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Michael Anderson: Day of heartbreak
On the afternoon of May 3, 2004, Brandi saw two grown-ups in uniform at the front door and called for her mother.
Karen Anderson was on the phone, arguing about a bill, and when she saw the military officials, she dropped the phone.
"Go to your room," she told Brandi sharply.
Brandi, then 7, obeyed, unsure why the uniformed people were there. She knew something was wrong, because her mother used her "crying voice."
Her father, Navy Petty Officer Michael Anderson, had been in Iraq on a rebuilding mission. A naval reservist at the Jacksonville-based Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 14 -- one of the units nicknamed Seabees -- Anderson had enlisted in the reserves as an act of post-9-11 patriotism.
Now, a chaplain and an officer stood at the door. Please tell me he's just injured, not killed, Karen thought.
Chief Petty Officer Mark Campbell motioned for Karen to sit down. He had a script to follow; he could not soften the message. It had to be clear: Your husband is dead.
Karen covered her face with her hands. "No, no, God, no."
She knew it wasn't Campbell's fault. But right then, she needed someone to blame.
"Now that you've ruined my life," she told him, "would you like to ruin my little girl's life, too?"
She pounded on Brandi's door and entered the room.
"He's gone, he's gone," she told Brandi and took her hand. As Brandi wailed, her mother led her into the living room.
One hundred miles away in Auburndale, Alayna and her mother, Donna Ginther, had just left home to run an errand. Alayna wore the dog tags her Seabee dad had sent her from Iraq, for good luck. She never took off them off, not even when she slept.
Suddenly realizing she had left her checkbook at home, Donna turned back and found Navy officers in her driveway.
"Promise me you won't get out of the car," Donna said before slamming the door behind her.
Shaking her head, Donna walked toward the naval officials.
"Tell me," she said. She refused to go inside and sit down. "Tell me. Tell me," she repeated.
The officer's next few words were a blur: On behalf . . . United States . . . regret to inform you . . .
Alayna stepped out of the car.
"Is my daddy dead?" she asked.
"No, don't tell her," Donna begged.
"I don't want my daddy to be dead. I don't want my daddy to be dead," Alayna repeated.
No one corrected her. No one said, No, Alayna, your daddy is fine. Alayna screamed in a voice her mother had never heard.