April 23, 1981 – March 29, 2011
Bryan entered the world on a very stormy spring day in Cleburne, Texas, but inside that hospital room it felt like the sun was shining as brightly as ever. I was holding in my arms the tiny little bundle that would be our future.
Bryan was the epitome of the All-American Boy as he grew in both stature and personality. He enjoyed sports and played well in soccer, baseball, and football. His charming smile and sparkling eyes helped him make friends easily and quickly, no matter where he was.
Always concerned with his family’s safety it was amusing to have my 8-year-old son making sure I had my seatbelt fastened when we loaded in the car. So, it was no surprise that Bryan had his eye on becoming a Police Office when he graduated high school, and I was actually proud when after the attacks and the horror of 9/11 Bryan told us he wanted to fight back. He wasn’t asking us. He was telling us. My son, who had climbed trees, played sports, drove my old hot rod, and teased his little sister, was going to war to fight an enemy that had killed Americans on American soil. Bryan didn't know the victim's names, but he fully intended to avenge them.
While Bryan was still deployed to Afghanistan, I had a dream about him. In the dream he and I were just walking side-by-side on a dusty, rocky road. Bryan was in full combat uniform, and he was talking to me, but I couldn't hear what he was saying to me. He had no voice. He smiled at me and guided me around a corner into an outdoor movie theater. We took our seats and there on the movie screen appeared Bryan in his Army Combat Uniform. The camera pulled back and I could see he was standing beside a glass coffin. He stepped into the coffin, laid down, and as soon as his helmet touched the white satin pillow, he turned into my little boy Bryan. Little boy Bryan sat up, stepped out of the coffin and became Bryan the soldier again. Bryan gave me a sharp salute, that crooked half-smile I was so familiar with, and then the screen went blindingly white. I turned to look at Bryan in the seat beside me, but he was gone.
It was at that point that I woke up to the phone ringing. It was my daughter-in-law, Tiffany, telling me that Bryan had been killed in action in Afghanistan early that morning.
It was March 29, 2011 and our world had just been shattered.
Bryan graduated from Basic Training at Fort Benning, and we proudly watched him "turn blue" for the Infantry. He was stationed at Fort Lewis where he met Tiffany who became his wife, and before we knew it, he was deployed to Iraq. I did everything I thought a father should do while his son is serving our country. I proudly flew an American Flag in the front yard, we sent care packages of beef jerky and razors, we wrote letters and sent emails back and forth, and I hung his enlistment photo in my cubicle at work. I knew Bryan was in harms way, but that thought was always shoved to the back of my mind when I received a phone call or email from him.
That first year went by quickly and then our boy was home. He and Tiffany were reassigned to Grafenwohr Germany, and our family grew with the birth of his daughter and his son, and Bryan was deployed again to Iraq. That year also went quickly, and Bryan and his family were back stateside.
We celebrated Bryan's 29th Birthday on April 23rd at Fort Campbell, and then he got deployed to Afghanistan on Mother’s Day, 2010. Shortly after Bryan was deployed to Afghanistan, Tiffany had given us a banner with a blue star on a white field framed with a red border and fringed with gold trim that we hung in our front window. She had told us that it represented a family member deployed in military service.
We had no idea there was one of these banners with a Gold Star on it.
Bryan had served his country with three tours, he'd been promoted regularly, he had survived explosions and attacks, he had always come home. He was 16 days from his next leave. Less than a month from his 30th birthday. And now he was gone. No last goodbyes. Nothing except that haunting dream. After an Army Colonel arrived and gave us the official notification, our Casualty Assistance Officer arrived and informed us we would be flying to Dover Air Force Base for Bryan’s Dignified Transfer.
My boy would be coming home for the last time.
At Bryan's funeral at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, a Brigadier General pinned a Gold Star on each one of us. There were tears in his eyes as he pinned one on me, on Bryan's mom, his sister, his wife, both of his children and Bryan's step-mom and step-dad. We had become a Gold Star Family.
At our home, the banner with the Blue Service Star is now gone. In its place hangs a banner with a Gold Star on a white field framed with the red border and fringed with gold trim. We wear our Gold Star pins whenever possible, sharing Bryan's story and raising American citizen's awareness of the price and the true cost of our freedom.
Deep in my heart, I pray that those I meet will never know just how heavy this little Gold Star really is.
After Bryan’s funeral and all the ceremonies on base, we were left with an urn, a folded flag, a handful of medals, and a hole in our hearts. I was unemployed at the time, and now my life had been completely shattered. As the days and weeks dragged on, I could barely drag myself out of bed in the mornings, and when I did it was only to drink and self-medicate.
I thank God that I married a woman strong enough to carry both of our broken hearts.
Then Beth got a phone call from Army Chaplin Justin Roberts. He told us that an ABC News war correspondent had footage of No Slack during Operation Strong Eagle III, which was Bryan's final mission, and they were having the footage made into a documentary.
A few weeks later we got a phone call from the movie producer that had worked with Chaplin Roberts and he had a rough cut of the film, now called The Hornet’s Nest he wanted us to see.
They wanted our approval to go ahead with the production of the film, and after watching it we gave it to them without hesitation because we had just seen Bryan on a movie screen, dressed in his combat uniform, talking about his children and how much he missed them. We had just seen things that Bryan had never told us about and never would have told us. We had just seen his entire unit being attacked by these unseen forces. We had just seen how his unit reacted to the radio calls that their brothers were falling in battle. We had just seen heroics that left us totally shaken, and I saw the meaning of my dream.
They didn’t know it at the time, but The Hornet’s Nest team had just saved my life. The film gave me a reason to get out of bed every day. They had given me a precious gift. They had given Bryan’s children a legacy; a chance to hear their Daddy say their names again, a chance to see what their Daddy did and why he died.
Over the next few months, we attended several screenings of the film across the country. We had the bitter-sweet honor of meeting other Gold Star Families, especially the families of the other five warriors killed on March 29, 2011; Sgt First Class Ofren Arrechaga; SSG Frank Adamski; Spc Dustin Feldhaus; Spc. Jameson Lindskog; PFC Jeremey Faulkner.
Every time we see Bryan in the film, it feels like our hearts are being torn apart. Some of our family attended one of the screenings and afterwards they asked us “Why do you do this to yourselves? Why do you torture yourselves by showing and watching this over and over?”
The answer to that question is the same answer to the question I had asked myself as I looked at Bryan's flag-draped coffin. “How can I possibly live up to my son’s sacrifice?”
This is how; by sharing his story. By doing what I think Bryan was trying to tell me in my dream; to not just mourn the loss of my little boy. That innocent little boy died when he became a soldier. Bryan wants me to celebrate his life, understand his sacrifice, enjoy my freedom, and salute his service. We are now Bryan’s voice.
With the help of friends, the support of many, and in honor of Bryan, Beth and I created a non-profit organization - Gold Star Parents Retreat (https://goldstarparentsretreat.org/). The Retreat is a place where parents of fallen soldiers can meet in comfort, honor their children, and find some peace in the midst of grief.
As long as there is an ear to listen, we will share our stories. And our Heroes - our sons and our daughters - will never be forgotten.