THE FOUR WALLS:
It was 1998 and I was a recently divorced man. After four years of being married (she was married for two of those years), I had to start a new life. During this first full year of being divorced, I was by myself. I had visitation every other weekend and every other Christmas with the kids and managed the best I could. Since neither one of us had a lawyer, I clearly remember the last court date before our divorce. It was to determine the child support that we both agreed on. I remember the judge asking are you sure about the amount agreed upon? He even stated you will not be required to pay that much. I told him I am sure it is the right thing to do. I wanted to make sure the kids were taken care of.
Two years prior I was buying a home (granted it was a single wide trailer but it was home), but now (1998), I am living in an Army barracks room and that is it. This room was in a small one story building with 11 other rooms that shared a community bathroom and shower in the middle. All my possessions consited of my clothes, my military gear, my car and nothing else; everything else I left when we seperated and divorced.
On my limited financial situation, my days consited of going to work and back to my barracks room; the four walls.
In working out the finances, I knew I could survive with giving plasma two times a week. I took on all the bills from credit and so on. My ex was working a full time job making almost $11/hour in Alabama which was darn good money then. So, I knew between her pay check and my child support the kids would be just fine; so I thought, but that is another story, this story is not about my ex.
1999 rolled around and this was the year I met William Neil, but he introduced himself as “Billy”. He and I were the same rank in the military, lived in the barracks, we liked a variety of music and there were many other common interest we shared. However, there were also many others things we didn't have in common at the time we had met. He was single and never been married. We got to know each other more and more because of the different details we both were tasked to do such as color guard detail or play the bad guys (OPFOR) for different training events. Billy was a little older than me and never had been married and didn't have any biological children of his own. Prior to the Army he had been in the Navy and had also spent time on Wall Street and was doing very well. He was born and raised in Jersey City, NJ.
Pictured Left: Billy and I before a Long Range Surveillance Leadership Course OPFOR Detail – Feb 2000
Billy was in a pretty serious relationship with a woman who had a child at the time. He was continuing his education and at the same time funding hers; he would watch this little girl, he talked so much about, while her mother went to class on the weekends and at night. He spoke about her daughter like she was his own. Billy was very happy and it showed. I think I enjoyed listening to his stories since I knew what that feeling felt like. He was also a good listener.
He listened to me and my struggles. I was a husband and now I wasn’t, I was a full time dad and now I was a part time father… I was this and that… and now, I wasn’t. I was trying to figure out who I was now. Billy was wise well beyond his years; he encouraged me in so many ways. He never let me feel sorry for myself.
His advise so many times was I had to find a way to let go of the things I can't change and live... enjoy life.
In a different time we would have had our “families” over and shared many special occasions together. But, I was now single and he was in a serious relationship.
So, our situations in life didn’t really mix well besides during the week at work. After work and on the weekends Billy wasn’t in the barracks for obvious reasons. I didn’t have any money to do anything, so, I was always there.
Unfortunately for him, the woman he had been dating did something unexpected… cheated on him. She had been using Billy to watch her daughter to go out and “party” with other guys while she was supposedly at school or working. I found it shocking, because (even though it happened to me in a similar way) I didn’t think for one second this would happen to Billy. There were no signs; he treated her like a queen and her daughter like a princess. The real sad part in all of this was the little girl who knew Billy these past 2 years (she was around 4) would now have a void in her life. Billy’s heart was broken and now it was my turn to listen and mentor.
The next couple of years Billy and I hung out all the time. He knew I didn’t have money to do things, but would come by, knock on my door and say “come on John, let’s go to the mall” or “Let’s go get something to eat” or anything else just to get me out of my room. If it wasn’t for him, I am sure I would have feel into a pretty deep depressive state; my life was really changed after the divorce and he helped me bridge that gap in time to start to function normally - and LIVE.
I never had seen Billy drink anything alcoholic. I didn’t really drink at all either but if we went out I would have a beer or two at the dance club or Karaoke Club we would visit; often making fools of ourselves singing but having so much fun. Billy had no fear. He would be the first one out on the dance floor. His smile would invite others to come have fun - everyone! He just loved to have a good time. I had a beer in my hand one evening at a dance club and Billy asked me: “John, why do you even drink? You never drink at the barracks and you end up holding that one beer pretty much all night”. I didn’t know why to be honest; maybe it was a way to seem cool. That night changed me in so many ways. For starters, I rarely have any alcohol. Also, Ginger Ale will forever be Billy’s drink. Real Ginger Ale though, not the fake stuff clubs would do mixing different types of sodas and calling it Ginger Ale.
Billy was around my three kids almost every weekend I had them. When my car stopped working, I didn’t have money or the means to finance another car for a few months. Billy drove me to pick up the kids and bring them back. My son recalls at an early age (age 4) “Mr. Billy” tickling him so much he wet his pants.
During one day I was as work, my work phone rang that changed my life forever. I had received a call that my father died during a stress test at age 51. Billy was there to chat with during this most difficult time. Another time that also changed my life forever was when the Child Protection Agency Called and told me, “Mr. Fleshman, you can come pick up your children; we have removed them from their mother’s home and custody”. Who was there? Billy.
I immediately received orders to move to my next duty station upon the change in family circumstances. In six months, I had moved up to North Carolina. Billy finally passed Ranger School in 2002, the year Jennifer and I were married. If he wasn’t in this school, Billy would have been my best man. So for Ranger school graduation Jennifer and I traveled back down to Georgia to see him graduate. In the picture Jennifer was able to capture the look on his face; he didn't know we would be there!
Billy continued to stay in touch this whole time. He came up for a few visits and was able to meet my family. I had talked enough about him that my family felt like they already knew him. Everyone loved Billy. Billy even showed Jennifer how to change her breaks the first time. We played board games with my mom and her best friend and laughed so much.
It wasn’t long after this visit Billy volunteered for Special Forces training. Billy did complete and pass the Special Forces Qualification Course and donned the coveted Green Beret. I was stationed in New York by this time and headed to Afghanistan.
Now it was 2006, I had been in Afghanistan for quite a few months and was ending my 12-month tour when Billy arrived later that year. 2006 had been a really tough time on Jennifer, my wife. Guess who had been the person Jennifer reached out to via telephone and e-mail? You guess it Billy. Again, he was there not just for me but for Jennifer. He was always a good listener and like I said earlier wise beyond his years. He just had a way of comforting those in need.
When Billy arrived he called my office in Afghanistan and I headed right to his camp; it wasn’t that far of a walk. I had my camera in my cargo pocket and to this day; still don’t know why I never took a picture. I guess it was because as soon as I saw him and he saw me we immediately ran towards one another and started wrestling and “beating” each other up. You should have seen the guards at the compound inner gate, I am not sure they knew what to do with us.
We knew this was going to be a quick visit. Billy had to in process into Afghanistan and then he would move to his final destination; this was a transitional stop. We were able to hang out there on base a bit catching up on old times and talking about the future. He had just bought his first house and was super excited about restoring another car; Billy loved classic cars and we would go to car shows a lot when we lived in the barracks together. We spoke of Jennifer and I getting up to NJ and meeting his family. He told me how hard Jennifer was having on this deployment and not to worry. We said as much as we could in the limited time he was there. I regret to this day, I didn't take a picture of us that day.
Billy transferred to his combat outpost only 18 hours later. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see him again before my tour completed in a month. But we stayed in touch via e-mail. When he returned back to the states after his tour, we spoke a few times on the phone and talked about meeting up together again. This time we would all travel to NJ to meet his family. His schedule and mine just couldn’t link up. He was back in Afghanistan before we knew it.
It was 2008 and I was stationed still in New York and it was the end of March. My mom was up visiting and Jennifer and I had gone to church for a meeting planning upcoming Easter events if I remember correctly. I remember coming home as normal with a good feeling from another wonderful night. I opened the front door and saw my mother standing there in tears; she was obviously upset and startled.
HOW & WHY?:
I could see the pain in her eyes and asked what was wrong. She said, “John, I don’t want to tell you this but Billy was killed”. Not really understanding, since I was in shock, I asked her what do you mean? She said again, “Billy was killed overseas” and “I am so sorry to have to tell you this”. As I am sure all of you could imagine. Emotions came over me and Jennifer who was standing right beside me and just as torn up.
Billy wasn’t the first person I had known that had been killed in action; sadly not even close. Even being the last person holding one of your soldiers and trying to breathe life back into him, didn't prepare me for this moment. Billy was my very best Army buddy, I had known him for a decade, he was our youngest two girls' Godfather, he was one of the best trained to fight and I wanted to know how this could have happened. Reality, I knew this could happen to anyone, but when it hits you like this… it is just so hard to explain or put into words.
I asked my mother how she found out. She told me she received a call from a woman where Billy was home stationed at the time. She said she was instructed to call and tell me if anything happened to him. Mom had written the number down and I called immediately. She told me what she knew, that Billy was killed by an IED and that is all she knew. I had in my cell phone Billy’s mom’s number and for a second didn’t want to call. But I took a deep breath and called. A man’s voice came on at the other end of the line and I didn’t know what to say.
Weeping, I managed to ask if this was the right number I called. He said yes. He said he was Billy’s brother in law. I introduced myself and he burst out these words, “thank God you called, we were all trying to find your number and get a hold of you. Of all the people Billy spoke of, you were the one he always talked about”. We kept the phone call very short and exchanged our numbers. I asked what the arrangements were and they said since this was very recent they're still in the planning phase. He agreed to call me as soon as more information became available.
FINALLY MADE IT TO NJ:
The time came and Jennifer and I boarded the aircraft to NJ to pay our respects to Billy; our friend. When we arrived, after renting a car, Jennifer and I checked in to our hotel immediately. We changed and went right to the viewing. The Patriot Guard was all around, God bless these men and woman, Old Glory flying all around made me feel proud. It was hard but we took our first steps into the funeral home, signed the guest book and took a long deep breath before entering the viewing room.
No one knew who Jennifer and I were by seeing us, since no one has ever met us. Billy and I planned so many times to go up to NJ and meet his family. I couldn’t help but think and say to myself, “well, Billy, I have finally made it here”. To my right on the wall were pictures of Billy on poster boards. His smile always lit up a room and picture after picture had it. Jennifer and I stood in line waiting to greet his family.
There were so many people. We finally made our way to the closed casket. I said my prayer and tried to hold back the tears to no luck. Next step was to say something to Billy’s mom. As soon as I opened my mouth to introduce myself, I lost it again… I barely got my name out of my mouth and here was Billy’s mom, all 4 foot something comforting me, telling me it is ok. After Jennifer took over and told her who I was, everyone there standing gathered around us. Telling us thank you for being here. How ironic and just like Billy as we met the first time, his family and his mother was again comforting me.
Later that night, in the hotel room, I couldn’t help but think Billy was there, holding not only his mother up in this time of grief but holding me up as well. For two consecutive nights now I had been with Billy’s family. After the second night at the viewing, the next day was the hardest; the funeral. Billy’s mother and sisters asked Jennifer and I to sit in the area designated for immediate or close family. I didn’t know what to say, it was an honor I still cherish now. In my dress green military uniform on a chilled NJ day, Jennifer said our goodbyes.
Jennifer and I after laying Billy down to his final resting place - 2008
After the funeral, Jennifer and I were invited to one of Billy’s sisters house where the family was gathering. Only the immediate family was there and some of Billy’s childhood friends. I can tell you, if you didn't know you would have thought this was a normal party and people just having fun; I don’t think I have ever laughed so hard. Story after wonderful story was told from Billy when he was little to when I knew him and all the great memories we all had. Everyone's belly hurt from all the laughing. Not to mention we all had some Ginger Ale!
The more I think of it, Billy wouldn’t have had it any other way. I could hear him saying now….
“Don’t cry for me because I died; smile and laugh at the good times because I lived”!
For over ten years we had talked about one another meeting each of our families; Billy was able to meet mine in life and I am able to meet his too - just not as we planned. I can hear Billy now telling me, "John, it is time to let go and live again".