For me, Memorial Day has a face. It is the face of the family members whose loved one made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Since 9/11, I’ve met these faces in at least 30 homes in my community.
If I could introduce you to these families, I would. But because I can’t, I’d like you to imagine today that you’ve joined my casualty notification team.
We unite with our team of four inside a nondescript military office where we watch a training video, map our route to the home of a newly widowed woman and memorize our scripted lines. The commander will deliver the bad news, the medic will watch for signs of stress, and you and I will offer pastoral care.
Within the hour of being paged out of our everyday routines, we drive our dark blue military sedan into a civilian neighborhood where we find an address that doesn’t want to be found. As we step from the car, we look much like a small parade formation, a living breathing cliché.
We park a few hundred yards from the house and you use the walking time to ask me questions.
“Will this notification be like your previous ones?” you ask. “How long will we stay?” and “How will the people respond” you want to know. I tell you that the only certainty is that my past notifications will give us no working schematic for this day. Nothing about these no-notice visits is ever predictable.
All I can say is that in the past I’ve heard an anguished father launch into a political diatribe blaming the president for his son’s death. I recall another visit where I interrupted a child’s birthday party, and in yet another instance, I recount stopping a family’s airport reunion to tell them their son wasn’t on the plane.
You shake your head and I stare at the Disney welcome mat while the commander knocks on the door. I catch a side-glance of the commander mouthing his script. It’s a script that will go something like this:
“Are you Mrs. John E. Jones?”
“Is your husband Capt. John E. Jones?”
“Ma’am, the Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret….”
It may seem rote, but the script is the only way we all get through without cracking. Our effort is compassionate, but professional. Of course, it’ll be unusual if we aren’t interrupted by the sobbing screams of denial, but we will stay with our lines until they are delivered.
Fortunately, you’re not a part of this team today. Gratefully this column is just a composite script of several of my team experiences.
However, it is a script that churns in the mind of every person who has ever served in the military. Every person who wears the uniform of this country fears that their family may one day hear these words of regret from a team such as ours. Yet, despite their fear, they deploy. They do their jobs and most of them come home.
So, as we pause this weekend to memorialize the sacrifices made by these few, let us imagine being on the color guard at the funeral as a stiff commander accepts a folded flag from his detail and presents it to this family.
“On behalf of the president of the United States … and a grateful nation,” she says, “please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for service to our country. God bless you and this family, and God bless the United States of America.”