FORT LAWN -- Back in late November in Texas, the soldier everybody called "Country," because he was from a tiny town of 850 people, was at his Texas Army barracks with his crushed right arm healing from a bomb attack in Iraq.
"Country" Charlie Messer, who loved a fish fry and his grits, called his father at home in Fort Lawn in Chester County and said he just went to see his beloved Dallas Cowboys versus the Green Bay Packers in a football game. He drove across the state to do it.
"The ticket cost 500 bucks," Doug Messer said. "I told him, 'You only live once.'"
Once was all Charlie Messer got. He survived that bomb attack in June. He had surgeries and a metal plate to bolster the shattered forearm. Luckily, he was left-handed.
Then on Dec. 22, just hours before he was to fly home to see his parents for Christmas, the 2007 Honda Accord he had bought in Rock Hill just weeks before on his last trip home crashed. Charlie Messer, at age 20, was dead.
His parents, Doug and Shelby, only found out after waiting for him at the Charlotte airport for a flight he wasn't on.
But before he died, Charlie Messer lived. And he fought for the U.S. Army because he told his momma, "The Army is my first step toward a better life."
The Messers only found out their son was wounded when Charlie called home on the Saturday before Father's Day in June.
"He said, 'I got good news and bad news,'" Doug Messer said. "I said, 'Well, I am listening to you so I know you're not dead, so give me the bad news.'"
Charlie Messer, who had joined the Army because those mills that employed his parents and almost everybody else he knew were dead, and because his buddy from growing up was dead, said the bad news was the shattered arm. The good news was he beat death.
For seven months.
When home on leave, Charlie was reluctant to talk about what he had seen and done in Iraq. Charlie asked that they not do the big Christmas fireworks they normally blew off.
"He had some shell-shock from what he saw," Shelby Messer said.
"He finally said he had to kill a few people," Doug Messer said. "That bothered him."
"'It was either me or them,'" Shelby Messer recalled her son finally saying.
Thursday, Charlie's cousin came by to see his parents. Danny Sawyer. Veteran of the first Gulf War. It was Sawyer who Charlie talked to when he joined the Army because Sawyer knew what Charlie would see. He had seen it himself.
Sawyer, now with a daughter who's 5 and a son who's 2, has re-enlisted. His turn in Iraq or Afghanistan is not if, but when. Doug and Shelby Messer said that Eric Messer, Charlie's older brother, is considering enlisting.
It has been almost two weeks since Charlie died. In a town so small, just about everybody knew Charlie or his family. The Messers said it seems like all of those people either came by the house that sits right on S.C. 9, or called, or went to the packed funeral Sunday at Lewisville High School.
People such as Fort Lawn's police chief, Richard Smith. An Iraq War veteran. He gave out the booklets at the funeral.
"It hits hard when you been over there and seen it and done it, and then this happens to somebody we all know," Smith said.
These past few days, a letter came from the Army that said Charlie was once the volunteer driver to deliver toys to needy kids near his Army base in El Paso. The story came out from somebody at the Texaco convenience store down the road where Charlie was one time when home on leave. Charlie found a $100 bill on the floor.
"Charlie found the guy who dropped it, instead of pocketing it," Doug Messer said.
Charlie wanted to be a cop, then an FBI agent after the Army. Yet, Doug Messer remembered how a teacher one time at an open house at high school told him, "He'd be a great teacher."
Charlie Messer didn't die in this war in Iraq. He somehow survived it.
But he won't teach, or take more presents to kids, after he had to do all those things he said were necessary and awful in Iraq.