Author: Teresa Mummert
I cried out as I read the name. My Shane was safe. Arms wrapped around me from all directions as we hugged and gave thanks for another day. As the words played over in my head, I pulled back as a wave of sickness washed over me.
"Owens," I said as I stared at the screen. "Shane's best friend is Owens. What is his first name?"
"I'm not sure. He only refers to him by his last name," May said as her fingers played nervously with the cross that hung around her neck.
I hoped that it was not the same person. Shane would need me more than ever. I had no way to call him, to hold him.
"One thing at a time," May said as she ran her hands through my hair. "Shane is safe. Let's focus on that for now. We won't know anything until he calls."
I nodded but there was no way I could think of anything else.
Two hours went by, two excruciatingly long hours, before my cell phone rang.
"Shane?" I put my hand over my other ear so I could hear him.
"It's me," he said and my heart sank into my stomach. I knew.
"I'm so sorry. Are you okay?"
"I couldn't save him." His voice broke.
"It's not your fault."
There was a long pause before he sucked in a harsh breath and spoke.
"It was my job to have his back."
I closed my eyes as I sank down to my knees and wrapped my arms around my legs.
"Sometimes bad things happen-" He cut me off before I could finish.
"That's bullshit!" he said through clenched teeth. "The only reason he is dead is because I didn't do my job."
"No one thinks that, Shane."
"I think that, Jenn."
August 19, 2010, Near Ft. Hood, Texas
"How are you feeling?" I stood outside of the hotel in my dark green class A uniform.
"I'm fine. How are you?" Jenn worried her lip as her free hand fell to her belly.
"Don't worry about me."
"It's impossible not to. Oh!"
"What, did something happen? Is it the baby?"
I laughed as she squealed into the phone.
"I think he just kicked!"
I smiled and closed my eyes, resting my head against the wall, careful to keep my uniform from touching the surface.
"I wish I could see you."
"Not much longer." She sighed as she rubbed her hand over her stomach. "Will you call me after…" She let her voice trail off, not wanting to even say the word funeral.
"I'll try. It's gonna be a long day."
"I'm here if you need anything. You can talk about it, you know?"
"Yeah, I know. There's nothing to say. I have to go. I love you."
"I love you too, Shane."
"You ready, man?" Sgt. Gallery asked as he adjusted his uniform and ran his fingers over the rows of pins on his chest.
"Let's go." I followed him to the large white van that sat across the parking lot. It was already filled with the other soldiers who would serve as pallbearers at Owens's funeral, nine of them in all.
I slid inside the passenger seat as the sergeant rounded the front of the van and got into the driver's seat.
"All I do is play the bugle," one of the soldiers said from behind me.
"You don't play shit. That thing isn't even real."
"Exactly my point!" the young soldier replied as the others chuckled.
"Every role is important. Don't screw it up," Sgt. Gallery called to the back as he glanced in the rearview mirror.
I stared out the window as the world flashed by, trying to block out their voices. I had been on funeral details before but never one for someone I had known. It was a nerve-wracking ordeal. If I didn't do everything to the letter, I would feel like I was letting down Owens again.
"We're here." Gallery put the van in park and turned to me. I was still focused on the world outside, only now I was staring at a cemetery. "It's time."
I nodded as I opened my door and stepped out into the muggy Texas air.
"These uniforms aren't made for heat," I overheard one of the soldiers complain. The air in Texas was different from overseas. It could be over one hundred degrees in Iraq but the air was dry and more tolerable. In Texas, it felt like being in a sauna.
"Let's stack the arms. I don't want to be late for the funeral."
The other soldiers hustled to get their M16s and make their way across the grass toward the gravesite. The weapons guard took his position as the three soldiers on each side of him stacked their weapons in a standing teepee formation on either side. They left the guard and the bugle player behind as they hurried to get back in the van so they wouldn't miss the funeral for a fallen hero.
August 19, 2010, May's House
"Jenn!" May leaned over and gave me a hug. "How are you holding up?"
"I wish he would talk to me." I stepped inside the home as I looked around at the living room full of boxes. "You moving away without telling us?" I laughed as I turned back to May.
"I was going through the baby stuff to see what we could pass along to you."
My heart sank as I realized how hard it must be for May to give up on the dream of having another child.
"Don't give me that look." May waved her hand as she began to stack the boxes together to make room for us to sit. "I'm fine. We will just give all of our extra love to your baby." She smiled as she picked up a stack of boxes and began carrying them back the hallway. The phone rang from the kitchen counter.
"You want me to get that?" I stood from my seat and walked around the couch.
"Yeah. Probably telemarketers. They don't understand how that 'do not call' list works."
I laughed as I grabbed the phone and leaned back against the sink. "Hello, Philips residence."
"May? Who is this?" a woman asked from the other end of the line
. She sounded like she had been crying.
"I'm sorry. This is Jenn, a friend of Mays. Who can I say is calling?"
"I didn't realize she had company. Could you just give her a message for me?"
"Let her know Chelsea called and I already spoke to Shane, not to worry. He is terribly heartbroken, but I will make sure he gets through this."
The blood drained from my face as I let the phone slide from my ear. I began counting down from twenty in my head as I struggled to keep the anxiety from rising.
"Who is it?" May mouthed quietly as she entered the room, snapping me back to reality.
"I'll give her the message." I quickly hung up the phone so I wouldn't have to hear another word. My hand immediately covered my belly as the other braced against the counter.
"Jenn, who was it?" May asked again as she herself began to panic, wondering what more bad news could come our way.
"Those damn telemarketers," I mumbled as I rubbed my hand over my stomach. "I should go. I forgot I have an appointment."
"I thought your next appointment was a few weeks from now."
"It is. This is for the dentist," I lied, as I made my way to the front door. "I'll call you later." I slipped outside and hurried to Shane's car. When safely inside, I let my head fall against the steering wheel and sobbed. I didn't notice May coming out of the front door and running to the car until the door pulled open.
"Whatever she said, you need to ignore it."
"Who?" I wiped the tears from my eyes as I looked at May.
"I have caller ID on my phone, Jenn. I know you talked to Chelsea."
"How could he?"
"She knew about Owens. She said she already talked to Shane."
May sank down to eye level.
"If he talked to her, it was for a good reason. Don't give up on him, Jenn. Chelsea did and that is why he is with you."
"Oh, so I'm the consolation prize?" I spat angrily as I pushed down on the brake pedal and pushed the button to start the car.
"You know that's not what I meant."
"I need to be alone." I stared out of the windshield, refusing to look May in the eye. I didn't want to break down more than I already had.
"Fine." May stood and took a step back from the car. "Just remember he needs you right now."
I nodded and grabbed the handle of the door, pulling it closed before I pulled out of the dirt driveway and sped down the road. I couldn't think, couldn't count if I wanted to. My heart was racing. I had never felt for anyone the way I felt for Shane. I loved him and wanted more than anything to have him by my side.
I put the car in park and threw the door open as the tears came again. I rounded the front of the car and leaned against the black iron railing that lined the bridge, gripping it so tightly my knuckles turned white.
August 19, 2010, 6:00 p.m., Davis Cemetery, Texas
I wanted to pay respect to my friend, my battle buddy who lost his life because I wasn't able to protect him, but I couldn't. I couldn't look Ryan's mother in the eye and know I had failed her. It was my job to have his six. I shook my head as I stared at the gravel between my shoes. What if I couldn't protect my child? What if I never made it home to meet him?
"It's time," Sgt. Gallery said as he exited the funeral home. I glanced up at him, the sun behind him forming a large halo around his head.
"I'm ready," I lied as I squinted my eyes.
"I got some water in the van. You look like you're burning up."
"It's this heat." I stood and steadied myself on my feet before following Gallery to the van.
I rehearsed every step of the funeral in my head, worried I would misspeak and ruin this for Owens. I only had a few minutes to get my head on straight. I grabbed a bottle of water and drained the contents as we pulled into the cemetery we had visited earlier.
"You ready?" Gallery asked as he put the van in park. The van was quiet. Too quiet. It was unnerving for many of these soldiers to attend a funeral and know that one day they may be sent to the very place that others lost their lives.
I simply nodded and opened my door, looking around at the guests who had gathered near Owens's gravesite. My last memory of a funeral for someone I knew was my own mother's. I clung to my aunt during the entire event and wished I could do that again today with Jenn. I needed her here to ground me again the way she had during my leave.
We lined up in rows of three with me between them in the rear and began to march to the hearse. I slowly opened the door at the rear of the vehicle and inhaled deeply as I took in the site of the casket draped in the American flag. My heart began to thud in my chest as I ran my fingers over the fabric, making sure it was perfectly straight before wrapping my fingers around the handle so tightly my knuckles burned.
"Ready, take." My voice was barely audible as I took a small step backward, pulling the casket into the sunlight. A soldier on each side linked their fingers in the handles along the side.
"Ready, step." I released my handle and came to attention with my arms at my sides. Now isn't the time for me to mourn. That time will come when I am alone in my room. Now I need to be strong for Ryan's mother. I inhaled again, my uniform feeling too tight across my chest.
"Ready, take." The next two soldiers in line grabbed ahold of the handles.
"Ready, step." I stepped back again as the four soldiers pulled the casket farther out of the vehicle. This wasn't how we're supposed to come home. We were supposed to be welcomed by cheers and thanks.