As we pulled a family photo from the pocket of one the three soldiers described in my last column as killed-in-action, an airman said, “I can’t imagine what it will be like for the people who will notify their families.”
I could imagine all too well. In the next few moments, flashbacks filled my mind with the images of the near 25 times I’ve put on my dress uniform and met a sergeant I didn’t know in the middle of a town I’d never visited to deliver the news I never want to hear.
In that moment, I could see the home where I prayed with a man who lost his daughter on Christmas Eve. In another home, I could hear an anguished father pound the kitchen table as he railed against the government policies he blamed for his son’s death.
I could feel the darkness of the mobile home park where I waited for parents to return from a winning bingo game, only to find out they’d experienced the loss of a lifetime.
I shook as I recalled stopping a family in their driveway before they could leave to pick up their son at the airport. He wasn’t coming home.
The soldier’s photo evoked every memory imaginable, even some you can’t imagine.
Like the time I raged at the landlord who wouldn’t help us locate a father who had moved.
Or the time a stepfather was overly inquisitive about the soldier’s life insurance.
Even the occasion where I rebuffed the advances of a slinky neighbor lady and retreated from
the home of a mentally ill mother.
On the occasions when we found no one home, we were instructed to inquire among the neighbors. A few neighbors asked if we were recruiters. I answered them with a blank stare that caused them to cover their mouths at the horror of their next guess.
I could imagine it all, because I’ve driven five hours one way to tell a father that there would be no miraculous recovery for his son who finally died of the brain injury he’d received in an IED explosion the prior year.
I remember standing in the darkness on the other side of a screen door and the chorus of screams that erupted as someone turned on the porch light to reveal our uniformed team.
But most all, it was the children in the dead soldier’s photo who reminded me of the birthday party we interrupted, of the 9-year-old twins who exchanged vacant stares, and of the 4-year-old who just didn’t understand.
As we stood saluting these soldiers for the last time in our morgue, I wasn’t blessed with the innocence of ignorance. I could easily imagine delivering the unspeakable news to these families.
However, as I contemplated the airman’s original concern for those notifying the family, I uncovered her unspoken question: “How can you do it?”
The answer to that question is simple.
I rely on the inspiration I find in the ultimate sacrifice this soldier was willing to risk. Yes, sometimes, I find my hand shaking as I knock on those doors, but I tell myself, “If these soldiers could do their job without flinching, then, by God’s grace, I can do mine.”
They did their jobs in a professional manner because they trusted that their comrades and their chaplains would also be professional as they did this unspeakable duty.
So, next month when I return home and I get a call requesting a chaplain for a death notification, I will answer that call with the same unflinching attitude these soldiers demonstrated, an attitude best conveyed by words of Samuel the Prophet: “Here am I, Lord. Send me.”