On Patrol

Until every one comes home | The Magazine of the USO

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I am Terry Burgess, and I am a Gold Star Dad.

A Gold Star represents a family member who has given their life in service to their country. My wife, Beth, and I are one of the 6,800 Gold Star Families of the Global War on Terror, so I do not pretend to speak for all of us. Each of our stories is different, but they all have the same tragic beginning, and ours has a unique twist. This is what I’ve been asked to share with you.

After the horrors of September 11, Bryan came to me and told me he wanted to fight back. He wasn’t asking me. He was telling me. My son, who had climbed trees, skinned knees, played sports, drove my old hot rod and teased his little sister, was going to war. He graduated from basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and I remember being a little shocked at the man my son had become in just a few short months.

Soon after, he deployed to Iraq. We celebrated his first homecoming in our new house. His smile lit up the room.

Bryan deployed three times. Each time, he came home to his wife and kids. We celebrated his 29th Birthday at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, before he deployed again. It was Mother’s Day 2010, and Bryan was going to Afghanistan.

Eleven months and one week into his Afghanistan deployment, I dreamed Bryan and I were walking side by side on a dusty, rock-strewn road. He was dressed in full battle gear and he was speaking to me, but I couldn’t hear him. He guided me around a corner and I found myself in an outdoor movie theater. We took our seats and there on the screen was Bryan, standing next to a glass coffin. He stepped into the coffin, lay down and as soon as his helmet touched the satin pillow, he became a little boy. He sat up, stepped out of the coffin and became a warrior again. He gave me a smile, a half salute and then the screen went blindingly white. When I opened my eyes, the seat next to me was empty.

Terry BurgessTerry BurgessI woke up, got out of bed, pulled on my jeans and a shirt and went into Beth’s office to tell her about the odd dream. She was on the phone with our daughter-in-law, Tiffany. Bryan had just been killed in action. 

After the funeral we were left with an urn, a folded flag and a hole in our hearts. I was unemployed at the time, and now my life was completely shattered. As the days and weeks went on, I could barely get out of bed, and when I did it was only to drink and to self-medicate.

Then Beth got a phone call from the chaplain who had escorted Bryan home. He said he had some film of Bryan that he was going to send to a movie producer and he wanted our permission. The film was created from live footage recorded in Afghanistan by ABC Correspondent Mike Boettcher and his son, Carlos. They had been embedded with the troops. The film was going to be called The Hornet’s Nest and it included footage of Operation Strong Eagle III, in which Bryan was killed. Beth graciously complied. A few weeks later, we got a phone call from David Salzberg, Jr., the film’s producer. He wanted to meet us so we could see the film. We drove to Dallas with no clue about what we were about to witness.

Ninety minutes after David hit play on the DVD player in his hotel room, we sat in stunned silence. Turning off the DVD player, he sat down and patiently waited for us to dry our tears before asking, “What do you think?” 

He wanted our approval to go ahead with the production of the film. We gave it to him without hesitation because we had just seen Bryan on screen, talking about his children and how much he missed them. We had just seen things that Bryan had never—and never would have—told us about. We had just seen his entire unit being attacked by these unseen forces and how his unit reacted to the radio calls that their brothers were falling in battle.

We had just seen heroics on an epic scale.

David could not have possibly known it then, but he and The Hornet’s Nest team, had just saved my life. Mike Boettcher and his son had given me a precious gift. They had given Bryan’s children a legacy—a chance to hear Daddy say their names again and to see what he did and why he died. 

In the next few months, we attended several screenings of the film across the country—even hosting one in my hometown. Every time we saw the film, it felt like our hearts were being torn apart. Some family members attended one of these screenings. Afterward they asked me, “Why do you do this to yourselves? Why do you torture yourselves by showing this over and over?”

The answer to that question was the question I asked myself as I looked at Bryan’s flag-draped coffin, “How can I possibly live up to my son’s sacrifice?”

This is how—by sharing Bryan's story with you. By doing what I think Bryan was trying to tell me in my dream. Bryan wants me to celebrate his life, understand his sacrifice and enjoy my freedom—not mourn the loss of my little boy. That innocent little boy died when he became a soldier.

As much as I ache to, I cannot rewrite the ending of The Hornet’s Nest, but I have been able to rewrite how I handle Bryan’s sacrifice. A terrible weight has been lifted by being able to share Bryan’s story and The Hornet’s Nest with you. It’s not just about Bryan or the other five warriors killed that morning, or even the other 6,800 Gold Star Families of this, the longest war in American history. The Hornet’s Nest is about anyone who has ever served in the armed forces.

It’s about knowing why you are thanking a veteran for their service and about knowing the cost of being able to live without fear.

It’s about the cost of freedom.