If a person were seeking the prototypical "All American," Todd Christmas would be an excellent choice.
Todd was raised on a ranch near Wagon Mound, New Mexico - population 352. I know the area well. Wagon Mound is about a stone's throw from Philmont Scout Ranch, a place I frequented often when I was young and fit enough to spend days on end hiking the rugged terrain with a 40-pound pack on my back. But we aren't talking about me - we're talking about Todd, who was as at home on a horse growing up as he was afoot.
Todd was happy-go-lucky and in love with life. He had a perpetual sparkle in his eye and a smile was never far from the corners of his mouth. He was everybody's best friend. Everybody's.
Tom left home at a fairly young age to follow in his father's footsteps and attend New Mexico Military Academy. He took to military life like a duck to water. After graduating from that institution, he attended Junior College for two years and then became a member of the Texas A&M corps of cadets.
At A&M he met Erica, the Arlington, Texas, girl who would become his best friend, soul mate, love of his life and, eventually, wedded wife. On their first date, he took her to an event called Midnight Yell - which is like a pep rally on steroids. It's an Aggie thing. Don't try to understand.
Nine months after that first date, Todd and Erica were engaged. Six months to the day later, according to Erica, they were married. Their wedding date was August 18, 2001. Their honeymoon was a week-long cruise. Seventeen days after the honeymoon ended, the whole world changed. I'll do the math for you. Sept. 11, 2001.
Todd was in the army by this time, and soon he and his new bride were stationed at Ft. Hood, where Erica began learning how to be a military wife and Todd began preparing to defend his country and her citizens in time of war.
Deployment to Iraq came in April of 2003 - scant weeks after the invasion began. He was a first lieutenant - a platoon leader. That's tough duty when you are trying to overthrow the regime of a brutal dictator who has ruled through intimidation, death and destruction for two decades. Communication with home and his young bride consisted of frequent letters and infrequent phone calls. Every letter upheld Todd Christmas' belief in the mission he and his fellow soldiers had been sent to carry out.
In March 2004 Todd Christmas returned safely from Iraq. His entire family gathered to welcome him home. "Amazing," is the word Erica used to describe the feeling she experienced when she saw him, safe and sound, after a year at war.
The young couple settled into a happy routine. Erica was working for their landlord and Todd, now a captain and a general's aide, was doing what soldiers do; preparing for the next mission - which almost certainly included another deployment in Iraq.
It was Nov. 29, 2004 - a Monday. Todd and Erica had spent a wonderful Thanksgiving with his family, back in New Mexico. Todd, the general for whom he worked, and five other soldiers left Ft. Hood at 3 a.m. on a Blackhawk helicopter - headed for Texarkana to inspect equipment that would precede them to Iraq.
Erica woke up at her normal time and got ready for work. She turned on the television news to check the weather, as was her custom, just in time to see breaking news of a helicopter crash. At first she was not concerned, but when none of her calls to Todd's phone were answered or returned she began to call the base - where she was passed around from person to person without being told anything.
Her friends came over to wait with her and they watched the confirmation that the downed helicopter was Todd's scroll across the bottom of her television screen just as the Army chaplain was walking up to the door to bring her the tragic news.
There were memorial services on the base at Ft. Hood and in the town of Killeen and back home in Wagon Mound, and Erica, at the age of 25, was left to go on with her life in the bravest way she could while another of America's very finest was lost in the service of his country.
This story has been told in a rather matter-of-fact manner, but there was nothing matter-of-fact about the life, or death, of Todd Christmas. He was a hero, who put duty and honor and service above his own pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. Todd Christmas died for his country. He died for you and me, so that we can continue to pursue all the things he gave up on our behalf.
He is like 1.2 million other men and women who have died in the service of this country. They all left behind family and loved ones and they all put you and me and the United States of America ahead of themselves.
It's Memorial Day. Memorial means "memory." Please do remember, so that Todd, as well as all of these other honored dead, shall not have died in vain.
Darrell Huckaby is a local author and educator. He can be reached at dHuck08@bellsouth.net.