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HIS FINAL RESPECTS

Two young friends follow divergent paths into adulthood. Now one is left to find a fitting tribute to the other, a fallen soldier.

I stood in a crowded room at dusk, head down, eyes shut, hand on the broad red stripe of an American flag. Through the fabric I could feel cold metal. My lips moved but no sound came. I was calling a dead soldier.

"Michael," I whispered. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I wasn't there with you."

Staff Sgt. Michael R. Hullender lay in the closed casket before me. He was 29, an Army Ranger medic, killed in Iraq on April 28 by an improvised bomb.

He was my friend, years ago, when we were boys in metro Atlanta. But I was not one of his brothers. That is what he called fellow soldiers. He was one of the thousands of able-bodied young men who fought and died in Iraq, and I was one of the millions who stayed home.

- - -

I am 27 years old. I have 10 fingers and no criminal record. I can run pretty fast and I have fired a gun. I could go to war if they sent me.

But thanks to others who have volunteered, I am here with my wife, with a good job and an air-conditioned apartment.

I have threatened to join before. My grandfather fought in World War II and Korea, and I thought I wanted to follow him. But I was too busy with my life.

And so, on Sunday, April 29, I played Ultimate Frisbee and went to Chili's for chicken tacos and laughed hard at a movie called Hot Fuzz, and then my mom called and said Michael was dead.

I slumped down and covered my eyes. I wanted to cry but couldn't.

What could I do for the man who gave his life so I wouldn't have to?

What could I give in return?

- - -

Small things.

Ten black armbands with his initials printed silver, rush-delivered from Trophycentral.com.

Five copies of an iTunes mix CD burned in his honor, including the songs Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits, Fix You by Coldplay and Walk On by U2, the live version from America: A Tribute To Heroes.

One trip up the interstate, 482 miles through Florida and Georgia, just in time for the wake. I gave the discs and the armbands to my fellow mourners.

At the funeral the next day, my sister cried and my mother cried and my brother cried but still I could not. The coffin came out of the hearse, flanked by the grizzled riders of the Patriot Guard. Some people saluted. I wanted to but did not: A military salute is a greeting between soldiers.

In the church the major general said Michael was a superior medic who died while serving his brothers. And the preacher said death comes for all of us, and Michael's fiancee said he used to cook her asparagus and halibut and run beside her through the mountains. And they rolled him back to the hearse.

- - -

The graveyard was on a plateau in the North Georgia hills. The day was cool with a light breeze and a white sun. They played the trumpet and fired the guns and they folded the flag very slowly and still I could not cry. Then the Patriot Guard roared away on their Harleys and the Rangers marched off and Michael's family got in a long black car and almost everyone was gone.

But I could not leave yet, not with his body still above the grave. I was not finished. I stood there with my own brothers as the men came to pull up the Astroturf, to dismantle the canopy with a clinking of metal, to turn the crank and lower the coffin.

They took apart the lowering apparatus and pulled away the network of boards. They placed the lid on the vault, painted with an unfurling flag, with his name and his date of birth and his date of death. They shoveled clay down on the coffin and it spilled red across the flag.

I stood as straight as I could.

"Michael," I said. "I don't deserve to do this. But please accept my salute. Please. It's all I have to give."

And for the first time that day I cried, with my right hand pressed to my brow, for the soldier he was, and the one I was not.

Thomas Lake can be reached at toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245, or tlake@sptimes.com.

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