When I opened my eyes I was laying on the floor in the commander's office with the Chaplain kneeling over me, a glass of water in his hand and his other hand supporting my shoulder. My head was spinning and it was taking a long time for me to gather my wits about me.
"He's coming around, Staff Sergeant. Can you find something to put behind him to prop him up a bit?"
He was speaking to someone outside of my range of vision, undoubtedly to the commander's aide that was at the front desk when I got there... .uh, however long ago it had been.
"Young man, I'm sorry that I had to tell you such devastating news. As I said there was no easy way. I'm so sorry for your loss."
His words hit me like a two by four! I had no idea what he was talking about. I had no recollection of what he'd said before and I was pretty sure I didn't want to know. I guess I was hoping it would all go away.
"Hell, Sarge, I never heard anyone hit the floor as hard as you did. Ya'll okay, I mean, physically?"
I recognized the staff sergeant's southern drawl but I only noticed his shadow as he came behind where I lay. I felt the Chaplain pull on my shoulder as a scratchy blanket was pushed under my shoulders and rubbed on my neck.
"Thank you, Barry. That will be all, I think. I'll handle things from here. God bless you."
I heard a quiet, "yes, sir." And the shadow left. I heard the door close behind me.
I focused on the Chaplain's face and he had the strangest look on him. He must have been reflecting mine.
"Oh, Lord. You don't remember any of this, do you?" he asked with serious concern in his voice.
"No, sir. Honestly, the last I remember was you saying, "I'm afraid it's that . . . something. Now I'm here on the floor, my whole right side aches and that side of my face feels like it's rubbed raw. What's going on, sir?"
"Sergeant, I mean Timothy, my boy, your wife and child were killed in a head-on collision two days ago. I was just told this morning but I was made to wait until your debriefing was over before I could tell you."
It seemed like my hearing was affected by the fall to the floor. I wasn't hearing anything right. Had he said that my, my . . .
"Yes, son. I'm sorry but it's true. I understand that you have no other family, that you were adopted and your adoptive parents have been gone for several years. Is that right?"
Tears were flowing like waterfalls. I was a sloppy mess and didn't care. But I had to know.
"Did they suffer? Do you know if they suffered at all, sir, uh, pastor?"
"No, son. I know very few details. I guess you'll have to wait until you get home to talk with the authorities in charge of the accident. I'm sorry I can't answer your question."
"You mean I have to wait for six months before I can find out anything?" I asked desperately. My voice was beginning to escalate. "Can't I call them or something?"
"Oh, my boy, you'll be home before you know it. You're scheduled to fly out by the first available helicopter to a supply plane that will be landing in about two hours at the air base, to take you out of Iraq. You'll fly to Germany and be home by tomorrow evening. I'm sorry; it's the best we could do. Now, I'm sorry to rush you but you need to say goodbye to your men and get your things together."
I don't remember the next several minutes either. Somehow I got back to the unit and through the throng of men that surrounded my tent. Inside, the commander and my number two man were waiting for me.
Staff Sergeant Leonard Farmer was a few years younger than I and had been by my side for each of our overseas campaigns and during much of our training, both ours and the training we gave to get our men in shape. He was, without a doubt, my best friend. He too had a wife and young child at home and actually lived only a few hours from our, I mean, my home.
"Anything you need, man, you know you only have to ask. Anything. I am so sorry, Tim."
I wanted to hug him and break down so bad, but that wasn't in my nature, yet; not twice anyway. It looked like he wanted that too. I was so glad to have him.
Then the commander stepped forward.
"Son, you have a lot on your plate right now. Command has granted you permission to go home and stay as long as you need. You should also know that you are only two years from your retirement. I know you're still young but we've seen to it to add those two years to your time if you need to stay home. You are more important than anything we have going over here and we're proud that you were willing to give your life for so long, for your country. Please accept my sincere sympathy for your loss, your sacrifice. I wish there was something more we could do for you, my friend."
There was a hush throughout the whole area as the men witnessed the commander giving me the first hug they'd ever seen from the man. On my part, it was all I could do to hold it together. I so much wanted to be strong in front of my men. They were the best specialist unit I'd ever led and I would miss them.
"Sir, I'm not sure what's waiting for me back home. I'm not even sure there's any reason to go back. But I know I don't want to leave these men and worry about their last six months here."
"All taken care of, Sergeant McGill. Gunnery Sergeant Farmer, front and center," the commander barked.
I noticed the shocked look on my friend's face. He obviously had no idea what was coming next.
"Sergeant, you've shown yourself to be more than competent to take over the leadership of this unit. As of now, you have been promoted to Gunnery Sergeant and are in charge of this unit, with Corporal Jason Hargrave continuing as your aide, if that's your desire."
I turned to look at Lenny and his face was frozen in shock.
"Sergeant, I hope I didn't make a mistake," barked the captain.
"Oh, uh, no sir. I'm ready. Just didn't expect it, Captain, sir."
"Well, I realize it is short notice but we needed to make sure Sergeant McGill was assured of his unit's safety, didn't we; and I believe you're the man for it."
"Th . . .thank you, sir, I'll do my best."
The next 48 hours were a haze. I was consoled by my men as I readied to leave the unit and was glad that Lenny was able to go with me to the chopper's landing site. We said our goodbyes under the blades of the huge chopper, promising each other a reunion in a little over six months and I was off towards the house that had been my family's home only days before.
I never did break down until we were landing at the airport nearest my hometown. I was exhausted and I guess the realization of what was waiting for me had caught up to me. I actually had to be led off the airplane after we landed. Luckily, there were two sheriff's deputies to meet me at the airport. They had little trouble knowing which passenger they had come to retrieve; he was the one bawling his eyes out in a Marine travel uniform.
"Sir, we didn't know if you wanted to stay at your place or wait and stay in town for a few days. Had you thought about that?"
I can remember that I barely said anything, like, "Whatever." I wasn't trying to be difficult. I just didn't know.
"Let's get you into a hotel in town and then we can talk about what's gonna happen in the morning, sir, after you've got some rest. Okay?"
I must have done something to answer them because I remember the stuffy smell of the room they led me to in the hotel. I think they even stuck around to make sure I fell asleep and that I wouldn't run through the halls in my skivvies screaming crazy things. The fact was, I was really tired.
I must have slept in late, something I thought would never happen again, my disciplined life overseas was so ingrained in me. But I'd been exhausted and emotionally drained. What finally made me stir was a sudden noise in the room, like something falling.
I was on my feet and in attack-mode in less than a second. It took a lot longer than that to realize where I was.
"Whoa! Sorry, Sergeant. I dropped my book," said a voice in the corner of the darkened room. The shadow stood and my eyes finally adjusted to see one of the deputies from the night before standing about ten feet in front of me.
Just then a wave of nausea engulfed me. I thought I was going to lose whatever was in my stomach. I must have looked the part too because the deputy rushed to my side and helped me sit on the bed.
"Whoa, man, you got to let your heart start up before you go jumping around like that. I thought you were gonna be on the floor for sure."
"Yeah, well, it's getting to be a habit for me lately," I replied sullenly.
"I understand, sir. I truly do," said the deputy as he patted my shoulder then returned to his chair.
I gave him a hard look like he would never know what I'd been through and I guess he'd seen that look before and knew how to deal with it. He walked back over to me.
"When I was 17, still in high school, I was playing in the school's football game and came home afterward to find my whole family slaughtered by someone. The only other one that survived was my little brother who had gone to the game with me. I vowed to find whoever had done that and . . . well, find them anyway."
There was very little emotion in his voice, though he was smiling a very patient smile. He'd given this talk before, many times. I remember wishing I could be that strong someday.
"That's why you joined the sheriff's patrol, to find whoever did it?"
"No, actually, I went into the army and just happened to take military security courses. It just seemed pretty easy to swing that into the law enforcement business when I got home."
"What about your little brother? Did he fare okay after all you two went through?"
"Oh yeah. We had an aunt and uncle that loved us like their own. Now, Bill has a wife and two kids only about an hour away. I haven't found the right mate yet, but I've filled that void with a project I took on a few years ago. It keeps my evenings and weekends full.
"I'm sorry; I'm really sorry."
"About what? Oh, my story. Look, it happened a long time ago. How could you know?" he answered.
"That's what I mean. I judged you when you said you really understood. I didn't think anyone could ever have gone through what I did; to know how I feel. I'm sorry I doubted you, even for a second."
"Well, sir, I don't hold it against you in the slightest. No matter what anyone has gone through, no one will ever feel it like you do, especially so soon after."
I just lowered my head and nodded, ready to get into a deep funk, I suppose, remembering what I was there for, what I was about to face.
"By the way, sergeant, I'm very sorry for your loss. I'd like to say it gets easier, and it really does, but I have to say it may last a long time, your feelings, that is."
"Thanks. I don't know whether I'm coming or going. I just want it all to be over with and wake up from this nightmare."
I'd showered and dressed for the day, we’d eaten something, then I was introduced to the other deputy that had helped me at the airport. Soon, we were walking into the county sheriff's office.
I assumed the man holding his hand in my direction was Sheriff Jensen.
"Welcome home, Sergeant McGill. Couldn't be under worse circumstances, though. Won't you come into my office?"
I shook his hand and followed the man. He certainly didn't have the rapport of his deputies, but he had the information I was after.
"Baker, get us some drinks," he said to the assistant seated just outside of the office we were entering. "Sergeant, coffee or cola? Sorry, it's all we have, except water."
"Thank you, sir, but I'll be fine. I just need to know what happened."
"Exactly. Baker, cola, two," he barked as we walked into his office.
It didn't take long to learn the details. No one survived, they all were dead at the scene; my family, the drunk that had been driving, a James Brown and, as the sheriff described her, his bimbo, Stefanie Vitale.
"I can assure you they didn't suffer. The coroner said that, unfortunately, they probably had no time to react and never felt a thing. Over before you know it kind of thing."
While it was the information I wanted to know, the sheriff said it so coldly, without so much as an ounce of empathy, that my stomach wasn't doing well. I knew then that I didn't like that man. He pushed the paper to me that he'd been reading, which was evidently my copy of their report.
"Um, sir, if I could say something?" asked the deputy that had stayed with me and had brought me to the office.
"What is it, Perkins?" snapped the sheriff.
"Sir, if you'll forgive me, but the Sergeant here has been through some shocking things that no one should have to go through."
"Yes, that's pretty clear to all of us. Your point, deputy?"
"Well, sir, I think the sergeant is taking this all a bit hard. To be blunt, you're not helping any."
"What the hell? You've got some nerve coming up with that bull cock, Perkins. Nobody else feels that way, do you mean?" he asked the other three deputies and one administrative aide.
"No, sir. I think you did it . . ." said the little man that was the sheriff's aide and gofer.
"Shut up, Baker. Nobody cares what you think. But you three, what do you think?" growled the sheriff.
The three men standing between the sheriff and their peer, Deputy Perkins, looked back and forth between each other. Finally, the other deputy that had accompanied Perkins stepped up.
"Sir, you do tend to be a bit gruff when you . . .," he started cautiously.
"Who asked you? And get back to work, all of you!" shouted the sheriff. He was pissed and I was getting there.
The three officers left as did the aide, but Perkins stayed on, defiantly, though looking pretty cool.
"Perkins, I said get lost."
"Sheriff, you ordered me to take care of Sergeant McGill. That's what I'm doing, sir."
"Well, I rescind the order. Now get . . ."
"Excuse me, Sheriff," I finally said, raising my voice some to cut him off, "With all due respect, I don't need this. If you would just let me get on with what I need to do, I'll get out of your hair, but I'd appreciate it if you'd let Deputy Perkins accompany me. I'm still pretty shook up."
"If you think I have men, especially insubordinate ones," he said looking over at Perkins, "that I can just let go to be your nursemaid, Sergeant, you've got another think coming."
He was turning into a real asshole, very quickly. I couldn't believe it.
"Well, then, Sheriff, I imagine I'll use that think you talked about as I'm walking to County Commissioner Gifford's office, next door. It's been a long time since I've seen my godfather."
"Your . . ." gulped Sheriff Jensen. "Um, why don't you go do what you need to do and I'll make sure all the paperwork is completed here."
"Thank you, Sheriff. And, you were going to add . . . ?" I said, looking at Perkins, standing there grinning.
"Add? What . . .? Oh, take Perkins with you. He's no use to me," huffed the indignant sheriff as he sat back at his desk.
"You should probably develop some respect for your men, sir. I'd hate to have them backing me up if I'd just treated them like that. I don't think Commissioner Gifford would want that for your county either, come to think about it. Oops! That'd be using up that other think coming to me, wouldn't it?"
I don't know where all that came from but I was in no mood to be patient just then.
When we got to his car, Perkins was chuckling.
"Ha! I have never seen him squirm like that. He's such a pompous ass, I didn't think anything'd get to him. You sure found his weak spot, the commissioner. And to think he's your godfather. That was great."
"He's my godfather? Well, I'll be. I thought I was lying."
"Lie . . .Oh my God! You're kidding. That's better than ever. By the way, Tim, I'm Dan," he finished, slapping my shoulder.
"Thanks, Dan," I said, as we got into his patrol car.
We drove on and it got quieter and a lot less cheerful. I was not looking forward to the next few minutes.
After a lifetime of being bounced around from one relative to another, without any of them wanting me, though it may well have been because of my attitude, I was adopted at the age of twelve by a man and woman that treated me very well: strict, but well-meaning. I felt loved and safe, and they made me feel as important as they could. I didn't excel as a student because my mind wasn't in it; I was forever looking ahead to something more active, exciting.
I wasn't a really big guy. Oh, I'd made some muscles, was almost six feet tall, but in high school, I was only big enough to be an end in football. I also went out for wrestling. They both made me workout and earned me a body that got a lot of girls swooning over me. Believe me, I didn't mind. I wasn't very outgoing, growing up, but I had no trouble going where my current girl wanted and doing whatever she decided. Several times, I was lucky enough to enjoy some fooling around - in bed. That went on for the few years I spent in college too.
It all pretty much stopped when I joined the service after burning out at college. I wanted to do something other than sit in a lecture hall with my head spinning restlessly. The Marines were like a dream for me. Everything I knew seemed to fit into what I would become under the military's tutelage. Eventually, I was honed to go across enemy lines to cause havoc, should the need arise. No one had any idea that something like that would ever be needed again.
The work my team and I were doing was intense, stressful, and very physical. We had to be all we could be in every way because there would only be us should we have to go behind enemy lines, however, they were defined.
So when the time came that I could relax on leave, I spent my time at home in the arms of some girl that was less than pristine and hardly above reproof. In fact, they spent very little time above the covers. I also had a couple of young women insist that I wasn't very careful with the protection, but I never stuck around long enough to find out what they meant.
But it all ended when I met Vivian, and it was right outside the base I was assigned to that I met her.
From the very first minute I saw her, I knew she was someone special. She was everything those other females weren't. Beautiful, smart, funny, delicate, strong and so totally loving that she redefined the word. We dated for a long time, getting to know every aspect of each other. Yes, I even confessed what a low-life chauvinist I was with all the others before her.
And our love life? Well, it was so different and yet so full. We didn't make love until our wedding night and we didn't even talk about marriage for a few years. I got sent into combat several months after we met and I almost walked home several times, I missed her so much. Not just her smell, her touch, her lips, but also her heart and her strength as the woman I never knew I needed.
I can't say I didn't miss the physical part of a relationship but it was so rewarding to build our friendship, our trust, our comfort level with each other. When we finally said our 'I do's', we had been totally committed to each other for years. Even so, I was like a child in a candy store when we were able to settle down in our wedding bed.
And then I had to go back to work, though, that time it was to train men to do what we had done the first time we went over to that sand pit. That went on for another year or so before we finally got pregnant.
He was the cutest little thing imaginable. Yes, he. He seemed like he was all boy those first few weeks. He spouted like a whale and made the cutest expressions of surprise at what he'd done. Then he started to cry a lot. It got to where we couldn't imagine why he was constantly crying. We took him in to find out what was going on with the little guy and . . . he never came home.
How could that happen? He was so innocent, so pure. He was barely a handful for me and me. . . we loved him so much. I tried to be strong but it was Vivian that saw us through all that. She was so loving, even in our loss.
The military allowed me some time to be with Vivian. After all, she was suffering too. I'd lost both of my adoptive parents the year before and she had no family left by the time we'd met. We were our only family and it had been reduced by one.
It was during that time that we found the house on the two acres. It was the perfect therapy for Viv, while I just pined away, thinking about who he might have become, who we would have been together, dad and son. Big Tim and his little Jeremy.
I went back to training and the day I came home with the news that we could be sent back over with the next team, Viv told me that we were going to be a family again. Fortunately, it was eight months before the call came to get ready to leave and I was given a month to be with them before I went back over.
Little did I know it would be the last time I would see them.
Vivian was so enchanted with the cottage that sat in the middle of our two acres. It wasn't large but the garden around it was almost Kinkade-ish. She loved that garden and, according to her letters, was constantly chasing after our daughter who would delight in pulling up a plant to give the pretty flowers to her momma.
The land around the house was nothing. At least, I hadn't taken the time to do anything with it. I didn't even know what I wanted to do with it, even though we'd had the place a year before I was assigned overseas. I'd spent most of my career at a training base preparing troops for close and special combat and I thought I was going to a small recruiting office to spend my last few years talking kids into getting their education paid for after a stint in the service.
Well, Hussein screwed that up and it caught up to me when the commander walked into the office and told me we were needed over there for some 'behind the scenes' operations again. Like I said, I'd asked if I could wait until after the baby was born. But when she was only a month old, I shipped out with Sergeant Farmer and our team. The commander was already over there, waiting on us.
My stomach was in my throat as we drove up the long drive toward the house; the empty, silent house. I wanted so much to see the door fly open and . . . I wanted to hear the high-pitched squeals of my little . . .
When we stopped, I just sat there looking at the place. It was still beautiful, even more so than when I'd left. It was all so green and colorful. Everything looked so vibrant and alive. And I just sat there taking it all in. It looked so lived in and made me feel even sadder than I was.
"Sir . . . Sergeant McGill . . . TIM!"
I jumped. He must have called me several times.
"I'm sorry, sir, but you have to face this. Denial is a real and valid feeling but we need to move you through it. Come on now. Let's go."
I was so pissed at him, thinking he could decide what I needed or didn't. But of course, he was right.
It was worse inside. Smells that I had forgotten for a little over a year met my nose at the door and slapped me into tears until I dropped to my knees, unable to go anywhere. Deputy Perkins was right there to rub my shoulder and let me react as I needed.
"How do I do it, man? How do I go on? I loved them so much. I miss them so much. I'm . . . I'm nothing without them."
"Tim, I know it's hard to imagine right now but better times are coming. Right now, things are in motion for you to find a new love and a nice life again. Little by little, things will change. They will undoubtedly dip and swerve on the way but they will improve, I promise."
"You won't take offense if I don't believe you, will you, Dan?"
"'Of course not, my friend. I was there . . . remember? I wouldn't have believed me then either. But you need to work through all this, no matter what it takes and if you work at it you’ll see what I mean. I've seen it happen a dozen, no, two dozen times, in the people I've talked with."
I didn't respond. I just couldn't go there right then.
"Tell me where to find something cool to drink, Tim. I'm thirsty and I know you must be too," said Dan, changing the subject to something more practical.
"There should be iced tea mix in the second cupboard on the right side of the sink. Glasses are on the other side of the sink. Ice is in the door of the freezer."
It was much later that he told me that I'd needed to get reacquainted with the house again, and spouting off those instructions, remembering where things were, was one way to do it.
I would like to hear/read your criticisms, good and bad. I'd love to talk about where this gets to you. Matthew Templar