29 April 2012

War...and Peace, Part 5

If you've never planned a funeral before it pretty much goes like this: you cry your eyes out for about half an hour as you talk to the funeral director, you manage to pick out the day/time/location for the funeral, pick out a casket to bury your loved one in, and you somehow tell them enough information about the deceased so they can write an obituary (if you choose to have one). That's how it's supposed to happen.

For us, it was different from the norm because we were burying a veteran, so there was the added bonus of having a military funeral. Or so we thought.

We were informed by the funeral home that because my brother didn't die as a direct result from combat (i.e. - he wasn't shot or blown up overseas), that he was not eligible for a full military funeral. The problem with this is we wanted a full military funeral, and because he died from cancer that was proven to be a result of his service in the military, we felt that it was the least the government could do.

And so, it was time for the real battle to begin.

We made countless phone calls to every single person who had any say in how things are run in the state of South Carolina. We had friends of friends make calls to people who we thought might have connections to the inner-workings of the government. We had people posting to Facebook asking everyone they knew to call anyone they could to help us out, all to no avail. They weren't going to budge.

That's when we went on the news.

Someone in our community contacted the local news and told them the story, and they came to my parents' house to do a story on my brother and our fight to give him the funeral he deserved. They talked to my parents and my wife (I refused to go on tv because I couldn't bring myself to do it at the time) and aired the special the night before the funeral as a last ditch effort to convince the people in charge of the situation to make an exception for my brother.

After the news crew left, it was time for us to get ready for the wake, which is never an enjoyable task. It's even more difficult when it's one of your family members because that means you have to get there early to view the body to make sure everything is in order. That's the second hardest part of the process: the first time you see the body and know that it's not a person anymore.

Viewing the body was definitely an experience I will never forget for as long as I walk this earth. Seeing him lying there peacefully - knowing the personal hell he had been through for the previous 12 months of his life was finally over -  was strangely relieving to me. I could feel his peace, and for the first time - if only for a brief moment - I was okay with what was happening.

We buried him in his military uniform. We felt it was the best thing to do for him, because we felt that's what he would have wanted. One benefit to doing this was allowing everyone to see all the medals and badges that he had earned during his service, and having people who knew what each badge symbolized tell us what they all meant. We learned a lot about him through this, and we discovered that he had done a lot more for our country than we thought he had.

For example, we learned that he won not one, but two Purple Hearts. That's a big deal. It's an even bigger deal that he never spoke a word about them. It's a sign of his true character. He was more concerned about others to the point where he wouldn't even brag about himself when he had something worth bragging about. Not very many people can say that. (I sure as hell know I can't.)

The wake was inspiring to me when I saw just how many people showed up to pay their respects to my brother for his sacrifice and for his service in the military. I felt like I shook a million hands and hugged a million people that night. One of the most awesome feelings I got from being at the wake was from meeting a lady who said she saw our story on the news and felt compelled to come pay her respects to the family. It was an unbelievable feeling knowing that there still are people out there who appreciate the sacrifices that members of our military make each and every day, and that's one of the few things that helped me get through the tragedy of losing him. I knew that his death was not in vain, and it did bring a feeling of peace to my soul.

We left the wake and returned to my parents' house, and sometime shortly after we arrived we learned that arrangements had been made for a full military funeral. We were thankful to everyone who had joined together to help us get what we felt he deserved, and we were glad that we were going to be able to remember his life the way that we thought he would have wanted us to. (When you're planning a funeral, you'll take any small bits of relief you can get.)

We were also informed that there was a group of veterans who wanted to escort the hearse to the burial site via motorcycle, and even though my mother was uncomfortable with the idea at first (she didn't want to add any more attention to the funeral than it already had), we finally convinced her that it would be a good idea to include them. (Looking back on it now, I'm glad we did.)

As unusual as it is to say this, the funeral was absolutely beautiful. We arrived at the church for the first half of the service, and when we got out of the car we noticed two long lines of American flags leading up to the entrance. Each flag was held by one of the motorcycle veterans, and each veteran was standing at attention as we walked into the church. It was surreal. It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life, and it's a shame that it took such circumstances as a funeral for me to be able to see it, but unfortunately that's the way it goes sometimes.

The first half of the funeral was the typical protocol that most everyone follows. There was a prayer, a few songs, a message about the deceased, and another prayer. When we got to the grave site, however, it was a completely different story.

If you've never been to a military funeral you are missing out on one of the most beautiful exercises known to man. They follow a strict protocol that is intense, respectful, honorable, and moving all at the same time. I've never seen anything like it before, and I don't think I'll ever see anything like it again. It was a beautiful day for a funeral (as macabre as that sounds), and luckily we didn't run into any major problems with the weather (aside from the sweltering heat that only the South can provide). There's a unique air of calm surrounding a military graveside service, like nothing else I've ever experienced before. And, as strange as it sounds, I felt at peace.

The 21 gun salute was breathtaking. Hearing the shots fired into the dense summer air knowing they were meant to honor and respect the life that my brother had lived and the sacrifice he had given sent chills down my spine that I still feel every time I hear the sound of a gun shot, even thought it's been a little over 9 months since the funeral.

It didn't become real to me until they lowered the vault into the ground. Up until that moment, it felt as if I were living in a dream that would eventually end. But, when they lower that burial vault into that cold pit of dirt six feet below the surface, the reality of what's happening hits you like a freight train, and all the weight of regrets that you had for things you'd done (or failed to do) starts to sink in. That's the hardest part of the process - the realization that your loved one is gone forever, never to return again.

It's a reality that I've been battling ever since the funeral, and it's a reality that I'm just now able to talk about (hence the long amount of time for me to tell this story). But, thankfully I'm at the point now where I can finally talk about it to an extent, because that's the first sign of moving on. I know that it's a process and it takes time and that I'm not going to be over this for a long while, and knowing is half the battle. The other half is going to be adjusting to life without him, because from time to time I still find myself wanting to send him a text message, or checking to see if he's on Facebook just to chat.

I know I'll never get to chat with him again (at least not in the physical sense), and that's the part that eats at my soul every single day. I've lost my best friend, but I know that I can at least take comfort in the fact that he's finally at peace. He's certainly earned it.

War is definitely hell, but peace is everlasting. My brother went through war, and because of that war was able to find his peace. Someday, I hope that I can too.

28 April 2012

War...and Peace, Part 4

When cancer is involved, a person's health can nosedive in the blink of an eye. I witnessed this first hand as I watched my brother morph from the person who had an occasional bout with pain into someone who could barely get up off the couch without it being excruciating torture.

It was only a few days after he returned home after visiting me that I got a phone call from my mother saying that he was going to the hospital again. I knew it was going to happen. I could tell by the way he looked, sounded, and acted the week before that something wasn't right, even if he wouldn't admit it when I would ask him about it.

I don't pretend to know what anyone is thinking at any given time. I don't claim to be a mind reader, and I don't think that anyone really has the ability to read minds, even if someone tells you they are (and will prove it to you if you shoot them $3.99 per minute after dialing their 1-800 number). But, even though I couldn't read my brother's mind, I knew that he was troubled with his situation, and I knew that he was counting down his final days.

I could just tell in his general attitude that something was wrong, and no matter how many times I tried to get it out of him he wouldn't spill. I knew it was because he was scared of what he was facing, though I never heard him admit it. Either that or he didn't want to burden me. At any rate,  I didn't push him too hard because the last thing I wanted to do was push him away in the time when I felt that he needed me the most (or the time that I needed him the most - I'm still trying to figure out which way it really was).

My fears were confirmed by the phone call from my mother. He was going to the hospital again, and I knew it wouldn't be much longer before we were planning a funeral. It's hard to come to terms with something like this, but we had no other choice. The fortunate thing for us was we had a chance to adjust to it, unlike many who have to do this sort of thing on the spur of the moment. We at least had some time, even if we didn't know how much.

My brother tried to make things easier on my family by attempting to live his final days at home, but he just couldn't do it. He wasn't able to be comfortable at home, because home didn't have the 24-hour nurse assistance that the hospital provided. So, he decided to go back to the hospital. Because he's the kind of person who puts others before himself, he decided that he wanted to go to the hospital that's only 10 minutes away from our parents' house, instead of the one that he'd been staying at (which is 35-40 minutes away) to make travel easier on our parents. (Once again, he was concerned with others even though he was the one near death.)

I drove a lot of miles back and forth on weekends for almost a month. I had to. I knew that if I didn't do it I would live to regret it for the rest of my life. I was faced with the decision: What's more important - spending time with my brother or putting mileage on my car? It wasn't a hard decision to make. So, I drove 3 hours one-way every Saturday morning, and drove the same 3 hours one-way every Sunday afternoon for three weekends in July/August.

The first two weekends were alright because he was able to sit in the bed and talk, even though he was in excruciating pain because of the tumors. We were able to reflect on our past and the fun times we had together as kids, and we were able to genuinely enjoy those moments because this time we weren't just talking to take up empty space - we were actually reliving those memories together.

Looking back, I'm glad we were able to share those times together while he was in the hospital, because it helped me cope with the fact that he didn't have much time left. I needed all the help I could get, and his ability to maintain a positive outlook was one of the few things that helped me get through the whole ordeal. He may not have realized what he was doing, but he was comforting me even though it was supposed to be my job to comfort him.

The final weekend I went to see him was the hardest. He had gotten so frail that he wasn't able to do anything anymore, and the pain was so bad for him that he was in a constant state of numbness from the morphine that was running through his veins. I knew the time was near. If you've never been around someone who's dying, I can assure you - you know when it's time, and even though none of us wanted to admit it, it was his time.

On Monday, August 8th, he requested that all his friends come visit him so he could begin saying his final goodbyes. He decided that he would have the doctors turn off the limit to his morphine so he could rest peacefully until his clock ran out, and he wanted to tell everyone goodbye before he was gone. I remember hugging him and telling him that I loved him, and I remember him saying "I love you too bro." to me as he hugged me. I felt like I was hugging a complete stranger because so much of him had wasted away because of the cancer, yet I couldn't make myself let go. I knew it would be the last time I hugged him, and I wanted it to last forever.

Unfortunately, it didn't last forever, and I had to leave so I could come back home to return to work on Tuesday. I didn't want to leave, but I had to. I shouldn't have left, and I knew I shouldn't have left as soon as I got home Monday night. One of my biggest regrets is not staying when I knew I should have, and even though I was doing what I thought was right, my heart was telling me the entire time that I should stay. I wish I would have listened.

I was eating my lunch on Tuesday at about 11:45 AM when I got the call. I didn't even have to answer the phone, because once I saw the number on the caller ID - I knew. My mother said two words to me, and those two words fell on me like a ton of bricks.

He's gone.

That's it. That's all she was able to say. I barely managed to mumble out "okay, we'll be up later this afternoon", and I somehow managed to call my wife and let her know what was going on. I don't know how, but I also made three other phone calls to spread the word, and I left work and went home to pack. As soon as I pulled the suitcase out, I sat on my bed and wept uncontrollably. I knew it was going to happen, and I'm still not sure how I held out as long as I did, but somehow, I was able to do it.

I was fine on the drive up, because I focused my attention on driving. Focusing on the drive was the easy part. The hard part was when we arrived and I saw my parents for the first time. The only word I can use to describe it is surreal. I thought I was dreaming, and I thought that at any moment I would wake up and the dream would be over.

Unfortunately I was wrong. I wasn't dreaming. My brother had really lost his battle with cancer, a mere 11 months after he was diagnosed with the disease. That wasn't even the hard part. The hard part was still to come, because we still had to have a funeral - a place where we would have to say our final goodbyes before he was laid to rest. That's the hardest part of all, because of the finality associated with it. There's no turning back from it, and I would be lying if I said it wasn't the hardest thing I've ever had to do.

To be continued...

27 April 2012

War...and Peace, Part 3

It is incredibly painful to watch someone you care about suffer, especially when you know there's nothing you can do to stop the suffering. I've been there, and I'm sure many of you reading this have been there as well, so you know just as much as I do that it's not fun at all. It sucks, and there's really no nicer way to say it.

I won't go into a lot of detail about my brother's post-surgery or the majority of his hospital stays, because I don't have first-hand information from a lot of those incidents because I live 175 miles away from my parents and the hospital he was treated at is even further away than that. I went to visit on weekends, but I wasn't able to be there every day like I would have wanted to be, so a lot of the details are fuzzy to me because I'm relying on second-hand information. But, I will hit on the major points and the stuff that I know, which in this story should be good enough because while the minutiae of his ordeal would be great, the major plot points will suffice.

After my brother's surgery he went through the typical recovery process that everyone goes through where he was miserable for about a week after the fact, with the worst part being that he was confined to a hospital bed knowing he couldn't go anywhere or do anything that he loved to do. Add in the discomfort of having hoses and cords coming from every other direction - including a colostomy bag and catheter - and it makes the experience even more not-fun. But, my brother took it in stride. He always took everything in stride. No matter what effect it would have on him, he was the same calm person on the outside.

After suffering through the post-op discomfort for about a week, he was able to finally go home. But, that didn't last very long, and he was back in the hospital after a near-death experience when his catheter stopped functioning properly. One of the worst feelings in the world is that phone call late at night from home that contains the words "ambulance" and "emergency room". Add in "almost died" and "barely made it" to the equation, and it's a phone call that will certainly scare the hell out of any normal person.

He endured several scares similar to that one over the next few weeks, and also endured the bad news that the number of tumors in his liver had grown, as well as the amount of tumors in his lung. The big bombshell came shortly after that, when the doctors told him that the tumor they had removed not only returned, but came back larger than before. So, a new round of treatment was planned, even though he secretly thought it wouldn't do any good. (He never admitted this, but I could tell it was how he felt about the situation.)

He did everything he could to enjoy life. People tend to do that when they know there's a clock ticking and it's going to stop soon. He didn't know how much time he had (the doctors told him about a year), but he knew that he was going to enjoy the time as much as he could. He made a bucket list and started doing things that he'd never done but always wanted to. (I think all of us would love to have this luxury.)

He made one final trip to Hawaii to see his fiancée before his treatment was scheduled to begin, and that's when things began to turn for the worst. I'm not going to go into a lot of details about what happened in Hawaii because 1) I don't know all the details, and 2) it's really none of my business. All I'm going to say is this: he found out that she wasn't being honest with him while they were apart, and the engagement was cancelled before he returned home.

It was his deathblow. He lost everything that he had left to fight for, and when he came home he decided to not take the chemotherapy because he wanted to enjoy the rest of the time he could instead of being sick from the treatments and only buying himself an extra six months of life. His thinking was "I'd rather enjoy six months than be miserable for a year if I'm going to end up dead either way". I can't say that I blame him.

After the Hawaii fiasco he started crossing items off his bucket list. He got body piercings and tattoos (and even paid for me to get one with him), and he started enjoying every single moment of life he had left. He came to visit me more so he could spend more time with me, The Wife, and our kids. We stayed up until 2 AM most nights he was there, and even though it made getting up the next morning very difficult, it was some of the best time we spent together because it was so real, and to him - it was a chance to escape.

Each time he would come visit he would stay for several days to a week, and I noticed that he was getting progressively worse each time he came. I could tell his time was near, and I could tell that it wouldn't be too much longer until he wasn't able to come visit any more, and unfortunately, I was right.

The last time he was able to come visit was in July of last year. He came for my birthday, and he was able to stay for a week even though he was sick most of the time he was with us. He would stay up all night because he was so sick, and he would only get a few hours of sleep during the day if he was lucky. It didn't change the way he interacted with us though, as he would still talk and goof off as if nothing was even wrong with him. (To this day I'm still amazed that he was able to do this. I know I couldn't have done it.)

One of the things I'll always remember about his final week at my house was the late night conversation I had with him when he started telling me things that he had done while overseas. I won't go into detail here because it's not my place to do so, but I will say that he did a whole lot more than just sit at a desk and type on a computer all day, which is what he led most of us to believe. The one thing that will always stick in my brain as long as I have one is the image of him looking me square in the eye and saying "If I would have known it would come to this, I would have jumped on a grenade when I had the chance."

That's some powerful stuff. If you hear that, it will send chills down your spine, I don't care who you are. (It certainly did for me.) It's one of the last images I have of him, because shortly after he left our house and returned home, things took a turn for the worst.

To be continued...

26 April 2012

War...and Peace, Part 2

One of the hardest things a person can ever say and/or hear are the three words I have cancer. It doesn't matter how tough you are (or claim to be), it's one of those phrases that brings sadness to everyone involved (and even to those who aren't involved). It's real. It's heart-wrenching. It's sobering. Those three little words remind us of our own mortality, that our absolute appointment with death is closer than we may have originally thought, and it hurts like hell. It doesn't get any easier to digest after you've heard them, either. I can bear witness to that.

The image of a phone conversation with my brother in September 2010 still resides in my brain as if it were 5 minutes ago. No matter how hard I try to forget, I am constantly reminded of that exact moment when he broke the news to me.

I was waiting in line to pick my son up from school and suddenly I saw my cell phone ringing. I should have known something was wrong when I saw his number on the caller-ID, because he's not the type to just call me up to discuss the weather. He's just like me when it comes to talking on the phone (i.e. - we hate it). It's funny how brothers can be alike in so many weird ways, yet be totally different in others. But anyway, I digress.

I remembered that he previously told me he had a doctor's appointment because he had been abnormally sick for several weeks after returning home from Afghanistan, but I never in a million years would have imagined that he would have cancer. That's just not something that goes through your head when you get a phone call from your brother. I was expecting him to tell me something about where his fiancee (at the time) would be stationed after she completes her training (she's in the Air Force), but I never thought I would hear him telling me that he had cancer. He wasn't supposed to say that.

Talk about a bombshell. After he told me, I was in a daze - like I was in the middle of a bad dream and couldn't wake up from it. To this day I'm still trying to face the facts and understand that he really did tell me that and it wasn't something that I made up.

The hardest part was not knowing what the future would hold. There was a lot of uncertainty in regards to treatment options, quality of life, likelihood of survival, etc., and it was a very trying time for me and my family because we couldn't just "know". I often wished that I could look into a crystal ball and see that everything was going to be alright, but I couldn't. Knowing that I couldn't made it hurt even more.

I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to help. Feeling helpless doesn't make matters any better, because I'm the type of person who likes to solve problems. Approaching the unsolvable is something I prefer to avoid, and something that I'm not accustomed to. I was a fish out of water for most of the time after his diagnosis, and that bothered me.

It bothered me that I couldn't solve the problem. It bothered me that I couldn't do anything to make his pain go away. It bothered me that I couldn't do anything to make my pain go away, and I couldn't make my parents' pain go away. I wrestled with the feeling of helplessness for a long time (hell, I'm still fighting that feeling today), even though my brain knew that there was nothing I could do - my heart wanted to do something so bad it couldn't stand it, and it couldn't handle the reality that there was nothing that could be done.

The doctors gave us a glimmer of hope by telling us that he could go through a few rounds of chemotherapy and then have surgery to remove the tumors that were in his body*, and after that there was a chance that following a round of radiation treatment he could make a full recovery. They cited his age (28 at the time) as a benefit in his fight because he was young enough and strong enough to fight off the ill effects of the chemotherapy, and he was still young enough to have something worth fighting for.

* - He had tumors in his rectum, liver, and one of his lungs.

He managed to stay relatively healthy (considering the circumstances) during his chemo treatments, and he was scheduled to go through surgery in December to remove the cancer from his body. When it came time for his surgery, he was in good spirits (again, considering the circumstances), and even though we were worried beyond belief, we tried to maintain a positive outlook for him. (This is much easier said than done.)

While the surgery only took about 6-8 hours*, it seemed like an eternity to me and the rest of the family as we sat in the waiting room, anxiously awaiting updates from the surgeon. Hospital waiting rooms are like that though. They make it seem like time is at a stand still. You sit, and you sit, and you sit some more. Then you get up and walk around to ease your butt from all the sitting (and because you're going stir crazy sitting in the same chair for so long), and then you return to your seat and sit again for hours on end. Then, you look up at the clock and realize you've only been sitting there for fifteen minutes, even though you feel like you've been trapped in that chair for hours on end.

* - I have forgotten exactly how long the surgery took, but 6-8 hours is a fair estimate.

Finally, after what appeared to be about five days worth of time, the surgeon came out to discuss how the surgery went. The news was good, but not as good as we hoped it would be. The surgery went well in terms of he went in and came out alive, but the surgery didn't go so well in terms of the surgeon accomplishing his goals in the surgery. They were only able to remove part of the tumor because of extenuating circumstances they encountered once they opened him up.*

* - I'm not going to go into graphic detail, but it took them several hours to clean his bowels because they were so impacted due to the location of his tumor.

Because of the problems they ran into once they opened him up for the operation, they weren't able to remove the tumors from his lung and liver. They decided that it was best to get the biggest tumor out of the way, and they were able to take all of it out. The down side to the surgery was they had to set him up with a colostomy bag because of the tumor's location, but they were hopeful that it would only be a temporary setback until they were able to do a second surgery to completely remove the cancerous tumors.

Unfortunately for my brother, it wasn't temporary. But that was only the beginning of his struggles.

To be continued...

25 April 2012

War...and Peace, Part 1

William Sherman was absolutely right when he said that war is hell. I know this first hand. No, I've never served in the U.S. Armed Forces, and I've never been on a battlefield except for various field trips I've taken over the course of my years studying the history of our great nation, but I can honestly say from personal experience that war is definitely hell.

I'm sure you're wondering how I can be so definitive about something I readily admit not experiencing first-hand, but I'm not talking about the kind of war you probably think I'm talking about. I'm not talking about the war with bullets flying to and fro as airplanes drop bombs over massive acres of land in order to take out as many enemies as they possibly can at once, all because the people being bombed believe in a different set of ideals than those doing the bombing. No, I'm not talking about that kind of war. Sherman was, however, and from stories I've been told by numerous sources who can say they've been in a war zone, I understand that Sherman was right.

War is hell.

But anyway, I digress.

The type of war I'm talking about is an emotional one. It's a war that I've personally gone through over the past one and a half years of my life, and I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt from my experience that war is absolutely hell. If you've ever encountered the pain and suffering that I've been through since last September, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. Otherwise, you're just going to have to take my word for it and believe me when I tell you that I know what I'm talking about, and the crap that I've been through over the past year and a half truly is an emotional war, and therefore - per General Sherman - it is hell.

In case you're not aware of this emotional malaise that I am referring to; in September 2010, my brother (my only brother, mind you) was diagnosed with cancer. At the time, I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know how sick he really was, or how far the cancer had spread, or if the cancer was even treatable. I didn't know how much time he would have left on this earth.

(That's the scary part - the unknown. It's hard enough to deal with trials when you have the information at hand, but it's a whole new level of difficult when you don't have a clue what's going to happen next.)

Looking back, I wish I would have known that he would only have as much time as he did, because when you know what time the clock is going to hit zero you tend to be more prepared than you are if you have no clue what's going to happen next. Of course, knowing the outcome is considered cheating, because none of us are allowed the privilege of knowing what's in store for us at any given time. But, it sure would be nice to have the capability to look at a specific point in the space-time continuum and know exactly when and where the end will take place, because having that competitive advantage against death would make things a lot easier for everyone involved, and honestly we could use every advantage over death that we can get.

But enough about me. This part of the story is supposed to be about my brother. After all, he's the reason I'm writing these words at this very moment. Although if I were to be truly honest with you, I'm doing this for myself as well, if for nothing more than to help me cope with the events that have unfolded since his diagnosis.

Notice I used the word cope. I used that word because it's really all I'm able to do at this point. I'm finally to the point where I can make it a few weeks without having a breakdown, and I've finally accomplished the feat of sleeping throughout the night more than one night in a row, but I'm still in the "coping" stage. To be completely honest I'll probably never get past that stage, because I don't think I'll ever fully accept that he's gone.

They say that time heals all wounds, and that might be true. But, I do know that if it is true, it's going to take a lot of time. We're talking the "coal turning into a diamond" realm of time here. And, that's okay. It's perfectly normal as far as I'm concerned, even though I'm not exactly what you would call an expert on "normal".

(Okay, I'm making this about myself again, so I'm going to move on and tell my brother's story. Well, part of it anyway. If I tried to tell his whole story I would have to write a novel.)

My brother was a member of the US Army who did three tours of duty in Iraq and one tour of duty in Afghanistan. He was a member of the Special Forces group out of Fort Campbell, KY for the first three tours of duty, but then he was re-assigned to Fort McCoy, WI when he was sent to Afghanistan. Of course, if life were fair (which we all know it's not), he would have never went to Afghanistan in the first place. He had served his initial contract which included the first three tours of duty, and when it was time for his contract to expire he chose not to re-enlist because he wanted to stay home and finish getting his Bachelor's Degree.

The Army had different plans for him. They called him back three years later, and told him he was being sent to Afghanistan. One of the benefits in joining the Army (at least for them) is that they can call a soldier back into duty at any time up to four years after their contract expires. (However, they can only give a returning soldier one set of orders, and they can't keep the soldier for more than one calendar year.) Since my brother was within his four year "probation period" (for lack of a better term), he was eligible to be called back to service, and he was instructed to report for duty for his last year of service which included a tour in Afghanistan for 6 months.

His mission was to provide intel support to a group from Alabama (there's a joke in there somewhere, I'm sure), but that's all I know about what he was called back to do. He wasn't allowed to talk about it, because it was highly classified information (at least that's what he always said). All I know is he went to Afghanistan with 14 or 15 other guys from Alabama, and he served about 9 months time. He never went into a lot of detail about any of his assignments, and I knew that it was because he wasn't allowed to talk about them so I never really pressed him for information. I do know, however, that his job wasn't to just sit at a computer desk all day like he led most of our family to believe. (Looking back on it, I know he did this because he didn't want anyone to worry about him every day. But - even though he didn't want us to - we still did.)

Even though he didn't talk about his job that much, I do know that his one claim to fame is that he was a part of the group that tracked and found Saddam Hussein. He claims that not only did he get to question Hussein face to face, but he also had the pleasure of defecating in Hussein's personal toilet. When we asked him why he did it, he simply answered "because no one else from here can say they have ever done that".

It's an answer that I expected him to give, because he's always had a dry sense of humor. That's one of the many things that was so great about him. He had the uncanny ability to have a room bursting in laughter while he maintained a straight face that could win a game of Texas Hold 'Em with a Ten High hand. That's just how he was. It was incredibly hard to know if and when he was telling the truth or just blowing smoke because he always kept a straight face, but this is one of those times where I believe he was telling the truth.

I can see him sitting there on Hussein's toilet right now, smirking because he knows that he's going to have a story to share for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately for everyone, the rest of his life was a very short period of time. Much shorter than any of us wanted it to be, and - if you ask me - much shorter than he deserved.

To be continued...