I met Omer Hawkins in 2000, when I had transferred from the C Company to the Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 37th Engineer Battalion. I didn't know what to make of him at first... a short guy, a chain smoker like the rest of us, with a grating voice that reflected his pack-a-day-plus habit.
He loved the Army and what it had afforded him. Maybe a little too much. When we first started talking, he was on his way out. He wanted to go overseas again... he felt that being in the Army was about being somewhere... anywhere but here, I guess. He wanted to go to Ranger School and a ton of other schools, too. For some reason, the Army wouldn't let him. So, he and I usually talked about what we planned on doing when we got out. He's where I found out about the North Carolina small business start-up loans. You see, he wanted to open up a small vintage bookshop. As I'd come to find out, that was typical Omer. He was very interested in literature, history, art in general... a veritable warrior-poet, one could say. Seriously, because of his interests and his stature, you would wonder what the Hell he was doing in the Army in the first place. But that was Omer... a soldier to the last. Art be damned.
His name was Omer, but we called him Tom. I guess that was his middle name. Regrettably, I have no idea. Although I knew him fairly well, it was only because of work. I had other friends, Dan and Tony, who really hung out with him. Through them I knew Tom liked comic books, liked an occasional game of Dungeons & Dragons. He was eccentric. But, like smoking, so were we all.
Tom died on October 14, 2004. He was killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb along with two others. Because Tom being Tom, or Omer being Omer, he had reenlisted and gone back to Korea. When he got there, the 44th Engineer Battalion deployed to Iraq. The first time a unit from Korea would deploy in decades. He was a part of history.
I don't know why I'm writing about him now, almost two years later, but I guess it's no secret that those who have served are often swept by a feeling of nostalgia for the military. I guess today was my day to really think about what I had done during my enlistment. That, and I never really got over the fact that I didn't find out about Tom's death until the day before his funeral... I couldn't make it... and I NEVER miss a funeral. It's called respect. But his was to be the first.
I still have friends that won't face his death. It's too real, too close to home. People often think of soldiers as cold-blooded killers, or, at least, as people who are trained to be... but we're no different than anybody else. Death hits us the same way it hits the rest of society. Some of us can take it, some of us can't. Some of us wait to deal with a friend's death for two years, some of us never deal with it. What do you expect?
There's only one thing I know for sure... I wish to God that Tom would have opened his fucking bookstore.
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