On Monday morning, the nave of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church was filled with sunlight. About 60 people were clustered in the pews, their black clothing stark beneath the white ceiling and its skylights. Rev. John Cregan stood behind a coffin covered with a white shroud to deliver the homily at the funeral of Spc. Robert Drawl, Jr, a soldier born in 1984 who graduated from T.C. Williams High School in 2003 and was killed by a bomb in Kunar, Afghanistan on August 19.
Cregan connected his memories of being a rifle company commander in Vietnam to Drawls’ experience as an infantryman in Afghanistan. “A long time ago in another war, I felt the same emotions, the loneliness and sometimes the real depression of being so far from family and loved ones.” This loneliness, Cregan said, was a burden that Drawls and his comrades had willingly shouldered when they pledged to serve their country. “At that moment, they give up the right to their own life.”
Later in the service, Drawls’ father-in-law David Chapman explained the bargain Drawls had struck in exchange for the right to his own life. He traded it in for the opportunity to support the lives of his two daughters, Kaylee, 3, and Samantha, 19 months. “You were 20 with a family,” Chapman said, and he’d believed a career in the military was his best chance to earn health insurance and a steady income. Chapman said his young son-in-law’s commitment to take responsibility for his family was an act of courage, “not the courage that has no fear in the face of death, but the courage of facing your fears and doing the job that is expected.”
“Robert,” said Chapman, his voice broken, “we respect you. Robert you are part of the Garner-Chapman family forever. Robert we love you. Robert we will always remember you.”
AFTER DESCRIBING the burden of loneliness that haunts so many soldiers on deployment and their families who have lost them for months, years or forever, Cregan referred to “a constant and a sure hope that the Lord is going to make sense of all the darkness and the trouble in this world, that love will triumph.”
The triumph of love was evident after service, as Drawls’ family, including his mother Yvette Wilson, his sister Jacqui and his father Robert Drawls, Sr., waited to accompany his casket for burial in Arlington Cemetary. Katie Drawls was surrounded by high school friends of her and her husband. They helped contain the rambunctious Kaylee and Samantha. They hugged her. They laugher with her. All of them wore blue – jeans, a shirt, necklaces, a hair band, even Katie Drawls’ fingernails were painted blue - in honor of the favorite color that gave Robert Drawls his nickname, Blu Boi.
“You can’t really classify him,” Steve “Mouze” Escobar said of his friend. He always cared about his family. He always cared about his friends.” To a lesser degree he cared about movies, music, videogames and “the man loved his Jaeger[meister],” Escobar said. But every conversation about Drawls returned to family. “We were all his family,” Escobar said, “30 of us, his mother, his father and us. Everyone he went to school with.”
“He was always the one that listened to you,” said Sarah Weigman, a life-long friend of his sister. “No matter what else was going on in his life he was always willing to put it aside and be brave with you.”
Robert’s death affected those who had never met him. Master Sergeant Bill Lemon spends most workdays in downtown DC coordinating disasters for the Army Corps of Engineers. But last week was his turn to take on the rotating role of casualty assistance officer. He first called the Drawls last Monday, after they had been notified of Robert Drawls’ death. “They all knew Robert very, very well,” he said of the families. “It seems like he was the cornerstone of the three families - the mother’s side, the father’s side and the wife’s side.” Lemon had never worked with grieving families before and he was warned to cordon of his emotions. That became impossible. “They told us to control our emotional feelings. But as the days started to go by I started to learn more about Robert. And I tried not to let this happen, but every day I got closer, like I knew him personally,” Lemon said. “[The funeral], it had an effect on me. I found myself teary eyed.”
“He was the best man I ever knew,” said Nikki Sitgraves, a high school friend of Drawls and his wife. Katie Drawls recalled the time Sitgraves had called when they were living at Fort Drum in New York, where her husband was stationed. Sitgraves’ uncle had died and she was inconsolable. “[Robert] forced the phone out of my hand. I was like ‘She doesn’t want to talk to you,’ He said, ‘She’s gonna hear from me anyway.” The conversation comforted her, Sitgraves said.
But Drawls children meant more to him than anything. “99 percent of the time, when it came down to it, it was for his kids,” his wife said. She and Drawls met in a class during their junior year of high school at T.C. Williams. Before long, Katie Drawls said, “I was spending every single day, every single minute that I wasn’t supposed to be anywhere else, with him.” She looked at something far away, then added, “I’d give anything to be attached at the hip with him right now.”