I ran across an essay contest while goofing off…er working online last week and got excited. 3000$ grand prize and the last winner was a lady with a life changing experience? Heck, I’ve plenty of those- and the vast majority did NOT come after a night of heavy drinking. (I swear I don’t do that anymore, Mom. Those were my young and crazy days in the Army.)
Well, the only downside was the piece could not have been published at any point. Crap. I had to craft a new tale and let it fly. Below is a little story that continues to bring a tear to my eye every time I think of it.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS
What it all Means.
Christian Warren Freed
Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Some days just don’t turn out the way we think they will. It was a quiet Friday afternoon. We’d just returned from lunch and were preparing for the weekend. I only had a skeleton crew with me. My battalion was deployed to Camp Taji, Iraq; a little airfield just north of Baghdad. Having returned home a few months earlier from my third tour of duty, I was in no hurry to join them again. I volunteered for all three combat deployments, but after having spent at least part of every year from 2002-2006 in either Iraq or Afghanistan I was worn out. Not that I was averse to going back. I wasn’t. I was a soldier in the XVIII Airborne Corps. It was my job. I just needed a break first.
The first sign of trouble came as it usually does- by the incessant ring of the telephone. Having been in the army for the better part of 15 years already I knew that there is no such thing as a good phone call on a Friday afternoon. Sure enough, it wasn’t. The First Sergeant came out with a dour look on his face. I was the only senior noncommissioned officer in the area so he made straight for me.
“What’s up, Top?” I said, rather hoping to deflect what was coming.
He sighed. Uh-oh. “Freed, I need you to report to the Corps Casualty Assistance Office.”
My heart lurched. There were only two possible reasons for going there. The first was to perform funeral services. That part wasn’t so bad. I’d done it numerous times before, though with pallbearers, rifle salute men, and a bugler. The second, and in my opinion, more severe reason was for next of kin notification.
I drove across Fort Bragg and got to the C.A.O where a nice lady greeted me. She proceeded to hand me a file and told me I had to perform the next of kin notification for a young soldier recently killed in Iraq. My heart lurched. I’ve seen it in the movies. The yellow cab pulling up to the house with a simple telegram from the Department of the Army. The mother collapsing on her porch. I didn’t know if I had it in me.
I read the file as she showed me training videos I needed to sign off on having completed. I was told that under no circumstance was I to tell the family how their son died, which prompted me to ask why I was told what the cause of death was. She shook her head and said, “That’s just how the DOD does things.”
At this point it was three pm on a Friday afternoon. I still needed to return home to get into my dress uniform and wait for the chaplain to show up. In my mind the mantra of what I needed to say repeated over and over. The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you that… I honestly did not know if I had it in me.
Dressed and growing increasingly nervous as the hour drew near, I was back at my battalion headquarters waiting for the chaplain. He finally showed and we were off. Conversation was strained. I asked if he wanted to be the one to say those horrid words no parent wants to hear, but it was against regulations. Chaplains were present for moral support. This was my job, not his. Lovely.
Resigned, I pulled into their driveway and felt a pang of regret upon seeing the family gathered at the dinner table. Yet no matter how bad I felt, they were about to feel so much worse. My heart was hammering in my chest as I got out of the car and went up to the door. My palms sweat. My mouth went dry. Could I really do this?
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The father opened the door and his eyes fell as he took in my uniform and silver cross on the chaplain’s. We were invited in and I was forced to say what I had to say in front of the entire family. My heart broke. The first question he asked me was how his son died. I didn’t care about regulations at that point. They deserved to know the truth, though without the details.
I informed him that his son had been killed by a roadside bomb while on convoy outside of the city of Kirkuk. He just nodded and said, “I figured.”
The chaplain swooped in and offered his condolences and led everyone in a short prayer. I don’t remember breathing until I got back into the car and took off my tie. We drove back to base in silence. I think both of us were in a surreal place. I dropped the chaplain off and went home.
My mind swirled around thoughts and ideas. I struggled to comprehend what had just happened. I never wanted to do anything like that. I’d deployed three times and hadn’t lost a soldier. Not bad for a combat guy. But this, this was…something else.
Sleep didn’t want to come, and it didn’t until I realized that I had been able to perform one of the greatest honors a leader could bestow. I was able to pay tribute to that young Specialist who gave all on foreign battlefield. I was able to honor his family and his memory. My heart instantly felt better. That was over ten years ago now and I still tear up when thinking of it.
It was a seminal moment in my life. An afternoon that changed me and continues to do so the older I get. Perhaps it was the moment I needed to figure out what it all means.Pic: Me on a KBR convoy security run from Mosul to Zhako, Turkey, Nov. 2003.