Private First Class Billy Mellon of Glasgow, Kentucky, was stationed at Fort Liberty in Baghdad, Iraq, as part of the US Army 4th Infantry Division. He had been overseas for close to eighteen months serving America as a vital cog in the wheel of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He had been a part of building sewerage systems, schools and electrical plants, as well as taking part in the capture or eradication of insurgent radical Islamist terrorists. Billy and his fellow soldiers fought these terrorists in the streets, farmlands and deserts of four provinces: Baghdad, Babil, Karbala and Najaf—and the battles were far from over.
It seemed that everyone in the Army had a nickname and in Billy's case his buddies referred to him as Private Bluegrass, or the short version...Bluegrass! There was a good reason for the said moniker. Aside from the Army and a few short but sweet romantic interests, the twenty-year-old, light assault infantryman's entire life revolved around Bluegrass music. He had played guitar and banjo since he was a little boy growing up on the Mellon family's eighty-acre, tobacco farm that was located just a bit south of Glasgow on the road to Tompkinsville.
Billy figured, when his stint in the service came to an end, he would try to make a living with strings. Many times after a tough day routing out insurgents and dodging rocket propelled grenades, Billy would lie in his bunk and picture himself “pickin' banjer” in Rhonda Vincent's band, or perhaps playing acoustic guitar and singing high harmony with the Grascals or Mountainheart.
Before joining up with Uncle Sam a few years back, Billy did some pickin' with a few local bands in Kentucky, but most of his musical experience came from sitting on the front porch with his dad in the early evenings. They would pick and sing old Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs tunes together long after the sun went down, usually with his father on guitar and Billy on banjo.
Private Bluegrass could really pick and that was a fact. Last Christmas, the Glasgow Lions Club had sent Billy an old Deering Goodtime Banjo. The instrument was broken in two places and the strings were really dead and old but, when the time was right, Billy would pick on that thing for the entire division. He almost made the old banjo sound brand new. Billy owned a much nicer, Deering Sierra model at home. He was looking forward to playing it again!
Bluegrass was quite the young man. He was a darn good soldier, too—the kind of man one wanted standing beside of him when things got dicey. He was a strong and tough kid who cared about America, freedom, protection and family.
Billy's immediate family only consisted of three people. His father Jake Mellon was a big strapping kind of guy who not only raised the tobacco and grew some corn on the old farm but also worked full time for a roofing company. His mom, Lila, was the absolute sweetest woman on earth and perhaps the finest cook in the whole state. Then, of course, there was Billy, the only child of Jake and Lila who, like his dad before him, now proudly served in the United States Army.
Jake had served in Viet Nam and his Army picture had hung in the hallway at home for as long as Billy could remember. Jake never talked about the war in Southeast Asia, but his Purple Heart and Bronze Star in the desk drawer spoke volumes about his experience there. Billy always thought of his dad as a true American hero and wanted to be just like him.
Now serving in Iraq, young Billy had accomplished just that. He had become his father for certain, and in so doing, he now possessed a better understanding of Jake then ever before. A good, hardworking and patriotic man, who loved his family, loved his farm and loved his country. Even though the good old US of A had let him down a bit after he came home from Nam, Jake got over all of that and now proudly flew the Stars and Stripes in his front yard. He was proud of his time spent in country, and he was also very proud of his son for joining up to serve America, as he had done in the late sixties.
Billy found it hard to believe that he was approaching his second Christmas away from home. Billy so loved Christmas. His boyhood memories of growing up in Kentucky sometimes seemed so far away and removed from the nightmare world where he now resided on most days. But he could still easily conjure up visions of Christmas mornings at the farm. The big, freshly cut fir tree. The decorations and lights his Mom kept in boxes in the barn attic for most of the year that would now illuminate the entire house. The smell of Christmas dinner, the neighbors, and even preacher Jones from the Baptist church, stopping by to visit and having a piece of one of Lila's freshly baked pies.
Then there were the special presents that were just for him. Wrapped in pretty paper and bows, they waited beneath the great tree for little Billy to run down the stairs on Christmas morning and open. These were such happy memories for the young soldier. How he wished he were home right now waiting for that magical Christmas morning to arrive.
Many times Billy would finger his Army-issued, M-4 Carbine weapon complete with lasers and a night vision scope and think back to that first Browning 22 caliber rifle his Dad had placed under the beautiful Christmas tree when he was just ten years old. Billy absolutely loved that rifle. It still rested in a hallowed corner of the closet in his bedroom.
The best Christmas memories of all though, had to be the variety of smells that permeated the house. The turkey, the freshly baked pumpkin pie, the cookies, and then there was the smell of the tree itself, which seemed to just overwhelm the entire house with its sweet aroma.
Billy was daydreaming about the smell of the fir tree when a staff sergeant by the name of Bingham called out to him and interrupted his thought pattern.
“Hey, Bluegrass, got a package for ya kid. Come on over here!”
It was just a few days before Christmas and many of the guys were receiving gifts from home. Billy knew the package was coming, because he had received an email about it from his mom a few days ago. It was cool that serviceman and woman could get access to emails from home, and Billy took advantage of that when he had the chance. Lila had an Apple computer and had learned how to use email, but Jake never touched the thing. The thought made Billy smile as he ran towards sergeant Bingham and retrieved his Christmas package from Glasgow, Kentucky.
“Thanks, Sarge,” he said.
“You betcha, kid, gotta love the Army. They can get a package from Kentucky to Bedrock, but can't find Osama,” laughed Bingham. “By the way, Bluegrass, new orders coming in as well. Big doings coming down on Christmas Eve, so get psyched man.”
“What's up?” asked Billy.
“Best of my knowledge we are taking a heavy convoy into Tekrit on the morning of the 24th. Gonna come down heavy on some bad guys. We have good Intel on this one, too. I hear there are a few Al-Queda boys in the bunch. Should be a good fight...Merry Christmas!”
“Yeah, Sarge,” answered Billy. “Same back atcha.”
Billy rushed back to his makeshift barracks to open his package. He was trying not to think about the orders for the 24th. He had learned long ago not to bog himself down worrying about what was to come. You relied on your training and your buddies to do the right thing and get the job done with as few casualties as possible. He would be there, as usual, on the front line of the war on terror, and he WOULD do his job. America counted on him and he would not let her down.
Billy stood in line for well over two hours waiting for his turn at the computer. He finally sat down and wrote a short email to his mom. It read in part: Thanks so much for the candy bars, the underwear and the cookies, but thanks a million for the iPod, Mom. This is HUGE! I have to find out how you did it. There are over a thousand songs on here. THANK YOU, THANK YOU and THANK YOU some more! Please give Dad a big hug for me, too. I miss you both so very much. Keep me in your prayers, Mom, and God Bless you both. Merry Christmas! I Love You Dearly, Billy
The iPod was chock full of Bluegrass songs by every artist imaginable, from Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder to Bill Monroe and Allison Krause. His mom had even sent a USB connector so that he could plug the iPod into a computer and charge it up from time to time.
This was the greatest gift he could have ever received. “How in the world did she ever get this done?” Billy continued to ponder.
The evening of December 23rd found Billy in his bunk reading his Bible and listening to Jim Mills play banjo on his iPod. His mom knew that Mills was his favorite modern day banjo player. Billy eventually fell asleep and dreamed about the big tree in the living room at home. His father was sitting in his favorite chair softly picking his old Martin guitar and his sweet mother was in the kitchen baking.
Private First Class William Mellon, also known as Private Bluegrass, would be shipping out early the next morning for the very dangerous town of Tekrit. “Should be a good fight!” he thought, echoing Sergeant Bingham, as the sound of Jim Mills banjo version of “Standing In The Need Of Prayer” pounded through the tiny ear buds of Billy's brand new iPod.
About the same time, just south of Glasgow, Kentucky, Lila Mellon logged out of her Yahoo email account and shut down the Mac Book Pro laptop her husband had bought her as a birthday gift. She made her way back to the kitchen area of the humble farmhouse where she and Jake resided, joining the man she had loved and adored since her senior year of high school at the table. Jake was reading the latest issue of the Tompkinsville Gazette.
“Billy received his package with the iPod,” whispered Lila. “He is one happy camper!”
Jake looked up and smiled at his loving wife. “I miss my son, “ he said softly.
“So do I, honey!”
She reached across the table and grasped both of Jake's hardworking hands in her own and shut her eyes.
“Say a prayer, Jake. Say a prayer for Billy.”
Jake closed his eyes and began to speak softly and humbly.
“Dear Precious and Heavenly Father. I am a simple man, and I do not claim to know how or why things happen as they do, but I want you to know that I love you, Lord, As always, my wife and I pray that your will be done in all things concerning this family. We do ask, in all humility, to watch over our son. Protect him, Lord, and bless him as he and his friends serve you and serve this nation in a dangerous corner of the world. I know it is a lot to ask but, if it you can see your way clear to even consider it, please send him home to us this Christmas...Amen.”
Jake had to stop speaking. He was overcome with emotion at his own words. He rose up from the table and took Lila in his arms and held her. They both wept like little children.
At 0500 the following morning Billy found himself standing in a long line of young men and woman who shared a common goal. They were stoked and ready for whatever the day might bring. They would follow their orders and fight the enemies of the free world. They were prepared to die if necessary for this cause and, no doubt, some of them would indeed not see the evening sunset. Their convoy of humvees would plow into Tekrit and rendezvous at an appointed destination, and the battle would begin. As in so many times past, Billy would whisper a silent prayer asking the Lord for protection for he and his comrades. He would humbly ask for a successful mission and would always ad “nevertheless, Thy will be done,” as his Mother had taught him to pray so many years ago. Billy was about to enter the shotgun seat of the lead humvee when he heard the course voice of his commanding officer.
“Private First Class Mellon, front and center, soldier. And I mean right now!”
Billy jumped to attention, while at the same time wondering just why in the world the CO was calling his name.
The answer came immediately.
“The President and the Pentagon have decided to send one hundred soldiers home for Christmas. Names were drawn from a hat and your name was one of them. You are going home, son.”
Billy's heart jumped. “What?” he wondered.
“But, sir, with all due respect we have this mission and...”
“You have no choice in the matter, soldier,” answered the CO. “Pack light, because you are coming right back after Christmas!”
“Sir, I just do not understand this, I mean, I am grateful and all, and I would love to go home. But I can't leave my friends in a lurch here. I mean I have to...”
“Private, the US Army will get along just fine over here without you. Now be on board that transport to the airport by 0600 hours. That is a direct order. One day to get home, one day there and one day to get your behind back to Baghdad. That is all!”
It was a miracle of gigantic proportions. Private Bluegrass was now on his way home to Glasgow, Kentucky, while the rest of his division made their way to Tekrit. On this Christmas Eve morning those soldiers would come face to face with one of the toughest and perhaps the bloodiest battle of the entire war.
So it was around noon on Christmas day when Billy Mellon walked down the long gravel driveway towards the home of his childhood. His mother Lila was in the kitchen removing a pumpkin pie from the oven and Jake was sitting in the living room by the tree watching Jimmy Stewart on the television. Although he had seen Clarence get his wings a million times, he still always fought back a tear when the bells on the tree began to ring. Every time a bell rings an angel gets his...
”JAKE, OH JAKE! Come here! It's BILLY! It's BILLY!”
Jake Mellon immediately jumped three feet in the air and right out of his chair in response to the sound of his screaming wife. Without even thinking he found himself running towards the front door, beating Lila there by about a step and a half. When he threw the door open he nearly tore the thing off its hinges.
Within seconds he was holding his only son deep within his arms. With tears welling up in his eyes he finally backed away from the boy and let his wife repeat the procedure. Lila was also crying as she hugged her Billy and proceeded to rock him back and forth as if he were five years old and had just arrived home with a skinned up knee after a romp in the woods.
Lila began to giddily talk like a cartoon character.
“Oh Billy, why are you home? What a shock...what a surprise...I hope we have enough food...I only prepared for me and your father... oh, sweet Jesus...there are no presents under the tree for you... we didn't expect...praise His Holy Name...I...”
She near fell over and might have had Jake not grabbed her arm and held on to it.
“Mom, Dad, it is okay, really,” said Billy just now putting down his lightly packed duffel bag. “I am only here for a day. They picked my name out of a hat and anyway...I go back to Iraq tomorrow.”
Jake picked up the boy's bag in his meaty hand and said, “Then let us enjoy this blessed day with our son. I will take this up to your room, Billy. It hasn't changed a bit since you left home.”
Billy followed his father up the stairs, leaving Lila standing there by the still open front door. She was mumbling and praying at the same time, but Jake figured she would be okay soon, and he was right.
Lila had plenty of food. She had prepared a beautiful turkey, fresh corn, green beans, cranberries, mashed potatoes and plenty of gravy. Then came the pies. There were three to choose from...pumpkin, apple and raspberry. Billy ate a small piece of each one.
He had only dreamed of a meal such as this while in Afghanistan and then Iraq. There was enough here to feed an army. Well, an Army of One, anyways.
He laughed at the thought. This whole experience seemed surreal to Billy. It was like a dream. How very sweet to be home on the farm with his mom and dad on Christmas day. How very sweet indeed.
The sun goes down early in Kentucky around December 25th, and the early evening found Billy and his dad sitting in the living room with a banjo and guitar in hand. They didn't say a word for almost two hours. They just picked song after song as they had always done. Lila sat on the couch and took it all in. The two men is her life, sitting together, playing and singing. This was as it should be, and she was so very thankful.
Billy did not want to talk about the war, and Jake did not push the matter. During a break in the music, however, Billy said, “They call me Private Bluegrass!”
Jake smiled and Lila asked, “What if you get a promotion?”
“I guess I would be Corporal Bluegrass,” answered Billy.
Jake saw an opening. “How tough is it over there, son?”
“Pretty tough, Dad, but not like you keep seeing on the news. We are doing a lot of good. I am proud of all those who are serving. The big problem is not knowing who the enemy is. You learn to trust somebody. Then, next thing you know, that guy you thought you knew drives up in a car and ‘boom.' Everything blows. People die!” Billy's voice trailed off a bit.
“Been there, son. Sounds like Nam!”
“Just keep praying for us guys. We are going to win this thing with God's help.”
“We never stop praying for you, son,” said Lila.
“I know, Mom. I love you both so much. This has been such a blessing to be here with you both, even for this short time. It is the greatest Christmas gift a soldier could ever receive.”
Billy put the banjo in its case and continued, “I am so tired, I think I will head up to my room and hit the sack.”
He hugged his mom and dad and slowly walked up the stairs to his bedroom carrying his banjo case. It was a beautiful sight. At the top of the stairs Billy turned and smiled. To her dying day, Lila would always remember that smile.
Lila and Jake's bedroom was on the first floor, and very soon after they heard Billy's door softly close upstairs, they went on to bed as well. This had been a very emotional day and the Mellon family was just exhausted.
Jake woke up with the sun as he always did. He proceeded to the kitchen and cranked up the coffee pot. As he poured his first cup of Folgers his eye caught some movement in the driveway. A car was pulling up in front of the house. It seemed to be a rather official looking car at that.
Police? Government? He thought.
Three men got out of the car and proceeded up the stone steps to the front door. Sheriff Bentley was one of the men. Reverend Jones was there and the third man wore the unmistakable uniform of the United States Army. Jake did not know this man, and the sight of all those medals hanging there on his chest made his blood run cold.
Something was wrong with this picture. Had Billy done something wrong? Was he A.W.O. L.? Or worse? Had he committed a crime?
The soft knock on the door shook Jake out of his present thought pattern. Why such a soft knock?
Lila appeared at his side in her housecoat as he opened the door. She instinctively held on to his arm as the three men entered the house and took a seat in the living room.
Lila and Jake sat down as well. The lights on the tree continued to blink. The little red and green and white bulbs seemed oblivious to the darkening mood that began to permeate the air of the Mellon home.
The sheriff and preacher continued to say absolutely nothing at all, but their expressions spoke volumes.
This was going to be bad, thought Jake. Things seemed to be moving in slow motion. Although the men had only been inside the house for a minute or so, it was beginning to seem like they had been there for hours.
“Mr. and Mrs. Mellon, I am Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Bell. I am sorry to tell you that your son Private First Class William Mellon was killed in action yesterday in the city of Tekrit in Iraq. I am so sorry.”
Jake and Lila were stunned.
Bell continued. “Your son is a hero. I have brought you this commendation, and I am honored yet saddened to present you with this Purple Heart and Bronze Star. May God bless and comfort you both.”
“I am so sorry Jake,” said the sheriff rising from his chair.
“I am here for you both if you need me,” said the preacher.
Bell stood and continued, “You son's body will be shipped home in a few days. He has earned the right to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. I will be glad to help with...”
Lila finally stood straight up and interrupted the highly decorated Lieutenant Colonel.
“This is ridiculous, preposterous and beyond words. What is wrong with you people? My son is alive. He is here in this house. He is, in fact, upstairs in his bed as we speak!”
Jake was still feeling a chill in his bones as he walked up the stairs. He proceeded down the hall and opened the door to Billy's room. He proceeded to feel even colder as he opened the door and stared at the empty bed. Billy was not in bed. Billy was not in the room. Billy was not anywhere in the house. There was no sign that he had ever been there.
The banjo was in its case and leaning against the wall by the bed, just as it had been before last night's picking circle. The small duffel bag was nowhere to be seen. The bed seemed just as untouched as it had been for the previous eighteen months Billy had been overseas.
Lila Mellon fainted dead out on the floor of the empty bedroom.
Long after the three men had left. Lila and Billy sat in silence on the living room couch. They were bewildered and shaken and by now all cried out, although many tears would be shed over the next few weeks and beyond.
Jake turned on the lamp, put on his reading glasses and began to carefully unfold the piece of paper that had been presented with the two medals. The commendation was actually in the form of a personal letter.
He began to softly read the words to his wife.
My Dear Mr. and Mrs. Mellon
On December 24, 2006, Private First Class William Mellon's unit was ambushed in the town of Tekrit. The humvee in which he was riding was hit broadside by a rocket propelled grenade, which killed two soldiers and wounded three others including PFC Mellon. A bloody battle ensued with armed insurgents that lasted over four hours. With complete disregard to his own injuries, Mellon dragged the wounded soldiers, one by one, to the safety of a building, all the while answering the enemy with small arms fire. Most of his unit was pinned down behind their humvees. After ascertaining where the heaviest fire was coming from, Mellon on his own initiative proceeded to attack the position. Utilizing grenades and his M-4 Carbine, he managed to kill twelve insurgents, thereby, compromising their position and softening the attack long enough to allow his division to move forward and overcome the enemy.
Seven US Soldiers paid the ultimate price in this battle, including PFC Mellon, who unfortunately succumbed due to the severity of his wounds. I am saddened and sorry for the loss of such a fine soldier. I wish I knew the right words to say, but there are no words that can comfort a mother and father in a time like this.
On behalf of the United States Army and the President of The United States, I thank you for this soldier. He was among the best of us. I am so sorry for this immeasurable loss. May God bless and comfort you both on this day.
General Robert F. Girard
Fort Liberty, Iraq
PS: The men all loved him. They called him Private Bluegrass. He was a good man.
Jake passed the letter and the two medals to Lila. She read over the letter and held the two medals close to her heart.
“I am so bewildered, my dear husband. He was here. I know he was here. We could not have imagined this.”
“Lila, he WAS here. I believe his presence in this house was a Christmas gift from the Heavenly Father who knows and understands our hearts much better than we do. God heard our prayer around the table a few nights ago and saw fit to send Billy home to us for Christmas. I will be grateful to Him for the rest of my life for giving us this miracle.”
Lila nodded in agreement, however she was still brokenhearted.
“Honey, listen to me,” Jake went on. “Remember the first Christmas Day when Mary gave birth to a son and laid him in a manger? She and Joseph knew their little boy would one day grow up and sacrifice his own life for others. Jesus himself once said that there is no greater love then to lay down one's life for his friends. Our son was here, Lila. I believe that as much as I believe anything. Our son also sacrificed his life...for his friends...for his parents...and for this country.”
“This is all true enough, honey, but it is so hard.” Lila replied softly. “How will we ever get over this?”
Jake put his arms around his wife and held on to her for a long time.
“God will get help us through, my dear wife. So will the memory of our dear son. Although he now rests in the Everlasting Arms, his spirit will always live in this house. We will never stop missing Billy. There will always be a hole in our hearts and our lives, but we will move on. Minute by minute, day by day, and someday we will see our son again. I believe this Lila. I really do.”
“I believe all of that too, Jake, but as a mother...I am really going to need some help.”
“I know, sweetheart. I know.”
Jake and Lila sat in silence for most of the day and stared at the blinking lights of the Christmas tree.
Early evening began to descend upon the Mellon farm.
Lila was now fast asleep on the couch still clutching Billy's medals to her chest.
Jake made himself a turkey sandwich and then slowly walked upstairs and entered the bedroom of his son. He walked over to the bed in the semidarkness and turned on the small lamp, which sat atop a piece of antique furniture that had been there since Billy was little. A lamp stand of sorts, it was made of cedar and contained one tiny drawer and two small shelves.
A Lila thing, he thought. The rest of the room was all Billy. There was not one empty space on the walls. Along with the University of Kentucky Wildcat stuff, there were old concert posters. Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys...LIVE. Renfro Valley...August 8th. FLATT and SCRUGGS...Grand Ol' Opry...Tonight! See THE DEL McCOURY BAND...October 6th at Western Kentucky University Field House.
Then there was also a huge US ARMY poster. Jake laid his head back on Billy's pillow and stared at that one for a while.
Be a part of HISTORY. Join TODAY. The ARMY of ONE!
Indeed, he thought. How strange that his son also earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, just as he had done in 1966. Sometimes he could still smell the napalm and, even now, both legs began to ache from the old wounds that still haunted him. That was another time and another war, but somehow he and his boy had experienced the same thing.
Except that I am still alive with the memories, he thought. Oh God, I would happily trade places if I could!
Without really thinking he reached over to switch off the lamp and noticed that the drawer in the lamp stand was partially open. Jake could have sworn it was closed when he had turned on the lamp.
He gently pulled the drawer open all the way and immediately his heart started to pound harder. He thought he might pass out as his wife had done in this very room a bit earlier. There in the open drawer lay Billy's iPod. The very one that Lila had sent overseas for Christmas. Some boys at church had loaded it up with about a thousand songs or more and...but it was HERE! Billy HAD been here, too.
Jake lay back down on the bed and fumbled around with the tiny piece of technology, which was for the most part way beyond his fields of expertise. However, he finally figured out how to turn the thing on and did just that. He heard the music emanating from a distance, so he placed the tiny ear buds in his ear and shut off the lamp.
Jake Mellon laid there in the darkness of the bedroom of his only son and listened to Jim Mills picking his banjo version of “Standing In The Need Of Prayer.”
The big man could not hold back the tears.
The battles were over for Billy Mellon.
Private Bluegrass...was HOME!