The first time Brandon Buttry greeted me that way on a Facebook chat, I paused a moment, trying to fill in some punctuation and a few implied letters. I guess I figured out that he was asking, “What’s up?”
Anyway, we chatted again and again, usually exchanging just a line or two (often about what was up, naturally).
What was up was that Brandon was fighting our nation’s longest war. And now he’s one of its casualties. Monday morning my brother, Don, and his wife, Pam, got the visit that parents of the men and women serving in the military dread most. Soldiers were at their door in rural Iowa with the news that Brandon had been killed in action in Afghanistan.
Don’s and my father, Luke Buttry, was an Air Force chaplain during the Vietnam War, though he never was stationed in Vietnam. His worst duty was to be the bearer of that heartbreaking news when a son or husband would not be coming home.
My generation in our family didn’t serve in the military. I was in the first age-group not drafted when we turned 19. We still had the draft lottery for people born in 1954, though. My number was 9, so I would have been called if the draft had continued. I applied for 1-AO status, meaning I was a conscientious objector who would not bear arms but would serve in a non-combat role. Until they dropped the draft, I was wondering whether I would be a chaplain’s assistant or a medic. Instead, I was a civilian journalist and happy about that.
Brandon’s father, Don, was two years younger than me, well past the end of the draft and not interested in volunteering.
Our older brother, Dan, was a conscientious objector but had a high draft number and is a peace missionary. He was in Asia leading a 10-day conflict management seminar for religious leaders and peace activists when I called him Monday with the news of Brandon’s death. We talked about what a happy, fun kid he was. We exchanged memories of our Facebook chats with him, often starting with a “sup” from Brandon.
What was up Wednesday evening was that Mimi and I were standing on the flight line at Dover Air Force Base, a nor’easter‘s driving rain mixing with the tears on our cheeks as an honor guard carried Brandon’s flag-draped box across the tarmac.
While his father came of age in a time of peace, Brandon grew up in a time of war. He was just 8 when terrorists harbored by Afghanistan conspired to fly passenger planes into American landmarks. The disdain for military service that marked my generation’s era had been replaced by support for the troops in Brandon’s. We had learned to argue over whether to fight wars without disrespecting the young men and women we sent into harm’s way. And Brandon grew up wanting to join the Army. Like his grandfather, he wore his nation’s uniform.
His Facebook updates counted down the days to his 19th birthday, when he would head off to boot camp. His mother’s email after attending his graduation from basic training carried a mix of pride at his accomplishment and his maturity and fear at what lay ahead for the son she had protected and nurtured since adopting him at age 3. (Brandon is the fifth of Don and Pam’s 14 children, 11 of them adopted.)
Not even six months after Pam sent those photos from Fort Benning, this Monday morning a casualty assistance officer drove up the dirt road where Don and Pam and most of those kids live south of Shenandoah, Iowa. Every parent or spouse of someone serving overseas in the military knows what it means when people in uniform show up unannounced at the door. Don and Pam knew right away.
The whole family has been in a fog for the past three days. The military offered to fly Don and Pam to Dover for Brandon’s return today. But they had adult daughters coming in from
Texas and Minnesota and Eastern Iowa and children at home who needed to grieve with their parents. Anything I could do felt inadequate because nothing would bring Brandon back alive. But you do what you can. I handled news media inquiries, knowing from the other direction what an intrusion and burden our calls can be on grieving parents. Mimi and I offered to come to Dover, an easy drive from our Virginia home. Don and Pam appreciated the offer, pleased that they could stay with their children and that the family would be represented at Brandon’s return. So we arrived here Tuesday night. Brandon and the nor’easter arrived Wednesday.
I can’t express deeply enough our gratitude and respect for the Air Force and Army officers and enlisted people who helped us out this blustery evening. Their compassion and professionalism was amazing — the general and chaplains who explained the ceremony to us before we headed to the flight line and discussed Brandon and his family with us and thanked us for his heroic service; the sergeant who called me Monday, filled me in on arrangements, met us at the gate and escorted us through the afternoon and evening; the soldiers (or airmen) who held umbrellas steadily against the whipping wind and rain; the Old Guard from Arlington (the same unit that guards the Tomb of the Unknowns) whose precision marching honored the soldier they welcomed back to the homeland he served briefly but bravely.
A chaplain told us we were welcome to watch the ceremony from the shelter of the bus that had taken us out to the flight line. We stayed outside in the rain and wind, saluting with the soldiers. Brandon had stood in much worse for us.
When his body had been loaded into a van for transport to the Dover AFB mortuary, we climbed back onto the bus with the soldiers who were escorting us. The chaplain told us the rain was God’s tears for Brandon.
Mimi and I called Don and Pam to tell them and their family on speaker phone about the ceremony. Then we drove back to our hotel, glad that we had booked a second night, rather than trying to drive home so exhausted.
I opened Facebook and looked back through my Facebook conversations with Brandon. I saw this exchange on March 23:
Me: Where are you going to be stationed?
Brandon: Washington … but headed to Afghanistan this fall.
Me: Stay safe!
Then May 30:
Me: Hi, Brandon. You at Fort Lewis yet?
Brandon: yeah i get deployed in 21 days (he wasn’t actually deployed until August)
Me: Stay safe! We’ll be praying for you.
Brandon: kk thANKS
And this exchange Aug. 10 (our next-to-last chat):
Me: Hi, Brandon! Are you in Afghanistan now? How are things going?
Brandon: yes good and how are things there
Me: I’m doing fine. Just got back from a good trip to New York yesterday.
Brandon: nice im do back in jan
Me: Stay safe!
The old man who never bore arms urging caution on the young warrior. Has the latter ever listened to the former? And even if he did, how can a 19-year-old soldier stay safe in the most dangerous part of Kandahar province?
What’s up, Brandon? We’re missing you. But proud of you. We salute you and thank you and the other brave men and women in uniform for your courage and your service.
Update: KMA radio interviewed me today about the ceremony for Brandon (to listen to the interview, click the audio bar below the story).