The Funeral of SPC Tommy Byrd
As I posted Saturday, we attended the funeral on Veterans' Day of Noah's friend Tommy Byrd who was killed along with four others of Noah's squad in an IED attack October 15. Here's a longer-than-usual post, but a story that should be told...
The Central Church of the Nazarene is a modest church for modest people. There are perhaps 30 parking spaces in the front paved parking lot, but there are many more spaces available around the side of the church in the gravel lot shared at the rear by a commercial business. As we arrive, I wonder if anyone else is thinking that we only get together any more for weddings and funerals. The sky is so blue this day -- the kind that Doc Graham says in the movie Field of Dreams is “a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it.”
Walking through the open doors of the church’s vestibule through the throng of people greeting old friends and those savoring the last of their cigarettes, we spy Noah "handsome as they come" in his Class A uniform brimming with medals and ribbons and braids. He is standing against one wall with a waif of a young woman; her eyes rimmed red and dressed in a turquoise colored top and dark trousers. Besides being very young, she is diminutive with long hair streaked with the subtle shades of blond that are the fashion. People are greeting her and hugging her and she is dwarfed and smothered by these mourners. I know immediately that this is Mykel, Tommy’s widow.
We enter the nave and Tommy’s casket is already at the front of the chancel, draped in the American flag and it brings new tears to my eyes as we take our seats. The church is already filling quickly and by the time the service starts is standing room only with every aisle filled. Those in attendance include Marines, many soldiers, sailors and airmen – friends from school, neighbors, relatives. When I remark later to a Captain from the battalion about the number of Army Rangers in attendance, he tells me that they went through basic training with Tommy two years ago and who, like Noah, have paid their own way from their units to attend. Some young men and women carry infants or have toddlers tugging at skirt hems. There are old men with VFW garrison caps. Some men are wearing suits, while others are dressed in the clothes of working men.
We make our way to the front and introduce ourselves to Julie and Michael Byrd and while the fathers shake hands, we mothers embrace and cry while Tommy’s 15-year-old brother Michael, Jr. looks on. I tell him what a fine brother Tommy was and he thanks me and shakes my hand and nods. I think again how hollow and inadequate “I’m so sorry” is and how hollow it sounds.
Captain Lebo, from the 2/69AR reminds us that Tommy – the driver of the lead vehicle in a convoy every night – died doing what he loved, and many heads (especially soldiers and family) nod in agreement. Mykel’s best friend Rachael – whom Tommy convinced to join the Army – speaks next. She rambles that now as she trains for deployment to Iraq, the training has taken on a whole new meaning… and how she always told herself that if Tommy could make it through doing what he did, then she certainly could make it doing what she did… but now she needed a whole new courage.
There are two picture slide shows with music – the pictures we all have in our family albums – a laughing baby… the 8 year old with a center stripe Mohawk haircut that elicits laughter from us all… the 12 year old at attention saluting an unseen flag… prom portrait… pinning an opponent at a wrestling meet… clowning with his friends… lovingly holding the high school sweetheart that would become his wife. The wracking sobs of his mother echoing through the church are all it takes for the rest of the mourners and me to join her. I see Mykel’s shoulders heaving as she cries and I see my son comfort her. I watch those around us -- men and women, young and old -- weep openly and wipe the tears unashamedly from their cheeks. I see soldiers staring straight ahead and fighting for control. DH squeezes my hand a little harder when Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” begins to play over pictures of Tommy graduating from basic… standing next to a HMMVV, sitting on a tank… standing with friends in the desert sand.
Tommy’s aunt is the last to speak and she tells tale after tale of the laughing, mischievous first-born grandchild… how as a young child he plummeted down the side of a wooded mountain on a ride-on toy head first towards a tree with no way to stop to the utter horror of his aunts and grandparents as they pounded after him certain of the horrible accident about to happen when he suddenly pulled to a stop just 6 inches from the tree… How with the family gathered round nearly crying tears of relief at Tommy’s good luck he demanded to “do it again”.
We exit the church to begin assembling the elongated snake of autos that will follow hood to trunk in procession to the cemetery – a journey that will take almost 40 minutes through downtown streets. As I watch the lines of cars on side streets blocked by the members of the Tucson Police Dept. on motorcycles, I mention to DH that when I was a kid back in Illinois and we would get caught at intersections by really long funeral processions, I would think, “Wow! Look at all those cars! That must have been a really important person.” And I tell him through new tears that it could never be truer than today for there was no more important person in the world today than Tommy, and the two-tour veteran reaches for my hand and nods knowingly.
A canopy shades the area directly surrounding the open gravesite. A line of soldier-friends stands at parade rest. The white-gloved Honor Guard stands at attention next to the hearse and the Army riflemen stand back from the crowd. When nearly 300 people are assembled at the grave, the visiting soldiers are called to attention and the Guard gently removes the casket and slowly bears it to the grave; the crowd is still as the low sound of “step” as each pair of pallbearers reaches the riser above the grave where the casket will be placed. They lovingly lower the casket to the brace, dress the flag and salute this Hero with slow motion movements. The minister prays and turns the service over for military honors.
A few words are spoken, and a Command Sergeant Major with eight service stripes (one for each four years of service) loudly barks out to the seven riflemen, "Riflemen! Render three volleys!" and there is an audible gasp and weeping with each volley. The crying and sniffling escalate as Taps begins.
As the coffin begins to lower, all the assembled military snap to attention and hold a salute. Mykel, Julie, Michael and Michael, Jr. step forward to place roses on the lid of the casket, followed by distraught friends before they lower the burial stone. Mykel sobs out her husband’s name one last time and she kisses her fingertips and reaches to plant the kiss on the coffin lid. Noah pulls his prized Combat Infantry Badge from his uniform chest and places it gently on his friend’s casket and recites softly the four lines of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from “Henry V” that names them forever members of the Band of Brothers before he returns to attention and holds his final salute to his fallen friend.
Rest in Peace, dear Tommy… husband, son, brother, friend, Soldier. Hero.