tampabay.com

A story for Jake

By John Romano
Published May 27, 2007


Oct. 22, 2006, approx. 7:30 p.m., St. Lawrence Catholic Church, Tampa

She makes her way down the aisle of a church, eyes locked on the crucifix hanging above. A woman walking through the final steps of a life, unaware that it no longer exists. She is anxious, sure, but for entirely different reasons. She is worried about long airplane flights and foreign addresses. About baby formula and runny noses. In a couple of weeks, Michelle Thresher Taylor will pack up her infant son and fly to Germany to be reunited with her husband, Maj. David G. Taylor Jr., who is completing a tour of duty in Iraq and returning to the son he barely knows. And all Michelle can think about is how much better she would feel if Dave were here right now. Dave, who loves to take charge. Dave, with the easy manner and gap-toothed grin. Dave, who always knows exactly what she needs. But Dave is a world away, and this is one of the rare days when he has failed to send an e-mail home. So Michelle stares at the crucifix and prays for strength. If she only knew.

One more goodbye

This is a couple far too good at farewells, a somewhat regrettable gift.

From their first days together, Dave Taylor and Michelle Thresher were talking of a time when they would meet again.

Maybe when she was through with law school. Maybe when he returned from Kosovo. Maybe when she gave up her job as an attorney at the Department of Justice. Maybe when he finished his tour of duty in Iraq.

Theirs was a relationship of sacrifices, some made and others offered. He for her, and she for him. They said goodbye in Georgia and Germany. In Virginia and Bulgaria. Their lives were shared through letters, e-mails and phone calls, and those 100-mph weekends when they actually could get together.

They once watched Breakfast at Tiffany's over the phone - he at Fort Benning, Ga., she in Tampa - by cueing up the VCRs to start simultaneously. And Michelle ached when she heard the subtle whoosh of breath on the receiver as Dave fell asleep, just as if he were lying beside her.

And now comes another goodbye, only this one involves a heart too small to understand it should be breaking.

Dave made it to Tampa just in time for the birth of his son, Jacob David Jude Taylor, on June 28 last year. For the 13 days that followed, he wore the spittle-stained clothes of a fledgling father.

But here, at Tampa International Airport, Dave is back in the uniform of an infantryman. A decorated Army major returning to Baghdad. This is how he looks as Michelle takes pictures of him kissing Jake and waving goodbye.

Later, while in the terminal waiting to board his flight, Dave would begin a journal for his son. The written word is important, he would explain to Jake. It shows the recipient that you cared enough to make this effort.

Of course, it has another benefit. Unlike fathers, soldiers or authors, the written word lives forever.

"Jake ...

"I have to return to Iraq ... and will think of you and your mom every second I am there. Thoughts of you and how you are growing will fill my mind, and my sadness at being away from you and your mom will fill my heart. But each day there, is a day closer to seeing you again, and that will keep me very, very happy.

"You are a precious gift Jake, and I will always thank God and your mother for bringing you to me."

 

Oct. 22, 2006, approx. 13:30 hours

Forward Operating Base Falcon, Baghdad

For Maj. Taylor, the end is near. You can see it in his e-mails. You can read it in his journal entries. He can literally count the days until his tour is complete.

Since voluntarily leaving the safety of a desk job in a Camp Victory palace to patrol the streets of Baghdad, Taylor has survived mortar blasts, gunfights and the numbing realization that solutions to this war may be nonexistent.

Nine months ago he arrived in Iraq, an idealist wrapped in a soldier's cloth. As unpopular as the war had become, Maj. Taylor believed in the mission. And, despite the occasional misgiving, he still does.

He is here because the people of Iraq deserve a chance to be free. He is here to keep peace. He is here because somebody has to be.

To Maj. Taylor, whether the United States should have invaded Iraq is no longer relevant. If we pull out now, he insists, the situation will deteriorate into a nightmare like nothing any of us have ever seen.

So he remains in this dreary existence. Where the line between ally and enemy is forever fluid. Where the air is ripe with the smell of burning trash, exhaust fumes and dead dogs.

And where the atrocities weigh heavily. At times he sounds dispirited, or maybe just weary. His unit has lost 18 men in three months, and it has become increasingly clear that this is a conflict without rules.

"Alcohol is prohibited in Islam, yet the mosque guards (at least one) were drinking. And they don't mind capturing/kidnapping each other and executing each other, " he writes in the journal to Jake. "Islam is a peaceful religion, we are told. The way I'm seeing it, either 'Islam' isn't what people would have you believe, or people who claim to be holy and peaceful aren't. Probably the latter. We have that problem in America."

The level of brutality is unspeakable. The kind of violence he would have never believed men could inflict. Executions. Torture. Organized psychopathy, Dave calls it.

Recently, while driving down a nearby street, his unit came upon three Iraqi men with hands bound behind their backs, bullets in their heads, lying ignored beside the road. When Maj. Taylor and his men stopped to investigate, they were greeted with gunfire from nearby buildings.

In the midst of this, he writes to Jake about the importance of treating people with honesty, kindness and love. And then he ponders his own advice.

"How do you live those things in a place like this, " he writes in the journal. "Being gentle gets you killed here. Being fair puts you out of business. Being helpful and kind makes you a doormat for less thoughtful people."

This is the world he is preparing to leave behind. His replacement has arrived at Forward Operating Base Falcon on this Sunday afternoon, and Maj. Taylor is accompanying him on a tour of the region to get the incoming major up to speed.

Before his convoy leaves, the 37-year-old Maj. Taylor logs on to read an e-mail from his mother:

"Oh David,

Please be careful! The time just before departure can be the most dangerous, as you know well ..."

His response, as always, is reassuring.

"Mama/Papa San,

Of course I'm careful. Always. Everyone here is ..."

A curious romance

She was a tie-dye shirt away from being a hippie. A liberal law student who did her internship fighting for prisoner's rights on death row.

He was a Boy Scout with the merit badges tucked away to prove it. The son, and grandson, of military men, who grew up on Army bases around the world.

A Democrat and a Republican. A pacifist and a soldier. A Catholic and a Protestant. They were a Shakespearian tragedy even before they were an item.

In the coming years, Dave would tell friends that his introduction to Michelle in the fall of 1999 was not terribly eventful. Just a couple of people who met while volunteering in customer service for an online company. To hear Michelle tell it, the meeting was far more amusing. It is two versions of the same love affair, tales as different as the people telling them.

Yes, they were volunteer workers. And, yes, it had something to do with computers. It was at a convention at a downtown hotel in St. Louis for GemStone III, a wizards and warriors-style computer game.

Michelle showed up in character, all leather and chain mail with plastic rats pinned up and down her sleeves. Dave arrived as Dave. Tall, slender and glasses. Short hair, neatly groomed and wearing a well-ironed oxford shirt.

"He came up to me and started talking to me, and I thought, 'Here is this Army-shaved, frat-boy type, and I'm absolutely not interested, ' " Michelle said. "I spent most of the weekend trying to avoid him."

It wouldn't work. Dave was persistent. Enough so that a short time later he would invite her to take a break from her classes in Gainesville to drive up to Fort Benning along with some mutual friends from the gaming community.

Turns out, the singer for popular rock band Blue Oyster Cult was a GemStone III fanatic and was leaving extra passes at the group's concert in nearby Columbus.

The show's details have long since faded, but not the impact of the weekend. Michelle was struck by how hard Dave worked to make everyone comfortable and everything perfect, from his meticulous preparation of meals to the Blue Oyster Cult CDs he burned for Michelle. Mostly, she was drawn to his tenderness. His sensitivity.

One of the guests, a rather intense young man, grew agitated while losing at a board game. As Dave gently calmed the man down, Michelle began to wonder about her initial impression of this soldier.

"It is kind of an amazing example of God working in mysterious ways, " said Father Tim Lozier, a Catholic priest who officiated their wedding and is Jake's godfather. "That these two people would come together given their very different starting points. It's the human heart trumping the ideological barriers.

"It is two people understanding that there are a lot of grays in the world. Two people of integrity who could look beyond what they saw on the surface."

By 2001, Michelle has graduated second in her class from the University of Florida law school. A job as an immigration attorney at the Department of Justice awaits her in Washington, D.C.

It is the opportunity of a lifetime, but she is willing to forgo it. If, you know, her boyfriend Dave, now deployed in Kosovo, has anything important he would like to ask.

"I just wanted to see what he was thinking, if he had any plans, before I accepted a job. And he said, 'That's great honey, go for it. I'm very proud of you, ' " Michelle said. "My heart kind of sunk.

"I thought, 'Well, I guess he's not planning any big proposal.' "

Later, when Dave gets four days of R&R, the couple agree to meet in Sophia, Bulgaria. Once there, they do the tourist thing, wandering the streets and taking pictures, Dave acting more playful and excited than usual.

They stop in front of the St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral, a massive neo-Byzantine structure built in the early 1900s. Dave gets Michelle to pose on the steps while he focuses the video camera.

Ah darn, he mumbles. The battery is running low. Michelle, he asks, will you reach into my coat pocket and grab the spare battery? She slides her hand in and comes out with a small wooden box. She opens it to find a diamond solitaire engagement ring.

All the while, Dave is filming her reaction.

Later, she will ask why he waited. Why he didn't propose before she took the job with the DOJ. Or, better yet, before he left for Kosovo.

No, no, he says, the moment had to be right. The reasons had to be pure. They should not get engaged because he was leaving, or because she might take a new job.

It had to be for love.

Oct. 22, 2006, approx. 16:00 hours

Forward Operating Base Falcon, Baghdad

The day is beautiful. Balmy, but not too hot. The best weather since Maj. Taylor has been in Iraq.

The plan on this afternoon is to take a four-vehicle convoy north for a meeting, then give incoming Maj. David William Haines a guided tour of the surrounding area.

Maj. Taylor is in charge, but Cpl. Brian Taylor is at the wheel. They met a few months earlier when the major was moving to his new position on the streets and the corporal was assigned as his driver. His first task was helping the major move.

"We got to his old place, and I jumped out of the vehicle to start loading things up, " Cpl. Taylor said. "He wouldn't let me help. He ended up carrying his minifridge from his room to the vehicle by himself. I kept offering to do it for him, but he refused. That was my first encounter with him, and it blew me away.

"It was extremely unusual. Officers tend to use privates for whatever they need, but Maj. Taylor was never like that."

So the corporal is not surprised when the convoy hits the road on this Sunday afternoon with Maj. Taylor sitting beside him in the first Humvee. Cpl. Taylor suggests the two majors might want to ride in another vehicle to lessen their odds of being first in line for any roadside bombs.

Dave refuses.

He is not putting anyone in harm's way ahead of himself.

Tip of the spear

They are accoutrements of marriage. Along with the ratty furniture and the embarrassing CDs, you inherit your partner's hopes and dreams.

And so Michelle is excited. Against her better judgment, despite the nagging fears, she is excited for her husband.

It is the final day of May, and Dave is on the phone from his palace job at the Joint Operations Center. He has a chance, he says, to command a front-line unit.

This is the job he has wanted. It is what he has trained to do, and it is the position he needs before his next promotion.

So he is seeking the blessing of his wife, who is eight months pregnant. And he is downplaying the dangers of leaving a desk job to hunt insurgents on the streets of Baghdad.

"We lose a lot more people to heat stroke than enemy fire, " he jokes in an e-mail the next day.

He is not trying to be a hero, and everyone who knows Dave understands that. Yes, he could remain in the palace job. He could walk the marble floors, wash his hands in gold-filled bathrooms and continue tracking the war that is raging somewhere beyond these opulent walls.

But that prospect haunts him.

You see, he spent the better part of a lifetime preparing to lead soldiers in combat, and now he feels as if this war is leaving him behind.

Even when given a Bronze Star, an honor bestowed only in time of war and only for heroism or meritorious service, Dave feels conflicted.

"I've worked very hard and have probably done a better job than many, " Dave writes of his honor. "At the same time, it seems like too much, given that I served in a palace, not on the streets."

His great-grandfather was in World War I. His grandfather was critically wounded at the Battle of the Bulge. Both his father and father-in-law served in Vietnam.

Dave and his younger brother, John, were raised in the military community, and it helped shape this sense of justice and duty that they live by.

Their mother, Kay Taylor, once took her two sons to a recreation center near the military base in Heidelberg, Germany, and watched as they won two prizes in a game of bingo.

"What should we do with the prizes?" Kay asked her boys.

"It's not fair that we have two, " Dave replied. "We should give one of the prizes to some child who didn't win anything."

This was Dave at 7 years old.

This is the boy who grew into a military officer. The one who got to know the names of all the children in the neighborhood in South Florida when he was sent there to command a platoon after Hurricane Andrew.

And, when his assignment was completed, Dave bought boxes of berets at a camp store in Georgia and had them shipped to the kids in Miami who were so fascinated by his military headgear.

"Things that wouldn't even occur to me to do, " his friend Maj. Mike Peters said, "Dave would do routinely."

Maybe this helps explain. It is a bit of insight from the 19th century British economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill that Dave carried in his wallet. He wrote out a version of the quote by hand and had it laminated for safekeeping.

"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things, " it reads. "The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. ... A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing he cares about more than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."

Dave's work at the JOC is important, but it is not what he is trained to do. Dave is an infantryman. Tip of the spear, they call these guys.

"I don't want to make it sound like we're all this gallant band of brothers and everybody is willing to throw their body in harm's way or willing to get shot at, " said Maj. Ben Powers, an old friend. "On the whole, the Army is just like any other cross section of society.

"Twenty percent of these guys are dirtbags you wouldn't want to associate with. Sixty percent are just normal guys doing their jobs, and would rather not take risks that aren't necessary. I'm in that group. And then 20 percent of the guys are the altruistic ones. These are the true heroes. Guys who are willing to put themselves at risk because they believe so strongly in what we're trying to do.

"You can put Dave in that 20 percent."

Once, not so long ago, Dave offered to retire from the Army if it meant Michelle could keep her job at the Department of Justice. She wouldn't allow it because she knew what the military meant to him.

And now he is coming to Michelle with this latest career choice. This decision to go from an analyst in a palace to a warrior on the front lines.

"It's funny because right before he left for Iraq we had a conversation about something like that, " Michelle said. "And I told him, 'If you ever get in danger, if you're ever in a bad position and you need to run like a coward, you can just run. I'll be happier if you run and come back to me.'

"And he said, 'You wouldn't love me as much if I ran.' "

Oct. 22, 2006, Midafternoon

Forward Operating Base Prosperity, Baghdad

The word got to Lt. Col. Bill Ayers sometime earlier. Maj. Taylor had called and said he would be in the vicinity about 5 p.m. today. If Ayers was free, they could visit for a short time.

When Maj. Taylor was returning to Iraq after Jake's birth, he flew most of the way alongside Ayers, an old friend returning from his own R&R in Jacksonville.

At the time, Ayers was on a transition team working with the Iraqi National Police, and he had a vivid idea of what Maj. Taylor was walking into on his new job.

He told him of the route assessments. How they tracked ambushes and IED (improvised explosive devices) attacks by recording the intersections and time of day to get a better idea of hot spots and trends.

"There is trash everywhere, and the bombs are always disguised so you never know how it might get you. It could be in cinder blocks. It could be in trash bags, " Ayers said. "Some areas you just squint and turn your head, and hope it doesn't go off. You can't stop because then you're a sitting duck. So you say a prayer before you leave, and then you move out.

"That's every day."

Ayers and Maj. Taylor had gotten together a half-dozen times over the next few months. Sometimes for business, sometimes just to catch up. After Ayers' daughter was born he brought a cigar to Maj. Taylor and was treated, in turn, to a new round of Jake's baby pictures, pinned to the wall above Dave's desk.

Ayers was looking forward to more of the same on this Sunday afternoon. Yet, when 5 p.m. came and passed, he thought little of it.

Something is always mucking up plans in Iraq.

'I've got a lot of joy waiting for me'

There is no trick to living with war. No how-to guide to put a spouse's mind at ease. It is impossible to ignore and unhealthy to dwell on, so you try to stay preoccupied and pray for the best.

CNN is to be avoided, and there's a tendency to skim over the front page of newspapers, too. You wait for your soldier to call or e-mail, and you pretend you're not nervous when a day goes past without contact.

Dave generally calls a couple of times a week. He e-mails every day. Some missives are filled with stories and questions. Others are brief.

Michelle gets one with a message line that reads:

I love you!

When she opens the e-mail, it says simply:

Yup, I do.

Eventually, the tension evolves into this permanent unease that hovers just below the surface of everything Michelle does. Dave tries to help. His phone calls rarely involve conversations about the dangers he is facing. His e-mails are almost always positive.

"I really, really, really miss you, " he writes to Michelle. "This sucks being here because I miss you so much. I love the job, the challenge and a chance to make a more direct impact on our mission here, but for some reason I miss you even more now than I did before.

"I like it though. It's good to miss you so much. It means I've got a lot of joy waiting for me when I get home.

"I love you! Dave."

For both of them, the time after Jake is born becomes the most tricky. Dave has assumed his new job on the front lines, and Michelle is learning to become a mother. She is worried about him; he is worried about her.

Michelle even apologizes to him when she lets a day pass without sending him an e-mail. His response is pure Dave.

"No pressure to keep writing, " he sends back in an e-mail. "I know how busy you are with Jake. I'm just saving the world over here so I have more time. Ha ha."

They talk more about the bodily functions of an infant than the military operations of a nation. Dave's e-mails are mostly benign. They hide the realities he writes about in the journal he is keeping for Jake.

"Just talked to your mom. I could hear you crying a bit in the background. You were hungry. It made me think of the week you were born, " Dave writes. "I'd hold you on my chest. ... You would push your head back from my chest and then start bouncing it against me, over and over. Your mouth would start going like you were trying to nurse. ... You were so determined and so alive. It also was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen. ... I don't think I could ever imagine it and not smile. I'm smiling now, even.

"And today was a brutal day across Baghdad. I responded 5 minutes after a suicide bomber drove a bomb into a Nat'l Police checkpoint. Blew it to smithereens. Severely wounded about a dozen, and half of them surely died later. They were a mess. Killed one outright. As we were securing the area and treating those still alive, we took small arms fire. ... Anyway, after all that, I imagine you rooting around and I can smile again.

"So however things turn out between us later, like when you're a teenager, you're getting me through Iraq. You make me smile. And you make me want to get home."

If one thing helps Michelle get through, it is her faith. This is a young woman who, after getting her undergraduate degree at UF, went to Indiana University for two years to study religion. She is a good Catholic, yes, but more than that, she is a spiritual person.

In particular, she is a believer in St. Jude. Michelle likes to think that St. Jude has always been there for her in prayer. Almost like a guardian angel. It is why she included Jude as Jake's middle name when he was baptized.

And it is why she has asked St. Jude to watch over her husband in Iraq. Before he left in January, Michelle gave Dave a St. Jude medal, just as her mother did for her father when he left for Vietnam a generation ago.

Dave keeps the medal on a necklace along with his dog tags. It is another way to feel as if a part of Michelle is with him.

"I think a lot of thoughts of you holding Jake in the delivery room and crying, " Dave writes to Michelle in an e-mail. "And I thought then, 'That's my wife, holding our son, and this is real and I don't deserve all this goodness and I'll never be able to deserve it but she loves me.'

"And then I remember I'm going to be home soon if I continue to stay alert here, so I have to be alert and when I get home I'll give you back the Jude medal until we need it again. ..."

In the Catholic church, patron saints are chosen as special protectors over a particular area of life. For instance, St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals, and Michael the Archangel is the patron saint of paratroopers.

St. Jude? He is the patron saint of lost causes.

Oct. 22, 2006, Early evening

Camp Liberty, Baghdad

The e-mail had come a day earlier. Maj. Taylor had sent a quick message to Maj. Ben Powers letting him know he would be at Camp Liberty early this evening.

They've been friends for more than a dozen years, since meeting at Fort Bragg in North Carolina fresh out of college in the early 1990s when Ben's wife, K.C., would invite the single soldiers over for dinner.

Ben knows Maj. Taylor like few others. He knows his irreverent side. He knows the depths of his intensity. He knows Maj. Taylor does not give his loyalty freely but, once he does, you will forever have a place in his world.

He also knows Maj. Taylor is habitually late.

So when 8 p.m. comes and Maj. Taylor hasn't shown up at the camp, Ben is not alarmed. An hour passes. And then another. Ben can wait no longer and heads to bed. He lies down with an uneasy feeling.

Someone is at the door

The evening Mass at St. Lawrence has ended, and the sun has disappeared for the day. Considering the time zones, it is already Monday morning in Iraq, which means Sunday was one of those rare days when Dave did not send Michelle an e-mail.

She mentions this to her dad, although not in a voice of alarm. All these months later, the sense of danger has dissipated a little. After all, it is Oct. 22, and Dave is on his way out. Michelle already has her plane ticket and, by the first week of November, they will be a complete family again.

Funny, how quickly the time went. Barely a year ago, Dave was working late on-base in Germany, and Michelle showed up in the middle of the night with a brown bag lunch and the positive strip from the home pregnancy test she'd just taken.

Now he is finishing up his ninth month in Iraq, she is at her childhood home in South Tampa with her infant son, and their apartment in Germany awaits them.

So it is that Michelle is in her bedroom breast-feeding Jake when the dogs begin to bark about 9:30 p.m. Someone is at the front door. Michelle thinks nothing of it, assuming her brother must have returned after forgetting something at Sunday dinner.

This is when her mother appears in the doorway of the bedroom with the color drained from her skin.

"Michelle, you need to come to the door."

"I'm nursing Jake."

"Honey, you need to come to the door."

"I'm in my pajamas."

"Please, Michelle."

She is not really thinking as she lifts up from the rocking chair with the baby in her arms. It is not until she steps into the hallway and sees the two officers in their green Class A uniforms that Michelle's heart begins to break.

Oct. 22, 2006, approx. 16:30 hours

North of Forward Operating Base Falcon, Baghdad

The caravan had barely begun to roll. It had just come off an exit ramp and was heading north at about 25 mph on a dusty two-lane road.

A video camera mounted near the Humvee's windshield shows a car passing in the opposite direction.

Up ahead, maybe 500 to 600 yards, is an intersection known as a hot spot for roadside bombs. But on this stretch nothing appears out of the ordinary, not even the solitary man in a billowing white robe. As the caravan passes, he turns his head back toward the road up ahead.

Seconds later, the video screen goes black.

What you do not see, what the video does not show, is chaos. And, for the first few moments, the driver, Cpl. Brian Taylor, is disoriented.

He remembers everyone in the vehicle talking and carrying on, and then comes the explosion. Noise, force and a feeling of helplessness.

"You don't know what happened right away, it's like it happens too quick for the brain to process, " Cpl. Taylor said. "And then it's like time slows down."

The Army will later tell Dave's father and brother that the explosive had been buried in the road probably within the hour. It would be the size of a paint can. One half filled with explosives, and the other with contact lens-shaped copper fragments specifically designed to penetrate armored vehicles.

The theory is that the man standing in white by the side of the road activated the bomb after the convoy moved past him. He could do it with a garage door opener. Or maybe a cell phone. Any common household device transformed into a trigger.

In the Humvee, Cpl. Taylor looks down and sees a chunk of his leg has been blown apart. He doesn't know it yet, but his femoral artery has been severed.

The gunner will lose both of his legs. Another soldier also loses a leg. Maj. Haines' injuries are not as severe, but he will be hospitalized.

Medics are almost immediately at the vehicle's doors. Helicopters are screaming overhead. It is all fury and commotion.

Except in the seat next to the driver.

From the moment Cpl. Taylor looked across the vehicle at his commanding officer, he knew Maj. David G. Taylor Jr. was gone.

"There's not a day goes by that I don't think about him, " said Cpl. Taylor, who is learning to walk again back home in St. Louis and thinking about leaving the military. "I'm sorry there was nothing I could do to save him."

Most news reports say only that a high-ranking officer was killed on a Baghdad street at age 37, one of 106 U.S. soldiers to die during the month.

The reports will not mention he was a great skier. That he was a procrastinator. That he had a goofy sense of humor, or made the world's best cheese popcorn.

The reports will not say that, two days before his death, he sat down and wrote what would be the final entry in the journal he kept for his infant son:

"Your mom sent me the best picture of you and her. Apparently you were very bad! You threw up, then peed on Nini while she was changing you, then pooped in the bath, then spit up on your mom. All in about five minutes!

"The picture is of you in your mom's arms and you both have personality-filled looks on your faces. It's almost like you'd both just done something mischievous and paused to capture the moment on film. It's the most expressive photo of you I've seen yet so I really like it. I can't wait to see you again in a few weeks."

'I have horrible news'

It's been more than 25 years since Maj. David G. Taylor Sr. retired from the service but, honestly, he never really left.

He continued working with the Army as a civilian contractor, and his wife, Kay, teaches middle school for the Department of Defense school system in London, one of the most coveted assignments for a military family.

Kay is up early, before 6:30 a.m., preparing for a new week of classes when the telephone rings.

This call is from Michelle's mother, Joanne. Back in Tampa it is past 1 a.m., but sleep is a distant thought in the Thresher home.

From the time the officers arrived at her front door, Michelle has been numb. As if she had been hit by a baseball bat, she would later say.

The notification officers, a man and a woman, were there 20 minutes. Or 60. Or maybe just five. The details seem unimportant, and recollections of the night come in a jumble of horrifying images.

Michelle remembers only that she began to wail. Not for herself. Not even for Dave. It was Jake's name that she screamed as the officers told her that her husband had been killed in action in Iraq.

And now, hours later, Joanne Thresher tells Michelle that Dave's parents should not get the news in a telegram or from some other source. Joanne suggests waiting until the hour is appropriate in London and calling them herself.

Kay was still drowsy when she ran from the bedroom and picked up the phone. In the back of her mind, the thought strikes her: A call this early is never good.

"I have horrible news ..., " Joanne began.

A kick in the stomach, is how Kay describes it. She feels as if she cannot breathe.

A lifetime ago, she lived through David Sr.'s two tours in Vietnam. She understands better than most the dangers of military life, but, even so, she is not prepared to hear this. Not now. Not when David was so close to coming home.

"It's like living in a nightmare, and you have to deal with making it real, " Kay said. "I need to think about it, but I have to limit myself. I can't fall apart every day. I have to teach; the kids depend on me. And I love going to school - it's like my haven. If I could start my day there at 3 a.m., I would do it. Because when I get home, it all comes back again."

Buck up, li'l camper

Michelle does not cry at her husband's funeral.

She cannot allow herself that expected indulgence.

You see, she and Dave had a running joke through the years. She once complained to him in an e-mail about her various problems, and his reply infuriated her:

"Buck up, li'l camper."

It was something he must have picked up in Boy Scouts. Surely, it was meant as a folksy brand of support, but Michelle thought he was being condescending and let him know she was not amused.

So this is what she is thinking as she looks upon Dave's flag-draped coffin at Olive Chapel Baptist Church in his mother's hometown of Apex, N.C. They had eventually laughed off that earlier exchange, and "Buck up, li'l camper" turned into this endearing family catchphrase.

Dave was never one to whine, nor would he abide feeling sorry for himself. Michelle has thought long and hard about this, about what Dave would want. So she will not cry. Not around all of these people. Not in front of these television cameras. For Dave, she will be a strong li'l camper.

So will Maj. Mike Peters.

For the past few days, Mike has had the honor, and the heartbreak, of escorting Dave's remains. The Army normally assigns an anonymous officer for the role of escort, but Michelle asked Mike if he would please bring her husband home.

Dave and Mike had met some 20 years earlier as Boy Scouts, became roommates at Davidson College and later lived together at Fort Bragg.

Dave was the cut-up. The kind of guy who would sneak into a dorm room when a classmate was out of town and spend hours balling up newspaper until every square inch of the place, from floor to ceiling, was stuffed.

And then, when the classmate came home and everyone had a good laugh, Dave would stay into the night helping clean up the mess he created. That is who Dave was. Always dabbling in mischief, but never ducking responsibility.

And now the final responsibility of a lifelong friendship falls to Mike.

He flies to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, home of the Defense Department's largest mortuary. There they ask him to inventory Dave's personal items.

In his hand he holds Dave's wedding ring and thinks of the day less than four years earlier when he stood next to his friend and watched Michelle place the ring on his finger. He grips Dave's dog tags. And he stares at the St. Jude medal that was supposed to keep Dave safe.

"That was hard, " Peters would say of that moment. "That was the hardest part of the whole ordeal."

Peters travels in a hearse from Dover to Philadelphia, where he oversees the coffin being loaded onto the plane. A sympathetic desk agent upgrades him to a business class seat. And, when the plane lands in North Carolina, the airline makes sure all the other passengers wait until Peters departs.

He is met on the ground by the casualty assistance officer, and there, standing on the tarmac, they render honors as the coffin is taken from the plane.

From out of nowhere, a baggage handler is at their side. When Peters turns to look, the man in dusty overalls is saluting the passing casket.

The funeral begins about 9 a.m. on Nov. 2, and nearly 500 mourners show up in this small town near the Cape Fear River. Included in the procession are dozens of members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle group dedicated to honoring fallen soldiers. They line up in parallel rows with U.S. flags flying as the casket is escorted into the church.

The eulogy falls to Dave's brother, John. Just about four years younger, John was the typical little brother, sometimes chafing but mostly reveling in the shadow cast by his sibling. They have not lived in the same town since they were teens, yet their relationship seemed to grow stronger by the year.

It was John, a Defense Department teacher in Japan, who would send Dave gummi bears, German beer and DVDs of the HBO series Rome. And it was John who used Dave's old notepads and daily calendars to teach his students the value of having a plan and committing to goals.

His eulogy vacillates from humorous to poignant. A touching goodbye to an older brother he clearly revered.

He wryly notes that the only instructions Dave left in the event of his death were that, under no circumstances, should Bette Midler's Wind Beneath My Wings be played at his funeral.

John talks of his family, and of his brother's impact on others. And he explains how Dave never held grudges, believing that some people were simply misguided. Even those responsible for killing him.

Finally, John completes his brother's farewell with an anonymous quote found on an Internet message board for paratroopers.

"There are only two defining forces who have ever offered to die for you. One is Jesus Christ and the other is the American GI. One died for your soul, the other for your freedom. May we never forget either."

Trying to hold on

For the first few days, Michelle had purpose - family and friends to greet, a funeral to plan and a day set aside to say goodbye.

She was running on adrenaline and fear. She was kept upright through a sense of responsibility and duty.

But now everyone has drifted back to their own lives, and Michelle is left with her grief. She has come to realize she has nowhere to go.

Her career? She gave that up. Her husband? He's not coming home. Her dreams? Well, now they are wrapped up in an infant, and she is terrified at the thought of raising him alone.

So she begins to talk to Dave. Sometimes in her mind, and sometimes out loud. Michelle writes a letter to him and tapes it to a mirror in her bedroom.

She also clings to anything that was once his. Dave would send her his old T-shirts while he was in Iraq so she could cuddle them at night and feel a sense of connection. Now she keeps them wrapped in plastic, pulling them out occasionally to bury her face in his scent.

There are days when all of it helps. When she feels he is with her and helping her cope. And then there are days when it's too hard to discuss. Days when she finds herself crying in the shower where no one can hear. Nights when she lies in the darkness with no hope of sleep.

Back home at Thanksgiving everyone in the Thresher house talks about what they are thankful for in their lives.

When it is Michelle's turn, she goes on about Jake. And about the love and support she has received from her parents.

And then her voices trails off.

"My dad turns to me and says, 'What else are we thankful for?' And I couldn't think of anything else, but the way he said it made me realize there was something else he thought I should be saying, " Michelle said. "I just looked at him, and he said, 'We're thankful for all the happy memories of Dave.'

"And for me, at that point, there was so much sadness that I couldn't even wrap my head around the happy memories. I couldn't be grateful for that yet."

In time, she finds that dreams are a comfort. Those nights when sleep finally comes, and Dave miraculously reappears in her thoughts.

"I love dreaming of him. It does kind of suspend the fact that he's gone, " Michelle said. "Even the weird dreams where I'm aware that he's not alive, I still appreciate that feeling of closeness with him that I can talk to him. Then I wake up, and he's not there again."

She pauses for a moment.

"But you can always hope for another dream."

Eventually, as the months pass, she discovers memories, as her father said, are her greatest gift. They squeezed a lifetime's worth of adventures into seven years of relationship, and Michelle doesn't want to forget a single moment.

So at night, she begins writing down stories of their past. Ostensibly, this is done for Jake, for when he is older, but it also becomes a kind of therapy for her.

She finds that Dave's own words help, too. The e-mails that she saved. And the journal to Jake that she discovered when the Army shipped crates of his belongings home.

She reads through the journal and realizes that even if he is not here, Dave has left an outline of his hopes and dreams for his only child.

"Little boys do the same things little boys do everywhere else I've been. They throw rocks at glass, stomp in puddles, and chase each other around here. Shiny, new things catch their eye and they love sweets, " Dave wrote on Aug. 29. "It's warming to know that people all start off the same basic way, with the same interests. It's a bit depressing to recognize that somewhere along the line, little boys (and girls) have to be taught things like hate, prejudice, and bigotry. So when you have children of your own, watch what you do and say because they'll probably become men and women by watching you.

"Your mom and I will do our very best to raise you right."

Michelle, 33, is working again, and that helps, too. She recently took a part-time job clerking for a federal magistrate judge in Tampa.

On her way home from work, Michelle will turn the volume down on the radio and begin to pray. Not the simple recitation of familiar prayers, but an honest attempt at dialogue with God. She invariably finishes in tears.

"I still feel like I've lost a huge part of me, and I don't know how to fix that yet, " Michelle said. "I guess, with every day, it's easier to imagine myself being happy again. But there are still days when all I want to do is imagine the life we could have had."

Epilogue

The door opened, and the man walked quickly into the room. There was no formal announcement. No procession of handlers. Instead, he walked directly toward the Taylors and Threshers and offered his hand.

"Hello, " he said, "I'm George W. Bush."

The White House had called Michelle's home a few days earlier and said the president would be in Tampa for a briefing at MacDill Air Force Base. During his visit, he would meet with several families of fallen soldiers.

Would Michelle be interested?

In the days before their meeting, Michelle wrestled with her emotions. She had, at best, mixed feelings about the president. She admittedly was not a Bush supporter, even before the war and Dave's death.

Unsure of how much time she would have with him, and uncertain about how to get her point across, she decided to write a letter she could hand deliver.

"Writing the letter made me realize my feelings were irrelevant, " Michelle said. "What I wanted him to know was the kind of man my husband was. So I put in excerpts from Dave's journal. I copied the quote he kept in his wallet.

"I wrote, 'This is the man my husband was, and I just want you to know that.' I don't know if he'll read it. He said he would. I hope he does. I don't know why it would make me feel better if he would read it, but it somehow does. And it makes me feel a lot better about the president. That he seemed so sincere."

Bush spent 20 minutes with Michelle, her parents, her mother-in-law and Jake. After a rather somber and emotional beginning, the meeting ended with Bush posing for pictures and signing autographs.

"There's obviously no way he could take away the fact that my husband was killed, " Michelle said. "But the idea the president would spend 20 minutes with us, and I know it couldn't be easy for him, that brought me some comfort."

Hours later, Michelle watched on TV as Bush vetoed a war spending bill that was tied to troop withdrawals in Iraq.

"A strange day, " Michelle said.

Once, she was more idealistic. Or maybe just more naive. In retrospect, it's hard to see the difference and probably too painful to figure out.

What Michelle learned from Dave through the years is that few things are as simple as black and white. She may not have agreed with all of his views, but she came to understand that most arguments involve many shades of gray.

And so, today, she remains conflicted about this war. About its intentions, and about its continuing direction.

The only thing she knows for sure is that she will not speak out against a war that took her husband's life.

"Cindy Sheehan took her son's death in a very political way. I don't think that's wrong or inappropriate; that was what she felt like she needed to do, " Michelle said of the prominent antiwar activist. "From my perspective, because of the differences between me and Dave politically, I don't want to make his death any kind of political statement. ... As part of honoring his memory, I would feel uncomfortable using it as part of a political process."

So what is it she wants? Why has she agreed to talk about her husband, to share his journals and to examine her own thoughts and feelings?

For a moment, Michelle sits quietly. The only noise is the sound of Jake playing with his cousin in another room of the house.

"Really, Dave was not some exemplary guy, " Michelle says finally. "A lot of these guys over there are men just like Dave: good men who want to be fathers and want to be brothers or sons or husbands. Just good people.

"The death toll is over 3, 000 soldiers already. That's 3, 000 lives. A lot of stories. This is just one story."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8811.

 

About the story

Michelle Thresher Taylor was a Times correspondent at the University of Florida in 1994-95. For this story, she sat for hours of interviews over recent weeks and allowed a reporter to read passages from her husband's journal, as well as his e-mails to her. Scenes from her past and her husband's final day in Iraq were recreated through those interviews and phone calls with family and military personnel in Germany, Japan, London, Missouri, New Jersey, Texas, and Washington, D.C., as well as journal entries and e-mails.