause from the crowd. When his mother spoke, however, standing before the crowd full of soldier's family members, she told them, in an unwavering voice, that it was okay to be relieved it wasn’t their son. She spoke of the bond she and her son shared and Robert’s commitment to his duty. Through her words she absolved scores of wives and mothers of their guilt. She held firm that night, a beacon of strength for a shaken homefront.
A few days later, on a chill winter afternoon, a much smaller crowd gathered at Arlington cemetery. Robert’s mother wore a very different face as six men in crisp blue uniforms carried her sons casket to it's final resting place. With sharp, measured precision, they folded the flag that had accompanied him back from Iraq. Then, as a lone bugler played his haunting melody, seven soldiers raised and fired their rifles. One… Two… Three shots each. Each blast shattering the calm of the somber field, a stark contrast to the gentle mourning call of the bugle. Finally with a shell from each volley tucked into it’s folds, the casket flag was presented to Tammy. Now, so far from the crowd who needed her strength, she cried, sobbing with the tears that only a grieving mother can know.
During each of these memorials, I was in a hospital bed. I lay wrapped in my sterile sheets with my foot encased in plaster and gauze as a parade of doctors, chaplains, officers and counselors asked me if I’d had a chance to speak with anyone. As I lay there however, trying to make sense of the events through a haze of morphine and torridol, all I really wanted was a sign that he was really gone and maybe, a chance to say goodbye.
For two years, this haunted me. In my mind, I’d left Robert there in Baghdad that day. It was the only place I’d ever really known him. Removed from the context of our friendship, I was never confronted with his absence. Although I wasn’t in denial, acceptance was far from closure. Finally, this past November, on the two-year anniversary of his death, I made my way to Arlington. There, on a perfect Saturday afternoon, I sat by his simple white headstone. I didn’t cry; the pastoral beauty of Arlington was infinitely removed from the world of Robert’s death. Still as I sat on his grave and stared into the cloudless sky I felt like he was there with me. When I left Arlington that day, for the first time in two years, I knew where Robert was and I could finally say goodbye.