Disclaimer: I do not own the Hardy Boys.

This story is dedicated to all the men and women who have served, and are serving, in the military.

With a grateful heart, I thank you for your service.

This story is told from Joe Hardy's perspective. He is 26 years old.

I arrive at the airport early. Shoes polished, uniform pressed. My buddy, Jack, stayed at the airport last night. We're on the final leg of a long journey home.

Jack and I served together in Afghanistan. MPs. Military police. Jack has a wife and two little boys. I've seen pictures of them. In the desert, Jack never stopped talking about them. Pictures were plastered all over his bunk. His wife's beautiful and the boys are the spitting image of Jack. Probably hellcats, too, just like Jack.

I head to my gate. Travelers hustle past me. Everyone's in a hurry. Everyone's got a place to be. It's all hustle and bustle here in the States.

The States. It's strange to be back. The airport is huge. Bigger than anything in Afghanistan. And the choices. There's so many of them. Want something to eat? Three or four choices are within a few feet. Want a book? Several options available. Want a drink? Bars on the left. Bars on the right.

It's all a little overwhelming. A lot to take in. Kind of a culture shock. We're so deprived in Afghanistan.

Business men wander by, all in suits, briefcases in one hand, coffee in the other. Families with small children stroll by. One kid's pulling on mom's arm pestering her.

Military personnel drift past, all casual and relaxed. Enjoy it while you can, I think. Afghanistan's the complete opposite of the States. Get ready for the heat, the dust, and the stink. Yeah, the stink. Cities and villages reek of filth, dirt, and grime from unwashed people. There's goats and chickens and burning trash, too. Don't worry, it's a smell you eventually get used to.

The kid's still tugging on mom's arm. Begging for something. She's having none of it.

The kid reminds me of the village kids in Afghanistan. Whenever we'd visit their villages they'd come running. Small brown faces – all smiles – hands reaching out, begging for candy. We handed the candy out freely, happily. American soldiers doing what thousands of American soldiers have done before them. Bridging the culture gap and building peace.

Building peace with the next generation.

I miss the kids. Their upturned faces. Their innocence.

Sadly, many will end up like so many of their countrymen. One more casualty in a country filled with thousands of casualties. Too many lives cut short. Such a waste. If you think about it too long you'll go crazy. I don't linger on the thought, just push it aside and think of the mountains. Gorgeous snow capped peaks set against a brilliant blue sky. Totally breathtaking.

I reach my gate and find a seat in a corner. I sit with my hat in my hands. Alone. I finger the brim of my hat and think of Jack. A great soldier, the kind everyone strives to be. The kind everyone looks up to.

My name comes over the PA system and yanks me from my thoughts.

"Staff Sergeant Hardy. Staff Sergeant Hardy, please report to the check-in counter."

I push to my feet and make my way to the counter. A pretty, middle-aged woman smiles at me as she reads my nametag. "Staff Sergeant Hardy."

"Yes, ma'am."

"We understand you're escorting a fallen soldier."

"Yes, ma'am." A twinge of guilt trickles down my spine and stirs hidden emotions. Why Jack? Why not me? The psychologist said all survivors feel this way, but I can tell you, it doesn't make the guilt any easier.

"You'll be boarding first," the woman tells me. "We've assigned you a seat in First Class."

"Thank you, ma'am, but that's not -"

"It's our way of saying thanks. We know how difficult your job is. Escort duty." She tips her head and motions me to follow her.

I get the best seat on the plane. It feels weird, a bit disrespectful. Here I sit in luxury while Jack lies below in the cargo hold. God, I wish Jack was here with me. He'd love the hell out of First Class. He deserves First Class.

A flight attendant comes up to me. Says the captain would like to meet me. Would I please follow her to the flight deck?

"Yes, ma'am." I seem to be saying that a lot today.

Hat in hand, I follow the attendant to the flight deck. The captain stands and introduces himself. He introduces the co-pilot and they both shake my hand. They thank me for my service and for Jack's. They express their sympathies and offer condolences. I nod my head. Words suddenly escape me. Then I realize, there are no words to express how I feel.

How does one describe the loss of a brother-in-arms?

Words cannot define what Jack has done, the sacrifice he has made.

The captain asks if there's anything I need. Anything he can do?

"Just get Jack home, safe and sound," I tell him, "to his wife and sons. They're meeting the plane along with Jack's mother and father."

The captain shakes my hand again and assures me he will get Jack home safe and sound. He adds, "It's an honor to have you and Jack onboard."

I return to my seat. Passengers are boarding and the aisle is crowded. Two businessmen are stowing their carry-ons. They give me a respectful nod and step aside so I can squeeze into the window seat.

Before I know it we're in the air. The hum of the engines put me to sleep. I haven't slept in two days. My body needs the rest and the break from reality. I get neither. Thoughts of Jack fill my mind. My last memory of him isn't a good one. It's not the way I want to remember him, but it's the memory that's seared into my brain. The kind of memory that haunts you for the rest of your life.

It's 109 degrees. Dust covers us from head to toe. We're hot, tired, and thirsty. We've been at it for hours. Security checks. Rumors of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) has us on edge. Fully armored, rifles at the ready, we're performing a routine road block. Check all the vehicles. Check all the passengers.

I motion a tall Afghan out of his ratty vehicle. He's the driver. He smiles and lifts his hands in the air. I don't like his smile. It sets off alarm bells. Jack's on the other side of the vehicle checking the passenger.

I hear Jack shout, "Hands in the air!" It's an aggressive tone I haven't heard Jack use before.

My eyes dart to the side. I see Jack ram the butt of his rifle into a scruffy Afghan's face. My attention zips back to my Afghan. He's still smiling. The hairs on the back of my neck tingle. Something's up.

"Hands in the air!" Jack's voice is harsher, angrier, urgent.

"On the ground," I shout to the driver. I motion with my rifle giving a visual clue.

The man lowers himself to the ground and squats in front of me. Close to me. Too damn close.

I point to the man and then the ground. "Face down. Nose on the ground," I growl.

He springs up, lunges at me. Knocks me over. I'm on my back, the Afghan on top of me. My rifle is pressed across his throat and I'm pushing him back.

We struggle for dominance as we grunt and curse. Then an explosion rocks the ground. The next thing I remember is the weight of the dead Afghan on top of me. His body took the full impact of the blast. I heave him aside. His body lands on the hard rocky ground with a dull thud.

Oily, black smoke rolls over me and spirals skyward. The Afghan's car is on fire. Orange flames lick the charred, blackened shell. The heat is immense.

I crab crawl away. The dead Afghan is riddled with puncture wounds. He has inadvertently saved my life.

Specialist Cartwright is on the radio. He's got a Medevac on the way. He's shouting coordinates into the mic. His hearing, like mine, ain't worth crap right now. Everything's muted.

I stumble to the other side of the vehicle. Jack. How's Jack?

Not good. The Afghan he was fighting, lies next to him, missing an arm and a leg. Blood's making a brown, murky pool around him.

Jack's sprawled on his back. He moves his head and groans.

I'm at his side. He's missing a leg, too. Right leg, below the knee.

"You're fine, man," I say.

I grab Jack's first aid kit. With shaky hands I get a tourniquet on the leg. Straining, I pull it tight. It has to be tight. Have to stop the blood.

Jack taps me on the arm. I look at him, search his face. He's here, but not really here.

"Tell Suzanne I love her," he chokes out.

"Tell her yourself," I counter. He can't give up now. "Medevac's on the way. You're fine, man. You're fine."

I tie another knot in the tourniquet. I pat Jack on the shoulder, reassuring and confident. "You're going to make it, bro. It ain't that bad."

Jack shakes his head in small, precise movements. "Promise me, Joe. Tell Suzanne I love her. Please." He shutters and his eyes go glassy for a moment.

Panic and fear seize me. Then Jack's back. His gaze alert again.

The whine and whump of rotor blades fill the air. A cloud of dust whirls up around me and Jack. Swirling grains of sand sting my face.

I squeeze Jack's shoulder. "Medevac's here, bro. Hang on."

His eyes shine with hope, but he rasps, "Promise me. Tell Suzanne I love her." Jack's got my arm in a death grip.

Such a promise feels like I'm giving up on him. It's the worst thing I can do. He's forcing me into a promise I don't want to make. But I want to ease his burden. Ease his mind. He's a fallen brother. I'll do anything for him. Absolutely anything.

"I'll tell her," I say and instantly hate myself. This is not the way to instill faith and hope. We're trained to keep the patient positive about his chances for survival.

"But. I swear. You're going to tell her yourself. First. Before me," I ground out.

I want to add, and if you die on me, I'll never forgive you. I don't say that though and, later, I'm glad I didn't.

My last image of Jack is him being loaded on the Medevac. Strapped to a stretcher. IV in his arm. Coherent, answering the medics' questions.

I find out later, he had abdominal wounds. Massive internal injuries.

Jack didn't die that day. Or the next. It was five days later. He fought every inch of the way. He lived longer than the doctors said he would.

Jack was a fighter to the end. A true hero.

Later, I learned there was another insurgent in the vehicle. A suicide bomber. He was turned toward the passenger's side of the vehicle when he detonated.

A flight attendant taps me awake. Rescues me from my memories. She takes the seat beside me and I peer into her soft blue eyes.

"I have some information from the captain," she says. Her voice is low so as not to disturb the other passengers, but I sense this conversation is more than that. It's for my ears only. "The captain received a message from the service member's father. The father asked if there was a possibility of seeing the body before they depart the airport."

I sit straighter in my seat.

The attendant continues, "The captain did some checking and discovered there is a policy in place for such a request. When we land an escort team will meet the plane. The team will escort you and the family to the ramp and to the plane side. Two vans will be waiting. One van will take the remains and the other van will take you and the family to a private area where the family can view the remains."

She lays a hand on my arm. "We're honored to have you and your fellow soldier onboard today."

Emotions flood my fatigued body as I nod my thanks.

The attendant leaves and I wipe sleep from my eyes.

Forty minutes later we land. The plane rolls to a stop, short of the gate.

The captain's voice comes over the PA system. "Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the Captain speaking. I have stopped short of the gate so I could make a special announcement."

Passengers tilt their heads and listen.

The captain says, "You have traveled today with a very special guest, Staff Sergeant Jack Liedecker. I am sorry to say, he is not seated among you. He is under your seats in the cargo hold. Staff Sergeant Liedecker recently lost his life in Afghanistan.

"However, Staff Sergeant Joseph Hardy sits among you. He is charged with getting Staff Sergeant Liedecker safely to his family. Staff Sergeant Liedecker's family are in the terminal now, awaiting his arrival. I respectfully ask that all passengers remain seated and allow Staff Sergeant Hardy to exit the aircraft first. Thank you."

The plane rolls forward and stops at the gate. I'm overwhelmed again. Honored. The two businessmen across the aisle eye me expectantly. I nod and stand. I walk toward the exit and waiting attendants.

"It's been an honor," one of the businessmen says as I pass.

"Served myself," the other one says. "Stay strong."

Behind me, a set of hands clap. Then more hands. Soon, the entire plane is clapping. A thunderous, wonderful sound.

Words of condolence for Jack, God bless you's, and thank you for your service carry me off the plane. The outpouring of emotion humbles me. If only these people had met Jack. He deserves the applause and adoration.

My heart is heavy. Torn. Jack made the ultimate sacrifice. He gave his life so that others may live in peace. I know of no greater sacrifice. Nothing I do will ever match what he has already done. I must accept the applause and adoration for Jack. I accept it in honor of Jack.

Jack's family greets me as I enter the terminal. The four man escort team waits quietly close by.

Jack's father is the first to embrace me. He shakes my hand and throws an arm around me. He hugs me as if I'm his own flesh and blood. "Thank you, son," he whispers in my ear. "Thank you for bringing Jack home."

"He was a good soldier," I say putting steel into my voice. "The best."

Jack's father releases his hold on me and steps back. "Were you with him? When .. when it happened?"

"Yes sir. He was brave. He fought hard. He died a hero."

Teary eyed, Jack's father nods and pats my shoulder.

Jack's mother is next. Tears well in her eyes. "This means so much to us." She hugs me tightly and buries her face in my chest. I feel her gentle sobs.

I give her an awkward hug and mumble, "I'm sorry for your loss, ma'am."

And mine. And the world's.

Jack's father gently pulls his wife away. I'm grateful. Her sobs have brought me close to losing it. I want to cry with her and for her.

Suzanne, Jack's wife, steps forward. She is reserved and formal and strikingly beautiful. The pictures haven't done her justice. I am captivated by her strength and courage. She's tall and slender with long dark blonde hair and hazel eyes. I see, as much as feel, the pride and sadness in those eyes.

"I have a message for you," I say. "From Jack."

She takes a deep breath and holds it. A shadow of fear – or hope – clouds her face.

I look into her eyes. "Jack made me promise to tell you, he loves you."

Tears fill her eyes. As she starts to sob, I say, "His exact words were, 'Tell Suzanne I love her.'"

Twenty-two hundred hours. Ten pm for civilians. I sit alone in the airport. Thirty more minutes until boarding.

My cell phone buzzes and I dig it out of my jacket pocket. It's my brother.

"Hey, Frank. Still picking me up?" I ask.

"Yeah. Flight still on time?"

"Yup. I should arrive around midnight. Sorry it's so late."

"No worries. Can't wait till you get here." Frank's lighthearted tone turns serious. "Listen, I'm proud of you, Joe. We all are. I know today was tough. Escort duty. You've got to be drained."

"I am," I admit and lapse into a long silence.

"Joe? You still there?"

"Yeah. Um, I was thinking about what you asked me a couple of months ago. About starting our own detective agency."


"I'm ready. Let's do it. I get out in six months."

"Great." I can feel the smile in Frank's voice. He was in the Army, too. He got out a couple of months ago and has been working for dad ever since. That's not enough for Frank. He wants his own agency. I don't blame him. I understand the desire to make it on your own, to prove yourself.

Six months later I'm honorably discharged from the U.S. Army. I served seven years and did two tours in Afghanistan. I served with some of the finest men I've ever known.

I still think of Jack. We were brothers in arms and brothers in war. His memory still haunts me. It's the price I must pay for knowing him, for serving with him. I carry his memory with honor. I carry it for all the fallen. May they forever rest in peace.

Four months after leaving the Army, my brother and I opened our own detective agency.

"We few, we happy few,

We band of brothers;

For he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother."

Shakespeare's Henry V, 1598