color: SOME SOLDIER'S MOM: The Funeral of SPC Tommy Byrd

Monday, November 14, 2005

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.
Noah catches a glimpse of us, leans to whisper to Mykel and turns to us. I smile a small smile as he gives me a tight hug and a light kiss on the cheek and says, “Thanks for coming, Momma” as he releases me and reaches to shake his Dad’s hand and do that manly embrace that doesn’t require a full hug but rather hands to each others’ shoulders as they firmly clasp their hands and forearms. He repeats his thanks to his Dad, and begins to lead us to where Mykel is standing.
Mykel and I clutch each other in a tight embrace and I tell her how sorry I am about Tommy as I stroke her hair, and she tells me how glad she is that I am there and thanks me for having such a great son. Her mother and I also tightly embrace and cry on each other’s shoulders -- wordlessly conveying our pain for our children’s loss and she tells me how she has come to love my son…

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.
The minister speaks and then Tommy’s high school wrestling coach, Dan Montaño. While he strives to maintain his composure, Coach sobs and his voice cracks throughout his remarks about Tommy’s humor, his drive, his smile. Holding on to the small thread of composure left to him, he closed by saying, "The next time you see our flag waving so proudly in the air, remember why it's waving and the sacrifice Tommy made.” Later I think how we expect teachers to influence the lives of their students and how unaccustomed we are to know that sometimes it’s the other way around.

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.

Two American flags are removed from the casket and each is folded with the well-practiced precision demanded to render the highest honor to the flag and to the deceased and each fold gathers and holds more than a hundred years of tradition together with the gratitude of this Nation. It is all Mykel and Julie can do not to collapse from their chairs as the folded flags are presented to them, first to his widow and then to his mother. I see our son place his hand over Mykel’s to comfort her as she cries and clutches the flag.
A Brigadier General reads the citation for the Bronze Star and Purple Heart that are awarded to Tommy and they are presented to each of the women. Again, the emotion is so raw and riveting that it competes with the sun to burn us. Noah rises and walks past the casket and is handed one of two doves, which, when released, circle above the burial site until our attention is returned to the task at hand. I hear the soldiers behind me murmur their approval. A representative of the Arizona Governor presents Mykel with the flag flown at half staff above the Capital on October 26.

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.
For the uncounted time that day, my heart breaks, and I lean on DH. With his arm around me, I cry tears of sadness for this family and these friends… and I cry tears of pride for my son for all he has been through at 20, and I know that they are also tears of gratitude that my son’s life was spared that day in August... and I cannot help but cry a few more thinking about Matt Bohling and Jason Benford and Tim Watkins, Jeff Corban, Vincent Summers, Rich Hardy… and I can’t help but think of V., and R. and M. – Our Guys – and Stacy’s Michael and Cathy’s Dan and all the others that are still there a while longer… On our way back to the church to join the family for refreshments, DH remarked how long this year has been. I can only reply that I hope it gets no longer…

Rest in Peace, dear Tommy… husband, son, brother, friend, Soldier. Hero.
Copyright 2005. All rights reserved.


At 11/14/2005 4:03 AM , Blogger Call Me Grandma said...

Thanks for your prayers SSM.
What a beautiful post to Tommy.
Your DH is right. It has been a very long year. One of the longest of my life.
Tommy has received his eternal reward. Well done good and faithful servant. Receive the royal crown of victory.
God bless our troops.

At 11/14/2005 6:56 AM , Blogger Stacy said...

I too thank you for your prayers, and yes it has been one long year. Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing this with us.

At 11/14/2005 9:44 AM , Blogger Chevy Rose said...

Thank you for sharing with us. My prayers are also included for his wife and family. God bless them all.

At 11/14/2005 10:48 AM , Blogger StoicMom said...

This man was 24 days older than Sprout. I cannot bear the thought.

God be with this family.

At 11/14/2005 11:38 AM , Blogger AFSister said...

Oh my word..... what a beautiful tribute to Noah's friend and fellow Soldier.
So much sadness and pride, all wrapped up at once. Give Noah an extra "thank you" from me for being there for Tommy's funeral. "I'm Sorry" isn't enough, but that's all I can say. That, and "thank you".

At 11/14/2005 12:13 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a beautiful tribute. Prayers for his family and for yours. Thank You.

At 11/14/2005 12:27 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this beautiful tribute, SSM. My thoughts and prayers are with Tommy's wife and family.

At 11/14/2005 12:34 PM , Blogger David M said...

This has to be the most moving tribute I have ever read about the honor and dignity of a military funeral, and the sorrow of ones loss.

Absolutely beautiful, thank you for sharing with us.

At 11/14/2005 12:47 PM , Blogger Fermina Daza said...

All I can say is thank you.

Thank you, Tommy. Godspeed.

Thank you SSM for a wonderful post, yet again.

- hfs

At 11/14/2005 1:19 PM , Blogger Melinda said...

Not too long a post at all; in fact, I think it was just right. It sometimes seems impossible to put a person and an experience like this into words, but if you haven't done it've come very close.

My heart aches for this family as well as yours.

At 11/14/2005 4:18 PM , Blogger devildog6771 said...

So many memories. A very hard read, but an absolutely beautiful tribute to Tommy. God Bless you! God Bless Tommy's family and the families of his other fallen buddies. I truly grieve with them!

At 11/14/2005 4:20 PM , Blogger Crazy Politico said...

That was beautiful. Thank you for posting it. I need a tissue, so excuse me.

At 11/14/2005 4:39 PM , Blogger FbL said...

"And Gentlemen, in England, still abed, shall curse themselves they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whilst any speak that fought with us upon St. Crispin's Day..."

Aye, that's the truth of it...

Godspeed, Tommy... We'll do our best to keep to the path...

Most revered and deepest sympathy to his family.

Semper Fidelis.

At 11/14/2005 5:45 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll see you on Fiddler's Green Tommy. A lovely tribute SSM, thanks.
-Sgt Hook

At 11/14/2005 6:50 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this beautiful tribute.

At 11/14/2005 7:53 PM , Blogger Army of Mom said...

It seems like the times when I'm most irritated at my husband for doing things, being impatient with me, etc. I am reminded of women like Mykel who would give anything to pick up her husband's dirty socks or listen to him fuss at her for whatever transgression she committed.

Thanks for reminding me about my blessings and how grateful I am for young men and women who are willing to fight for me and mine.

At 11/15/2005 1:01 AM , Blogger thad lucken said...

audie murphy's division, just as proud as ever. Rock of the Marne.
Americans are a great and noble people. I can never thank him enough.

At 11/15/2005 6:07 AM , Blogger Soldiers Angels said...

Please let us know anything we can do for the families,
Thank you C. for your posting, you keep us real,

At 11/15/2005 6:37 AM , Blogger Rachelle Jones said...

Thank you SPC Tommy Byrd, may God grant his family and friends grace, and peace in hearts.....

At 11/15/2005 12:38 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a moving, beautiful tribute to SPC Tommy Byrd...may God grant him peace and peace be with his family and yours. Thanks to all those who are preserving our freedom.

At 11/15/2005 1:24 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

A hard read for we who are now among "the
Condolences to his wife, both families and all of the protectors.
V/R JWest

At 11/15/2005 4:11 PM , Blogger barb pfister said...

Yes, it has been a very long year. And I too hope that it does not get any longer, I will keep you and your son in my prayers. What a great young man you have raised.


At 11/16/2005 12:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this beautiful and moving tribute to a young man I never had the pleasure to know, though I will forever be in his debt.

Doug Barber

At 11/16/2005 9:56 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

for nothing

At 11/16/2005 11:09 PM , Blogger Some Soldier's Mom said...

Anonymous, This is not the time, the place or forum for your empty musings

At 11/17/2005 2:51 AM , Blogger Jen said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11/17/2005 2:53 AM , Blogger Jen said...

SSM, you helped those of us who weren't there to say goodbye to Tommy feel as though we WERE. The story is hearbreaking, but as I said on my blog when I linked back to this post, it's one that needs to be told--in honor of Tommy, and all who have fallen so that people like Anonymous have the freedom to continue to talk out of their a$$. Thank you.

At 11/17/2005 9:02 AM , Blogger Joe said...

Just.....DAMN!! My heart is broken, my mind reels while it trys to grasp the awful price for Freedom that has been paid here! Words are pitifully inadequate, expressions of sorrow and condolence ring hollow. I can only say.....THANK YOU,THANK YOU,THANK YOU, THANK YOU.....I owe a debt I can never repay. My 18 month old son is the lucky reciepient of this terrible sacrifice. I will raise him up to know about and emulate men like Tommy. God's blessing on this family, our warriors and their families, and our Nation.

At 11/17/2005 9:13 AM , Blogger Erik Holtan said...

Very Descriptive!
Noah and Tommy, and the rest of those guys have my admiration!
God Bless him!

At 11/17/2005 9:35 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This would be easier to type if I could see my keyboard clearly. The tears keep getting in the way. Freedom isn't free and some of us, almost invariably our best, pay the highest price to purchase it for the rest of us. Thank God that we have produced people willing to make that kind of sacrifice and may He guide us as a country to become far more worthy of it.

At 11/17/2005 10:20 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it possible to miss someone you never knew? The world is surely a bit darker without Tommy in it. SSM - thanks for the moving tribute and God Bless you, Tommy's family and friends, and Noah.


At 11/17/2005 8:57 PM , Blogger OldLady Of The Hills said...

This is so very touching; so moving; so incredibly heart breaking...My heart goes out to you and your family and to Tommy's wife and mother and all his family....Thank you for allowing people like myself to feel so much grief along with all of you, for the tragic loss of this very very young man; your son's dear friend. May Tommy rest in peace...

At 11/18/2005 4:46 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let this not bring tears to your hearts and souls, but be proud, stand tall and know that
FREEDOM is not FREE and we shall overcome and these soldiers will never ever be forgotten, to the family..I SALUTE you
for your courage and strength and THANK YOU for sharing with the world your loving husband, friend and honorable AMERICAN..! GODSPEED!
CPL.PIZZA 1/5cav 1 cd

At 11/18/2005 11:06 AM , Blogger Rebekah said...

Thank you so much for posting this. My husband and I were the Byrds' next-door neighbors when they lived on-post at Fort Benning. They are a wonderful couple, and my heart is broken for Mykel's loss. I attended the memorial service here in Georgia, but I wish I could have paid my last respects at the funeral as well. Thank you for painting such a vivid picture of it.

Rebekah Nicodemus

At 11/18/2005 9:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like Rebekah, I am friends with Mykel. I did not have the honor of meeting Tommy though. I'm sorry for that. I cannot bear the thought of someone so close to my heart in such pain. Thank you for writing such a beautiful post. It really does him justice and paints a vivid picture for all of us not able to attend.

At 11/19/2005 5:34 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

My wife is a friend of Mykel, and I just want to say how sorry I am for the loss. Words just aren't enough at a time like this. I've recently lost one of my friends around the same time Tommy was killed, SGT Michael Robertson, a medic who worked for me here in Iraq. We are also from 3rd Brigade, along with Tommy's unit. He wasn't just a co-worker, but a true friend. They will both be missed.
Go with God Tommy, and be at peace. You did your time in hell. Even though we never met, I will still miss you.

At 12/18/2005 3:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an absolutely beautiful description fo the funeral and an wonderful tribute to Tommy. I am one of Mykel's best friends. We've been through a lot in the past 8 years, but nothing could be harder than this. I met your son that day- he is a good guy- quite enthusiastic too. I hope you don't mind, but I am going to copy this an put it into a memory book that I am creating for Myke. It's just so beautiful that I don't think she should be without it. Thank you so much.

At 12/21/2005 10:02 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you for this entry, and all your entries. i really love your son, he has helped me through a lot. i miss tommy everyday, and i will never stop loving him, and for anyone who thinks my husband died for nothing, you know nothing....your freedom isnt free, and i lost my husband...what have you lost.......

At 3/06/2006 7:47 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear SSM,
God bless your family and Noah.
I was also at Tommy"s funeral, and you described it perfectly.
To see the honor gaurds, and the flag draped high in the air by the fire trucks was an awesome sight. It was a beautiful tribute for a beautiful person.
Although I have never gotten to know Mykel very well, My heart breaks for her and Tommy's family.
Mike and Julia Byrd are very close friends of mine and my husbands, and we see the pain they must endure every day.
Mikey,Tommy's brother, rides with me and my son to school every day, and we talk often of Tommy and re-visit Mikey's precious memories of his brother.
Mikey is very proud of Tommy, and he truly wants to make Tommy proud of him.
Tommy was into sports, and Mikey is also following in those footsteps.(Mikey is currently taking on the track team, and is very fast!) Tommy would be extremely proud of who Mikey is becoming.
The loss and the greaf are unbearable for Mike and Julia on most days, and I pray to God every night for the strength to help this family who is in so much pain.
No one should have to loose a child, but God blessed them with Tommy, and he died doing what he loved.
We had a welcome home party for Tommy on a break he had from Iraq, and he told me that just seeing the small relief and smiles on the kids faces in Iraq made everything worth while. "They were safe for a moment".
He was a true hero in every way.
God Bless you Tommy, Mykel, Mike, Julia and Mikey Byrd.
Tommy makes us all proud, and it is an honor to have gotten to know him.
I love you my friends,

At 6/14/2006 9:11 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am Mykel's cousin and a close friend of Tommy's. I wanted to say Thank You for writing such a beautiful story. Reading it was like being there all over again! It was very moving and you captured everything so well, just reading the words made my eyes swell up with tears. We all miss Tommy very much! It is comforting to know that there are people in this world who do appreciate the sacrifices that our troops make. They all need our love and support. Freedom isn't Free!

Alexis Foreman
Wife of Spc. Kolt Foreman
U.S. Army
4th ID

At 4/02/2011 3:39 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

To the family and friends of Tommy. Thank you for this beautiful memory. I stumbled on it this afternoon as I was doing some research. I just want to say that I am grateful for the sacrifices you and your children have made for the cause of prayers are with you as you continue to live your lives without Tommy.

CPT Raja Kandanada
Battalion Chaplain
TF Thunderbolts
MNB Tarin Kowt


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