Moments after Karen Eggleston learned that her husband had been killed in Afghanistan, the couple's oldest daughter, Molly, returned from a fun day at preschool.
"She said 'Mommy, what's wrong with you?'" Karen said. "You look like you're going to cry."
Karen's casualty assistance officer knelt down and told Molly, 4, that her father, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Eggleston, wouldn't be coming home from Afghanistan. The terrible news was too much for Karen's little girl to process.
"I said that Daddy was in a car accident, he hit his head, and he's in heaven," Karen painfully recounted. "And she said, 'but that means I'll never see him again.'"
Years before military messengers arrived at her Raeford, N.C., doorstep on April 26, 2012, Karen was drawn to Brandon's outgoing, unwavering personality.
"He was a person that was very determined," she said. "He was always seeking a challenge."
When the young couple began discussing marriage, Brandon told Karen that he was thinking about joining the military. Fearing for his safety, she was "totally against" the idea until Brandon explained his rationale.
"If I'm not willing to fight for this country, I'm not worthy of enjoying its freedoms," he said.
The couple married in 2007. Two years later, Brandon was heading to Afghanistan as a member of the U.S. Army's elite 4th Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), based out of North Carolina's Fort Bragg. While she called the first deployment "very, very difficult," Karen credited fellow Army wives for helping her young family weather the storm.
"Molly wasn't even one year old when he deployed, so I felt like he was just missing out," she said. "(But) we had very good communication."
Brandon's second overseas combat tour was even more challenging.
"I was pregnant with our second child during that deployment, so I was extra emotional," said Karen, noting that the deployment ended happily with the birth of their youngest daughter, Avery. "He came back early in time for our child to be born."
Just before midnight on Jan. 4, 2012, with their two little girls asleep in the back seat, Karen dropped Brandon off at Fort Bragg for his third combat tour, which the couple knew would be the riskiest deployment of all.
"Everyone knew it was going to be a very, very dangerous place where they were going," she said. "He never really got upset too much before he deployed, but this time, he had a hard time going in."
After hugging his precious daughters and beloved wife, Brandon vanished into the darkness. For months, he would be running perilous combat missions to find high-value targets.
"Daddy's got to go over there and get the bad guys so they don't come over here and hurt you," the soldier told his daughters before he left.
Karen talked to Brandon as often as possible during what tragically wound up being the last four months of his life. After one particularly difficult phone call, during which the soldier said how much he missed home, Karen sat down and wrote him a two-page letter.
"It was just telling him exactly how I felt -- how proud I was of him -- about how the girls were proud of him," she said.
On April 26, 2012, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Eggleston, 29, was killed in Afghanistan's Ghazni province alongside Navy LT Chris Mosko, 28, Army Staff Sgt. Dick Lee Jr., 31, and a military working dog, Fibi. The Pentagon said their vehicle struck an enemy improvised explosive device.
Speaking two years after Brandon left for his final deployment, Karen recalled several poignant moments during the difficult days following his death.
"I met so many people telling me stories," Karen, 30, said. "He just touched so many peoples' lives, and I had no idea."
The day after her father's death, young Molly sat alone in her family's front yard. As relatives tended to her youngest daughter, Karen went outside and asked the 4-year-old how she was coping.
"Mommy, I'm happy," the little girl said, prompting her surprised mother to ask why.
"I'm happy because daddy is in heaven," Molly continued. "He can see everything that we do, and he'll always be with us."
Tom Sileo, Creators Syndicate, 5777 W. Century Blvd., Suite 700, Los Angeles, CA, 90045.