Yesterday, a cold, bright autumn day, 4-year-old Faith Cahill, bundled in a white hat and shiny black patent leather shoes, climbed onto her weeping mother's lap. Red and gold leaves floated down and lay on the grass of Arlington National Cemetery.
She watched from the front row as six somber soldiers folded the U.S. flag that had draped the shiny silver coffin of her father, Army Capt. Joel E. Cahill, 34, who was killed in Iraq on Nov. 6. He was on his fourth overseas tour -- after two in Afghanistan and one previous tour in Iraq. He had been gone for most of her life. He was supposed to be home for good in January.
A military band slowly played "America the Beautiful." Maj. Gen. Howard B. Bromberg took the flag in his crisp, white-gloved hands and held it out to her mother, Mary. Faith reached out for it with her little white-mittened hands.
A child giggled.
They say that very young children such as Faith and her sister, Brenna, 3, experience death at least twice -- the first time, as at yesterday's funeral, uncomprehendingly. The children don't understand the words the chaplain said , including "forever," "rest in peace" and "ashes to ashes."
When they are older, maybe 8 or 9, they will realize that death isn't like what they see in cartoons. They will understand that a roadside bomb killed their father as he rode in the passenger seat of a Humvee, near the town of Dawr, about 85 miles north of Baghdad, and that unlike a cartoon character, he can't put himself back together again. It will hit that he really won't be coming home. And they will grieve.
They will have photographs and a box of medals that he was awarded in his 15 years in the Army -- the Bronze Star for valor, the Soldier's Medal and the Purple Heart. And they will have the memories of others.
Perhaps someone will tell them that their father defied Army tradition and that at monthly gatherings at Fort Benning -- not far from his home in Columbus, Ga. -- when everyone was expected to leave children with babysitters, he organized a rebellion among young officers.
"I remember him coming in, holding an adorable little girl in his arms, and another one holding his hand," his friend Maj. Steve Warren said from Iraq. "He just said: 'I decided to bring the girls. Every minute counts.' "
Cahill was born in Norwood, Mass., and later moved to Nebraska. He joined the Army out of high school and received an ROTC officer's commission while at the University of Nebraska.
Cahill was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, the division in which Audie Murphy, the most decorated veteran of World War II, served.
On Cahill's first tour, one of his squads helped support the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch. He had recently taken command of Bravo Company. His death hit hard, said Warren, the brigade's public affairs officer.
"We were devastated. There was an absolute dark cloud over this base for probably a week," he said. They flew two Chinook helicopters with more than 60 high-ranking officers to another base for his memorial.
"We were taking some risks, but he commanded such respect . . . you've got to accept some risks," Warren said.
At the funeral, as Cahill's coffin was lowered from the clattering horse-drawn caisson, Brenna, standing in the front row, turned away. Standing tiptoe, she stretched her arms overhead. Her mother lifted her, and the little girl laid her head on her shoulder.