Sunday, August 12, 2007

Travis Bachman laid to rest

A pale woman stares at the broad expanse of sky and braces for the moment when she will at last have proof her husband is dead.

She clutches her 8-month-old daughter, Kaleigh. In her hand, she holds a wad of tissue.

"The plane is here," crackles a two-way radio, breaking a silence that stretches along the tarmac at Garden City Regional Airport and hangs over the 100 people watching Amber Bachman face her greatest fear.

The whine of engines cuts through the crowd on the runway as a small white jet taxies. The cargo door opens, and the flag-draped coffin of Sgt. 1st Class Travis Bachman emerges.

That's when the sobbing begins.

Eight days earlier, Amber sits in a conference room at the Finney County District Attorney's office where she works and wonders if she's going to be fired.

It's mid-morning, and out of the blue her supervisor Shelly¬?Pfenninger has said they need to meet privately for a six-month review.

Pfenninger doesn't seem herself, though, and Amber notices tears in her eyes.

Then, she sees them. Two uniformed men.

They walk into the room to give her unbearable, impossible news. And she doesn't want to hear it.

She flings her glasses from her face, and they skid along the table.

"No, don't tell me. This can't be happening," she screams. "No. No. No."

Word of Travis' death had arrived in Topeka early that morning. Before Amber and her two children had awakened,¬?Commander Sgt. Scott Haworth and Lt. Col. Larry Parrish began driving to Garden City.

Now, the two soldiers wait patiently to give Amber time to accept the news.

"You need to listen to what they have to say," Pfenninger tells her.

But Amber knows she won't remember their words, and she asks Pfenninger to listen for her.

The men explain Travis Bachman had been driving a vehicle when an improvised explosive device hit it.

"He wouldn't be driving," She grasps at one thread of hope that maybe they have confused Travis with someone else.

But, they haven't.

The information is sketchy. She learns Spec. Robert Ortiz, Travis' friend from Garden City, who had been on the mission with him, will be escorting her husband home. She clings to that small comfort, and that the casualty assistance officer, Tom Nelson, assigned to her family, has known Travis since high school.

Nelson had just returned from Iraq in June, but he'd never had this kind of responsibility before.

"What a job," he would say later, shaking his head.

Nelson will see to all the details of getting Travis back to Garden City, but for right now, they can't tell her where Travis is or when he will be home again.

Eight to 10 days, they say.

And so, the waiting begins.

The door to the Bachman home begins to revolve with visitors. Amber's church family lavishes her with large pans of sloppy Joes and Mexican stew. Others bring hugs.

With a cell phone in her hand, she disappears frequently to answer calls. It's the same phone that became her lifeline to her husband in Iraq, along with the e-mails the two shared.

They last spoke two days before he was killed. Travis was excited their replacements had arrived. After a year overseas, he was due home in two weeks.

Many of the visitors find their way to Amber's kitchen, and it's there, around her table, that Amber reveals she's learned more details about Travis' death.

She had spoken to a Col. Maj. Gonzalez in Iraq, and jotted notes on a folded sheet of paper.

Travis had been heading back to a forward operating base in a new Assault Security Vehicle, which is supposed to be indestructible, to withstand anything, she read in a voice devoid of emotion.

"But, this explosion from a roadside bomb was like none they had ever seen before. While four soldiers were in the vehicle, Travis was the only fatality.

"The medic who pulled him out knew there was nothing they could do. More than likely it was an instant death."

She repeats the story to neighbors when they stop by to pay their respects. Though brief in details, it offers something tangible.

And it provides comfort because he didn't suffer.

As the house fills to brimming, Amber is both glad she doesn't have to be alone and yearning for sanctuary.

She slips away to Travis' room for a respite. She didn't intend it, but the room has become a shrine to her husband. The walls are covered with a military border. There is a lighted curio case that displays a collection of souvenirs from his peacekeeping mission to Kosovo, as well as some of his commendations.

"Those are just half of them," she says of his medals. Then her face lights up for the first time all night, when she says, "I'm probably the proudest military wife."

As she checks her messages on the computer in the corner of

the room, her 4-year-old son, Tyler, comes in. He points to a soldier in a helmet on the border and announces, "That's my dad."

For Tyler, dad and soldier are one and the same.

He sits down on the soft leather couch and as he swallows his first mouthful of homemade ice cream, he looks to the person next to him and softly asks, as if he needs reminding, "Who died?"

Like the adults around him, Tyler still can't grasp the news he was given Wednesday from a military chaplain, who knelt at his level, looked him in the eye, and said, "Some bad guys killed your dad in Iraq."

Amber finds herself in Travis' room, where Nelson shares some much-needed news.

A war mother's flag hangs above their heads. It has a blue star that symbolizes someone in the home is serving in the military. A yellow star will be added, a symbol of casualty in war.

"The body is viewable," he says. A collective sigh is heaved by the family. "Also, tentatively, the body will be here Thursday."

"I want it to look like him," Amber says. "I want it to be the Travis I remember."

What if she can't see his dimples, she wonders.

"I fell in love with those dimples," she said.

In September 2002, Travis and Amber had a whirlwind courtship. She was 19; he was 25 and heading to Kosovo for his peacekeeping mission.

Travis didn't want to go without being married.

He came home from Ft. Riley on leave, and within a week they had planned a wedding in the gazebo at Finnup Park.¬?

There was no time for a honeymoon before Amber moved to

Ogden, outside Fort Riley, and he headed overseas.

"I'm so used to being alone," Amber says, picking at the dry skin on the palms of her hands.

It was June when her hands began to dry and crack and her nerves began to take a toll on her body. That's also when Travis called from Iraq saying he was really sick.

He got better, but Amber's stress didn't. It became one little thing after another at home. The anticipation of his return was countered by the air-conditioning going out in the house. His big white Dodge truck in the driveway needed a new transmission. His Catahoula cow dog was forever getting loose and picked up by animal control.

Her hands continued to itch, then crack and peel. It moved on to her feet, stress-induced eczema.

Sitting crossed-legged on her large bed, head bent to hold a cell phone in the crook of her neck, long waves of thick blond hair falling in front of her face, she pets the family cat and talks to Travis' roommate in Iraq.

When she first heard the news of her husband's death, there was no communication from the base in northern Iraq -- it was in lockdown mode, so word didn't get out before the family was officially informed.

That had passed, and now his buddies in Iraq were calling her, devastated, grieving. They needed to talk to her just as much as she needed to talk to them.

"They aren't taking it well," she said.

Travis' roommate, Tyler Antrim from Liberal, reminded her that when the unit returned, her children would have an overwhelming number of uncles to care for them.

Travis hadn't wanted to go back to Iraq that last time he was home, longing for more time with his family.

"He felt like a bad father because he wasn't home with his kids," Amber said. "He didn't want to miss another of Tyler's birthdays. He didn't want to miss another holiday.

"He loves the military life," she said, speaking as if he were still alive. "But it's too hard on the family."

Days seem to be suspended in time. Any semblance of a routine is lost as Amber continues to wait for Thursday to arrive.

Monday always meant getting Tyler and Kaleigh to her parents and moving back into the workweek. She calls the office and asks Shelly if she should come to work.

Certainly not, Shelley says.

There are too many details to be taken care of, a plethora of papers Tom Nelson needs signed, papers to ensure she and the children receive government benefits.

Funeral plans need to be finalized now that it was certain Travis will arrive in Garden City on Thursday.

"What's my daddy's dead name?" Tyler asks his mom as he plays with a pen and paper.

"It's still Travis," Amber says, caught off guard by the unusual question. Everything is unusual now.

"I'm so lost," she said. "It's not real yet."

They had a plan, a vision of life together for the four of them. It was to begin when Travis flew out of Iraq on Aug. 17, with that mission completed. The unit would spend maybe three days in Kuwait and three days at Camp Shelby in Mississippi.

"We were talking a week ago about our futures," she said softly, so as not to disturb a sleeping Kaleigh. "He was going to be in the active guard and get a business degree. I told him I had made a decision to go to law school."

Now, as she cradles her young daughter in the darkened room, she can no longer see that far into the future. She just wants to make it to Thursday.

As the door of the hearse closes, the flag-draped coffin is visible.

More than 120 Patriot Guard and Legion Riders fall in line behind the funeral entourage, catching motorists along U.S. Highway 50 by surprise.

Vehicles pull over to the side of the road in respect. Inside a shiny motor coach, with out-of-state tags, people can be seen solemnly watching the procession, perhaps amazed at how one Kansas town, a minuscule dot on a world map, is welcoming home its fallen hero.

They don't see the soldier's young widow, who has finally met her worst fear, and is just beginning the long ride ahead.

From the Garden City Telegram

Related Link:
Travis Bachman remembered by wife

Related Link:
Travis S. Bachman reported killed in Iraq