She met us in the driveway determined to repel an invasion of uniforms in her private place.
We were two uniformed officers who brought an unwelcome message.
“Ma’am,” the Casualty Assistance Officer asked, “may we come in?”
“No!” she said, her jaw set and eyes focused on the cross I wore above my breast pocket.
“Not if . . .” Her voice cracking, she tried again. “Not if you’re going to tell me my child is dead.”
Suddenly, in pained recognition of the awful truth, she released a long guttural scream. “No! God, no! Please, God, no!”
“Please, ma’am,” my colleague begged. “May we come inside?”
Again, “No!” Then a prediction: “You are going to tell me my son’s dead, aren’t you?”
Her wails summoned a concerned neighbor who helped us into the home. Soon, we were delivering the news she had tried to forestall. There was more screaming.
What we told her next made me want to scream, too. Her son’s death was a suspected suicide.
It had been one of several suicide notifications I’ve delivered since the war began in 2003. Last year, the Army reported its highest number of suicides, 192. A New York Times story reported this week that during the first half of this year, 129 suicides have been confirmed or are under investigation.
If this trend continues, we’ll easily break last year’s record. So far this year, we’ve lost more to suicide than to combat.
It’s a record that makes me want to scream.
The causes for suicides in the military aren’t that different than suicides in the civilian population. Like civilians, service members who die from suicide usually have a history of mental health problems.
Nevertheless, all suicides usually have a precipitating event. The military has many of the same suicide precipitators civilians have: addictions, financial problems and failed relationships.
These precipitators, however, seem greatly exacerbated by long deployments.
Lately, several mothers have written me about the effects multiple deployments are having on her children. In particular, I was moved by a letter from a mother in Minnesota who wrote:
“My son’s service to this country has been detrimental to every facet of his life. He lost so much time with his son; my grandson was fatherless for over 27 months of his life, homeless for five months and now knows how it feels to go to bed hungry.
“My son lost time at a good job and now has lost $40,000 because of his deployments. He’s been exposed to vaccinations, test drugs . . . and inhaled unknown chemicals from the military burn pits. He now suffers from depression, constant stomach aches, skin rashes, insomnia, etc.”
Her letter closed by pointing out the need to support troops in more significant ways than simply having a “We Support our Troops” car magnet.
I replied by stressing the need for her son to seek good local counseling. Without immediate help, I’m concerned this reader might be meeting one of my chaplain colleagues in her driveway.
The week, after my experience with the mother in the driveway, I met her again, this time at her son’s grave.
After my remarks, I watched her son lowered into the ground. With each click of the ratchet, the casket lowered a few inches. With each inch, the mother bent her knees a little more until she was completely crouched down to maintain line-of-sight with the casket.
Finally, she stood and held a rose above the casket. She dropped the rose and watched it land just above her son’s heart.
Afterward, I returned to my car, rolled up the windows and screamed.
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit thechaplain.net. You can also follow him on Twitter, username is “chaplain,” or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.