The two men, killed two years apart, only miles from each other in a remote part of Afghanistan, were laid to rest just two rows from each other. There was something comforting in the random placement.
We walked back to Stephan's grave where Vanessa read aloud recollections of Stephan by his grandfather. I was crying before she finished, as were his friends and teammates who had just returned from their deployment. I walked away at that point, wanting to give them their space to grieve.
After we landed from the medevac mission, someone showed me to an empty bed in the barracks. All of my gear was on a different base, so I curled into a fetal position to stay warm from the absurdly cold air conditioning. I was shivering and finally went to the headquarters to see if anyone had a blanket. No one did. I went back to the bunk.
Shortly afterwards, a tall, angry man, threw me a green wool blanket circa World War II.
"Here!" he yelled and walked away.
His name was Rob Congdon and he was one of the best guys I've met in Afghanistan. He was just grouchy.
I awoke the next morning to learn that eight American soldiers had been killed in the attack. It was one of the deadliest days for U.S. troops in the history of the war in Afghanistan.
I was invited to their home in West Virginia for dinner and to meet family, friends and Stephan's fellow soldiers whom Vanessa had mothered from afar, sending them care packages and helping them to recover.
I drove Vanessa the two hours from Arlington. It was a time for both girl talk and war talk. I explained that I was pale because India is more of an "inside" society where people retreat from the sun instead of tanning in spots like Delhi's beautiful Lodhi Gardens.
"Stephan was really pale when he was home last summer on break," Vanessa said, explaining that his base was so dangerous it wasn't safe for the soldiers to be outside or they risked being shot. She said that the entire time he was home, he kept saying he needed to get back because he was worried about his friends there.
Along the way, we stopped for gas and as I was pumping, Vanessa bought sodas. When she walked back to the car I could see a sarcastic line forming in her head.
"ABC really went all-out for your transportation," she noted, raising her eyebrows at my Toyota Corolla.
"They're not really funding this trip," I replied, wanting her to know that this journey was less about a story and more about my need to meet her. For her, I was an important connection to her son. For me, she was an opportunity to learn about the young man whom I had never met, but had filmed his last moments alive.
When we arrived at the home, in a quiet neighborhood slowly converting from farmland to suburbia, Stephan's grandparents hugged me. Then I was greeted by the family's four dogs, including Sophie the enormous English Mastiff, plus a misogynistic bird named Lola. Vanessa's huge heart extends to animals. She works in a veterinarian clinic and she rescued animals with regularity.