Rendezvous with Destiny

Published 10:32 am Monday, May 30, 2016

Special to the News-Herald

“But we in it shall be remembered, We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, For he today that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle is condition.” William Shakespeare, Henry V

CONWAY – My brother, Will McLawhorn, joined the Army almost right out of high school. When I decided to get my BA in English, he decided to join the military and went off to Fort Benning to begin his Army career.

Sgt. Will McLawhorn, dressed in full combat gear, interacts with an Afghan child. The Conway native was killed in action in December of 2010.  | Photo contributed by McLawhorn family

Sgt. Will McLawhorn, dressed in full combat gear, interacts with an Afghan child. The Conway native was killed in action in December of 2010. | Photo contributed by McLawhorn family

When he graduated he found out that he would be sent off to Fort Campbell, in Clarksville, Tennessee as a Screaming Eagle, 101st Airborne. They are considered America’s Band of Brothers, and the history of the 101st is a rich one, told in the series Band of Brothers.

During my college career at Chowan, my brother went on two tours, the first one to Iraq and the second one to Afghanistan. Afghanistan was a different animal than Iraq was. My brother said on several different occasions that he wished he could go in there and do things differently.

While I was worrying about writing papers and making sure my grades were up, he was searching for Al-Qaeda members and taking classes in using RPG’s and searching for IED’s.

Late on the afternoon of December 12, 2010 my dad knocked on the door. It was a Sunday afternoon, a little cool, but not cold enough for heavy coats. I lived a good 30 miles from my parents in a small town in Bertie County called Kelford. It was unusual for my dad to arrive unannounced, not only because my mother wasn’t with him, but also because it was Sunday. My father is a pastor and usually the kids and I would go to their house on Sunday afternoons for a late lunch or just to get together. His first question struck me as odd, he had never been concerned about my social media accounts before, but that night he wanted to know if I had been on Facebook, Myspace or if I had checked my emails. That’s when I knew. Before my brain had even registered how unusual the whole conversation was, I knew. My father was there to tell me that my brother was dead.

The last conversation I had with my brother was the previous Wednesday. I remember because I called mom to tell her he was on Facebook chat and she should get word to dad who was still at Wednesday night prayer meeting. It’s interesting looking back at how much we depended on this one site to keep us in touch halfway around the world. My brother asked about the kids, how were they doing in school and reminded me to tell Jayden to keep his Xbox safe. It was his way of letting the kids know that he accepted them even though they were not my biological children.

I remember asking him if he was alright and staying safe and his words to me were “Would you believe me if I told you I was alright?” Those were the last words my brother typed to me. The last words my memory would process in his voice. Four days later he was dead. My dad was concerned about my social media accounts that night because in the 30 minutes or so it had taken him to get to my house, Facebook had blown up with the news of Will’s death. He was terrified I would read about it before he could tell me himself.

I had watched the news that morning and saw where American soldiers along with some NATO soldiers had been killed but I hadn’t thought much about it. It is easier to push those thoughts aside when a loved one is there in the middle of it than deal with the reality that he or she may be one of the dead. I remember thinking there was no need to be so upset, he was just hurt and now he would be coming home. The brain and perhaps the heart go into denial before your soul can even begin to process such devastating information.

As I sat on the couch, hugging my father and crying along with him I realized the truth: My baby brother was gone, there was no coming back. There would be no tattoos together when he came home; no Aunt Melanie one day; and no water balloons thrown at me on my wedding day like he always threatened to do. It took only seconds for all of these thoughts to be processed and just as I was about to lose it all and fall apart in my father’s arms I saw Jayden.

The kids were processing this information too. They were seeing adults crying for the first time in their lives. Even if I wanted to fall apart on my daddy’s shoulder like a little girl, I knew I couldn’t. The kids needed me to be strong. They needed to know that even though things were chaotic at the moment, things would be alright. It was what I needed to pull myself together. All of my strength went into not melting into a puddle on the floor and sobbing until I made myself sick. It is amazing how much inner strength you have when you know children are watching, especially when you know it is a moment they will remember for the rest of their lives.

A couple from church had come with daddy so that they could take me to my parents’ house. My dad needed some time to himself. On the ride there, Mrs. Sandra, and her husband, Mr. Kelly, were very polite, talking among themselves and trying very hard to include me in the conversation. All I could do was nod or make these strangled grunting noises. I didn’t want to talk; I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be with my parents alone so that we could process this together. I knew we wouldn’t be alone together for a while though.

I tried to prepare myself for what awaited me in Conway. I knew there would be some people at the house. I knew there would be food and coffee. What I didn’t know was how much the community had already come together.

As we turned on Main Street, I started seeing cars. They were parked in the middle school parking lot, along both sides of the street and in my parents’ back yard. I remember wondering if the whole town was there. As I walked in the house I lost the last shred of strength I had left and became mommy’s little girl again. I all but ran to her and if there hadn’t been so many people in the house I would have. It was her turn to be strong, her turn to call on the inner strength that parents get when something terrible happens. It was her turn to hold me, the only child she had left.

There are entire chunks of memories missing from that Christmas season, and even months before my brother died. A doctor would say that it is a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Mrs. Sandra, the lady who drove me to my parents’ house that night, says it is God’s way of healing and protecting my mind from overload. Whatever you want to call it, all I really remember is snow and silence.

After everyone left that night we all tried to sleep. The first night I spent in my parents’ new house was because of terrorists. No one really slept and we had a plane to catch early in the morning to go to Dover, Delaware to greet my brother’s body as it came home from Afghanistan.

A deacon from church drove us to Norfolk, Virginia to the airport. When we arrived at the airport, it was snowing. I thought about how symbolic that was. I sat in the airport thinking about all of the snowball fights, riding down the front steps of the church on a skim board because we didn’t have a sled and making snow angels. It was oddly comforting. It made things quiet and calmed the voices in our heads screaming in pain. It soothed the wounds and made us all feel like perhaps, somehow, he was watching over us. We talked about these things before we got on the plane. It was the first conversation we had been able to have alone as a family since it had happened.

It was still snowing when we got to Dover. The Army sent an escort to pick us up from the airport and take us to a hotel. That evening, we met with an Army chaplain and some other people who explained to us what would happen and the pomp and circumstance of it all. We were ushered into separate waiting rooms where we would meet with representatives from President Obama, the US Armed Forces Chief of Staff, and the US Army Chief of Staff who would all pass on their condolences for our loss. The representative from the White House didn’t even pretend to understand what we were going through. It was all she could do to keep eye contact and make small talk. I remembered feeling a bit sorry for her and being glad that I didn’t have her job.

There was also a 3 star General, Lt. General Troy, who got the brunt of my father’s emotions. The conversation was mostly one sided as my father began to vent about the current “rules of engagement” that were getting soldiers killed and how the politicians were tying the hands of the troops by not allowing them to protect themselves in a war zone. For example, soldiers are not allowed to shoot women, so the Taliban men will dress in burkas, shoot and then run knowing that our soldiers are powerless to do anything to stop them. Also, if one of them shoots at a soldier and then lowers, or drops his weapon, our Soldiers cannot return fire because the man is considered to be unarmed. My dad made sure to let him know what he thought of the whole situation.

My mom just sat quietly, watching everyone like she was made of porcelain. I think she was trying to hold herself together. Never have I seen my mother so vulnerable and in a matter of seconds I saw my mother’s age, and started to think like a mother. If anything ever happened to the children, would I be able to carry myself with this much dignity and control?

After our little meeting we went to the room. We ate a little and slept some then it was time to go to where the plane would be and to meet other families going through the same thing. My brother’s best friend, who died beside him, would have turned 24 the next day.

The official cause of death was suffocation. Suicide bombers had rigged a van to drive into the building my brother and his team were setting up as an outpost. They waited until dark, when my brother and his team settled down for the night and drove the van into the building as a diversion. While the rest of the team was trying to dig my brother and his best friend out of the rubble, the enemy attacked. Men were being shot at as they tried to save my brother and Deans. Five others died that night, Simonetta left behind a 21-year-old widow. Wright worked through a broken hip and another broke his collarbone trying to dig them out.

My brother tried to prepare us for the possibility that he may not be coming back. He left me his dog tags, and left Jayden his Xbox. My mom told me about phone conversations and letters that they exchanged while he was deployed. How he wanted to make sure that if something were to happen it would not shake her faith. He made sure dad had power of attorney, and left his Ford Lightning with him. At the time we all thought it was a way to save a little money on storage space or a generous offer so that a child could enjoy the games they had played together. Now we know different. Now we know it was so we would always have those memories and keepsakes to remember him by.

It wasn’t until after he died that I found out what the motto of the 101st is. My brother and five others had their Rendezvous with Destiny on that day. We have all learned how to move past that day and let our memories keep him alive.

There are many whose lives have been touched because of my brother and the things he stood for. Even after 5 years there are still videos and pictures of him surfacing on Facebook and occasionally people will drop by my parents’ house to leave something or tell a story of him. There is no doubt in my mind that he knew what he was getting into and that he was where he belonged. He wanted to do what he was doing and he was willing to sacrifice his life for what he believed in. I have asked myself several times if there is something I believe in so much I would be willing to die for it.

We have all moved on in the years since that awful night. This past December marked five years since his death. I graduated and have a job. The kids have grown and Jayden still plays on that old Xbox from time to time. Alicia has a framed picture of her as Cinderella and my brother as her Prince Charming from the last Halloween he was home. My parents have both retired and are enjoying being grandparents and working on all those things you put off until retirement. I don’t think they have ever been this busy.

We all still miss him very much and some days are better than others, but we persevere and keep our heads up knowing that my brother is an American hero.