In 2010, my future brother-in-law was killed in Iraq. There aren’t any words that I can use to define the depth of the loss we endured. The formality, tradition, respect, rituals and ceremony of a military death was something I had never experienced and was not prepared for. Every movement seemed carefully planned. Every step, every salute, the folding and unfolding of the flag, the click of soldier’s heels- all of it calculated, organized, honorable. It was surreal order in the midst of emotional chaos.
There was a moment when David’s casket arrived at the funeral home. The U.S. flag had been laid upon his coffin. I approached him and without thinking, stroked the stripes. I felt the thread over and over, touching every seam, as if somehow it would help me understand what had happened. As if somehow it would help it all make sense to me. I wished his loss wasn’t real, but each stitch under my fingertips told me it was.
I will never forget the moment I was told, the moment I first saw my sister, the days following of newspaper articles and local news interviews, the generosity of friends, family and strangers, the family members that immediately hopped on a plane to us, sharing grief and utter disbelief with his family, the reaction of the Tampa Bay community, the protection of the Patriot Guard Riders, the jarring sensation of the 21 gun salute, the melancholy of “Taps” played graveside.
The American flag is an interesting object. People react strongly to it, fight for it, sing about it, swear allegiance to it, defend it. It’s been almost ten years since David died and I still don’t view it the same as I did before his death. I view it as a symbol for what he believed in, and the country he sacrificed himself for. But I still see it blanketing him as we said our final good-bye. To me, it will always represent the enormity of our loss.
Below is a poem I wrote, attempting to briefly capture our experience. I know in my heart, it doesn’t do it justice. David was an amazing young man that I was honored to know. He is greatly missed and will never be forgotten.
“Sgt. David Andrew Croft, Jr.”
At the end of high school,
He was enlisted.
Shortly after graduation,
We sent him off with hugs and kisses.
A small-town boy
Who dreamt of being a soldier.
A fantastic kid,
Who wanted to give the military all he had to offer.
Basic training flew by,
And he was off on his first tour.
Said good-bye to loved ones again,
The call of duty in his core.
He utilized his training,
Fought the war in Iraq.
But with all he experienced,
That young kid we knew never came back.
He lost a leader over there,
And gained brothers, too.
He acquired strength and confidence,
But also lost his youth.
He learned a lot during that tour,
In the desert heat with boots full of sand.
He left home an eager teenager,
But returned home a wiser man.
He loved being a soldier,
He chose to enlist again.
He found a brotherhood in the army,
And his second tour in Iraq began.
He said this tour was easier,
Less action than the last one.
After this he would come back,
Leave the army when his time was done.
Just a couple of weeks to go,
Then he would be home.
Just a few days before his 23rd birthday,
Our lives changed by the ring of the phone.
David was killed,
His convoy struck by an I.E.D.
His plans for his future would never come to be.
Just like that- his life was over.
His remains would be flown to the U.S.,
To the air force base in Dover.
The day of his homecoming is forever etched in my memory.
People lined the streets from Tampa to Plant City.
Miles and miles of salutes, flags and tears,
How vast was his precession!
This homecoming of a small-town boy,
Left a lasting impression.
He was brought to the funeral home,
His casket covered with Old Glory.
As I ran my fingertips over the seams,
Underneath was his life, his story.
I ran my fingers over each seam,
Not knowing how to feel.
Touching each thread,
There was no denying this was real.
This flag that means so much to so many,
This flag that was draped over him.
This flag that symbolizes
What he fought for- our freedom.
Now it was draped over his remains,
Forever symbolizing his loss.
Forever reminding me of his absence,
And that freedom has a cost.
Underneath every stitch
And underneath every seam,
Was the life of a beautiful young man,
And his future hopes and dreams.
Every loved one that will miss him,
Every person his life touched.
Every brother he bonded with,
And his fiancée that he loved so much.
Before he was a soldier,
He was his sibling’s brother.
Before he served his country,
He was the beloved son of his mother.
Years have gone by,
But sometimes it feels just like yesterday.
I like to remember his comforting hugs,
And his smile that went on for days.
I choose to focus on the life he lived,
Not that he is no longer here.
I choose to remember what all of us had,
(Including that trick with a bottle of beer!)
I choose to remember who he was,
Before his country called.
I choose to remember how he lived,
Before he gave it all.
I choose to remember that small-town boy,
His faith, love and truth.
I choose to remember the life he lived,
Before being covered by red, white and blue.