This column is dedicated to the memory of Sgt. Regina C. Reali.
One of my most difficult days in uniform came on Dec. 23, 2005 when I drove to Atwater, Calif., with a chaplain assistant to deliver the most unimaginable news — a father lost his 25-year-old daughter to an improvised explosive device in Iraq.
Unfortunately, the father had changed addresses, so we went to the apartment manager’s office seeking a forwarding address.
“What’s this about?” the young assistant manager asked as she studied our military IDs.
“We can’t tell you that,” I said, “but perhaps the chaplain’s cross on my uniform suggests something to you.”
The woman drew a quick breath and grabbed the phone to call her supervisor in his cross-town office. After she gave him a brief synopsis, the office became quiet enough to hear the manager’s garbled response.
“They won’t say,” she responded, “but one of them is a chaplain, so I think it’s something bad.”
More muffled sounds on the phone sent the woman into a stutter, “but, but, but” and finally “OK.”
Then the shaken woman cupped the phone in her hand and told us, “The manager is asking if you have a search warrant.”
I asked if I could talk to him and she readily obliged.
I introduced myself with a deepened voice and restated our request. That’s when the manager released some colorful wording and demanded that I tell him what this was about, even though we both knew he knew.
When I said I couldn’t say, he threatened to call his former tenant and expose our forceful attempts to get his forwarding address.
Enraged, I asked, “Does this mean you have his address, but you are flatly refusing to give it?”
Having had some experience delivering such news by phone, I asked the obstinate manager, “If you call this man, what will you say when he drops the phone in a screaming fit?”
“You’re trying to intimidate me!” he shouted. Then, just as the phone went dead, my assistant tugged on my sleeve.
“Let’s call the Atwater police to request a forwarding address.” It was a cool idea from a calm mind, so I agreed.
The responding officer explained that the property had been searched numerous times for illegal drugs, so the management wasn’t likely to cooperate with authority, deep-voiced or otherwise.
Nevertheless, he called the manager and challenged him with a question: “Is this the way you’d want to be treated if it was your daughter?”
He hung up on the officer, too, causing me to flippantly suggest how we might use the officer’s sidearm to coerce the cocky manager.
Just then, my assistant placed a restful arm on my shoulder.
“Chaplain, I think I see a solution,” she said as she bolted through the apartment terrace toward an approaching postal carrier.
The officer and I stood open-mouthed as we watched the carrier use her cell phone to obtain the information from her supervisor.
Ten minutes later, we were standing on the father’s porch. Sadly, neighbors told us that the man left only moments earlier for his son’s home in San Diego.
Knowing the military would send a new team to San Diego, my chaplain assistant added, “I’m glad he’ll be with his family when he gets the bad news.” With that final optimistic input, our horribly complicated day came to an end.
My assistant’s cool-headedness and the postal carrier’s compassionate flexibility reminded me that responses drawn from the heart and mind are always more persuasive than those that are born from our tempers.
Or as the sacred Proverb puts it, “A gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles a temperfire.”