I found out that my brother, Sgt. Ryan M. Campbell, was dead during a graduate seminar on April 29.
Immediately after a uniformed officer knocked at my mother's door to deliver the message that broke her heart, she called me on my cellphone. She could say nothing but, "He's gone." I could say nothing but, "No." Over and over again we chanted this refrain to each other over the phone as I made my way across the country to hold her as she wept.
I had made the very same trip in February, cutting classes to spend my brother's two weeks' leave from Baghdad with him. Little did I know then that the next time I'd see him would be at Arlington National Cemetery.
During those days in February, my brother shared with me his fear, his disillusionment and his anger. "We had all been led to believe that Iraq posed a serious threat to America as well as its surrounding nations," he said. "We invaded expecting to find weapons of mass destruction and a much more prepared and well-trained Republican Guard waiting for us. It is now a year later, and alas, no weapons of mass destruction or any other real threat, for that matter."
Ryan was scheduled to complete his one-year assignment to Iraq on April 25. But on April 11, he e-mailed me to let me know not to expect him in Atlanta for a May visit, because his tour of duty had been involuntarily extended. "Just do me one big favor, OK?" he wrote. "Don't vote for Bush. No. Just don't do it. I would not be happy with you."
I listened to President Bush's live, televised speech at the Republican National Convention. He spoke to me and my family when he announced, "I have met with parents and wives and husbands who have received a folded flag, and said a final goodbye to a soldier they loved. I am awed that so many have used those meetings to say that I am in their prayers to offer encouragement to me. Where does strength like that come from? How can people so burdened with sorrow also feel such pride? It is because they know their loved one was last seen doing good. Because they know that liberty was precious to the one they lost. And in those military families, I have seen the character of a great nation: decent, and idealistic and strong."
This is my reply: Mr. President, I know that you probably still "don't do body counts," so you may not know that more than 1,000 U.S. troops have died doing what you told them they had to do to protect America.
Ryan was number 832. Liberty was, indeed, precious to the one I lost — so precious that he would rather have gone to prison than back to Iraq in February.
Like you, I don't know where the strength for "such pride" on the part of people "so burdened with sorrow" comes from. Maybe I spent it all holding my mother as she wept.
I last saw my loved one at the Kansas City airport, staring after me as I walked away. I could see April 29 written on his sad, sand-chapped and sunburned face.
I could see that he desperately wanted to believe that if he died, it would be while "doing good," as you put it. He wanted us to be able to be proud of him.
Mr. President, you gave me and my mother a folded flag instead of the beautiful boy who called us "Moms" and "Brookster." But worse than that, you sold my little brother a bill of goods.
Not only did you cheat him of a long meaningful life, but you cheated him of a meaningful death.
You are in my prayers, Mr. President, because I think that you need them more than anyone on the face of the planet. But you will never get my vote.
So to whom it may concern: Don't vote for Bush. No. Just don't do it. I would not be happy with you.
Brooke Campbell of Kirksville, Mo., is an Emory University graduate student. This column originally appeared in the Emory Wheel student newspaper.
© 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution