The grief wanted to flow out of Staff Sgt. Daniel Garcia, but he kept it bottled up as best he could.
He came to talk about his Stryker Brigade squadmate, his best friend, “perhaps the greatest man I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing,” Sgt. Robert Billings, a Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier who was killed by an enemy bomb in Afghanistan last month.
After President Barack Obama’s assurance in his re-election speech Wednesday morning that “a decade of war is ending,” Garcia’s eulogy in a chapel at Lewis-McChord on Wednesday was a sober reminder that the U.S. remains in a struggle that exacts a toll.
To know just how heavy a toll, one need only have looked at Garcia’s rugged, grief-stricken face or heard his quavering voice.
He cleared his throat often. He said “excuse me” twice. But he pushed ahead with his story.
Garcia met Billings, of Clarksville, Va., at an Army training school in Georgia around 2008.
Garcia’s wife, Cassandra, was pregnant. Billings and his wife, Christy, were old hands in childbearing, having three children of their own, soon to add a fourth.
The Billings helped guide the Garcias through their pregnancy, and the couples grew to be fast friends.
The soldiers re-enlisted with the hope that they would end up in the same unit so their families could stick together. They received transfers to Lewis-McChord and deployed to Iraq in 2009. They returned from war with a mutual plan after their military service ended: to open a brewery and make great beer.
They began home-brewing. But they’ll never get the chance to realize their bigger dream because Billings was killed Oct. 13 in southern Afghanistan during a second deployment the two friends volunteered for.
Billings, 30, was assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, now in the last weeks of its deployment.
Garcia directed his next comments to Christy Billings, his friend’s widow.
“I know Robert and you and Cassandra and I have had our ups and downs, but in the end we were always there for each other,” he said, “and I would say this: No matter what, please never feel like you’re alone in this.”
To Billings’ four children – Elijah, Isaiah, Kaili and Naomi – Garcia offered this comfort: “Your father was the best man I’d ever known. He was a human being and wasn’t perfect, but no matter what he did, he always made sure that you were top priority. He loved and cared for you, and he will always do so.”
Garcia recalled to Billings’ father, Kelly, a military veteran, a conversation he had with his friend.
Billings had said he wasn’t happy that his father was away so much when he was growing up. It wasn’t until the soldier-son had a family of his own that he realized “what it takes to be a great father and the sacrifices you made for them,” Garcia told the elder Billings.
“In so many ways, he looked up to you and just wanted to make you proud,” Garcia recalled, his voice breaking.
To Billings’ mother, Hope, Garcia acknowledged there’s nothing he could do to heal the deep wounds inflicted by her son’s death, “but just know that Bobby loved you so much, as do I.
“Let’s not forgot what Bobby would be saying right now if we could hear him: Get over it,” Garcia said, drawing laughter from the audience of mourners.
Garcia said many soldiers are thankful to have known Billings and that he kept them safe the day he died. He said he loved Billings like a brother.
“I saw you as my own flesh and blood and would not hesitate for a second to lay down my life down just to be able to bring you back. I feel so lost without you. …
“I know we would always joke around, saying that if it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go no matter what. But you weren’t supposed to take that to heart, brother.”