At some point in the future, soldiers will pack up their rucks, equipment will be loaded into huge shipping containers, C-130s will rise wheels-up off the tarmac, and Navy transport ships will cross the high seas to return home once again. At some point — the timing of which I don’t have the slightest guess at — the war in Iraq will end. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — I’ve been thinking about the last American soldier to die in Iraq.

Tonight, at 3 a.m., a hunter’s moon shines down into the misty ravines of Vermont’s Green Mountains. I’m standing out on the back deck of a friend’s house, listening to the quiet of the woods. At the Fairbank’s Museum in nearby St. Johnsbury, the lights have been turned off for hours and all is dark inside the glass display cases, filled with Civil War memorabilia. The checkerboard of Jefferson Davis. Smoothbore rifles. Canteens. Reading glasses. Letters written home.

Four or five miles outside of town, past a long stretch of water where the moon is crossing over, a blue and white house sits in a small clearing not far from where I stand now. Chimney smoke rises from a fire burned down to embers. A couple spoon each other in sleep, exhausted from lovemaking. One of them is beginning to snore. I want them to wake up and make love again, even if they need the sleep and tomorrow’s workday holds more work than they might imagine.

Who can say where that last soldier is now, at this very moment? Kettlemen City. Turlock. Wichita. Fredricksburg. Omaha. Duluth. She may be in the truck idling beside us in traffic as we wait for the light to turn green. He may be ordering a slice of key lime pie at Denny’s, sitting at a booth with his friends after bowling all night. What name waits to be etched on a stone not yet erected in America? Somewhere out in the vast stretches of our country, somewhere out in Whitman’s America, out among the wide expanse of grasses, somewhere here among us the last soldier may lie dreaming in bed before the dawn as the sun sets over Iraq.


At the Spar in Tacoma, Wash., the bartender — Jolene — is about to flip the lights for last call. Let her wait a moment longer. If she can wait a few minutes more, the young woman at the end of the bar will finally do what she’s been wanting to do for hours. And it will surprise the young man she’s been talking with — she’ll kiss him. It will never be seen on a movie screen or written down in a book for people to enjoy centuries later. No one at the bar will even notice it taking place. But they should, because it’s one of the all-time best kisses ever. As cheesy and hyper-romantic as it sounds, this is a kiss for the ages, and it’s as good as they get.


Let the quiet moments of a life be recognized and not glossed over with thoughts of the past or thoughts of the future. For a rare, brief moment — let this moment be savored and fully lived. Maybe that soldier will drive a thresher in the Kansas sun today. Maybe she’ll cheer at a Red Sox game as her husband laments the fate of his Yankees. Maybe he’s in Hollister, Calif., thinking of the 100 things he’d written as a child — the list he titled “Things To Do Before I Die”:

1. write a book
2. travel down the amazon
3. travel down the nile
4. visit each continent
5. live in a foreign country
6. learn to speak foreign languages
7. be a major-league baseball player
8. publish in Playboy magazine
9. ride a motorcycle across America
10. cross an ocean by boat
11. scuba dive
12. climb a mountain
13. go to every major league baseball park, especially Yankee Stadium
14. be a tourist on a moon mission with NASA or another space agency
15. ride on an elephant and a camel
16. visit Angor Wat, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall, the Hermitage, the Louvre, Stonehenge
17. invent something useful and helpful for people
18. …and on and on…

How many items will he have crossed off that list before he must put it away again?


Could that last soldier be in front of a video camera in Hollister right now, recording a final message in case she doesn’t make it back, making a videotape for a child who will never know its own mother?

If you’re watching this then it means I’m not around anymore. I imagine you’re probably in your late teens now. Maybe Mt. Kilimanjaro no longer has snow on its peak. Maybe the ice shelves on the northern coasts of Alaska have melted back and polar bears are dwindling in number. I always wanted to get up there and see Alaska. Maybe you’ll make it up there one day yourself. I wonder if it’s somehow possible for you to buy a plane ticket to Baghdad, to visit Iraq as a tourist. Will you visit the places where I’ve been? Will you talk to the people there? Will you tell them my name?


What will the name be? Anthony. Lynette. Fernando. Paula. Joshua. Letitia. Roger… Who will carve it in stone and who will leave flowers there as the years pass by? Who will remember this soldier and what will those memories be? Does he have brothers and sisters? Will his father sink into the grass in the backyard when he is told the news? Will his mother stare into the street with eyes gone hollow and vacant, the cars passing each day with their polished enamel reflecting the sunlight? What will the officer say when he knocks on that door?


The next time I’m waiting for a transfer flight in Dallas, or in Denver, or in Chicago, I’m going to make a point to watch for soldiers in uniform. If one of them is eating alone and watching football on a wall-mounted television, I’ll anonymously pick up the check for them, like someone did for me once when I was in my desert fatigues and preparing to deploy overseas.


Maybe, just maybe, as I stand here in the quiet moonlight of Vermont, the American who will one day be the very last American soldier to die in Iraq — maybe that soldier is doing a night jump in Ft. Bragg, N.C. Each parachute opens its canopy over the darkness below — the wind an exhilaration, a cold rush of adrenaline, the jump an exercise in being fully alive and in the moment, a way of learning how it feels to fall within the rain, the way rain itself falls, to be a part of it all, the earth’s gravity pulling with its inexorable embrace.

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