The Cost of Our Freedom

MemDay2015

Webmaster note: Last year I posted a photo (left) from 2005 of an 18 year old widow kissing the casket of her soldier-husband.  It was personal for me: the young woman’s mother and I have been friends for nearly 50 years.

“The Cost of Freedom”  became painfully clear once more.

The young soldier saluting in the background was a friend to SPC Byrd.  His mother wrote an emotional and detailed piece about the funeral on a blog called “Some Soldier’s Mom” which appears below where she clearly documents the price paid by the loved ones as well.  If you care to follow the links, they should still work.

And now, for this Memorial Day Weekend, and with the blessings of Mykel (the young woman in the photo above) it is my honor to present:

The Funeral of SPC Tommy Byrd

 by Noah’s Mom

As I posted Saturday, we attended the funeral on Veterans’ Day of Noah’s friend Tommy Byrd who was killed along with four others of Noah’s squad in an IED attack October 15. Here’s a longer-than-usual post, but a story that should be told…
The Central Church of the Nazarene is a modest church for modest people. There are perhaps 30 parking spaces in the front paved parking lot, but there are many more spaces available around the side of the church in the gravel lot shared at the rear by a commercial business. As we arrive, I wonder if anyone else is thinking that we only get together any more for weddings and funerals. The sky is so blue this day — the kind that Doc Graham says in the movie Field of Dreams is “a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it.”

Walking through the open doors of the church’s vestibule through the throng of people greeting old friends and those savoring the last of their cigarettes, we spy Noah “handsome as they come” in his Class A uniform brimming with medals and ribbons and braids. He is standing against one wall with a waif of a young woman; her eyes rimmed red and dressed in a turquoise colored top and dark trousers. Besides being very young, she is diminutive with long hair streaked with the subtle shades of blond that are the fashion. People are greeting her and hugging her and she is dwarfed and smothered by these mourners. I know immediately that this is Mykel, Tommy’s widow.

Noah catches a glimpse of us, leans to whisper to Mykel and turns to us. I smile a small smile as he gives me a tight hug and a light kiss on the cheek and says, “Thanks for coming, Momma” as he releases me and reaches to shake his Dad’s hand and do that manly embrace that doesn’t require a full hug but rather hands to each others’ shoulders as they firmly clasp their hands and forearms. He repeats his thanks to his Dad, and begins to lead us to where Mykel is standing.
Mykel and I clutch each other in a tight embrace and I tell her how sorry I am about Tommy as I stroke her hair, and she tells me how glad she is that I am there and thanks me for having such a great son. Her mother and I also tightly embrace and cry on each other’s shoulders — wordlessly conveying our pain for our children’s loss and she tells me how she has come to love my son…
We enter the nave and Tommy’s casket is already at the front of the chancel, draped in the American flag and it brings new tears to my eyes as we take our seats. The church is already filling quickly and by the time the service starts is standing room only with every aisle filled. Those in attendance include Marines, many soldiers, sailors and airmen – friends from school, neighbors, relatives. When I remark later to a Captain from the battalion about the number of Army Rangers in attendance, he tells me that they went through basic training with Tommy two years ago and who, like Noah, have paid their own way from their units to attend. Some young men and women carry infants or have toddlers tugging at skirt hems. There are old men with VFW garrison caps. Some men are wearing suits, while others are dressed in the clothes of working men.

We make our way to the front and introduce ourselves to Julie and Michael Byrd and while the fathers shake hands, we mothers embrace and cry while Tommy’s 15-year-old brother Michael, Jr. looks on. I tell him what a fine brother Tommy was and he thanks me and shakes my hand and nods. I think again how hollow and inadequate “I’m so sorry” is and how hollow it sounds.
The minister speaks and then Tommy’s high school wrestling coach, Dan Montaño. While he strives to maintain his composure, Coach sobs and his voice cracks throughout his remarks about Tommy’s humor, his drive, his smile. Holding on to the small thread of composure left to him, he closed by saying, “The next time you see our flag waving so proudly in the air, remember why it’s waving and the sacrifice Tommy made.” Later I think how we expect teachers to influence the lives of their students and how unaccustomed we are to know that sometimes it’s the other way around.

Captain Lebo, from the 2/69AR reminds us that Tommy – the driver of the lead vehicle in a convoy every night – died doing what he loved, and many heads (especially soldiers and family) nod in agreement. Mykel’s best friend Rachael – whom Tommy convinced to join the Army – speaks next. She rambles that now as she trains for deployment to Iraq, the training has taken on a whole new meaning… and how she always told herself that if Tommy could make it through doing what he did, then she certainly could make it doing what she did… but now she needed a whole new courage.

There are two picture slide shows with music – the pictures we all have in our family albums – a laughing baby… the 8 year old with a center stripe Mohawk haircut that elicits laughter from us all… the 12 year old at attention saluting an unseen flag… prom portrait… pinning an opponent at a wrestling meet… clowning with his friends… lovingly holding the high school sweetheart that would become his wife. The wracking sobs of his mother echoing through the church are all it takes for the rest of the mourners and me to join her. I see Mykel’s shoulders heaving as she cries and I see my son comfort her. I watch those around us — men and women, young and old — weep openly and wipe the tears unashamedly from their cheeks. I see soldiers staring straight ahead and fighting for control. DH squeezes my hand a little harder when Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” begins to play over pictures of Tommy graduating from basic… standing next to a HMMVV, sitting on a tank… standing with friends in the desert sand.

Tommy’s aunt is the last to speak and she tells tale after tale of the laughing, mischievous first-born grandchild… how as a young child he plummeted down the side of a wooded mountain on a ride-on toy head first towards a tree with no way to stop to the utter horror of his aunts and grandparents as they pounded after him certain of the horrible accident about to happen when he suddenly pulled to a stop just 6 inches from the tree… How with the family gathered round nearly crying tears of relief at Tommy’s good luck he demanded to “do it again”.

We exit the church to begin assembling the elongated snake of autos that will follow hood to trunk in procession to the cemetery – a journey that will take almost 40 minutes through downtown streets. As I watch the lines of cars on side streets blocked by the members of the Tucson Police Dept. on motorcycles, I mention to DH that when I was a kid back in Illinois and we would get caught at intersections by really long funeral processions, I would think, “Wow! Look at all those cars! That must have been a really important person.” And I tell him through new tears that it could never be truer than today for there was no more important person in the world today than Tommy, and the two-tour veteran reaches for my hand and nods knowingly.

A canopy shades the area directly surrounding the open gravesite. A line of soldier-friends stands at parade rest. The white-gloved Honor Guard stands at attention next to the hearse and the Army riflemen stand back from the crowd. When nearly 300 people are assembled at the grave, the visiting soldiers are called to attention and the Guard gently removes the casket and slowly bears it to the grave; the crowd is still as the low sound of “step” as each pair of pallbearers reaches the riser above the grave where the casket will be placed. They lovingly lower the casket to the brace, dress the flag and salute this Hero with slow motion movements. The minister prays and turns the service over for military honors.

A few words are spoken, and a Command Sergeant Major with eight service stripes (one for each four years of service) loudly barks out to the seven riflemen, “Riflemen! Render three volleys!” and there is an audible gasp and weeping with each volley. The crying and sniffling escalate as Taps begins.

Two American flags are removed from the casket and each is folded with the well-practiced precision demanded to render the highest honor to the flag and to the deceased and each fold gathers and holds more than a hundred years of tradition together with the gratitude of this Nation. It is all Mykel and Julie can do not to collapse from their chairs as the folded flags are presented to them, first to his widow and then to his mother. I see our son place his hand over Mykel’s to comfort her as she cries and clutches the flag.
A Brigadier General reads the citation for the Bronze Star and Purple Heart that are awarded to Tommy and they are presented to each of the women. Again, the emotion is so raw and riveting that it competes with the sun to burn us. Noah rises and walks past the casket and is handed one of two doves, which, when released, circle above the burial site until our attention is returned to the task at hand. I hear the soldiers behind me murmur their approval. A representative of the Arizona Governor presents Mykel with the flag flown at half staff above the Capital on October 26.
As the coffin begins to lower, all the assembled military snap to attention and hold a salute. Mykel, Julie, Michael and Michael, Jr. step forward to place roses on the lid of the casket, followed by distraught friends before they lower the burial stone. Mykel sobs out her husband’s name one last time and she kisses her fingertips and reaches to plant the kiss on the coffin lid. Noah pulls his prized Combat Infantry Badge from his uniform chest and places it gently on his friend’s casket and recites softly the four lines of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from “Henry V” that names them forever members of the Band of Brothers before he returns to attention and holds his final salute to his fallen friend.
For the uncounted time that day, my heart breaks, and I lean on DH. With his arm around me, I cry tears of sadness for this family and these friends… and I cry tears of pride for my son for all he has been through at 20, and I know that they are also tears of gratitude that my son’s life was spared that day in August… and I cannot help but cry a few more thinking about Matt Bohling and Jason Benford and Tim Watkins, Jeff Corban, Vincent Summers, Rich Hardy… and I can’t help but think of V., and R. and M. – Our Guys – andStacy’s Michael and Cathy’s Dan and all the others that are still there a while longer… On our way back to the church to join the family for refreshments, DH remarked how long this year has been. I can only reply that I hope it gets no longer…
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Rest in Peace, dear Tommy… husband, son, brother, friend, Soldier. Hero.