By Audrey Parente, Staff Writer, The Daytona Beach News-Journal
As Navy Seabee Veterans salute, Brandi Anderson, 8, pauses after raising an American flag and a Seabee flag in memory of her father, BU2 Michael Anderson, who was killed in action in Iraq, May 2, 2004. Today, Brandi is a high school freshman at Warner Christian Academy in South Daytona.
She was a first-grader when a uniformed military chaplain and a Navy chief came to the door to report her father had been killed in Iraq.
Navy Seabee Builder 2nd Class Michael C. Anderson of Daytona Beach was a reservist based out of Jacksonville, a builder called by his country to serve in a desert across the world. He was there little more than a month when he died on May 2, 2004.
His daughter Brandi Anderson, 15, is now a high school freshman at Warner Christian Academy in South Daytona.
"He had told me he would be home by my birthday," said the soft-spoken blonde in a recent interview at home in Daytona Beach. "One of my first thoughts, after everything was told that day, I was really sad that he wasn't going to be there for my birthday."
With the Iraq War over and troops headed home, official numbers put the cost at more than $800 billion and more than 4,400 American military dead.
Brandi wrote about the cost last year in a Freedom Alliance award-winning essay.
"I know what the price of freedom is. It does not come without a very high cost," she wrote, saying every man, woman and child who lays their head down each night in peace, "does so because some other American, at some time," laid down his or her life.
"It's my dad, being part of a whole, that accomplished getting that country to have freedoms as we do here in America," Brandi said.
Her life is a combination of "good and difficult," hinging daily on thoughts of a dad she loved but only knew for seven years.
"If I thought he died in vain, I pretty much wouldn't get through day by day," she said.
Her dynamic mom, Karen, is a stabilizing force. Brandi's half sister Ashley, 26, and adopted brother Christian, 6, help fill life with love. But family videos of playground outings, birthday parties and everyday antics reveal Brandi was the apple of Dad's eye.
"He used to do (Navy Reserve) weekends once a month, and I would be a little bit sad because we couldn't spend Sunday together," Brandi said. "And then I understood he was leaving-leaving, not just for a weekend."
Karen Anderson said her husband wasn't a political man, but he enjoyed the camaraderie of the Navy Seabees.
"Honest to goodness he didn't believe for a second he would go to Iraq. Why would they send him to the desert " Karen said. "He told my dad he was going to build schools.
"Most of my sorrow is for Brandi. The worst part of it is watching your child grow up without her dad. She really has to keep a stiff upper lip."
Karen is afraid her daughter won't have peace and told her: "I will never allow this to define who you are." He will stay immortalized in pictures and videos, and "we participate in lots of essay contests respecting the military," she said.
But Karen also has exposed Brandi to other sides of the story. In 2005, she took her daughter to an event where 50 people, some opposed to the war in Iraq, gathered at the corner of Nova Road and International Speedway Boulevard to read the names of American war dead through a megaphone.
During the reading, Karen hugged Christian while Brandi, then 9, held a candle.
"All the kids should read about this, " Brandi told a News-Journal reporter. "People aren't numbers, and every 'one' has a family member or a friend, and all their lives are destroyed when one person dies."
The future offers Brandi a difficult emotional road.
[caption id="attachment_1011" align="alignright" width="409" caption="A picture of a younger Brandi and her father, BU2 Michael Anderson, who was killed in Iraq in 2004, held by high school freshman Brandi Anderson, 15, at her home in Daytona Beach, Fla. Photo by David Massey"]
"I feel sometimes sad and think about who's going to walk me down the aisle some day He won't be at my graduation and things like that," Brandi said.
But day-to-day life has moved forward for the teen who is good at math and Bible study in school. "My mom plans some amazing trips and things to keep me busy every second of the day," she said.
Life is so busy that mom and the siblings sometimes pinch hit for Brandi at affairs, like attending an upcoming Christmas party thrown by former Hawaiian Tropic owner Ron Rice, because of a conflicting event.
"I have a daughter myself," Rice said in a phone interview from Ormond Beach. "I raised her from zero to 11, and then she moved up to Portland with her mother at the horse breeding farm. After being so close to my daughter, I felt so sad for Brandi that she lost her dad at 7."
At the time of Michael Anderson's death, Rice arranged for Hawaiian Tropic suppliers to help establish a trust fund. He also hosted a fundraising event to boost the total to more than $84,000 for Brandi's future.
Bill Jennings, chief financial officer of Product Quest Manufacturing in Daytona Beach, oversees the trust. He said interest has pushed the total to about $91,000.
"Originally it was to go to pay for my college when I grow older, but then (Rice) found out I had already gotten prepaid college from Gov. Jeb Bush," Brandi said. The trust will be hers when she turns 18.
While her family attends Rice's party, this week she will be at a Texas charity event given by Snowball Express. That group hosts activities intended to create new memories for children of fallen heroes, such as Six Flags park outings and rodeos.
"At a rodeo I met Gary Sinise ("CSI: NY"), who played Lt. Dan in 'Forrest Gump,' " Brandi said. Sinise has a rock band that performs hundreds of fallen-hero concerts and USO tours.
Brandi has a photo wall of fame of celebrities she's met, including Tim McGraw, Toby Keith, Trace Adkins, Charlie Daniels, the Lynyrd Skynyrd band and Taylor Swift.
The whole family attended the Country Music Awards in Nashville and an Academy of Country Music CBS live broadcast, where they were on stage with other families of fallen heroes.
"I went to the Freedom Alliance, an organization with (talk show host) Sean Hannity and Oliver North to help raise money for kids' college. Sean Hannity invited me onstage," Brandi said.
She realizes many of these exciting opportunities happen because of her dad's death.
"I would trade them all to get him back," she said.
Freedom is Not Free
By Brandi Anderson
President Obama has called an end to the war in Iraq. For almost 10 years, every American was touched in some way. The war had a profound effect on my life, though. My dad, Michael Charles Anderson, left for Iraq on April 1, 2004. One month later, on May 2, he was killed, when his camp was mortared. He was the first casualty in Volusia County. I was 7 at the time, and my destiny was about to be forever changed.
Fearlessly my Navy Seabee dad answered his nation's call.
Respect is what I feel for every troop who has ever put their life at risk for our great country.
Everlasting is the love I feel for my father, who I lost at such a young age.
Eternity will pass, so it seems. My prayer is that we will meet again someday.
Daddy, everyone says I am so much like you in so many ways.
One parent will celebrate my triumphs and victories. One parent will console my heartbreaks.
Miss you, dad, every day of my life.
I understand, now, why you had to leave us and fight for our country.
Sunday was our day to hang out together. Now it just seems like another day.
Not a day goes by that my heart is not filled with happy memories of you.
Out of love of country, you sacrificed your life. Out of love for you, I'll live my life to make you proud.
Terrific people, from all walks of life, have reached out and befriended my family throughout the years.
Family photos are incomplete because you are no longer in them.
Regardless of your politics, we must all respect our military. It is those who keep us safe.
Eternally grateful to be an American.
End of war. Welcome home heroes. Thank you for all your sacrifices.
All gave some, some gave all.
Reprint permission from The Daytona Beach News-Journal, Copyright 2012.