Under the sabers the unw.., p.15

Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives, страница 15

 

Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives
 

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  Next she pulled scissors from her purse, grabbed a long piece of her curly blond hair—the hair he loved—and cut a nine-inch hank, all the way to the nape of her neck, so close it hurt. Good, she thought. I want it to hurt. She tucked it under his coat. And she took out a sprig of the rosemary that they had planted in their garden. It stood for remembrance, she had told Rennie. That went in the casket, too. “We’ll always remember,” she cried.

  Before she closed the coffin, she tucked her wet tissues in his other pockets. “Take some of my tears with you, Rennie.”

  She covered the casket with the flag and then let herself out.

  “Bruce, I want to see my husband. I don’t understand why I can’t see him.”

  The mortician began explaining again why that was impossible.

  “Look,” Andrea Lynne said. “There has got to be a small part of him you can let me see. What about his hair? Please …”

  In front of the Main Post Chapel, Andrea Lynne sat in the back of the limo with a black mantilla gathered around her shoulders. Her father had bought the long piece of rose-embroidered lace in Spain for her mother in 1966. An hour before she and her family had left, she heard the sound of an envelope sliding under her bedroom door. It was from Rogers & Breece, and inside, carefully gathered in a small bag tied with a peach ribbon was a small lock of Rennie’s hair. She kept it in her music box. She glanced at her children. Before the wake she had bought them all Celtic crosses and asked Rennie’s blessing for them. She knew they had some of her husband’s strength, now those blessings would have to stand in for lost years of his counsel.

  Outside the window she could see the eight pallbearers, uniformed and not, including Mike Ellerbe and Rennie’s old college buddies, Roland Johnson and Larry Kusilka. Some of them knew each other well; others were meeting for the first time. As the men, four on each side, carried the flag-draped casket at waist level and began to ascend the steps of the church, the limo driver instructed Andrea Lynne and her family to exit the vehicle.

  It was late afternoon on Wednesday, April 18, and the spring temperatures had fallen. Andrea Lynne covered her head with the mantilla, took little Rennie’s arm, and followed behind her husband’s casket.

  I covered the funeral and was sitting in the balcony as she entered below. It was the first time I had ever seen Andrea Lynne Cory. She wore an elegant sleeveless black knee-length sheath edged in narrow white piping. Like something Jackie O would have worn, said the friends who had taken her shopping. With it she had on the pave diamond-and-gold cross Rennie had given her for her fortieth birthday the year before. On the left side of her chest she wore Rennie’s POW/MIA pin from his uniform.

  Natalie, Caroline, and Madelyn walked behind her. As they all entered the chapel, she could hear the elegiac music that she and her father had chosen, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which had been used in the movie Platoon. Inside people sat shoulder to shoulder in the pews. Those who could not find seats lined the walls or sat in the balcony. Interspersed with the military uniforms were ponytailed men dressed in motorcycle leathers, Rennie’s Rolling Thunder crew.

  Main Post Chapel was the most ornate of the chapels on Fort Bragg, built in 1934 in the same stucco style as the rest of Normandy. Andrea Lynne was surprised to see the large portrait of Rennie to the left of the altar. It had been taken when he assumed command of his battalion in July 1998. Though she could not seem to focus on the friends around her, she knew they were there. She could feel their eyes.

  The eulogies began after the Gospel reading. Dressed in his greens, Lieutenant General McNeill was visibly shaken as he stood at the lectern. As he sipped from his water bottle, the three stars on his shoulders gleamed, and the ribbons on his chest rose and fell with his deep breaths. The circumstances made his task as an orator even more difficult.

  “Rennie Cory Junior was not only a good soldier, but he was a good husband, a good father, a good son, a good brother, and a good friend. Truly he was one of America’s sons, a patriot who always made time for family while caring for America’s sons and daughters.” McNeill spoke for several more minutes and was followed by Rennie’s former battalion command sergeant major. Lieutenant Colonel Mike Ellerbe spoke next, remembering growing up with Rennie, unable to hold back tears.

  “Like me, Rennie M. Cory Junior was a child of the Army,” he said. “We were team leaders, company commanders, and battalion commanders together … . For thirty-one years we walked the same path, and I am a better man because of it.”

  The skirling of a bagpipe filled the chapel with the strains of “Amazing Grace.” As the chaplain spoke and read from Isaiah, many listeners were lost in their own thoughts. Rennie symbolized much more than the “great warrior” who is so often praised at military funerals. I could see how his death had shaken the community and reopened old wounds.

  Rennie had grown up here during some of Fayetteville’s most painful times, when Vietnam metastasized like a cancer into the community’s soul. The son of a Vietnam veteran who had survived four combat tours there, he joined the ROTC when it was unpopular to do so on college campuses. Rennie served as a peacetime soldier, wearing a uniform that once again represented honor and summoned respect. During the last decade, Rennie’s hometown was finally beginning to come to grips with—some would call it dodging—the demons of another era. War of any kind seemed unlikely now, terrorism on U.S. soil an unlikely invention of the silver screen.

  Having a local boy go off to Vietnam years later to bring peace to the national conscience and closure for families of the dead meant something profound here. Now his death catapulted Fayetteville back to a time of dashed hopes and aching sadness. Fayettenam was more than a place or a reckless way of life. It was an evil that seemed to rise from the past and claim as a casualty one more beloved son.

  His death touched me, too. Later that day, while talking with Maureen McNeill, I found myself sobbing in her arms. I was embarrassed that I had lost my composure; that had never happened on assignment before. But I couldn’t help it. I cried for the loss of a fine man and what it would mean to his family. I cried for the fifty-eight thousand war dead, and for those like my father who lived through their own Vietnam hell. And I cried for Fayetteville, the town I had come to love, still in the shadow of a Southeast Asian war.

  As the memorial service ended with a final blessing, the mourners filed out. The weather had turned colder, and Andrea Lynne put on a short jacket of soft crushed velvet she had borrowed from Caroline. Back in the limo, Andrea Lynne could hear the Harleys roll out behind the hearse. Along the street, men saluted as the funeral procession drove by. Fort Bragg Cemetery was on a grassy knoll, surrounded by longleaf pines, its entrance marked by two enormous magnolia trees. Here in neat rows three thousand soldiers’ graves were marked by identical white tombstones shaped like arched doorways. Slightly apart from the others were the graves of eight Germans who died at Bragg while they were prisoners of war during World War II.

  Andrea Lynne felt weak, like a person walking to death row, but the graveside mass soothed her. The incense, the singing, the prayers—Father Matthew Pawlikowski’s blessing of the grave was all that mattered. Under the blue funeral tent, Andrea Lynne felt the presence of the other soldiers. Their grief was palpable, and their emotion was holding her up.

  She stared at the ground, trying to absorb the priest’s holy words. When Brigadier General Harry Axson gave her the American flag from Rennie’s casket, she was void of emotion. She realized she had joined the ranks of women she thought she would only read about in newspapers. Yet the twenty-one-gun salute gave her comfort. It was a fine sound, she thought. Like the greatest Army toast from all its living soldiers for their beloved fallen comrade: Here’s to you, sir!

  The bugler played Taps, and the funeral director handed each family member a rose to place on the coffin. Andrea Lynne waited a moment, then she stood up with a shakiness that surprised her. The funeral director helped her toward the casket, and suddenly she forgot
all the people, and she gazed at the polished wood. She removed her veil and laid it on the coffin, swirling it as if to impart some part of herself to Rennie. She laid the rose on top, her eyes brimming with tears. Then she leaned down and kissed the casket. Those around her gasped, but her body just would not let him go. She felt she was deserting him. Good-bye, Rennie. Leaving was the hardest thing she had ever had to do. Finally, as if pulled by a string, she rose and walked away.

  CHAPTER TEN

  It was just after 5:30 on a Friday afternoon in mid-August, and the Green Beret Club on the corner of Buker and Ninth Streets was hopping. I’d been to the club numerous times over the years, sometimes to meet a source for a beer, other times with friends and their husbands who were in Special Forces, but this time I was by myself. I worked my way through the crowd of men just off duty and still in their BDUs and boots. Intermingled with them were a few women whose better days had passed. The colorful history of the club had always interested me, and I thought it was worth exploring for a story. The article never did materialize; a few weeks later I would be consumed with stories of a very different nature. My night at the club resulted in a chance meeting that would have profound meaning I couldn’t have foreseen at the time.

  “Hey, we’ve got a seat for you over here. You wanna join us?”

  I turned around. It was Brandon Floyd. He was at the end of a rectangular table, his back facing an outdoor deck where patrons sweated it out at picnic tables waiting for the sun to go down. He gave me his chair and found another one. I sat down next to him and then found out why he was so accommodating. He wanted to introduce me to his single friend, a Green Beret visiting from Fort Campbell.

  In front of Brandon at the wraparound bar, covered in green laminate to match the arched, wood-beamed ceiling, sat the old-timers with baseball caps cocked atop their heads. Most of them were Green Beret Vietnam vets and long retired. They sat in their favorite tan vinyl swivel bar chairs, most with an elbow resting on the bar, a cigarette between their fingers, and a bottle of beer within easy reach. Brandon pointed the men out to me and said I really needed to talk to them if I wanted to learn about the place. I could tell he had a lot of respect and reverence for those who had served before him.

  I looked around. Beneath the ceiling fans cigarette smoke hung like fog. In the far corner near the dartboard and under a red Budweiser lampshade suspended from the ceiling, soldiers gathered around a single pool table and held their pool cues like shepherds’ staffs.

  Officially part of the post, the Green Beret Club was legendary at Fort Bragg. Long ago it was a place only for Green Berets, but these days anybody could go, although most soldiers who weren’t in special operations stayed away. The bar was tamer than it used to be—brawls, property damage, pranks, and DUIs carried stiffer punishments than in the old Army days—but MPs still sat outside the club in their squad cars at closing time, and the Green Beret Club remained a place where a certain breed of man who had enough of a wild streak and the balls to do the nation’s down-and-dirty work liked to carouse. The men didn’t brag about their accomplishments, but they did take exception to anyone who tarnished their reputations. My favorite story about the wild times in the old days concerned a vet who retired and moved to West Virginia. When he heard that a fellow Green Beret had been bad-mouthing him, he drove to North Carolina the following day, entered the club, knocked the guy out, had a beer, and then headed back to West Virginia.

  The club’s location had changed several times over the years. It now sat in a white aluminum building on the southern end of Bragg. Budget cuts kept threatening the place with closure, but it always managed to hang in there like a street scrapper. Brandon hadn’t been to the club in a while, he told me. When old friends from Special Forces called to say they were at Bragg for a course, they decided to get together at the old hangout.

  Brandon was wearing what he had worn to work that day, a collared short-sleeved shirt and jeans. Operators rarely wore uniforms in garrison. The regulations of conventional units didn’t exist in Delta, because its mission was so different. There were no unit formations at O dark thirty (in the early morning) and in most cases enlisted soldiers called their officers—except for the unit commander—by first name. Hairstyles reflected the fact that Delta operators often worked on their own or in small groups overseas, where they needed to blend in with the culture around them; that meant growing beards and wearing traditional garb. Brandon’s hair was short by civilian standards—trimmed over the ear, not touching the back of the collar—but in a conventional Army unit a sergeant major would have dragged his ass to the barber. Some of his comrades had bushy mustaches, a dead giveaway for a Delta operator.

  They are not supposed to attract undue attention to themselves on or off duty. In Fayetteville, where males barely out of puberty wear buzz cuts and proudly display their unit’s insignia on T-shirts, baseball caps, and vehicle rear windows, Delta guys stick out like candles on a birthday cake. If asked, most say they are in Special Ops, and if that isn’t enough they might try to change the subject. That itself provides the answer.

  Brandon gave me what I later learned was a fake name and told me he was an instructor at Bragg’s JFK Special Warfare Center and School. I had no reason not to believe him, though I found him to be an odd combination of charming and insulting. He let me know right away he didn’t care for reporters or the media, but then, most military folks feel that way. He said I resembled his wife, Andrea, and he told me how they had met.

  I don’t reveal much about myself when I’m interviewing, unless I’m asked. Brandon asked. He gave me the impression that no matter what I said he’d pick it apart.

  “You think you’re too good for us, don’t you?” he said at one point. No matter what I said, I couldn’t win with Brandon. He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder, and for much of the evening he tried to peg me into a hole that I didn’t fit into. I stayed for a couple of hours, and when I was getting ready to leave, he said one more thing: “I know you think I’m a jerk, and you’ve got me all figured out. But my dad was a bird colonel, I teach Sunday school, and I’ve get three kids and a wife, and I’m usually home with them, not out here.” What struck me was the way he said it, as if he had something to prove.

  Perhaps that’s why he told me he was in Delta—in a roundabout way, that is. After giving me his name, he laughed. “That’s not my real name,” he admitted. “And I don’t work at the schoolhouse, either.”

  “You work out past McKellar’s Lodge, then?” He looked me in the eyes, then nodded yes. At that point I knew. I didn’t ask him anything else about it. It wasn’t something he could or would talk about.

  “So what’s your real name?” I asked. He wouldn’t give it to me, but it wasn’t hard to guess when his buddies called him “Brandon” or “Sergeant First Class Floyd.”

  It wasn’t until a few years later, with the help of those who worked with Brandon, that I began to piece together the life he had only hinted to me about. He had been in Delta about a year when I met him, and was enjoying every minute of it.

  Delta was formed in the late seventies as a counterterrorist response to airplane hijackings, and the unit’s primary mission has remained hostage rescue. The soldiers who are accepted—just 10 percent make it through the grueling exams and rigorous six-month training course—have to be mature, disciplined, and highly motivated, capable of making decisions on their own. The physical demands are huge, including parachute free-falling and skiing. And being able to scuba dive or speak a foreign language doesn’t hurt. Brandon spoke French from his Special Forces days.

  Since operators often travel alone for extended periods of time, routinely making decisions on the ground that an officer would make in a conventional unit, they also have to be self-starters and creative thinkers. There is no margin of error for a bad decision or a lapse in judgment, no allowance for a breach of trust or embarrassment to the unit. An operator has to be a quiet professional, satisfied to know that what he has d
one for his country will be all the recognition he gets.

  Brandon had been stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, when he tried out for the elite unit. Delta Force was the pinnacle, the ultimate challenge for him, after serving with the Green Berets and the Rangers. He was an assault team member, an operator who initiates direct close contact with the enemy. That meant Brandon was a door kicker, one of the guys with a modified M4 assault weapon who went into buildings or airplanes under cover of snipers. Like the other men in Delta, he fired his weapons almost daily. Soldiers in some conventional units were more likely to fire their weapons once or twice a year.

  Brandon always had a reputation for leading a cleaner life than some of his comrades. He wasn’t wild and didn’t get caught up in running the bars. He turned down offers to visit strip clubs on Bragg Boulevard, and he didn’t seek out other women when he was on temporary duty.

  He and Andrea spent a lot of time in their new church. He wasn’t shy about talking about it to the men in his squadron, and he sometimes brought them along on Sundays. Brandon was always inviting people to church, to the delight of the pastor, Mark Strickland, who had a strong desire to reach out to military families.

  Since January the Floyds had been attending Emanuel Baptist. They felt comfortable there and were now actively a part of the fifty-member congregation. It was what they had been searching for. Not only did they go on Sunday mornings, but they returned for evening services at six and came to the fellowship service each Wednesday evening at seven as well. During winter, despite the Delta demands on Brandon, the couple had taken on additional responsibilities. Brandon and Andrea taught Sunday school together to the eleven- to eighteen-year-olds, and he led the youth group. They brought the kids horseback riding on Fort Bragg and attempted a camping trip near a pond—until they got rained out. Brandon even filled in and preached one Sunday when the pastor was out of town.

 
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