"Be strong" he spoke in a soft gently gentle tone.
Slowly, he lifts his six year old daughter off the ground until their eyes met and then pulls her into a warm fatherly embrace. She studied his face- eyes darting frantically from feature to feature- in a hurried attempt to lock it all into memory. The padded tip of her small index finger trace the contours of her father's face as she tries to commit every scar, freckle and crease to memory. Her eyes scan the aging landscape like a lost tourist frantically scanning a map.
" I'll be home before you know it and then things will get back to normal, just like before"
“I know” she replies, as her eyes drop slowly to look at the ground
“We’ve been through this before and we’ll get through it again. This year, we’ll go to Hawaii for our vacation. How ‘bout that?” The forced excitement in his voice picks up momentum as he fashions a large smile.
“Daddy, it’s o.k., I know you have an important job and you protect us from the bad guys, but I will still miss you. It’s just that a year is a long time”
“Honey, I have to go and take care of my Soldiers. We have a lot of work to do over there-lots of schools to build, people to help….and we have to make sure those bad guys you talked about don’t hurt anyone. That country needs our help and we can’t let them down.”
His left hand cradles the back of her head as he moves his fingers through her dark brown hair. His fingertips sift through its softness like escaping sand and he repeats the motion over and over. The girl stretches out her short arms as they fight to reach across his back, finally settling on two fists full of scrunched Army camouflage pressed firmly against his back. He studies her small face, noticing the freckles resting on her checks and nose. He remembers how many times he has looked at her before, but somehow this time feels different- somehow, it was as if he was truly seeing his six year old daughter Margaret for the first time. He wants every detail of her to travel with him to Iraq-to call upon when the loneliest of times hit. Margaret and her father stood there, lost in the moment as they are pulled out into a tide of their own emotion of tears and words. Blind to the world around them as they share the final moments together, they accept another long distance relationship filled with a weekly phone call and web cams. His arms wrapped gently around her as they both began to cry. They hugged one last time.
" I love you!" he struggles. "I'll be back in a year I promise and we’ll spend lots of time together.”
Margaret was so overcome with sadness she can barely complete her next several breathes.
With every ounce of energy she whispers: "I love you too Daddy"
There eyes meet again as she begs her father not to go. He gently placed her on the ground and reaches down to grab his ruck sack. Gripping a shoulder strap in each hand, he swings the pack high over his head and with one swift motion, as if by calculated acrobatics, it comes to rest firmly upon his back. He tightens the straps and turns to walk away - forcing himself not to look back. He desperately wants to turn around for one last glance, but he knows the pain would be too much for her-or maybe for him. As he marches off into the distance, Command Sergeant Major Tom Berry can hear Margaret’s anguishing cries replayed again for a fourth time in six years.
Margaret sits in the blue chair smiling as she remembers the details of that day. Suddenly, through the large scattered Oak trees that adorn the Arlington hillside, she glimpses the horse drawn caisson carrying the American flag that covers the wooden casket. Her grip tightens even more on the blue chair as she notices soldiers slowly beginning to stand- heels together and arms down by their sides, motionless as they await the arrival of her father. The eight member team, places her father under the small green tent-every move slow and calculated. She wants to run into her father’s arms one last time, but knows that she will never feel his fingers running through her hair. Margaret watches as the team slowly removes the flag from her father’s casket, stretching the large flag up above the wooden casket. She notices white gloved hands caressing the flag, just as her father had caressed her several months earlier- slowly and methodically folding the flag until only the blue background and white stars are displayed. She listens as the Chaplain describes her father with words like “hero” and “Personal Courage” describing a part of his life that she knew little about.
The Army Chaplain spoke these words with conviction and Margaret made a commitment to herself to honor her father every single day of her life.