The American flag hung perfectly from the casket, its stripes running precisely across the top, its stars hanging dramatically from the side.
A framed picture propped up nearby showed off Army Sgt. Michael Peek's boyish grin. Bright eyes hinted at a love for life. His military uniform proved a willingness to sacrifice.
"This was not the homecoming I had hoped for," Melanie Link whispered as she slowly walked through the small funeral home chapel.
Each step brought her closer to the casket. Her body shook as she moved. Tears fell faster as she got closer.
By the time she stopped, she could no longer hold herself up.
Dropping to her knees, Link cried out, "Why? Why?"
She reached out to hold onto the casket. She looked down, then back and forth between the flag and the picture.
"You promised you would come back to me," she murmured softly.
Twenty-three-year-old Peek was one of three soldiers killed March 3 when a roadside bomb exploded beside their Humvee in Iraq. Peek, assigned to the German-based 630th Military Police Company, was on his second deployment to Iraq.
His death came just two weeks before he was scheduled to depart Iraq for a two-week leave. He and Link were to be married March 26 in Germany.
Link had to cancel the wedding plans. She and her mother had to come to Isle of Wight County, where Peek's mother and stepfather -- Steve and Kathy Jordan -- live.
And on Friday, Link and Peek's family had to be at Colonial Funeral Home in Smithfield when a silver hearse arrived from Dover Air Force Base, Del., carrying Peek's body.
Six soldiers from Fort Eustis waited for the hearse to arrive. They marched with precision to the vehicle, snapping to attention as the door opened.
As they turned to face Peek's flag-draped casket, they raised their hands in salute.
Then carefully, they pulled the casket from the hearse and marched it past the family.
"You're home. You're home. You're home," Link muttered as she watched the usually private ceremony of delivering the body of a man killed in the line of duty.
Steve Jordan reached out and held Kathy Jordan. Peek's brother, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Justin Peek, hung his head and leaned on his wife, Micah.
And when the casket was placed at the front of the chapel, they wept together.
Moments later, the family started the somber walk to the casket's side.
They took turns standing beside it, whispering their own words to Peek.
"I love you with all my heart," Link said. "Thank you for loving me, for coming into my life."
The tears never fully dried Friday, but the uncontrollable sobs eased when Kathy Jordan looked up and smiled at the picture of Peek. It was like he was smiling back at her, she said.
"That's Michael right there," she said. "That's him all over."
The family left Friday to go home and rest.
It will be back at the funeral home today for a 2 p.m. memorial service and at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday for the funeral.
But when the family members walked out of the chapel, they carried with them a piece of Peek.
In the chapel, Army Sgt. 1st Class Bridgette Davis presented to the family items that returned with Peek.
She gave them the combat action badge that he earned.
She handed over the helmet headband that his comrades used in his memorial service in Iraq.
There was a bag full of unit coins that officers had given to him for his service.
There was a picture of Peek and the soldiers he worked with and died with.
Perhaps most important, though, there was a small black bag.
"In this bag is the identification tags that were on his person," Davis, the family's casualty assistance officer, said as she presented them to Kathy Jordan.
Jordan's hands shook as she held the dog tags, massaging them between her fingers, running her fingers over his name stamped into the metal.
The shiny silvery metal was marred with depressions left by the explosion.
Kathy Jordan wept harder then, her sobs filling the empty chapel.
The dog tags had hung around Peek's neck in his final hours. The metal had touched him directly, probably close to his heart.
Now, in these hard hours, it was Peek's family touched by the tags.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun