Leah Andrews, 19

Air Force Master Sgt. Evander Andrews, 36

Died Oct. 10, 2001

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Leah Andrews hit “play” on her phone as she sat on the floor of her North Carolina dorm room. She would let herself watch one video. Not like her first Oct. 10 away from home, when she binged for hours on YouTube homecoming scenes: All those men in olive drab, just back from war, popping up in classrooms and at soccer practice; all those daughters screaming, throwing arms around their fathers, tears of elation.

For Leah, just tears.

This time, the 19-year-old pledged, no videos of other dads. Just a few seconds of the dad who would never get that kind of homecoming. She’d found an old VHS tape of her parents and recorded a few seconds by pointing her phone at the TV screen. Now, the shaky images cast a faint blue glow on Leah’s coppery hair, her gray eyes. The tiny couple on the screen sliced a wedding cake. The groom’s laugh filled the dorm room.

“I think this was the happiest day of their lives,” Leah said.

Her own memories are hazy. Her dad’s legs sticking out from under his truck when she went outside to play. He once pretended to be devastated that they had eaten all the Cap’n Crunch. He called her “Silly Goose.”

He was quiet. Her mom says she is the same quiet.

If the wedding was his best day, she doesn’t know much about his worst, except the date: Oct. 10, 2001. Rushing to finish an airfield in Qatar in the opening days of the war, Air Force Master Sgt. Evander Andrews, 36, became its first military casualty when he was crushed by a forklift.

Thirteen years later, Leah can still see her mother collapsed and sobbing on the bed. She remembers swearing to her 6-year-old self that she would never do anything to make her mom cry again. So now, the sophomore at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C., turned off the video and gathered her books for class. At home, there were traditions. Her sisters, Courtney, now 17, and Mackenzie, now 15, would slip on their father’s dog tags. Her mom would e-mail teachers to warn that the girls might be emotional.

But Leah was on her own, finding new ways to grieve on the day they always set aside for grieving. She looked for one of the aging flannel shirts that had long ago stopped smelling like her dad, but they were all at home. She took the Air Force-issue Randolph Aviator sunglasses displayed above an encased triangle-folded flag. They were too big for her narrow face, so she hooked them onto her collar — something he carried to carry her through the day.

A classmate coming out of the library stopped. “Hey Leah,” she said. “I saw your Facebook posting. How are you?”

“I’m okay.”

Sometimes the expressions of sympathy were annoying, especially the I-know-how-you-feel ones. “Not if you have a dad at home, you don’t,” Leah would think.

But sometimes, they helped. Her friends knew just to be there, knew that Oct. 11 would bring back their exuberant, photography-loving friend who was excited to become an interpreter for the deaf.

“Tell me if you want to talk,” Erica Wright said, getting up in the dining hall to hug her friend. “Hang in there,” her boyfriend texted when Leah got weepy in her morning sign language class. She apologized to the teacher. “That’s okay,” he signed, thumping his shirt with his thumb.

Before putting her bag down in religion and culture, she told another professor she was having a hard time concentrating, and why. He looked at her. “I can empathize,” he said. “December 12th is my day.” She felt like hugging him.

Midday, sitting in the campus Chick-fil-A, she sent her mom, Judy, their first communication of Oct. 10, 2014. “Made a 100 on my religion and culture exam,” Leah texted.

“Way to go Idaho!” Judy answered.

Her mom was coming to pick her up later, after she finished classes and her shift at an American Eagle store.

At 10 p.m., Judy pulled up outside the mall, ready to drive her oldest child home for a weekend visit. “Hi, Mama,” Leah said, leaning over to give her a long hug.

Faces of the Fallen

Find out more about the service members who have died in Afghanistan since 2001.