Late last month in Rio Linda, Calif., a mother was told she’d lost her son, Army Sgt. Russell Proctor, to an improvised explosive device. I know because I’m the one who told her.
I’ve done more than 30 death notifications in my career as an Air Force chaplain, but this was the first time for the sergeant accompanying me. Fortunately, this was routine.
I don’t mean to trivialize the event in describing it as routine; I simply mean that our visit was predictable, uneventful and unsurprising.
We arrived a few hours after supper. The family was watching television when we knocked. The dogs barked and the porch light exposed us staring at our clipboards.
The mother was receptive, but stoic. She graciously welcomed us inside a home that displayed the childhood pictures of 10 children. Of course, by the time we positioned ourselves on her couch, she knew the purpose of our visit.
My colleague cleared his throat.
“The secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret . . .” his talk began.
The sergeant paused. He had spent the past two hours memorizing his speech, but now his breath stalled in his throat between punctuations. In the midst of this choreographed discourse, he was no doubt thinking of the soldiers he’d lost each week in his 2010 Afghanistan deployment.
His litany moved into the details. There had been an explosion generated by a typical IED, then the soldier’s vehicle burst into a mangled chunk of burning iron. Of course, the Army would conduct an investigation and more information would follow.
But in the meantime, my associate added, “The secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family during this trying period.”
Then, I introduced some closing questions. Lately, I wonder if these questions sound more perfunctory than feeling, “Would you like me to say a prayer? Do you have some family or friends you can call? Do you have a pastor or counselor?”
She did. Phone calls were made. Heartache expanded exponentially and grief went viral.
“Are there any more questions for us?” asked the sergeant.
The whole thing took less than 30 minutes. We finally stood to leave. Handshakes were exchanged and prayers were promised.
Under a cloudless sky and a quarter moon, I found my way home just before midnight. Knowing the regularity of these missions has left me spinning like the drunk in a hit-and-run, my wife asked how it went.
“Routine.” I said, because, ironically, the same noun describes the best and the worst of the notification. There had been no problem. It was just another average night in this damn war. A mother lost a son, a wife lost her husband and a son lost his father.
You might be asking, “Chaplain, why bring us such gloomy news amid the revelry of a holiday weekend?”
Because I think it’s important to remember the cost of this war. It costs us people. Real people like Proctor who won’t be eating homemade ice cream or watching fireworks this weekend. At 25, he never again will celebrate a birthday, take his son fishing or hug his wife.
Every servicemember I know will continue to do what this nation asks of us, but I, for one, will no longer accept this price as routine.