The story so far: Five weeks after he deployed to Afghanistan in July 2009, Brian Woods is shot by the Taliban.
Elizabeth Woods knew Brian had been shot in the head, but she didn't know how seriously he was hurt.
At some point during her frantic trip from Asheville, where she was on vacation, to her sister's home near Charlotte and on through the night to her house in Chesapeake, Va., in the midst of all the tears and rushing about, Elizabeth called the hospital in Germany.
She demanded to know the truth.
Brian's nurse spoke in broken English, and Elizabeth had trouble understanding him. But this much she heard clearly:
Your husband is brain dead.
Elizabeth dropped the phone.
He promised he wouldn't die! she screamed.
Her knees buckled. Her sister, Jennifer, lifted Elizabeth off the floor and into her arms.
When Brian hears my voice, Elizabeth told herself, he'll wake up.
Elizabeth nursed her daughter, Ella, who was 7 months old, for the last time. She told her she loved her. She kissed her goodbye. Then she handed Ella to her sister and boarded a plane in Norfolk for Washington, then the eight-hour flight to Germany.
Brian's sister, Catrina Kelemen, flew with her. And with them, Sgt. 1st Class Wright. He was a member of Brian's National Guard unit, assigned to stay in the States to handle administrative problems and be available for families if any of the soldiers were seriously injured.
From Frankfurt, they drove an hour and a half to Landstuhl hospital, where more than 10,000 Americans have been evacuated since the war on terror began in 2001. Some have returned to combat. Some were sent home for treatment. Others were brought to the hospital on life support, kept alive until their families could get there to say goodbye.
When Elizabeth and Catrina arrived, a surgeon and a chaplain were waiting.
Brian's condition, the surgeon said, was irreversible. They couldn't save him.
Elizabeth collapsed into a chair, sobbing. She had slept only a few hours over two days and hadn't eaten. She was lost to her emotions. Catrina had to help her get back up and lead her into Brian's room.
Last moments together
Elizabeth ran to the bed.
A towel around his head hid the bullet wound. The skin around his eyes was bruised and puffy, his lips cracked. There was dirt from the desert battlefield beneath his fingernails and on his eyelashes, and tubes all about. Otherwise he looked as peaceful as if he were asleep beside her at home.
Elizabeth kissed his face and stroked his arms and hands, weeping, hugging him, telling him she loved him. She asked if she could lie next to him. She wanted to wrap him in her arms. But a nurse said it wasn't safe. Brian could be carrying diseases from Afghanistan.
Elizabeth held onto his hand and filled their last hours together talking. Brian's eyes, which had been so full of passion for life, and for her, remained flat and expressionless. Elizabeth hoped that somewhere, deep inside, maybe he could hear her. Maybe.
'You made me stronger'
She talked about the afternoon they met 31/2 years earlier in Asheville, how they looked into each other's eyes and fell into each other's arms and married 11 months later. He once told her that the moment he saw her, he knew he was going to marry her.
Tears poured down her face as she thought about all they had done in their short time together, and all they would never do. They survived the death of their infant son, and now they had a beautiful new daughter who would never know her father.
Their lives were beginning to fall into place.
"You pushed me to become who I am," Elizabeth remembers saying. "You could see me better than I could see myself. You were my mirror. You woke me up. You made me stronger. You challenged me. Nothing to you was impossible."
Without you, she wondered, who am I?
William Brian Woods died on the afternoon of Aug. 16, 2009, the 785th U.S. service member to die in the war.
When the time came to turn off the life-support machines, Elizabeth gave permission to donate his organs. But not his heart. Brian gave his life for his country. She would not allow him to give any more.
His heart, she said, belongs to me.
I will never get over this
Within a few hours, a wounded soldier took Brian's bed in the hospital. Within a few days, a new soldier took his place on the battlefield.
Elizabeth felt as if she were a casualty, too, injured, beaten up, paralyzed.
Sgt. Wright escorted her back to Charlotte. Another Green Beret escorted Brian's body. In the tradition of the Special Forces, a soldier would stay with Brian every minute of every day and every night until he was buried. Even in death, the brotherhood endured.
At the funeral home in Huntersville, a stranger walked up to Elizabeth. She introduced herself as a member of the Gold Star Wives, women whose husbands were killed in the line of duty.
You will get through this, she said, and she smiled at Elizabeth. Elizabeth couldn't imagine smiling ever again.
This is what you're going to do, the woman told her. You're going to put one foot in front of the other and take one step forward at a time.
For the first time in the week since Brian died, Elizabeth felt as if there was someone who understood her pain.
But after the woman left, she turned to her two sisters. I will never get over this.
As he stood watch from a few feet away, Sgt. Wright worried that she never would.
A haunting anthem
At Brian's memorial service at Latta Plantation Park, a guitarist sang "The Ballad of the Green Berets." The song is the anthem of the Special Forces, one of Brian's favorites. Elizabeth hated it.
Fighting soldiers from the sky
Fearless men who jump and die
Men who mean just what they say
The brave men of the Green Beret.
How, she would ask Brian, can you sing about dying?
At the memorial service, the words cut hard. Elizabeth's Green Beret had met his fate.
Brian had told her that if he was killed, not to bury him in Arlington National Cemetery. He wanted to be buried in St. Louis next to their son.
Elizabeth did not follow his casket to Missouri, where the governor ordered flags flown at half-staff. More than 300 Patriot Guard Riders on motorcycles accompanied the funeral cortege, and hundreds of Americans lined the highway to bid farewell to a hometown hero.
Elizabeth stayed behind at her sister Jennifer's house in Marvin, south of Charlotte. She could go no farther.
Brian's fight was over. Hers had just begun. It was Elizabeth's war now.
Saturday: A letter from Brian.
Elizabeth Leland: 704-358-5074
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