May 27, 2018
On Sept. 18, 2011, I teamed with an Army sergeant I’d never met for the mission no one wanted. We were the death notification team who would drive to Rio Linda, California, to inform the unsuspecting family of Army Staff Sgt. Russell J. Proctor.
This was nearly the 30th such visit I’d made in my Air Force chaplain career, but it was the partner’s first. As we drove the rural roads, I briefed him on the ways I’d seen these visits go.
I told my wide-eyed driver how I watched a father pound the kitchen table as he railed against the government policies he blamed for his son’s death. I described waiting outside a darkened home for parents to return from a winning bingo game, only to find they’d experienced the loss of a lifetime.
I even recounted stopping a family in their driveway before they could go get their son at the airport. “He isn’t coming home,” I told them.
When we stepped onto Sgt. Proctor’s front porch, we heard dishes being washed and the muffled sound of a television. We knocked and dogs barked. The sudden click of the porch light exposed us staring at our clipboards.
A 50ish woman greeted us with a stoic, but receptive, tone. She graciously guided us inside a living area that displayed the pictures of her 10 children. By the time she’d seated us on the couch, she’d likely deduced the purpose of our visit.
My colleague cleared his throat.
“The secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret . . .” the sergeant paused.
He’d spent the past two hours memorizing his speech, but now his breath stalled in his throat between punctuations. He told the mother a roadside IED exploded in Iraq’s Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, killing both her son and another soldier.
Of course, the Army would conduct an investigation. But in the meantime, my associate added, “The Secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family during this trying period.”
Then, I asked a few questions, sounding more perfunctory than feeling, “Would you like me to say a prayer?”
“Do you have some family or friends you can call?”
She did. She would.
“Do you have any more questions for us?” we asked.
We walked to our car where I released the exhausted breath I’d been holding. “Gratefully, that was pretty routine.”
My comrade was walking a few steps ahead of me when he took an about-face movement and stopped me. He gripped my shoulder, testing the regulation against an enlisted person handling an officer.
“Chaplain! I just got back from Afghanistan where I buried two of my men.
“But that …” he said cocking a thumb back toward the house. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
“That was not routine. I won’t let it be. We must never let this day become routine.”
I nodded, but he released my shoulder only when he clearly saw I understood.
I hope this Memorial Day you will stop and remember people like 25-year-old Army Staff Sgt. Russell J. Proctor. Take the day to pledge that you will never accept the cost of war as routine.
Find a moment to see these war deaths as personal because they cost us real people like Proctor — a brave man who won’t be eating homemade ice cream or marching in parades this weekend.
We live in a great nation defended by a strong and heroic military. Every servicemember I know is willing to join Proctor in making the supreme sacrifice.
All they ask of us is that we will never see war as inevitable nor ever accept their deaths as routine.