April is a month full of promise, new life, and change. And no matter what is going on in my life this time of year, my mind always drifts to thoughts of my friend, Kevin Gaspers. We were cadets together at UNL, as well as good friends. Throughout those 4 years of ROTC, our class was about as tight knit as we could be and we spent nearly every waking moment together. And as if spending Monday through Fridays together weren’t enough, we spent every Sunday night at the Plamor Ballroom, 2-stepping and swing dancing the night away. To this day, every time I hear a Chris Ledoux song, I remember how excited Kevin got, a scarce moment in his laid-back demeanor. He and I shared the same birthday and celebrated together every year we could. He chewed tobacco and one year, I bought him a can of skoal, put a candle on top of it, and told him it was his birthday cake. He said it was the best cake he ever got.
Our senior year, Kevin was at the top of the class, earning the position of Cadet Battalion Commander (a very big deal to us back then). He was one of the most dedicated Soldiers I’ve ever known. It was no surprise that when he got to his unit at Fort Bragg, he immediately excelled. When we weren’t working 12-hour-plus days, he and some of our friends found a little country dance hall in town and saw the potential to re-create our favorite college hang out. We went once or twice before Kevin deployed to Iraq with his unit. The night before he left, we took him out to dinner and movie. I gave him a hug in the movie theatre parking lot and it never entered my mind that I might never see him again. He was killed in action April 23, 2007.
That April was also the beginning of the 2007 Soldier Show tour, where I was on tour for for about 6 months. We were hitting rehearsals hard, preparing for opening night only a few days away. During one of our rare and treasured breaks from drilling choreography and harmonies, I checked my voice mail. I found it odd that I had so many missed calls so early and from people who I didn’t speak to on a regular basis. The first message was from my best friend Deb, calling to see if I was ok, but she didn’t say why I wouldn’t be. That's when my heart first flipped. The next message was from my friend and ROTC classmate, Carole. That's when my heart stopped. I didn’t even listen to the message, I called her immediately. The words had barely left her mouth when tears began to fall uncontrollably down my face. It was sheer shock and denial. We cried together on the phone for a long time.
The very next day was dress rehearsal for the show. I was still crying on and off throughout the day, but able to collect myself enough to practice. However, I dreaded having to perform my solo that night. Dress rehearsals are always treated as a performance. You don’t cut, you don’t try it again, and you give it your absolute all. My solo in the show was about a Soldier writing a letter home and telling loved ones, “It ain’t too high a price to pay, if I die before you wake.”
I thought I could be strong. I thought I could separate emotion from work. I sat down at the piano feeling confident and played the first chord of the song. Before I could so much as squeak out a syllable, I crumbled into tears on stage. A few awkward moments went by as I struggled to go on. Thank God the director had pity on me and yelled, “Cut.” But I still had a real performance the very next day, not to mention 80 more after that. I suddenly worried that I would never be able to sing that song without crying. Somehow, the next night, I did it. It was shaky, I was nervous, but I did it.
Today I recorded the song, “If I Die Before You Wake” for background music to the slide show below and surprisingly, I still cracked and got choked up several times. I guess Kevin is still burned into my memory as a friend and Soldier who I can always count on. A mid-western boy who can be all business, but still have a streak of goofiness. The responsible and over-acheiving son, brother, and buddy who never got a proper goodbye from me and so many others. The last person in the world to deserve to leave this earth so early, but one of the first to deserve the honor, respect, and love that comes with being a fallen Soldier and hero.
Today is his birthday. He would have been 29.
1LT Kevin Gaspers, KIA 23 APR 07, As Sadah Iraq
"If I Die Before You Wake" - Dustin Evans