The light of the sun blinds me, my ears are ringing, and I’m lying on the ground. My eyes begin to focus, the ringing fades, and I see a hand reach out for me and I grasp it. It pulls me up to my feet.
“Welcome to Arlington, Sergeant Gallegos,” he says. He’s wearing an olive drab Army uniform with Master Sergeant rank on his sleeve.
“Uh…Arlington Master Sergeant?” I respond. I swivel my head about, noticing the rows upon rows of symmetrical white headstones.
“Yes, in case you haven’t figured it out—you’re dead,” he says sharply. “By the way, we don’t use rank anymore in the afterlife. I’m Sam,” he says, reaching out and shaking my hand.
“Tony,” I smile. “Dead? Huh? How did I die?”
“In the most glorious of all ways—combat,” he laughs.
“What? I don’t remember getting into a firefight recently.”
“What’s your last memory?”
“Well…I had just stepped off of a Stryker and walked a couple blocks toward our objective and…”
“BOOM!” he bellows. “I-E-fucking-D, motherfucker! And now you’re here with the rest of us KIAs.”
“Fucking A. But my body feels fine.” I begin to check myself out, looking for any injuries and notice that I’m still wearing my uniform and body armor.
“Well, this is the afterlife; of course your body is fine,” he laughs.
“Did any of my men get killed, too?”
“No, you’re the only one who bit it. Sherman and Tran got hurt, but not too bad. Don’t worry, they’re fine.”
“Damn…well at least there’s that,” I sigh.
“Now see over there?” Sam points to a funeral procession. “Your earthly body is right there…or what’s left of it, anyway. It ain’t a pretty sight.”
“That’s my funeral?” I see a group of people, some in black, others in Army Class-A uniforms in front of a casket with an American flag draped over it.
“Yes,” he responds.
I run toward it and see a bunch of familiar faces: my wife, two daughters, mama, friends, and a few men from my unit.
“My god, dear god…my love! My love! Sweet Pea and Cookie! Mama! Mama!” I try to grab ahold of my wife, but I pass through her. I attempt the same with my mama and pass through again. I fall to my knees and begin to cry. “They can’t see me, can they?”
Sam puts his hand on my shoulder. “Roger.”
Cookie, my youngest at age seven, sits on my mama’s lap, crying into her chest. My mama’s holding her close, releasing a storm of tears. My eleven-year-old, Sweet Pea, sits next to my wife, holding her hand tightly, head on her shoulder. My wife’s attempting to hold her composure, yet some tears overpower her and pour down her face.
“Ready, aim, fire,” orders a staff sergeant to the seven soldiers of the rifle party. The first volley is fired.
“Ready, aim, fire.”
“Ready, aim, fire.”
“Present arms,” every man in uniform salutes. “Taps” begins to play.
The casket party folds the flag into a triangle. One of the men walks it over to my family, takes a knee, and presents it to my wife.
“Ma’am, this flag is presented to you on behalf of a grateful nation for the honorable and faithful service displayed by your husband, Sergeant First Class Antonio Gallegos,” he says to her, then stands at attention and salutes her.
The cemetery workers finish shoveling dirt over my grave. My headstone looms.
Apr 20 1977
May 4 2009
My wife, mama, and daughters are alone. I stand right next to them, placing my hands on my loves’ shoulders. Even if I couldn’t feel the warmth of her skin nor she mine, I still felt connected to her. My wife hugs my headstone, caressing the engraving of my name, and giving it a kiss on top.
My dearest Carrie…the love of my life…I’m sorry…
My daughters are on their knees. “Papa, papa…we love you. We love you. Don’t go, don’t go.”
Sweet Pea and Cookie…you two are my light…I wish I didn’t have to…
My mama stands there, running her fingers through my daughters’ hair. “You were my angel, my most precious possession, my gift from God. I’ll miss you, mi niño.”
Mama…you taught me how to be a good man…I love you…
I watch them in silence, wishing I could feel their tender embrace once more. Wishing that I had more time with them. Wishing I wasn’t dead.
They begin to leave and I follow.
“Sorry Tony, but you can’t go with them,” Sam says gently.
“Like hell I can’t.” I begin to sprint after them, yet as fast as I move my feet, I make no progress. I’m running in place as they are getting further and further away from me. “Damn it! What is this?”
“You’re dead, Tony,” Sam reminds me. “You may no longer go among the living. That’s not your place anymore. This is the afterlife and I’m here to help you on this journey.”
I give up running, watching my kin until they disappear. Goodbye my life. I wipe the tears from my face, turn around, and face my fate. “So now what?”
“Follow me,” he says, and we begin walking deeper into Arlington through a forest of headstones.
“So you said, us KIAs…that means you were killed in action also?” I ask.
“Holy shit. What was that like?”
“I couldn’t really tell you. I was shot in the forehead jumping out of a Huey on my first mission,” he says with a smirk.
“But you have Master Sergeant rank on. So you had to been in the Army a while.”
“Oh yeah, seventeen long years. I was also in the Korean War. Made it through a whole year’s deployment in that frozen hellhole without a scratch. Then did the whole peacetime Army thing. Those were some wild times, I’ll tell you what. The first couple of months I was in Vietnam, I was doing a damn staff job. So I didn’t leave the wire much. I was waiting for a First Sergeant slot. Then finally got one. I was supposed to take over a company in a few days. So I decided to shadow one of the company’s First Sergeants on a few missions so I knew what shit to expect. Right as we landed on a hot DZ…BAM…bullet right through my fucking skull. Pretty funny, huh?”
I shake my head. “What’s funny about it?”
“Surviving one long bloody suckfest unscathed, just to be snuffed out quickly in the next one. It’s almost poetic.”
“You can only press your luck so many times, I guess. God knows I have. This last one was…”—I pause and count in my head—“my eighth deployment. Damn, I knew I shouldn’t have reenlisted.”
“Well, you did.”
“Yeah, well, I did have a family to support. Plus, the goddamn economy sucks right now. Those reenlistment bonuses were insanely good.”
“Hey, bud, look at the bright side, at least they’ll get your life insurance money now,” Sam remarks.
“Yeah, that’ll hold them over for a good while. But if you want to know the truth, I just fucking loved the job. Even if it sucked at times, I just loved training my men and going to war.”
“So did I, Tony,” Sam pats me on the shoulder.
“Did you leave a family behind, too?”
“Yeah, an ex-wife and a son. She and I were divorced before I even went to Nam, yet she cried hysterically when she found out about my death. She’s still alive and kickin’. Good woman she is. Pretty as a sunset and sweet as honey. My damn foul temper while drinkin’ chased her away.”
“What about your son?”
“He’s a high school teacher somewhere in California. Has a nice family of his own. He was too young to really know who I was.”
“That’s rough, Sam.”
“That’s life and death, brother. The world will keep spinning without either of us. I’ve been dead longer than I was alive. Whatever impact we were meant to leave on the world is done and now we must be spectators to it all.”
Stone stairs leading up to the sky appear over the grass.
“This leads to heaven?”
“Nah…you wouldn’t want to go there right now anyways. Its kind of lame without your family. I’m taking you somewhere way cooler,” he winks.
“Where is that?”
“Valhalla. You ready?” He grins.