In the moments before he would take the stage to deliver his speech commemorating the U.S. Army's 237th birthday, the soldier jackknifed his gaunt frame into a folding chair and ran a hand across his bony jaw.
"I hope I don't fall apart," said Lt. Col. Mark Weber. "The song is asking a lot of me. It doesn't help that I've been sick for five days, but I'm holding it together."
Weber has fought one battle or another for 23 years in the Army, 16 of those away from home. It has earned Weber the Bronze Star and the Combat Action Badge and, most important, the admiration of his family and fellow soldiers.
After serving four years at home, Weber was called back to Afghanistan by then-Gen. David Petraeus, a call he could not, would not turn down. Petraeus had e-mailed Weber personally, offering him an important position previously held by someone two ranks above Weber.
He was flattered and honored.
But "something didn't feel right" inside Weber, so he saw a doctor. Weber's hunch was right. Ironically, his diagnosis arrived on the same day as his orders to go to Afghanistan: He had untreatable cancer that damaged his liver.
So, Thursday night the battlefield was inside him in a persona he calls "Buford," the hulking presence of a cancer that will inevitably kill him. This night's battle was the speech before him, likely his last, and then an emotional duet with his oldest son, Matthew, 16.
The song? "Tell My Father," a story about a dying Civil War soldier that Matthew first sang to him during a Rosemount High School choir recital.
'It was his vision'
Sitting in his rambling Rosemount home and looking out at an ambitious garden and lawn he built out of found chunks of sod, spit and determination, Weber joked with Matthew about how the yard came about.
"It was his vision; we were the workforce," Matthew corrected.
The Webers speak seemingly easily about Mark's impending death. They've had nearly a year for it to sink in, since the day he got the extended family together and told them that "this is going to be a different kind of deployment."
Being a soldier, frequently in the line of danger, Weber had talked about the potential for death with wife Kristin and sons Matthew, Noah and Joshua before. This time it was more tangible.
"Before, it was thinking, 'Is this bullet mine? Is this IED mine?'" said Weber. "But the cancer is right here."
Weber pulled up his T-shirt to show a tube extruding from his belly. "I call it the bullet hole," he said.
This time the bullet, the cancer, is his.
As Weber spoke, an old friend "dropped by," all the way from Australia. Brigadier Gen. Cris Anstey had come for Weber's speech, and Weber immediately started ribbing him in a preposterous Aussie accent.
"I like to have fun, I like to laugh at hardship," said Weber. He was feeling good, so "I'm just me today."
But there are times to be serious, too. "I've told the people around me that they will go through periods," said Weber. "It's OK to be sad, to be mad, to be frustrated. But you can't stay there. You just take a knee, then you get back up again."
Sitting next to his dad on the couch, Matthew talked about what he's learned from his dad.
"He was hard, he expected a lot from us, but I love him," said Matthew. "As a kid I didn't talk to him much, but now I'm more mature and not as afraid to open up to him. He's taught me to be a leader, to be honest, to have humility. He's teaching me to prepare for the world. That's what a father does."
'Fog of war'
Before Weber got up to make his speech, he took off his glasses so that he couldn't see people cry. Then he talked about Buford. He told jokes, he talked about the importance of serving your country and he talked about humility. He also talked about the "fog of war."
"On a daily basis, soldiers make life or death decisions in the blink of an eye in that fog. Never before in our nation's history has so much been asked from so few Americans."
Finally he talked about another unwelcome guest at the back of the room.
"It's death," Weber said. "And I mention him because I see him and hear him once or twice a month, and he whispers in my ear something I'd like to pass along to all of you:
"Live, because I am coming."
It was time to sing, but first Weber had a request. No, an order.
"I need you to keep it together," he told the crowd. "Bury your head in your hands or stick a pen in your leg, I don't care, but keep it together."
In unison, Mark and Matthew Weber began to sing, their deep voices filling the silent hall.
"Tell my father that his son didn't run or surrender. That I bore his name with pride as I tried to remember, you are judged by what you do while passing though...
"Tell my father not to cry, then say goodbye."
They tried to follow orders, the burly guys in uniforms with tear-streaked cheeks, the Army photographer who stepped behind a pillar to wipe away tears, and the man with the shirt that read: "Land of the Free, Home of the Brave."
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