I know eating fish is supposed to be healthy and prevent cancer, but if it’s not fried shrimp, I’d rather it be the dinner that got away. Nevertheless, like spinach and liver, it tries hard to make a regular guest appearance on my plate.
My wife knows I’ll eat it if she cooks it, but she also knows that fish dinners at this chaplain’s house have a mysterious way of coincidentally being interrupted by beepers. My days as an Air Force chaplain were no different.
Late one Saturday afternoon, my wife signaled me to cease my yard work by waving my beeper over her head. I let the mower die and read the beeper.
“Mortuary Affairs Office,” I told her.
“Let me guess, I won’t be cooking fish tonight?”
“Don’t slice the lemon just yet.”
After a quick shower, I threw on my uniform and was on my way to meet with a death notification team. Composed of a lawyer, a chaplain, a medic and a commander, the team seems more like the beginning of a Bob Hope joke.
“There was a doctor, a lawyer and a priest driving down the street.”
Only this was a jokeless script that read something like this: “Are you Mrs. John E. Jones?”
“Is your husband Capt. John E. Jones?” ”
“Ma’am, we regret to inform you that your husband was killed.”
Of course, it’s rare we ever get that far without a lot of sobbing and screams of denial, but we stay with the script until it is delivered. As many times as we deliver the news, we always read from the script. It’s the only way to get through without cracking. The effort is to be compassionate, but professional.
As our team formed at the Mortuary Affairs Office, we began practicing the script. Following that, we watched a refresher video on how to make the notification and mapped out a route. Finally, after checking and rechecking our facts, we drove off in a dark blue Dodge sedan that took us into the heart of base housing.
Uniforms in base housing on a weekend are a rare event. Young families are usually out playing catch, washing cars or hosting garage sales. This afternoon was no different, but it was about to get permanently different for one resident.
The sudden appearance of uniforms in the cul-de-sac made us look like a small parade formation. We were a living breathing cliché. It was all too predictable.
As we stepped out of our car, a little boy met us at the curb. He was just in time to point out his mother who was coming out of the garage wiping motor oil off her hands.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
Suddenly, she inhaled our presence.
“What’s this about?”
“May we talk inside?” the commander asked.
“Come back later. This isn’t a good time” she said.
“We’re sorry ma’am, but we can’t do that. Please, let us come in.”
The commander’s pained look sought permission to enter. Permission was granted. The commander started the script, but she refused to let him “regret” by pressing her hands tightly over her ears. Eventually, we were able to tell the woman what had happened to her husband. The legal guy explained how her husband’s body would come home and how someone would be there for every step. The medic watched her for signs of fainting as I held her hand and led in a prayer.
The compassion was as real as it could be — even if it wasn’t real. For you see, on this occasion, it wasn’t real. All the players were volunteer family actors taking part in a base exercise designed to make us ready for a worldwide deployment. The predictability of the script gives breath to the fear known by every person who has ever served in the military. It is a fear re-enacted hundreds of times in the mind of the service member and their families.
Despite the fear, they go. They do their jobs, and most of them come home. So, as we pause this weekend to celebrate the contributions made by the veteran, we are best served by remembering those who never wavered as they served. It didn’t feel like I needed any practice to do this. I’d have rather eaten the fish, because the flashbacks generated from the exercise had been particularly distasteful. They were flashbacks of finding houses in the middle of the night where porch lights switched on to reveal our uniformed presence. They were flashbacks where screams sliced open the blackness of the night. They were flashbacks of telling parents their only son was gone and of telling a sister her twin was gone.
This exercise was too real. It was exactly the way it happens every time — too much of the time.
We got a good grade on the exercise and I suppose that was good, because a few weeks later, we were called to do it for real. We had to interrupt a little boy’s birthday party to do it, but we did it.
“Ma’am we regret to inform you . . .