KENNEWICK -- When Sean Taylor heard his flight out of Nashville might be delayed for a couple of days, he jumped in his Camaro and drove the 2,200 miles home to Kennewick.
There was no way he would miss Christmas this year, not after everything he had been through in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan.
And he wasn't going to miss a single day with his dad, who in two weeks will be on his way to the lethal place Sean just left.
It's bound to be an emotional holiday in the Taylor household. Sean came home this week with a life-threatening heart condition after seven months on the Afghan battlefield.
His father, Ken Taylor, a lifelong Kennewick police officer, is shipping out Jan. 6 to become a military contractor.
The Taylors' phone rang in late October -- their son was on a medevac plane out of Afghanistan, where he'd been deployed with the 101st Airborne since May.
"Our hearts sank," said Denise Taylor, Sean's mother.
But the news got worse -- Sean was being flown to Ramstein air base in Germany.
"Now we were stressed out," Ken said.
Typically, soldiers who are too badly hurt to survive the long flight back to the states go to Germany first for emergency surgery.
It wasn't unreasonable to think Sean might have been terribly injured. He was stationed in Kundar province -- a hot spot in the fight against insurgentscoming across the Pakistan border.
"We were taking fire from mortars, RPGs or snipers a couple of times a week," Sean said.
But it wasn't a bullet or shrapnel that put Sean on an emergency flight to Ramstein. He developed a potentially deadly heart condition while at war.
Seemingly at random, his heart goes off its regular rhythm, the oxygen supply to his brain is interrupted and he loses consciousness.
"There's no warning," he said. "Nothing tells me it's about to happen. Next thing, I'm down on the ground."
He had two such episodes in two weeks in October before the Army sent him on medical leave. He would be a danger to himself and his comrades if he blacked out in battle.
Sean underwent a series of tests in Germany. Surgeons implanted a monitor in his chest, which tells him if he needs to see a doctor.
In early November, he flew stateside, back to Fort Campbell, Ky., his unit's home base. More tests ensued, but to this day, doctors don't know what's wrong with Sean.
"They believe something over there did this to me," Sean said.
Just what "this" is has been a disputed point between the two military heart specialists Sean has seen.
One said he suffered from Brugada syndrome, a genetic disease that can cause sudden death because of heart arrhythmia. The other doctor said it wasn't Brugada, although he didn't know what it was.
Sean is going back to Fort Campbell in January. He'll get a third opinion from a renowned heart surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in nearby Nashville.
After that, the Army will decide whether the 25-year-old retires, is re-assigned to a different job off the battlefield or sent back to his old unit.
Sean hopes it will be the latter. He made close friends with fellow soldiers, including two he never will see again.
Spc. Shane Hasan Ahmed and Pfc. Christian Warriner were like brothers to Sean, from basic training to the Central Asian mountains. The two were among five from his old unit who were killedNov. 14 in Kunar province -- three weeks after Sean was sent home.
The news reached him back in Fort Campbell. His father was visiting him at the time.
"He broke down," Ken said. "He cried."
Sean loves his family -- he drove more than 48 hours straight to be with them for the holidays. But even surrounded by his loved ones, he feels the pull of his other family.
"It's a mixed feeling, knowing my buddies are still over there," he said.
The 101st is scheduled to return home in April.
Ken Taylor will be doing police work in Afghanistan by then, if all goes according to plan.
He hired on with a defense contractor -- he wouldn't say which one -- to be an investigator in a war zone.
Ken has been a cop for 35 years, the past 32 in Kennewick. He's also a certified arson investigator. He signed up to examine roadside bombs for clues to who made them.
Ken is leaving Jan. 6. He will go to Fort Benning in Georgia for a series of tests. If he passes, he's off to the Afghan theater by the end of January.
He'll be 56 when he touches down at Bagram Airfield. Ken is getting ready for the new job by taking walks around his neighborhood with 70 pounds on his back.
"I feel better than I ever have," he said.
He's not worried about the dangers ahead.
"As a police officer, you go to work knowing that today might be your last day," he said.
His wife, while fully supportive, is less blas about Ken's new job.
"It's going to be hard for me to have him go over there," Denise said. "Especially after everything we heard about what Sean's guys went through."
It was Sean who advised his father to take the job, and he indirectly planted the seed in his father's mind. Ken was inspired by what he saw at his son's graduation ceremony at the end of basic training.
"When I saw the dedication of my son and the other people I met, that affected my decision," Ken said.
Once he'd found an actual job to apply for, he called his son at the front.
"I told him to definitely do it," Sean said. "I know he can do it -- I've been there."
Sean said he's been "on a million ride-alongs" with his father as a police officer and has seen him deal with dangerous situations.
Sean's younger brother, Danny, mostly just watched quietly as his brother and father talked about serving their country without fear of consequences.
But at one point, Danny, who called the two men his best friends, cut in.
"It's still scary from a family perspective," Danny said. "When Sean first went over, it was the worst time for me."
He paused. "Now -- with my dad going, it's ..."
He stopped talking. For a brief moment, the Taylor family just sat quietly around the tree.
* Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org