The First to Die
Credit: Courtesy the Childers Family
The marine is immaculate. nothing is out of place. The high and tight buzz cut, the dress blues, the blood stripe, the white-white gloves, the green fourragre tassel. His parents stand over his open coffin, crying, holding each other. The body has flown in a steady westward arc from Kuwait to Germany to the military mortuary in Delaware and finally here, to a funeral home in Powell, Wyoming, where on the night before the funeral a private viewing has been arranged for family and friends. The 12-day journey has taken its toll on the corpse. The face sags in the wrong places from dehydration, and looks darker and thinner than anyone remembers. A detail from Marine Casualty Assistance has come from Montana to make sure the remains are "presentable" and that everything is done according to the obsessive Marine protocols. They've seen to it that Childers's uniform is crowded with all the correct ribbons and medals – including his most recent commendation, a Purple Heart.

The Childerses stare and stare. They know it's their son lying before them, but they keep repeating his name aloud as though they're not absolutely sure, as though there's still some chance it's a mistake. Maybe he's still in Iraq, Judy thinks, policing the streets of Baghdad. Maybe he's coming home with the others in his platoon once the long mission is through. Or maybe he's still there on the battleground, in the desert oil fields he helped save, in the first hours of the first full day of the ground war.

The Marine protocol officer hands Judy a few of Shane's personal effects from Iraq. When she holds Shane's watch and ID tag the bottom finally drops out of her emotions and the tears stream down her face. Something about the specificity of the artifacts drives home the reality for Judy. The watch, in a sense, speaks of Shane's belief in precision and training, his obsession with equipment, and of a life of mastery that, despite every precaution, proved vulnerable. "He's really not coming back, is he?" Judy says.

And for just a little while longer, she and her husband hold each other and stare at their son and wail, "Shane. Shane. Shane."