Images courtesy: Courtney Helton Photography & Video
Moments after making the most difficult decision of her life, Crissie Carpenter thought she heard her husband's voice, softly whispering in her ear.
"It is what it is," he said.
A simple saying, it was also Lance Cpl. Andrew Carpenter's favorite. And it gave comfort to his wife, eight months pregnant, as she made the crushing choice to remove him from life support from roughly 4,500 miles away, unable to fly to Germany with her due date so near.
"I told his mom to hold his hand and that I didn't want to be on the phone when it happened," the Marine's widow told The Unknown Soldiers. "I spoke to him three different times — they put the phone up to his ear for me."
Five days earlier, on Valentine's Day 2011, the love of Crissie's life was shot through the neck by an enemy sniper in Afghanistan. It was a tragic moment that her husband knew was coming, as evidenced by their final conscious phone call, which occurred three weeks before he was shot.
"We said 'I love you' 20 times before hanging up on that last phone call because I wouldn't say goodbye," Crissie said. "I have a feeling that he knew."
Andrew, 27, told his wife that he was often at the front of combat patrols while serving in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. He fought valiantly, but was also deeply worried about what would happen to his wife and unborn son, Landon, after he was killed.
I hope the events of Feb. 28 in Columbia, Tenn., put the fallen hero's fears to rest. On that gray, somber Monday, I witnessed a city of 38,000 stand shoulder to shoulder with the Carpenters in a seminal display of genuine compassion and resounding patriotism. The funeral home's chapel and overflow room were packed beyond capacity. Thousands of citizens, including children and the elderly, stood in the cold mist to salute the hometown Marine's funeral procession.
"It means so much to me," Crissie wants her fellow Tennesseans to know. "Andy was a hero — he is a hero. Having everyone's support, even people I don't know, it makes you stronger. It's indescribable."
In a memorial service full of touching moments, I learned about how Andrew, himself a child at heart, adored kids. He still collected action figures, even keeping the harmless secret from his wife. He loved to play soccer with his nephew, Caleb, an activity he missed deeply in Afghanistan, where millions of children still suffer in the shadows of terrorism.
"He loved kids, and I really liked that about him," Crissie said. "He had a great, awesome personality — a very nice, genuine person. I never heard him say anything mean about anyone."
The only comforting aspect of the last three weeks' devastating events is that Andrew got a head start on meeting his little boy.
"He isn't here yet," Crissie poignantly wrote of baby Landon in his father's funeral program. "Right now he's still in heaven with Andrew."
I asked Crissie what she would tell Landon about his dad.
"I want him to know how excited (Andrew) was about him, what happened in Afghanistan and why his father is a hero," she responded. "When he writes a school paper about who his hero is, I want him to write 'my dad.'
"The simple fact of knowing what type of person Andy was, I think, will make Landon a better person, too," Crissie continued.
The last song played at the celebration of Andrew's life was Sarah McLachlan's 'Angel,' which brought about 500 people, from battle-tested Marines to funeral home employees, to an authentic moment of reflection.
"You are pulled from the wreckage
Of your silent reverie
You're in the arms of the angel
May you find some comfort here."
"Prayer and God are the main things getting me through this," Crissie said. "I feel at peace with the way it was supposed to be."
To sum up this overwhelming post-9/11 ordeal of tragedy, selflessness, bravery and sacrifice, Crissie Carpenter returned to her husband's motto.
"It is what it is."
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Note: Contributions to "Landon's Fund" can be made at any Regions Bank in middle Tennessee.