Death at the front door: Part III

August 22, 2008

Continued from, “Death at the front door:  Part II”

It’s Wednesday morning now.  I haven’t slept much at all for the last two nights.  Still with those thoughts of how, why, unbelieveable and I am still powerless to do anything for my little girl of twenty-three years.

My good friend Tom comes over this morning.  At this point I am beginning to understand that everyone needs to do something for us… even if nothing can be done.  Tom has such a pure heart and for him to take an entire day off (from work) to just hang out with me speaks volumes to me about his priorities and the love he has for me and my family.  He says, let’s go get a spiral ham with all the fixins.  I tell him that we don’t need any more food.  He keeps insisting that we go and  get a spiral ham.  Finally I just tell him that the refrigerator is stuffed and there is no room.  He says, “You need another refrigerator?”  His company was doing a big remodeling job and the owners were upgrading all of their appliances and noboddy claimed the refrigerator.  It’s less than two years old.  So we go get the fridge and the ham with all the fixns.   Tom was good to have that day.  He just kept loving me through the entire day.

While Tom and I were gone a good friend of the family called from the up-state area.  She asked where Buddy was going to be burried.  My wife told her that we were still trying to figure that out.  Of course there are no burial plots purchased.  They checked at the place Lex wanted Buddy burried and the plots were quite expensive.  The lady-friend tells my wife that when her mom died a few years earlier she had willed her two plots in that verry same cemetary.  She said there wasn’t much she could do at a time like this but she would never use those two plots.  Would Alexis like to have them?  Unbelieveable, she just signed the deed to two grave plots over.  Another thing taken care of!

The Casualty Assistance Officer called today and said he was surprised but the army had agreed to fly Buddy’s remains to Poteau, Oklahoma for the memorial ceremony.  So Lex bought last minute plane tickets for herself, my wife, and our other two other daughters.  I stayed home with our two and four year old “new kids”.

The ceremony was in the Poteau High School gymnasium.  There were hundreds and hundreds of people there.  The Patriot Guard Riders turned out in force.  One of Buddy’s good friends made a MySpace video of Buddy’s life (watch it hereMySpaceTV Videos: Sgt. Buddy Hughie by frame:45).  When they began playing it Alexis and her older sister went down onto the gymnasium floor and cuddled each other.  They watched and cried together… as did many of those attending.

They had a long procession to the grave yard where they going to put a marker for “Sgt. Buddy “Doc” Hughie”.  Along the route there were people standing holding American flags and saluting.  There was the traditional military honors “funeral”.  This is where the OK Guard screwed up (the first time).  Instead of presenting the flag to Alexis (the widow) they presented it to Buddys mom.   That really hurt Alexis and if you could see the picture on the front page of the Poteau Daily News you can see it in her face as she watches the army give her flag to her mother in law.  Sure Lex would end up with multiple flags and this wasn’t the “real funeral” but….  Lex would have made sure the family got a flag, especially Buddy’s mom.

Our “new” little girl (Lindsay) and Buddy were pretty close.  Sitting her down on that Tuesday after getting home from day care and telling her about Buddy was pretty difficult… for us.  We told her that Buddy wouldn’t be coming home from the war.  That some bad man had killed him and now Buddy was an angel in heaven with God.  “So we won’t see him any more?” (with tears in her little eyes)  No, honey, not until we go to live in heaven with God too.  “Can we go now?” (tears rolling down her little face)  No honey, only God can decide when we go to live with Him.  She burried her head in my wifes chest and just boo-hooed.

Being home with our “new kids” all by myself was much more difficult that I had imagined.  Of  course I couldn’t work nor did I even want to.  But I had to be strong…. right.

Lex and the other girls came  home Sunday and filled me in on most everything that happened out in OK. They also informed me that Buddy wold be coming in on a flight later that evening.

We chose to use a funeral home near by where I knew the director personally.  He and I had gone to church together at the same church my good friend Scott was at.  His name is Mike and he couldn’t have been more helpful.

So Mike called and said that the flight would be in at six p.m. if we wanted to meet the plane.  They sent a limo over to pick us all up.  When we got there, there were several Patriot Guard Riders with the big American flags on their motorcycles.  We could see the plane on the tarmak as they were loading Buddy’s coffin into the hearse.  It was quite a somber occassion… riding back to the funeral home behind the hearse that containd the body of a young man who had such a radiant smile, a sweet spirit and the heart of a person willing to give his all for another person.

When we got to the funeral home Mike said it would be best if we just went on home and let them take care of Buddy that night.  His army friend was still there “guarding” him over night.

Mike called the next morning to let us know that it would be okay to come on over to the funeral home.  We also had some official stuff that needed to be taken care of.  I’ve never written an obituary but I asked Mike if I could have input in the obit becasue I didn’t want little Cooper to have to one day read this sanitary obituary about his daddy.  I wanted the obit to try to capture at least part of the essence of the man that is his father.  Sure he said (you can see it here buddy-obit).  I think with our joint effort we were successful.

When we got to the funeral home the casket was open.  Lex stood across the room… again with her hands clutched to her chest… not crying just wanting to but not wanting to go see her love as he lay in that casket with that mortician make up on.  I had my arm frimly wrapped around her, telling her it was okay.  Just take your time honey.  She just shuffled her feet, half a foot at a time.  She began to tremble as we got closer and grabbed my hand around her shoulder.  Eventually we made it.  She stood there silent for the longest time.  Then she reached down and put her hand on top of his white gloved hands folded across his lower chest.  Not saying anything but speaking volumes.  After a long time standing there she says, “He looks so peaceful.”  Now I’m crying as I replied, “He is honey, he’s at peace now.”  Everyone else was around us by now, hugging, crying and remarking at how “good he looks”. 

I learned later that day that Buddy’s family from OK would be coming in that evening for the funeral on Wednesday.  Buddy’s mom, grandmother, grandfather and sister came.  As I look back I imagine that Lex paid for that too.  They did not have much and to deprive them of seeing their son/grandson/brother burried would be too harsh a thing to overcome.  Lex loves them too so it would only be a natural thing for her to do.

They all came over to the house that night after they got in.  We visited a while and made arrangements for them to come back over the next morning (Tuesday) and we would all go the the funeral home together.

The visit to the funeral home Tuesday morning was pretty difficult.  Buddy’s grandmother just kept screaming and crying.  Buddy’s grandmother and grandfather adopted Buddy when he was around four years old because his mother had problems.  Fortunately Buddy’s mom was able to eventually overcome her issues and they rekindled their relationship a few years before his death.

The visitation was that night.  It was really a beautiful occassion as far as those things go I suppose.  Once again the Patriot Guard Riders showed up in force.  Their motorcycles all lined up in the back and they lined up like an honor guard at the entry to the funeral home.  I can’t honestly say how many people were there but it was packed all night.  I don’t think I have ever been hugged so much in my entire life.

Alexis was pretty much cried out by now and just sat in a chair as people walked by to offer their heartfelt condolances.  She just sat there about fifteen feet from her love and little Cooper’s daddy.  My friend Mike the funeral director arranged for a large television and a DVD player and they looped that MySpace video to play the entire night.  People who had never met Buddy were crying as they watched that thing.

At some point that evening Mike (the funeral director) asked me how many limos we needed to pick us up on Wednesday morning.  I told them I didn’t really know but there were twenty-three of us total family members but the army was only going to pay so much money.  He said, “Don’t you worry at all about that.  We’ll take care of it.”  I later found out that what he really meant was that they weren’t going to scrimp to cut costs.  They were going to accept whatever the army paid and they would pay for the rest themselves!

Wednesday morning comes around and it’s time to leave for the funeral and three stretch black limos pull up in front of the house.  We have to say our public goodby to a man who has meant so much to our family.  We get to the funeral home and there are some big army brass there.  I went right up to the two star General and introduced myself.  He offered his condolances and told me what a remarkable soldier Buddy was (Buddy was awarded two Bronze Stars with Valor and a Purple Heart)  The General asks if there is anything he can ever do to just let him know.  As a matter of fact I said through tears… if it is at all possible I really would like an American flag that had been flown over the base where Buddy was killed.  He said he could make that happen.

Everyone was seated and they opened the doors at the back to let the family in.  My pastor was officiating the funeral.  He did such an awesome job.  He introduced the two star General who said all the things you would expect someone in his position to say.  It was nice.  Then my pastor introduced me by name and as Buddy’s father-in-law.  Lex said I could speak but she wasn’t sure at all I would be able to.  So I go up and began to pull out the paper I’de written my notes on but at the last second decided to speak extemporaneously.  Honestly, I don’t recall exactly all I said that day but it was something like this. “You have heard a good bit this morning about Sergant Buddy Hughie.  Now I want to tell you about the Buddy I knew and came to love.  I knew right away when Buddy first started coming around that there was something different about him… I didn’t dislike him when we first met.  Buddy and I worked together side by side for nearly a year.  I was fortunate enough to watch Buddy closely.  Not many father-in-laws know their son-in-laws like I knew Buddy.  The way he treated people, his respectful attitude toward everyone he met.  He would do anything for anyone.  I was able to watch how he treated Alexis and could clearly see the love they had for each other.  When Buddy came home a few months ago for the birth of little Cooper you should have seen the gleen of pride he had in his eyes for that boy.  He fed him, changed his diapers, cuddled him in the bed while they napped together  He would have been quite a wonderful daddy for little Cooper. Not only is Buddy a bonafied American Hero but he was a remarkable human being.  The world will be a little darker without him.  We will miss him terribly.” 

Watching them load Buddy’s coffin with the Stars and Stripes over it was difficult too.  We were on our way to the cemetary.  I had made arrangements with this friend of ours who is a videographer to video the entire grave side ceremony.  He said it would be his honor and he would not consider accepting any money for it either.

Everyone gathered around the grave site.  I think about ninety percent of the people who were at the funeral ceremony came to the grave site.  We watched as they unloaded the casket, marching in step, setting it down on those nylon straps then stepping back and all saluteing at once.  My pastor read some Scripture and made a few comments.  Then, the  twenty-one gun salute.  Lex kinda jumping at each shot.  Then the other soldiers slowly and deliberately removing  the flag from the coffin, stretching it tight, ever so slowly and too fold it deliberately, precisely the way they were supposed to.  They present the flag to the two star General, he marches over to Alexis, having one hand on top of the flag the other on the bottom.  He bends on one knee and gives her the flag and says “On behalf of a greatful nation…..

The official good by was over.  We all retruned to our home for the traditional food binge.  The church ladies had set up a pretty good spread (new food).  After a couple of hours it was mostly family left.  We talked about all kinds of things.  The house was completely packed with flowers and plants.  The fragrance of them all was beautiful.

Although it was “over” I had no clue about grieving and how each person handles grief and the grieving process in their own way.

It really wasn’t over.  It had really just begun.

Death at the front door: Part II

August 21, 2008

CONTINUED FROM “Death at the front door: Part I

Cooper and Buddy

Fortunately Lex is the senior Pharmacy Technician for a major drug store chain and I also have our family doctor’s cell phone number.  I called him and explained what had happened and he called in an Rx for Lex to help her sleep. 

Her older sister finally went home to her husband.  Poor Stephen.  My daughter just dropped the phone and said “Buddy got killed.  I’m going to mom’s!” and left the poor guy there with their two year old son sleeping.  My daughter told me they stayed up most of the night just talking about how unbelievable it was.  The four of them had already bought their tickets and were planning on going for a two week cruise after Buddy got back home.  Stephen said to my daughter, “Here we’ve been waiting for Buddy to get home and now he’s waiting for us to get home.”  I thought that was pretty profound.

Lex’s best friends both stayed with her that night, one on each side of her in that queen bed, hugging her. 

I went to bed but didn’t sleep a wink at all.  I just layed there… so much racing through my mind.  How could it have happened… him being the only one killed.  He was the friggn medic!  How in the hell do you let your medic get killed?!  Those damn Muslims! No sir, no sleep for me that night.

Around two a.m. Lex’s phone rings… It was Cody one of Buddy’s close friends.  Buddy and Cody had known each other since childhood and were in the same OK Guard unit.  Cody said that Buddy was killed while rendering aid to three wounded Afghani Army National soldiers… that he had saved two lives before a sniper killed him with a single shot. They cried and talked for a while.  Lex found was told that Buddy had never been left alone, there had always been someone with him he told her.  He said he had never seen so many grown men cry so much for so long.  Buddy was the first casualty in that unit in over fifty years.  So, they end the call and Lex said that even though Cooper’s daddy had been killed at least maybe Buddy had saved some other little boys daddy.

Seems like it took forever for the next morning to get here.  But it’s Tuesday morning and for several years now I have been attending a Christian business owners Bible study.  I was there at 6:30.  There are only about eight to ten of us and most of them had met Buddy and we had from time to time prayed for him as we pray at the close of each meeting.  Of course that hour and a half meeting that morning was all about our family.  One of the things that the death notification guys told us the night before is that it could take up to ten days to two weeks for Buddy’s remains to get back to the states.  So all this time Lex is wondering… how messed up is Buddy?  Will she be able to see him again… as she knew him or will it have to be a closed casket.  So we prayed specifically for that that morning.  I remember word for word that prayer.  “Lord we ask that you somehow allow the army to get Buddy home so fast that they will be scratching their heads wondering how that happened.”  That was around eight a.m. that Tuesday the 2oth.  I don’t know what I would have done without those guys that morning.  I got so much strength from them. 

I think I was home around eight-thirty that morning.  One of the first one’s over was Will, a good friend we go to church with.  He came over with a huge cooler with various drinks iced down in it.   I could tell he was very uncomfortable… not knowing what to say but needing to do something to try to help.  What a friend.  I joke with him to this day that he has an awesome “Cooler Ministry”.  Honestly that truly was a tremendous help.

Early that morning I called a very good friend of mine who lives in Myrtle Beach (about an hour and a half away) and told him about Buddy.  He took the day off from work and was at our house in less than two hours.  We spent the day together.  It’s all sort of a  blur but emotionally so vivid.  Scott had moved away a few years earlier but we remain close to this day.  We have counted on each other during some very difficult seasons.  I love that man. 

Mid morning this army Sergeant comes over.  He is Alexis’ Casualty Assistance Officer.  He explains to her that he is her contact and that he is here for her for what ever she needs for as long as she needs.    Lex is still wondering if there will be an open casket.  He gives her the same answer, could be ten days to two weeks for his remains to get back state side.  He was a nice guy and was a big help.  One big question Lex had was, could they fly Buddy to Oklahoma for a memorial ceremony out there so his friends and family could say good  by?  The Sergeant explains the it is unlikely that the army would approve two services.  Usually they only pay for one but he would make the request.  After he left Lex determined that even if she had to pay for it with the life insurance money she was going to honor Buddy by letting him say goodby to his friends that he had grown up with all of his life.  She wanted him buried here where she and little Cooper could visit him.

Later that morning another army guy comes by.  Buddy and Alexis had taken out some kind of extra policy and he was there to give her a big check for incidental expenses. It was a big check… more than enough to fly Buddy to Oklahoma and back plus to fly our family out there and back as well.

By lunch time our church family began swooping in and taking care of various things.  Man talk about food.  It wasn’t long before our refrigerator was full so we began filling the freezer too.  I don’t know what people do at times like this when they don’t have a close church family.  All I know is things would have been a great deal more  difficult if we had to take care of a lot of the things our church family did.

By afternoon the flowers and plants started arriving.  I’m glad there were people here to handle everything so we just didn’t have to bother with a thing.  We were just being nurtured and loved.  Still numb really.

I got a call about mid-afternoon from another good friend (Tom) I used to go to church with.  He only lives out in the sticks not that far out.  He said he was going to take the next day off and spend it with me… was that okay?  What a great guy.  He is a general contractor who builds multi million dollar homes exclusively on “The Islands” and he never takes a week day off.  What a  blessing it will be to have Tom with me on Wednesday after having Scott with me on Tuesday.

It isn’t until now as I sit writing at this key board that I see how God was weaving that tapestry of protection around my aching heart.

Alexis’ phone rang around six-ish that Tuesday night.  It was her Casualty Assistance Officer notifying her that Buddy’s remains had just landed in Delaware!  Remember our prayer from this morning? 

So at least Buddy was back in the states and he is still escorted by one of his good friends whom Alexis also knows from her year out there in OK.  But will the army fly him out to Oklahoma for a memorial service?



Death at the front door: Part I

August 20, 2008

It had been one of those Mondays so my wife and I went up to bed around nine that night. 

Our daughter and son-in-law had moved back in with us the previous May when his National Guard unit was activated to deploy to Afghanistan.  They had married a little over a year before and moved to Buddy’s small home town of Poteau, Oklahoma so Alexis could get to know his family before he deployed.  It was always in the plans for her to stay with us while he was gone.

Our evening had been pretty uneventful.  Except that Lex mentioned (around six) that she hadn’t heard from Buddy yet and was wondering what was going on.  He would usually call her ever day.   On this particular day he was supposed to call her to let her know which of the pictures he liked best. 

You see Buddy had come home for two weeks leave in November ’06 for the birth of their son Cooper.  He was home a mere two days before his birth.  It’s important to understand that Buddy had never met his father and was determined to be the daddy to his boy that he never had.  He did everything with baby Cooper while he was home.  The two of them were literally inseperable.  One of my favorite memories of him and infant Cooper is, while holding his son, looking into his pretty new born pink skinned face and saying “you are the most beautiful thing in the whole world” then  ever so gently kissing him on his little cheek. 

Back to the pictures… Lex had taken little Cooper down to have his three month old protraits taken (on Saturday) and had emailed them to Buddy and when he called her on Sunday he told her how much Cooper  had changed, how beautiful he was, how much he missed them and couldn’t wait to be home in three months.  He would let her know which ones he liked best the next day (Monday) when he called.

So, any way, we said good night to Lex and her friend Lee as we went off to bed.

It was Monday, February 19th, 2007 at 9:40pm when Lee screemed up the stairs, “Mrs. C, there’s a couple of guys at the front door in green uniforms!!

My wife and I instantly looked at each other and knew this was bad.  Very bad.   We ran down the stairs and there, standing outside of our (all glass) front door were two men in Army dress green uniforms holding a folder in their hands.

Alexis was just frozen about eight feet from the door in the hallway, slightly bent at the waist, clutching her hands to her chest and already saying, no no no no no.  My wife let them in the door and they asked, “Mrs.  Alexis Hughie?”  Yes, my wife responded for her.  Then it came…”On behalf of the United States Army we regret to inform you that your husband, Sergant Buddy James Hughie, has been killed in action.”  “NO, NO, NO, NO IT CAN’T BE TRUE.  IT’S GOT TO BE A MISTAKE.  I LOVE HIM SO MUCH.  WHAT IS COOPER GOING TO DO?  HE DOESN’T HAVE A DADDY ANY MORE!!”  She was just sobbing so hard as she crumpled into a pile of human flesh right there in our foyer.   For the first time in my life I was completely powerless to protect her from unbearable pain and heartache.   Her daddy just had to stand there and let it all unfold.  Her gut wrenching screams and moans haunt me to this day.  My wife immediately called our older daughter who literally lives just around the corner.  In less than two minutes she swooped in the front door and they both wrapped their arms around each other, sobbing on the floor.

I called my pastor and said “Two army guys are here and just told us that Buddy has been killed in action.”  He was at our front door in less than ten minutes.  I was just numb.   It wasn’t long before our home was full of people.  Alexis’ two best friends (Lee & Amy) were now there with her taking turns holding her, rocking her in their arms.

I was out on the front porch now speaking with my pastor and one of the elders of our church… telling them that I should have prayed for him more.  Pastor assurred me that although things seem dark now that God was not surprised by these events, for me not to beat myself up, that Alexis needs me now.

I just can’t write any more now….