By Margi Desmond
Mayor Richard Powell ordered all Woodbury flags to fly at half-mast in honor of hometown hero, Army Sergeant First Class David Lehane, who gave his life fighting for the United States of America during Operation Enduring Freedom.
The Lehane family replaced the blue star flag hanging in their home’s front window with a gold star flag.
Unable to obtain side-by-side seats for the flight to the United States, Rachel and Amanda sat twenty rows away from each other on the packed flight to Atlanta. They’d have a layover at the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport before a short flight to Raleigh-Durham Airport where an escort soldier would be waiting to take them to Woodbury, a forty-five minute drive southwest.
Rachel couldn’t sleep or concentrate on reading a book. Memories of good times with Dave consumed her thoughts. Such a smart, nice guy. So young. Shot dead by a terrorist disguised as a member of the Afghan security force working with Dave’s team during a mission in Maidan Shahr. Rachel knew that the Green Berets were training the Afghans to take care of themselves so eventually the United States troops could leave the region and the local nationals could protect their own country and its people. As the insider attacks continued, Rachel had been scared for James. He insisted that he kept his guard up at all times, but still, she was sure Dave and the members of his team had been guarded too. Sometimes things happened, no matter how vigilant the soldier.
Please, Dave, look after James. Please be his guardian angel. I’ll look after Amanda and you look after Dave.
The Atlanta airport — the busiest airport in the world—was packed, as usual. Faced with a three-hour layover, Rachel and Amanda decided to go to the USO lounge where they could rest in confortable recliners, away from the general airport travelers. As they walked into the area, a “Welcome Home Troops!” banner triggered Amanda’s tears. “Dave will never see a banner like that. He won’t be coming home alive.”
Rachel put her arm around Amanda. “Maybe we should find a restaurant instead of sitting in here.”
Amanda nodded and allowed Rachel to guide her from the USO lounge. Amanda’s posture, her gait was that of a frail, old woman. Overnight, she’d become a withered, twenty-four-year-old widow.
They sat at Chili’s and ordered a basket of French fries, the only item Amanda said she might be able to eat, after Rachel insisted she order something.
“I’ll have a beer too. A Budweiser. Dave’s favorite,” Amanda said. “Make it two, one for my friend also, so we can make a toast to him.”
The waitress nodded. “Excellent. Who’s Dave?”
Rachel held her breath.
Amanda smiled. “My husband.” The waitress smiled and walked off. “I’ve been thinking,” Amanda said.
“What if Dave’s not dead? Maybe he’s on a classified mission. He’s infiltrated a terrorist cell and working to destroy the enemy from the inside out.” Amanda took a sip of her beer. “They had to report him KIA in order to trick the bad guys.”
Rachel didn’t know what to say. Denial was part of the grieving process. Maybe when Amanda saw Dave’s body, she’d accept the horrible truth.
Sergeant Wright steered the vehicle into the driveway leading to the Lehane family’s modest split-level home. Rachel admired the meticulous landscaping and gorgeous flowers. Amanda had said her mother-in-law enjoyed gardening, and that fact was evident by the beautiful flowerbeds and lawn, perfectly mown, resembling lush green carpet.
Rachel noted the huge elm tree at the side of the house upon which a small tree house remained. She remembered Dave’s story about discovering a passion for carpentry while constructing the tree house with his father.
During one of her last conversations with Dave, Rachel recalled his enthusiasm. “Working with my hands to create something out of a pile of wood, then seeing that object and knowing I constructed it, well, it’s a great feeling of accomplishment,” Dave said.
“I’ve wanted to learn,” Rachel said. “I’d love to make bookcases for James’s office.”
Dave nodded. “I can show you how to do it. There’s a woodworking shop on base.”
“Awesome. When James and I finally settle down and buy a house I’d like to construct built-ins and closet organizers.”
“I’ll show you how to make all of those.”
She remembered Dave’s smile, the way his demeanor brightened as they’d discussed a skill he enjoyed. They’d been standing in Amanda and Dave’s kitchen, drinking a beer while dinner cooked in the oven. Amanda had answered a phone call from her mother and was lounging on the sofa, discussing the New Years trip to Amsterdam.
Sergeant Wright cut the engine. “Look,” Amanda said, pointing to the gold star flag hanging in the window, tears welling in her eyes. “How am I going to do this?”
“Take your time. I’m right here.” Rachel grabbed Amanda’s hand. She’d made the long trip from Germany to the United States to support her friend and was determined not to let her down. Rachel would summon the strength for both of them.
A gentleman dressed in a dark suit and holding a smart phone descended the front porch steps and approached the vehicle. Sergeant Wright exited the vehicle. “I have Mrs. Lehane and her friend, Mrs. Davis, from Germany with me.”
The gentleman nodded to Sergeant Wright and opened the back door. “Mrs. Lehane,” he leaned down making eye contact with Amanda, “your family has been worried about you. They’ll be glad to see you’ve arrived.”
Rachel and Amanda stepped from the vehicle and strode, hand in hand, towards the house. As they approached the stairs leading to the front door, Amanda let Rachel’s hand go and ran ahead, through the entrance. Rachel hesitated, wanting to give Amanda and Dave’s family a bit of privacy. She turned to the gentleman. “Are you—”
“—I’m with the Unit, ma’am,” the gentleman said. “Sergeant Wright and I will screen visitors, and make sure the press gives the family privacy, and whatever else the family requests.”
Rachel smiled at him. “Thanks so much.” She turned to Sergeant Wright. “Thanks for driving us from Raleigh. I really wasn’t in the mood to drive after the long flight from Germany.”
Sergeant Wright nodded and said, “You’re welcome, Mrs. Davis.”
A man walked out of the house and onto the front porch as Rachel considered entering the home.
“Hello,” she said. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his front shirt pocket and offered one to her. “No thanks. I don’t smoke.”
“Good girl,” he said and lit a cigarette. “I’d quit more than a year ago, but…” His voice caught and he looked away.
“I’m Amanda’s friend, Rachel,” she said. “She uh…I flew from Germany with her.”
“I’m Dave’s Uncle Bob.” He took a long drag off his cigarette. “They’re all in the house. Go on in. I’ll be along after I finish this.” He held up the cigarette.
Rachel smiled at the bereaved man and walked through the front entrance. The living room off to the right of the foyer appeared to be the hub of activity. Many people gathered, holding various conversations, hands clutching refreshments and tissues. Everyone engaged in conversations failed to neither notice nor acknowledge Rachel. She felt like an outsider and wondered if Amanda would need her anymore now that she was with Dave’s family.
The dining room off to the left seemed to be the site of refreshment distribution. Fruit and vegetable platters, casseroles, dips, salads, pies, cakes, and other pastries covered the large dining room table. Two small boys crammed donut holes in their mouths, eyes bulging when caught in the act by Rachel. They visibly braced themselves for a scolding. Rachel smiled at them and said, “It’s okay, guys. I won’t tell anyone.” She winked at them and they giggled.
The oldest one, who appeared to be around eight years old said, “You want one? They’re good.” He held up a little round ball of fried dough covered in powdered sugar.
“No, thank you,” Rachel said. “I’m looking for my friend, Amanda.”
“Aunt Amanda!” The younger boy ran out of the room yelling her name.
“Did you know my Uncle Dave?” the older child asked.
“Yes, I did.”
“Terrorists shot him.” The child’s face scrunched up in what Rachel thought may be pain or confusion, she wasn’t sure. She feared he would cry and someone would think she’d upset him. “Mommy said Uncle Dave’s a hero. He saved our country from bad guys.”
Rachel swallowed hard and fought back tears. “He sure is, sweetheart.” She looked into the little boy’s big brown eyes, similar to his Uncle Dave’s, and her heart broke.
“She’s here,” the younger child exclaimed, holding Amanda’s hand and leading her into the dining room.
She caught sight of Rachel and broke free of the child’s grip.
“Rachel, I’m sorry I left you.” Amanda sobbed and clutched her friend in a tight embrace.
The children looked at the two women. The smallest turned to the older and said, “Mommy said Auntie Amanda would cry a lot.”
The older child rolled his eyes. “Of course she will, stupid head. Uncle Dave got killed in action.”
Amanda gathered herself and introduced the kids to Rachel. “Miss Rachel, this is Bobby and Luke. Dave’s cousins.” Amanda turned to the little boys. “Let’s show Miss Rachel your project.” Amanda led Rachel into the kitchen, where a few ladies were pasting photographs of Dave on poster board, making collages commemorating his life.
Rachel used every bit of strength to keep herself composed as she looked at the photos of Dave from childhood to present day.
Amanda introduced Rachel to the ladies—aunts, neighbors, friends from church—and they swapped Dave stories over the next few hours.
Eventually, Dave’s mother emerged from her bedroom. The former fashionable, attractive epitome of Southern grace and charm moved slowly. Bags under her eyes and a red nose indicated she’d been crying rather than resting in her bedroom. Her eyes focused on Rachel.
“Hello, Mrs. Lehane,” Rachel said.
“This is my friend from Germany,” Amanda said to her mother-in-law.
Mrs. Lehane held out her hand, grabbed Rachel’s. “You knew my Dave?”
Rachel nodded. The distraught mother embraced her and started crying. “He was my baby.”
Angry storm clouds blocked the sun, causing the sky to become dark and grim, mirroring the mourners’ moods. The wind blew Rachel’s hair into her face, a stinging slap of reality in a heartbreaking, surreal moment: the final few minutes before the return of a beloved hero’s remains.
Rachel stood by the shiny, black hearse parked on the tarmac, a few feet from where the family gathered.
Dave’s grandparents, parents, siblings, and young widow, Amanda, sat in a row of dented, paint-chipped metal folding chairs. Behind them stood aunts, uncles, and cousins all dressed in black, many wearing sunglasses, not to protect from the sun’s harsh rays, but to hide their bloodshot eyes. Eyes sensitive from days of crying while awaiting the body’s return home. A vehicle approached. Woodbury’s Mayor Powell, North Carolina’s Governor Taylor, and U.S. Senator Harris emerged and quietly joined the mourners.
Rachel listened to sounds of sniffles, a chair’s creak underneath the occupant’s shifting weight, and the sound of the soldiers’ impeccably polished black leather dress shoes as their feet hit the pavement with each step in preparation for the arrival of Dave’s body. A body that began its journey home, carefully loaded onto the plane in Afghanistan under the close supervision of Rachel’s husband, James. Rachel stood, thousands of miles away from James, as a dear friend completed his journey. She felt pride that she and James had worked as a team, across thousands of miles to care for a fallen friend. Theirs was a marriage of strength, despite miles of separation.
Everyone heard the aircraft before actually seeing it. Uplifted heads, eyes searched the sky. Seconds later a small, dark speck grew larger, the noise louder.
“My son.” Dave’s mother cried. Mr. Lehane put his arm around her and held her close while they both wept, bodies shaking with sobs. Others started to cry and clutched each other for emotional support. Amanda wrapped her arms around her torso and rocked back and forth in her chair. The raw pain heard in their cries seared through Rachel’s chest. Actual heartache. Lightheaded, realizing she’d been holding her breath. She leaned on the side of the hearse.
“Stop it,” she knew Dave would have said, giving her an impatient look. “Don’t get all weepy on me. I’m fine. They’re the ones who need your help.” She knew if there was one thing Dave would ask of her, it would be to provide emotional support for his wife and family.
Rachel took a deep breath and willed herself to be strong. Everyone counted on her. She mustn’t attract attention. This was the Lehane family’s moment. She’d mourn on her own, privately, when they no longer needed her help. As the plane’s wheels touched the runway, raindrops began to drizzle, the sky weeping along with the heartbroken mourners.
She watched the faces of the soldiers standing at attention. She felt badly for them, knowing they, too, hated to witness the family’s pain upon the arrival of a fallen comrade. Rachel knew this wasn’t the first, nor the last time the soldiers would perform this duty. She looked down at her hand she’d unconsciously laid on the side of the hearse. She used a tissue to buff out the fingerprints, all but one, so that a small part of her would be with her young friend as they transported him to the funeral home. Stupid, she knew, a poor substitute for the hug she’d planned on giving Dave upon his return from war, but there was little else she could do.
The C-17 slowed to a stop, and moments later the back door lowered. Six soldiers in uniform marched the coffin, draped in the United States flag, to a position in front of the family.
The soldiers saluted, a trumpet played “Taps,” and Rachel’s heart swelled with both pride and grief. She wiped a tear from her cheek.
As the military pallbearers marched the casket to the hearse, Rachel backed away from the vehicle and blended in with the distant relatives in the back of the group. The soldiers gently slid the coffin into the hearse’s rear compartment and shut the door.
State troopers and hundreds of motorcyclists—members of the Rolling Thunder—protectively surrounded the procession down the left lane of the Interstate 95, which Governor Taylor had ordered blocked for exclusive transport of the fallen hero to his childhood home of Woodbury, North Carolina.
Rachel heard the roar and felt the vibrations of the motorcycle engines. She watched the state troopers’ vehicles’ blue lights flash in front, beside, and behind them. Cars in the right hand lane slowed to a stop as the procession drove past. Dave’s hearse, the United States flag above each headlight, similar to the President’s vehicle. A limousine transporting immediate family. A bus with Rachel and other family members. No one spoke. Biker engines, sniffles the only sounds.
The procession exited the highway and wound through the town’s tree-lined streets. Flags at half-staff: fire station, county courthouse, police department, the library, and private homes. State and local police stationed at each crossroad stopping traffic to make way for the hearse, stood at attention, and saluted as the procession drove past.
All of this for Dave, Rachel thought, and she was pleased.
They proceeded past Dave’s childhood home on Forest Hills Road. Children in neighboring yards stopped their play in order to stare at the scene driving past. A man mowing his lawn stopped and saluted as the hearse drove past his home. A neighboring woman placed a hand on her heart and pulled her young child close.
The hearse approached the funeral home and drove down the short driveway. The family’s limo followed. The bus parked at the curb in front of the funeral home, a beautiful historic property on tree-lined Nash Street. The roar of the motorcycle engines died down as each rider parked his bike. Rachel stepped off the bus and stood at the end of the drive, out of everyone’s way, but close enough should Amanda need her.
Rachel watched as the funeral home personnel carried Dave’s coffin from the hearse into the funeral home. Moments later, the family emerged from the limousine and walked inside the building. They were to spend a few moments with Dave’s body before going home. Everyone else would have time to pay respects the next day at the wake.
Rachel took a moment to scan the faces of the members of the Rolling Thunder. Older, grizzled, middle-aged, and young men, all faces pained. Men who experienced the ravages of war in Vietnam. Younger men, recent veterans, memories of Iraq and Afghanistan still fresh in their minds. A middle-aged woman. Had she seen battle first-hand or was she a spouse, sister, or daughter? Many bikers with tears in their eyes, Rachel could only imagine what they’d endured and what pain still remained. Dave’s death reminded them of their own experiences, the horrors of war and the pain of losing someone so young, so healthy. The pain of losing a strong, vibrant loved one for the sake of the country. Members of the Rolling Thunder who vowed to guard the mourners from protestors and the press, and doing an outstanding job. Men determined to protect a fellow brother and his family, to give them privacy to mourn.
God bless them all.
Margi Desmond graduated from East Carolina University with a B.S. in Communications and an English minor. More than 100 nonfiction articles and fifteen of her short stories have been published. She also serves as a judge for the annual Colorado Book Awards and the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence. She’s a member of the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. A United States Army wife, Margi and her husband are stationed in Germany. For more information visit her website at http://www.margidesmond.com, Facebook Author Page https://www.facebook.com/MargiDesmond?ref=hl, and Twitter https://twitter.com/MargiDesmond.