Before Brandi Anderson begins her senior year at Warner Christian Academy in South Daytona this morning, she'll stuff pencils, paper, and other supplies into a blue and pink-flowered rucksack.
Not that her backpack is the only baggage she carries.
A soul collects much in 10 years. Ten years of unfulfilled memories. Ten years of not being the adored princess. Ten years of looking up into emptiness and not the face of the man who loved her in a way that no other man ever could.
All because 10 years ago her daddy went off to war and never came back.
A decade ago, Brandi had just returned from a school camping trip. "SpongeBob SquarePants" was on, as it often was. It was the then-7-year-old's favorite show, as much for the goofy aquatic star as for the snuggle time with her dad.
That day in May, her mom, Karen, left the front door open to cool the house. Brandi heard a knock, noticed a pair of uniformed men at the door, and rushed her mom off the phone. The news brought a chant of No. No. God. No from her anguished mother.
Only a month before, on April Fool's Day, Petty Officer Michael Charles Anderson, a Navy reservist and a member of the Jacksonville-based Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 14, was deployed to Iraq with a Seabees unit to help rebuild Iraq.
But not before he let Brandi play hooky from school for a daddy-daughter Disney day. Anderson promised his girl he'd be home in October to watch her blow out her birthday candles.
Only, war made him betray that promise.
Insurgents mortared Camp Fallujah in Al Anbar province west of Baghdad. That and another incident made May 2, 2004, the deadliest day in the war for Florida up to that point. Six Floridians died, including the Daytona Beach man who had been quick to whip out a photo to fellow sailors and brag about his little girl.
Mom "called me in, told me he was killed," Brandi recalls. "I was more in disbelief that it happened. It had to be someone else. It couldn't be my dad."
That day, war drafted her into the ranks of living casualties, the estimated 9,360 kids who have lost a war-fighting parent since 9-11, according to the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation in Jacksonville Beach, which is helping Brandi and other children of slain service members with college scholarships and long-term educational counseling.
Like the rest, Brandi has soldiered on.
The 7-year-old who requested an open-casket funeral for her father "so I could see for myself that it was him" vowed to honor him with her life.
That's meant earning good grades. She boasts a 4.5 grade-point average. It means serving others. Many colleges require applicants log at least 100 volunteer hours. Brandi's recorded over 950 hours through myriad pursuits, including summer camps, Boy Scouts, and as a Volusia County Teen Court prosecutor at the Foxman Justice Center. She's shooting for an even thousand.
Busy as she is, there are tiny moments when the huge vacuum in her life sucks her into sorrow.
"When I used to play volleyball, it would be kind of difficult when I looked into the stands and see all the moms and dads," she says. "Mom was always there for me, but it was kind of difficult to see dads there and know he wouldn't be there."
At times like that, memories of him donning silly earrings and a tiara while playing the dress-up game "Pretty Pretty Princess" were little comfort.
And fading memories were no substitute for a proud dad telling Brandi how beautiful she looked in her white gown on the night of her prom, May 3 — the anniversary of the dreadful knock on the door.
You're beautiful, like a princess, gushed her brother Christian, 9, standing in for her dad.
Sweet, but not the same.
Even as she ponders college, her dad isn't far away. Right now, Stetson University tops her list, and not only for its law program.
"My dad used to wear Stetson cologne," she says.
Meanwhile, a decade after she lost him, Brandi is grieved by news of new turmoil in the country that her dad died trying to fix.
"It's just a mess what's going on," she says. "It's really sad and devastating, all the lives and men and women lost because of it."
And the kids like Brandi left clinging to the echoes of dad.
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