…Always a Marine
By JUSTIN HILL
THE SMALL LINE OF CARS was finally led out onto the tarmac at Des Moines International Airport, lining up single file along a chain-linked fence, as luggage and small boxes from the United Airlines Boeing 757 – its dark gray top matching the shade of the shiny, wet tarmac – were unloaded onto a conveyor belt after the plane arrived from Denver, later than its scheduled time that Tuesday afternoon, April 8.
The rain didn’t let up and neither did the cold, as more than a dozen of Lance Corporal Cody Wanken’s family and friends, surrounded by Marines and Patriot Guard Riders – the Wankens were grateful to both for being there for the next three days – waited and shivered outside an outer building on the airport’s southeast side, knowing that their world was about to fall apart again.
“How many times have we stood out in the rain and cold at football games?” Cody’s mom, Sue, asked through a smile before being hit again by the wall of intense grief that came in waves, making her squishy-faced, as Cody would say, all over again and again.
One by one family and friends, who might as well be family, emerged from the line of vehicles – mostly SUVs filled to capacity, almost to fill them with so much love and support that it could squeeze out the reality of that plane and that hearse and those eight white-gloved Marines in dress blues marching to line up, four on each side at the front of the conveyor belt, in front of that open cargo door.
The family stood quiet, motionless, waiting, facing the plane. A Blue Star Mother held a dark blue and gold Navy umbrella, shielding Sue and Rick, Cody’s father, from the rain and little else, while both Sue and Rick clung to Andy and Brittany, Cody’s older siblings, and Zach, his youngest, who was supposed to spend the coming weekend with Cody in San Diego.
Brian Sutter, as close as one can be to the family without sharing blood, stood next to them with his hands in his pockets, his chin quivering. He was wearing sunglasses that dull, bitter afternoon. He wasn’t hiding anything. There was no hiding what was happening behind those shades. It was for Cody, because day or night, inside or out, he donned his dark sunglasses with the wide bows more often than not, saying: “The sun never goes down in Cool Town.”
But there was no sun on the tarmac. Only a family waiting, staring at the blackness inside the cargo door.
ALMOST A WEEK EARLIER, about a quarter after 2 p.m. on Wednesday, April 2, Sue had hamburger cooking on the stove for church, a sink full of dishes and someone at the front door. People dropped in all the time, lots of them, coming in the side door and the back door, just steps away from the garage that was home to the famous garage parties where Cody was the center of attention, as he was in most places. But no one ever came to the front door.
Before Cody left for the Marines two years ago after graduating from high school early, he sat down with his brothers and sister individually, telling them to not worry, being a Marine was his life’s goal. He also told his family that if ever they saw five Marines and a chaplain at the door, he was gone.
“In Cody’s world,” Sue said, “that’s just the way it was.”
Just outside the front door that Wednesday stood five Marines and a chaplain. Sue went numb.
She told herself if she didn’t open the door, it wasn’t real. But it wasn’t a dream. It was the beginning of a nightmare.
“Cody’s dead!” she yelled, opening the door, but Major Philip Farr, who would speak at LCpl Wanken’s funeral eight days later, only asked if her husband was home or if he was close. Another two Marines asked if they could finish cooking the hamburger or wash the dishes.
Cody had just talked to Sue and Andy the night before, as he did several times each week, then chatted with his roommate at Wounded Warrior Battalion-West at Camp Pendleton in San Diego for a while after that and nothing seemed wrong.
But after Sue called Rick, and after waiting for him to make the drive from Dumont back to Hampton that seemed much longer than 13 miles, they were asked to sit down. Major Farr knelt in front of them, hands were held and they were told, very respectfully, that Cody was found unresponsive that morning at 5:40 after he strangely didn’t report for roll call.
“Then the whirlwind started,” Sue said.
They were also told the Marines were investigating, a process that could take up to six months, a process that doesn’t matter much anyway since it won’t bring their son back.
Brian, who had known Cody since he was a five-year-old with a Kool-Aid mustache, had finished hanging dry wall in Geneva early that day and had just sat down on the couch when he got a call from Andy not too long after 3 p.m. “We lost Dobes,” Andy said, referring to Cody by the nickname he got when Brittany, as a toddler, couldn’t say “Cody.”
Brian didn’t hear and asked Andy to repeat it. “No really, we lost Dobes.” A couple minutes later, Brian was hugging Sue’s mother, Grandma Brooks, on the Wanken’s back deck, then found Sue and Rick on the couch in the living room.
“What are we going to do?” Sue asked, knowing there was no answer, but still searching for one, giving Brian a tight “Mama Sue” hug, one of many she gave out over the next eight days.
Cody – a dog handler with the 2nd Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, the 3/5 being the most decorated in the Marine Corps – had been injured in Fallujah, Iraq, last September. He had curled up with Seibert, his improvised explosive device-sniffing black lab, and fell asleep before being hit by an Iraqi insurgent bullet that entered near his left ear and exited an inch above his Adam’s apple.
The next thing Cody knew, he had tears in his eyes, wondering where he was, why his mouth was wired shut and why his parents were standing there in front of him. He was at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., having been transferred there from Landstuhl, Germany, where he had already had three surgeries. The Marines had flown his parents out and put them up for almost two months, while paying all their bills through the Semper Fi Fund.
Cody’s pain had become excruciating recently – a functional 20 on a pain scale of 1-10, one doctor said – and after a series of surgeries, he still had three major surgeries to go. His jaw was full of hairline fractures and was deteriorating, giving him intense migraines. It was going to be replaced with a prosthetic. His ear canal and eardrum were going to be worked on and his ear that was mostly gone after the bullet ripped it away was going to get skin-graphed.
But Cody was in great shape from the neck down, worked out religiously, bulked up to 240 pounds, adding 25 pounds of muscle onto his 6-foot-2 all-district defensive end frame since high school, six-pack abs and all. He was always asking if those around him had bought tickets yet. “Tickets to what,” they’d ask. “The gun show,” he’d say as he flexed and flashed his patented, wide Cody smile.
He had been able to bring the party from Iowa to Iraq, and despite his headaches and occasional memory loss from his injury, to Maryland and the Wounded Warrior Battalion-West on Camp Pendleton in California with a contagious zest for life and compassion and service. He felt strong and couldn’t understand why he couldn’t go back to his unit and his dog in the Sandbox.
“If he was more sick,” Sue said, “we might have been more prepared.”
THE LUGGAGE AND SMALL BOXES had all been unloaded from the plane and the baggage carts had been driven away and the hearse took its place in front and to the side of the conveyor belt.
Now there was only silence. The 757’s idling engines might as well have been shut off. The hum from the working of the state’s busiest airport might as well have been hushed. And if the world hadn’t already stopped spinning, it was about to. Then it was about to fall.
A red and white sliver of a corner of the American flag, tucked neatly around LCpl Wanken’s casket, came into view in the darkened cargo bay. Screams pierced the vacuum of silence. Reality took hold. For a week, the family knew, but all they had to hold on to were words. At that moment, as the two Marines inside the cargo bay struggled to bring the casket around and a baggage handler in his bright yellow jump suit – a stark contrast to his surroundings – scampered up the conveyor belt to help, Cody died all over again. The screams, the kind that once you hear them you never forget them, said so.
“We had to get him back home to believe it,” Rick said. But at that moment on the tarmac, the pain was almost unbelievable, almost unbearable.
Umbrellas, seemingly almost self-indulgent, covered only Rick and Sue, and the rain washing down the faces of the family couldn’t mask salty tears.
“Watching the Marines walk under the plane and take out Cody’s casket killed me,” said Troy Potter, Cody’s best friend since first grade, who Cody would call from wherever he was, sometimes multiple times a week, at one or two in the morning and ask if Troy was partying like a rock star.
Exactly five months earlier, Brian – who spent four years in Marine intelligence, and once a Marine, always a Marine – drove to Des Moines International to pick up Rick, Sue and Cody. They were flying in from Maryland on the same day Brittany graduated from La’James College in Mason City. Cody was staying in Hampton for the next month or so before going to California. The next day was Brian’s birthday, his best ever, he said. The following day was the birthday of the Marine Corps. He waited in baggage claim for more than an hour after a mix-up on the arrival time, but the pay-off was laying eyes on Cody, smiling like always, riding down the escalator and bringing him home. Five months later, he drove the Wankens’ white Chevy Tahoe back to the airport.
The four Marines on each side slowly raised their arms to salute the fallen hero, holding that salute as Cody rode down the conveyor belt until they lifted him into the hearse, slowly saluting him again.
There was anticipation during the ride to the airport. Rick and Sue were finally going to bring their son home after nearly a week – the entire process from Cody’s death to his burial stretched for nine days – when most parents would have been able to bury their child, and say goodbye, three or four days ago. But things got heavier the closer they came to Des Moines.
“The hardest thing was the airplane,” Rick said, “but it was satisfying to bring him home.”
Governor Chet Culver, wearing a green flight jacket, huddled with Cody’s family in the stall of a storage building, leading them in a prayer, presenting them with a state flag that had flown over the capitol and a proclamation stating that Cody is a hero. Two Marines stood guard at the back of the hearse, arms behind their backs, feet a Marine shoulder-width apart. The red and white of Cody’s flag was visible through the water beading up on the back window. The governor, who the Wankens were honored to share that moment with, then gave the state patrol instructions to get the family home, they’d been through enough. Moments later, a line of mostly SUVs, led by a state trooper and a couple Patriot Guard Riders right behind and bringing up the rear, were clocking 85 mph most of the 90 soggy miles north up I-35 back to Hampton.
“What Wanken boy wouldn’t love speeding down the road,” said Sue, a sense of peace having come over her along the way home because she had her son back. “It made me feel good. The kid was speeding down the road one more time.”
“Legally,” Rick added.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Keith Lattman and Sergeant Matt Scott woke up at 3:30 that morning, made sure LCpl Wanken was on the plane in San Diego, then escorted him back to Iowa, changing planes in Denver, getting off first as the plane’s captain made the announcement that they were escorting Lance Corporal Cody Wanken back home.
CWO2 Lattman and Sgt Scott heard a Semper Fi or two from those passengers who were asked to remain seated, who could see what was going on below their windows, but the two Marines had never seen anything like the respect and gratitude and patriotism Hampton put on display. It got to them, past their hardened Marine exterior.
It was about 45 minutes after Greg Webb of Iowa Falls, who had lost his brother in Desert Storm and was another member of the Patriot Guard Riders, pulled his Harley into the processional just after Ames, even though members were asked not to ride their bikes because of the weather and a chance of snow.
The Patriot Guard Riders are a nation-wide group of mostly veterans whose pledge is “Standing by those who stood for us.” They are a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who formed out of necessity to defend against the startling reality of military funeral protesters. The riders travel sometimes great distances to stand guard on the perimeter until the body is laid to rest.
“I just had to ride,” Webb said.
And it was at the end of the processional that saw more and more cars pulling over out of respect the closer Cody got to Franklin County. It was there, at Cody’s destination, where much of Cody’s legacy will remain, that Hampton wore its heart – beating read, white and blue and touched by war for the first time since Vietnam almost 40 years before – on its sleeve.
Kiwanians had decked out Highway 3 in American flags like they do every Memorial Day or Fourth of July, and people lined the street, some waving flags of their own.
But one of the lasting images from all those three days was the first one the processional saw as it came into Hampton. A lone elderly veteran stood at the entrance of the Seabee parking lot on the west edge of town, feet together, back straight, head held high, left arm straight at his side, right arm raised in a sturdy salute.
“We don’t see things like this in California,” the two Marines told the Wankens. “We only see protesters.” There were no protesters this time.
The family never appreciated Hampton more than it did in those moments.
“The flag-draped casket was a rush of emotion,” Brian said, “then there was coming home and seeing people line the streets and the gentleman saluting. People took a few minutes to pay respect to a fallen hero and we will never forget that. It blew us all away.”
The fallen hero would have appreciated it, too.
“Cody would have been so proud of everything today,” Sue said through tears that covered a squishy face after hugging members of the American Legion who greeted the family at Sietsema-Vogel Funeral Home. “His buttons would have been busting.”
CODY LIVED FAST. He had to to cram it all in 20 years and make the kind of impact and leave the kind of legacy he did. He saw what he wanted, did what he wanted, lived how he wanted, having already accomplished the biggest goals he set for his life – playing football and becoming a Marine – one of a select few members of that club.
He was always smiling, always laughing. Turning boredom into a party.
But he was more than just a big smile. He was a big heart.
He was a protector, bringing home wayward frogs and raccoons when he was little, even a box full of opossums, whose mother was dead on the highway. Then there was that snapping turtle Rick had to talk him out of making a home for. Cody loved animals, which helped him make the decision to become a dog-handler.
He was a protector, taking care of bullies in the school hallway, taking care of his friends, taking care of his family, making sure Zach was included in the garage parties, much the same way Andy made sure Cody was included.
But there was that time when Brittany returned the favor, a time when a girl was mistreating Cody at a recent Summerfest downtown. “I had to step in,” she said.
Even after he graduated from Hampton-Dumont in 2006, with a class that is paying to have Cody’s name engraved on the Franklin County war memorial, he’d drop in at the school to hassle a staff or faculty member or two.
Cody played football the way he played life. All out. His mantra, “I love football!” was always on his lips, said in a way to parody the sentiments of an inarticulate lineman, a big ugly. Football was the only other thing he wanted to do as badly as he wanted to be a Marine. Cody – who went to this year’s Super Bowl and asked anyone who would listen, “Did you see me?” – was fifth on the team in tackles during his senior season. He also caught seven passes, one for a touchdown. The numbers weren’t great and neither was his talent, but he had turned himself from a defensive end and tight end with mediocre skills, into an impact player.
He didn’t need to turn himself into a leader, though. He was born that way. When he needed to keep a level head, even then, it came easy for him.
H-D trailed at second-ranked AGWSR, 14-10, with 80 yards to drive and just over four minutes to do it during the second week of Cody’s senior season. Staring at a fourth-and-two from the Cougars’ 22-yard line with about 30 seconds to go, the Bulldogs called timeout and head coach Jerry Shafrath went to address his players.
As Shafrath, who retold the story from behind red eyes at Cody’s funeral, was walking away from the huddle before a play that could be pointed to as the turnaround of the H-D football program, Cody yelled to him. “Hey, coach,” he said, as Shafrath spun around. “I love football!” Then Cody smiled.
Troy – an honorary pallbearer at Cody’s funeral, who muscled his way through his address to his best friend that Thursday morning at the H-D High School gym – hauled in a 22-yard pass from quarterback Ben Hansen, also an honorary pallbearer, on that fourth-down play with 21 seconds left, for a 17-14 win.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was say goodbye to my best friend,” said Troy, who Sue calls a true brother to Cody. Before he got up at the funeral to walk to the stage, passing Cody on the way, he asked his friend to be with him. “I felt him,” Troy said. “He helped me through it. I think he helped make me into the man I am today. We went through some not-so-good times, but we both got through it and it formed us into the people we are.”
That weekend, Troy and Jacob Johansen, simply known as “Farmer,” each got a tattoo in honor of their close friend. Jacob’s is on his forearm and Troy’s is on his chest, covering his heart.
About two-and-a-half years after that touchdown pass, Troy and Ben hooked up again, standing at the back of the sanctuary at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, doing their best to console each other as a Marine stood guard next to Cody’s open casket, less than 22 yards away, during Cody’s visitation the day after his family brought him home.
Across the way, past the pews, Cody’s No. 9 home jersey, the same number Andy wore and Zach, a senior next season, now wears, rested on a hanger, its shoulders scarred from those Friday nights in the trenches, like the one in Ackley.
THE GUARD, with LCpl Wanken to its left, on the other side of the candle and the rosary beads, changed every 10 minutes. One white-gloved Marine decked out in dress blues robotically marched up, then slowly returned the salute of the Marine he relieved, took two steps forward, pivoted 180 degrees, put his hands behind his back, palms out, feet shoulder width apart, standing steely, not moving a muscle. The Marine’s eyes rarely darted to the right, getting only an occasional glimpse of Cody’s next friend, the ones who just kept coming, sometimes in waves during the four-hour visitation.
Sue was doing her best to try to hug them all, some a little longer than others, depending on how much they meant to Cody, and Rick trying to shake their hands.
Several times during the visitation, Major Farr, ever looking out for his Marine family, ever the protector, asked Rick and Sue if they wanted the doors closed for a time, if it was getting to be too much, if they wanted a break. But they weren’t about to turn anyone away.
People were flipping through the scrapbooks laid out on a table, flipping past photos like the one from 2002 where he’s stepping on home plate after hitting a grand slam, receiving a high-five from the opposing catcher. Flipping past photos from when he was three and Rick, always Cody’s hero, was gone for 13 months with his National Guard transportation unit in the Middle East and Cody wouldn’t be seen without camouflage until after his dad came back.
Flipping past photos of trophies won on the hunt with his dad, photos with that smile, always that smile, and eyes spilling over with life. There were photos of some of those fishing trips, like the one last summer that didn’t turn into a fishing trip at all. Rick and Cody just kicked back in sandals and shades, just talking, comparing notes on Iraq, while they floated around the lake for hours, never putting a line in the water.
They were flipping past photos of Cody posing with his family at boot camp graduation, his nephew Cade, then seven, dressed in little fatigues and a fatigue cap, standing at attention, just like Cody grew up doing.
People were looking at photos on tag boards or in frames, like the one of Cody with Cade, Andy’s son, and his other nephew Maddon, Brittany’s son, beneath the poem calling Cody his nephews’ hero, both the photo and the poem in the frame resting in the casket with Cody. Two roses in Marine colors – one gold, one scarlet – were next to Cody’s head, each were representing a nephew.
“He would have been a great dad,” Sue said, “but he was a great uncle.”
Countless stories were swapped; some, no doubt, repeatedly. Many with a smile and a laugh. Some, no doubt, barely appropriate for the building in which they were told.
Many friends came and just stayed, hour after hour, some looking like they didn’t know what to do next, but knowing they didn’t want to leave, knowing for that night, they wanted to be where Cody was the center of attention, the kind of thing they were used to. But there wasn’t much life to this party.
Cody’s family gathered around him one more time, clutching each other, clutching him, before Brittany walked to the back, took Cody’s red No. 9 jersey off its hanger and buried her face in it, drying her tears with it as she rejoined her family. Sue, very much still Cody’s mother, then folded the jersey neatly and placed it gently with her son.
When it was time, a Marine walked down the isle, stopped a yard or two inside a first down from Cody. Before they took him away, the Marine slowly raised his right arm up to the brim of his cover in salute, then slowly lowered it as the celestial voice of Sarah McLachlan floated softly, appropriately, through the church from the green iPod Nano – playing a mix chosen by high school sweetheart Tori Knoll and the Class of 2006, each song with a meaning – that was plugged into the pink base flashing 5:31 then 5:32.
You’re in the arms of the angel
May you find some comfort here…
CODY’S CAMO gave way to a baseball uniform, then a football uniform, then back to camo.
“He was destined to wear a uniform all his life,” Sue said, “and to him, the Marines were the best.”
All he wanted to do was play football, then all he wanted to do was be a Marine. He wanted to make a difference and had the perfect combination of his father’s determination and his mother’s heart.
Cody, then just 16, first talked to Staff Sergeant Brian Maness when the Marine visited H-D High School, only to be told he was too young, the same thing SSgt Maness told Cody the next few times he approached the recruiter.
“Come back when you are old enough,” SSgt Maness would say.
Finally, when Cody was old enough for the Marines to give him a taste of what life was like inside the country’s smallest, but proudest, military branch, SSgt Maness took him to Waterloo for a beginner’s boot camp of sorts, using paint ball guns instead of M-16s.
SSgt Maness came to Cody’s football games, his track meets, became a close friend, then was transferred to the East Coast. But when Cody was injured, SSgt Maness jumped on a plane for Bethesda. Last week, he was in Des Moines, waiting at the airport.
“He was there every step of Cody’s life and there to the end,” Sue said. “He just treated Cody like a brother.”
Brian Sutter, or Aunt B as Cody called him, never worried about Cody joining the Marines. Cody had that Marine swagger. And Brian wasn’t surprised Cody fought through his injury from that insurgent’s bullet for as long as he did.
“Cody had the heart of a lion. He was a tough kid and I know where it came from,” said Brian, who was touched even more by Cody’s passing since they shared the Marine bond. “He exemplified tough. That’s why it’s so surprising that he went in his sleep.”
But even after Cody joined the Marines, when there was Cody from Hampton and then Cody the warrior, he didn’t change. He just went back to camo and carried a gun around a little more.
Cody from Hampton passed out coloring books and played ball with Iraqi children. Cody the warrior was the one who froze that day when he wheeled around and there stood an Iraqi boy with a gun, no older than Cade – who Brian calls “Cody version 2.0” and who has yet to take off the dog tags Cody gave him when Cade came out for boot camp graduation. In a poetic twist of irony, Cade ran around at the meal following Cody’s funeral wearing a Kool-Aid mustache. Simply perfect. Brian and Brittany saw Cody and laughed.
But then there was the writing. The free verse that poured out one night when Cody was on patrol. The words no one knew were there. When Brian first saw his writings reprinted in the Chronicle, he called Andy. “Dobes is a helluva writer!” he said.
Maybe it was written by Cody the warrior. It had to be Cody the warrior. How could Cody from Hampton, even though all he wanted to do was be a Marine, feel war enough to paint it so vividly with words? How could he write “Cry Havoc”? How could he know of “this Machine” that won’t let down one minute? How could Cody from Hampton, who saw a beautiful side to Iraq, know how to adapt? What nightmares are? What dead bodies smell like?
By LCpl Cody Wanken
A young man, a young Marine, a younger brother, a baby to a mother and father.
A man not feared to struggle but scared to fail.
A man wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps and not be scared to take any risks.
Now the time has come and it’s all come too fast and too easy.
Many things go through his head – is he prepared, or is he complacent?
Did he gaff things off or is he just ready?
He can’t eat
He can’t sleep
He throws up and cries for Jesus.
He can’t understand what is war?
He looks at kids and women in the eyes and he can read them.
He doesn’t understand why people are afraid of this machine.
This young man
This young Marine
He looks at his brothers in the eyes like a man and can feel the same fear as if it boils off of him.
His feet burn from the sand.
His body aches from patrolling.
His head hurts from being on his game.
His eyes are heavy from lack of sleep.
This machine will not let down one minute.
They say war isn’t a game, or is it?
People watch TV or play video games and want it.
But they don’t know what nightmares are and what dead bodies smell like.
Is it just a cry for help? NO!
A Marine will adapt and overcome anything that he goes through in his life.
As the war goes on and men die, as men cry as Marines grow no matter what.
At the end of the day, at the end of the raid
A Marine will CRY HAVOC!
Just because he is worn out doesn’t mean he is tired and he will be prepared for the next day.
He will never stop until the job is done and will keep moving for his family and his friends.
Because someday he will see them again.
WHEN CODY CAME HOME for the final time, he was wearing his dress blues, buttons polished to shine.
“He loved his clothes,” Sue said. “He believed if you weren’t dressed to the nines, you didn’t go.”
Cody would always make fun of his dad when Rick would put on a flannel shirt and Carhartts. Rick joked that he was going to wear those to the funeral, drive Cody nuts one more time.
Cody loved to go to movies, too. He didn’t care what it was. He’d let someone else pick. He just wanted to go. There were plenty of other things to do, but one summer, he and Troy rented a movie, one for each day.
But Cody really loved his shopping. He would come with his Hollister and Abercrombie bags and his buddies at the Wounded Warrior Barracks would laugh. Zach would sneak those clothes out of Cody’s suitcase when Cody would be back home and wear them like a badge of honor after Cody had left. Then Sue would get a call. “My clothes are missing!” an irate voice would say on the other end.
But one day he came back to the barracks with bags that weren’t for him. Inside were $40 worth of shakes and broth and whatever else he could find to help sooth Lance Corporal Daniel Patrick’s dry sockets after he had his wisdom teeth removed. Not just spending his money on himself. Just Cody being Cody.
Then a couple Mondays ago, just two days before he died, he made one final phone call about a plane ticket to make sure everything was taken care of. Hampton-native Kelly Humberg was about to graduate from boot camp, but there was no way for Humberg’s mother to get there. But after all those intense weeks, especially Hell Week, a new Marine needs family around him, Cody said.
So Cody arranged it, even though the two boys never got along growing up. He paid for the ticket and got the mother a military discount on housing. Just Cody being Cody.
“It’s small town Iowa. Hampton boy taking care of Hampton boy,” Sue said. “Marine on Marine.”
Lance Corporal Steven Legerlotz and LCpl Patrick, two of Cody’s buddies from San Diego, made it out, along with a third, for Cody’s funeral. The Marines made sure of that. It was a long flight, but they all put on their headphones. It was easier than talking.
Lance Corporal Brad Colman, an H-D grad a year ahead of Cody, who pushed Cody in the weight room, who had a special attachment to Cody through the Marines, also made it back, flying in from North Carolina. He then had “honorary” dropped from “pallbearer” so Cody would have a friend carrying him that final day, instead of eight Marines he’d never met.
Colman leaves for Iraq in June with the 1st Brigade, 2nd Battalion. The last time the two talked, Cody was trying to get him up to speed on what he might find in the Sandbox.
IT TOOK A WHILE and it was nerve-wracking at first, but LCpl Patrick and LCpl Legerlotz warmed up to Cody’s family, sharing Cody stories that sounded like the ones the family already knew, only with different names and different places. It meant a lot to meet the family.
Even though they only knew Cody a few months, the Marines had clicked right away. They already miss those times at the bowling alley, the times when they’d get down and Cody would be there with a smile, those times spent just smoking and joking with Juice (a nickname Cody earned from an inside joke they wouldn’t reveal). They never knew what they were going to get with Cody, but they always knew it was going to be fun.
But if anyone could understand Cody’s sacrifice, a Marine’s sacrifice, it was LCpl Patrick, whose left hand was wounded by an Iraqi grenade in Fallujah. He, like Cody, only ever wanted to be a Marine.
“To appreciate the sacrifice you have to appreciate the taste of America, and to truly taste America you have to practically have your life taken from you,” said LCpl Patrick, wise far beyond his 20 years. “I think God has a plan for everything. We could never project what kind of impact Cody has on this town or those who were around him.”
While some families become embittered when their sons die at war, the Wankens have drawn closer to the Marines, wanting to give back to the Semper Fi Fund that gave so much to them, wanting to help the Wounded Warrior Battalion-West.
Brian just hopes the United States stays the course until the job is done, not cutting and running from Iraq.
“I’m so worried we are going to pull out. It would accomplish nothing, and then, why did we send him?” he said, thumping his right index finger on Cody’s picture laying on Brian’s dining room table. “Why did we send all those great people? That’s one of my greatest fears. I don’t want anyone to die in vain. Guys like Cody are not expendable.”
CODY WAS GOING TO COME HOME a couple weeks ago, but the weather forecast wasn’t good. Ice and snow. He went to Alabama for the weekend instead.
If that insurgent bullet had not found him, Cody would have been coming back from Iraq. The advance party of the 3-5 landed at Camp Pendleton Thursday, April 10. Rick and Sue flew out several days later to greet Cody’s unit and meet Seibert – a dog who wouldn’t behave for anyone but Cody, not anyone before or since. They got to match up faces to the names and the Marines will get some closure.
But Cody did come home, and it was cold and gray and softly raining when he finally did on Tuesday. Still colder, with a temperature in the upper 30s, nearly 20 degrees below average, and gray and rain blowing in sheets when he was laid to rest two days later.
It was the polar opposite of Cody’s personality, the irony of it not lost in the sorrow.
“Yeah,” Brian said with a grin after the funeral, “he’s laughing at us.”
And in a cemetery in Goldfield, next to his grandfather, Cody’s family said one last goodbye as they huddled inside a two-sided blue tent that did its best against the cold wind and the sheets of icy rain. Outside, his friends were numb and soaked.
Bagpipes filled with air, then played “Amazing Grace” as the bagpiper slowly walked away, the sound hauntingly fading.
The flag was raised off Cody’s casket, folded and given to his mother, who was squishy face around Cody for the last time. The 21-gun salute echoed off the distant trees, the bugler played taps and Cody’s family huddled around his casket, falling on it, kissing it, kissing him.
Brian and Troy and Farmer were watching it all through tinted lenses. They were wearing sunglasses, just like Brian and Troy had when Cody came off the plane, because “The sun never goes down in Cool Town,” a phrase Cody would say to Brittany when she would tell him to take his sunglasses off, because after all, he was in the house and it was nighttime. Brian placed a pair of his sunglasses in the casket for Cody to keep with him, along with the last medal Brian received from the Marines.
Rick and Sue are worried about what will happen when things slow down and everything else catches up, when things return to what normal is redefined to be and the emotional sledgehammer hits harder than all the times it was pounding away last week. Only then, there won’t be anyone around to soften the blow.
Sue had to leave for a little while the day after they buried Cody and Rick was alone for the first time in a long time. It was hard.
Brian doesn’t ever want to let go of the pain, his knuckles white from his grip. He wants to keep it inside of him, right where he can feel it, terrified that if time slowly takes it away, it will take Cody’s memory with it.
But Rick and Sue know Cody is still there. Sue feels him when she gets an overwhelming sense that she’s being hugged. Rick has woken up from a deep sleep when he’s heard Cody’s voice in conversation.
Besides, all Cody’s old friends and his new friends have the Wankens’ number and they know where to find them, right there in that two-story white house with the wagon wheel out front, right next to that garage where nearly 30 of them crammed for another garage party that Thursday night, just hours after Cody’s body was laid to rest, a party that lasted until 2 a.m. Rick and Sue hope it won’t be the last time Cody’s friends cram into that heated garage.
“They all connected, all the new friends and the old friends exchanging phone numbers and e-mail addresses. It was just so much fun, almost like a Mardi Gras funeral,” Sue said. “It was boo hoo and then bring out the party. The best part about this is there are more friends. They fit right in like they lived here. There such a sense of peace to have the spirit of Cody spread from California to Iraq. He’s not forgotten.”
The rain was still falling on Friday and the sun had gone down that night, but Sue got a picture message from San Diego on her cell phone that brightened things up. She leaned over her dining room table, covered by scrapbooks and the governor’s proclamation, and flipped her phone open. Just like Cody, LCpl Patrick and LCpl Legerlotz, who had just arrived back in California, were wearing their shades and big smiles. Underneath the photo, it read: “The sun never goes down in Cool Town.”