Sermon for A Soldier


On the island of Kaua’i, I see this sign on a small side road.

Iraq: 4,328   Afghanistan: 1,321

Dan, from the driver’s seat, says, “That’s much more effective than ‘Stop the War’ signs.”

“Yes,” I say.

“It doesn’t even say whether the person who put it up is anti-war. It just provides information, like a reminder. So we remember there is a human cost.”

“Yes,” I say.

The sun has finally decided to show up for this party, and the wind is warm in our faces as we drive slowly over tiny one-lane bridges and watch the thin, silvery line of waterfalls moving down the mountains like tiny spider webs glistening in the distance.

I say, “Orlando.” I say it like a prayer.

“What?” says Dan.

And I find myself spilling the whole story to him, and everyone else, my new friends. A story I haven’t told in years.

Orlando Bonilla. 21 year old Puerto Rican/Texan with a slight over bite from one crooked tooth, and a quick laugh, and terrible taste in music. Orlando who befriended me my first day of class, my junior year of college, at the University of Texas. Orlando who couldn’t pass his Spanish tests (so funny, Puerto Rican boy) and so started to have study sessions with me before tests. Orlando Bonilla, who woke up at 3am once because I called him, drunk and crying and heartbroken, because a stupid boy I fell for ignored me at a party after we had made out the night before. Orlando, who when I finally stumbled into his car, said,

“Drink this water.”

“No,” I said.

“Girl. I’m not in the mood. It’s late, you look like shit. Drink that water.”

“You can’t even speak Spanish,” I said and drank the water.

He laughed, pressed his head into the steering wheel.

His truck carried us to a friend’s house in East Austin, and they let me hold their newborn baby at a rickety metal table with linoleum floor squeaking beneath it.  Orlando tucked me into bed after I’d cooed at the baby long enough and then puked up all my desperation and vodka into his friend’s bathroom.

Orlando who took me to an ROTC ball–all the beautiful young men in their starched uniforms.

Orlando who took his hand and drew an outline over my side body while I stretched out along his living room carpet, rehearing the subjunctive with him one Thursday afternoon and said, “That curve. From your shoulder to your hip bone. That’s beautiful.”

Orlando who never hit on me, though. We weren’t like that.

“I forgot about him,” I tell Dan now in the blue car on a blue island in the Pacific.

And I did too, until one night in 2004, while I was living for the summer in D.C. and had a horrible nightmare. In it, Orlando came to me.

He said, “You look terrible in brown.  And Casey, I’m dead.”

I woke up shaking and sweating, having not thought of him once in at least 6 years. But my chest hurt, and then I remembered in my dark bed, “ROTC.”

I knew it right then. Generally, I’m not a big believer in superstition–I am Irish, so occasionally I give in to the temptation, but most of the time I’m relatively level-headed. But I knew. I went immediately to the Washington Post website and scrolled down the list of names, so many names, and there it was: Orlando Bonilla.

He had died two days earlier in a helicopter crash in Iraq.

“It’s amazing,” Dan says to me now, “that you had enough of a connection to know, even subconsciously, that something had happened to him.”

“I don’t know if it was amazing. It was something,” I say.

That night in 2004 I looked up the article about his death. He had married, moved to Killeen, Texas. His wife lost her father in Iraq six months earlier. Her father and husband in one year.

I called my boyfriend at the time, my voice all kinds of shaky, and he said, “Baby. You should come to this show. Really.” At the time, he worked as the sound engineer at Blues Alley in Georgetown, and Odetta was doing a two session show that night.

“Bike down here for the late show,” he said. “Trust me. You can sit at a front table while I work.”

Blues Alley is small and dark and candlelit, and the space was appropriate for how I felt that night. Odetta’s second to last song was Bessie Smith’s “Poor Man’s Blues”, a song about African-Americans and other poor folk who had to fight in World War II and then come home to be treated with neglect by the government they had just represented and defended. Her voice spread through the room like a salve, deep and wounded, but steady. Nobody moved or spoke, the crowd fully hushed by what was coming at us from the stage. All that light. All that light.

(in retrospect, I’m really glad I went to that show for many reasons, not the least of which is that Odetta died shortly after and I would have missed the opportunity to sit inside her light like that)

Poor man fought all the battles, poor man would fight again today

Poor man fought all the battles, poor man would fight again today

He would do anything you ask him in the name of the U.S.A.

She sang. I cried. My boyfriend biked home with me and then held me through a sleepless night.

All those names.  Orlando.

My cousin, Owen, is Special Forces, and has completed more than his fair share of tours. He’s safe, for now. Many of my students at the University of Houston and Houston Community College have been in Iraq or Afghanistan or have family members there. My friend, Cecily (who has a brother in the military), and I once spent a completely irresponsible and blissful night with two very sexy British soldiers on leave from Afghanistan. I don’t know what happened to those guys, but I hope…

What I mean is, it’s real. People we know have died. Might die. Will die.

I’m not writing a war protest, exactly.

I’m just sitting in a car in a beautiful corner of the world in the native state of our President, celebrating a partnership, gazing at a sea whose currents (should I jump in them and start swimming) would carry me to Southeast Asia, remembering a long lost, and dear friend, and his widow. Because I saw a sign on the road.

“Dan,” I say now.


“How many numbers did that sign say?”

“I don’t know. A lot,” he says.

I am silent.

“That’s an old sign,” he adds, “And that’s just the Americans.”

And we head for the beach.


One thought on “Sermon for A Soldier”

  1. Casey, this post is so moving, and this doesn’t surprise me since I was also deeply touched by your recent essay on Literary Mama. I’m so sorry for Orlando, and his poor wife, and all off those men and women who make up that rising number.

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