Memorial Day — The View From Another Direction Revisited

I wrote this blog post last year. I still like it.

Having been an Army brat, having grown up on Army posts, having a mother and father who served in World War II, having a father who was a career soldier, having been educated at Virginia Military Institute, and having served in the Army for five years — I have a view of Memorial Day from a different point of the compass.

Both of my parents are buried in a military cemetery. This is the Central Texas military cemetery next to Fort Hood with the Hill Country in the background. It is hallowed ground.

Just a few years ago, it was a pasture. Now, it is filled as shown because a lot of soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice for us.

I went to school with men who are buried in places like this. Fifteen VMI graduates have been killed in the War on Terror.

Memorial Day is not a “happy” day. It is a day to reflect upon the cost of freedom and how that price is met. It is an unequal burden. We are a large country, current population 327,200,000, and yet we have lost 1,354,664 dead and 1,498,240 wounded.

In the American Civil War — where all dead were Americans — we lost 520 per day out of a population of 31,443,000. These men saved the Union.

In World War II, we lost 405,399 killed out of a population of 133,402,000 — 297 per day. These men saved the world.

Most of those men had next of kin who were notified of their deaths.

When I was an Army officer, I drew notification officer duty five times when stationed in the United States. Of the five, one burnt into my soul and I have been haunted by the memory for more than 40 years.

I was asleep at three in the morning, the kind of deep sleep created by long days and hard work. The phone rang. It was 3:13 AM.

“Minch,” I said.

“Sir, we have a requirement for a notification officer.”

The caller was a soldier from the Adjutant General Corps, the people who administer the Army.

“You’re the next officer on the list,” he said.

I had taken the duty because I was single even though I could have begged off because I was a company commander. Most of my lieutenants were married.

The caller gave me the particulars and I tried to memorize them.

“It’s all in the packet, sir. Chaplain is a Major. The driver has been in this neighborhood before. Weather is clear. Won’t be any traffic.”

It was a Sunday morning.

“Any changes in the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) since last time?” I asked.

“No, sir.”

“OK, tell the driver to stop by my mess hall and pick up six bacon biscuits, put them in three paper bags, and three thermoses of coffee.”

My unit ran a mess hall for more than a thousand soldiers and was open almost around the clock.

“Wake up call, sir?”

“Yes, five o’clock.”

The target window for notification was 7-7:30 AM and it was an hour drive. More people are at home that early. I knew my uniform was squared away because I knew I might get such a call.

Come five thirty a green Army sedan picks me up in front of the BOQ (Bachelor Officers Quarters) with the Chaplain and the chow. We eat biscuits and drink coffee while I read the packet.

Traffic is non-existent. The driver drives through red lights after ensuring nobody was coming. We cross over a large river and enter a major urban city. He drives right to the street, we do a driveby, ID the house, park around the corner.

The Chaplain and I step out and walk down the street. It is a poor part of the city with fake brick asphalt shingle rowhouses. People are starting to stir. Several people stop and watch me and the Chaplain hoping I stay on the other side of the street. I feel like the Angel of Death, like Passover.

I walk up to the rowhouse — two half circle steps — tap on the door. My knock reverberates through the house. It competes with the sound of my heart.

A man in pants and a tee shirt opens the door. He looks like he’s getting ready to go to church.

“May I come in?” I asked.

He doesn’t answer, but gives ground to me and the Chaplain, both wearing our greens with ribbons.

In the next second, my life is impacted for all time as I cast my eyes down a mantle above a faux fireplace with a gas heater — not a gas log, a gas heater, the kind poor people used to put coins in to buy heat — and see the pictures of a baby held by a woman obviously his mother, a First Holy Communion picture with the kid in a white suit holding a Bible, a Confirmation picture, picture of him and his Dad fishing, high school football uniform, high school cap and gown, Army basic training in fatigues, Army greens with the National Defense Service ribbon, young, good looking soldier in the field with a rifle in his hands and a helmet on. Looks like an excellent soldier.

I turn to the father and utter one of the cruelest combinations of words ever concocted in the English language.

“On behalf of the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense, I regret to inform you that your son, [insert name], was killed-in-action on [insert date] in [insert location].”

The man looks at me and tears begin to flow — not weeping tears, manly silent tears. He was a big man with a workman’s hands, strong forearms, and reading glasses. His wife comes down the stairs, halfway down, she asks him, “Who is it? What’s going on?”

He tells her. The woman collapses and the Chaplain nimbly darts over and catches her before she ends up at the bottom of the steps.

The man retrieves a whiskey bottle and two shot glasses. He hands me one and raises an eyebrow.

In the Standard Operating Procedures — this is my fifth such notification — it forbids taking a drink.

He pours the whiskey, we touch glasses, I knock it back. It burns. It’s supposed to burn. I can feel it burning my throat and warming my gut. He offers me another. I take it. It burns more. My gut is warmer. I hand him back the glass. He thanks me. I just wrecked the man’s life and he thanks me.

I turn to the Chaplain, nod. I shake hands with the man. It is a hard handshake. It is the kind of handshake a man gives you when you have ruined his life, have shattered it. The kind of handshake a man gives when you have told him his only son is dead and that the pictures on the mantle are no longer relevant to his life.

It is one of the cruelest things one man can do to another on a Sunday morning.

Now, I leave. I walk toward the car. The driver pulls around the corner and stops, like he’s a getaway driver. I get away.

On the way back, for an hour, I stare silently at the countryside. It is not a beautiful countryside which matches my dark thoughts.

The driver says to the Chaplain, “Chapel or your quarters, sir?”

“Drop me at the chapel.”

When the Chaplain gets out, I get out also. It is an easy walk to the BOQ. It is almost time for the nine o’clock Catholic Mass. I kneel in that little chapel and pray. I pray harder and more focused than I ever have. I pray for that kid. I pray for all the other kids. I pray for our country. I pray for the Army. I pray for that man and his wife. I don’t pray for myself. I ask forgiveness for my cruelty. I can still taste the whiskey.

When the Mass is finished — I am the only person in uniform — I walk out. My battalion commander, brigade commander, post commander are outside chewing the fat.

“Why are you in uniform?” asks my brigade commander, a man who will eventually wear two stars and command the US Army’s Special Operations Command.

“Notification officer,” I say. Nothing else because no other words are necessary. Heads nod. The conversation stops.

The post commander, a two-star, asks, “Who was he?”

I hand him the information packet and they all read it. Four of us stand there — a Major General, a Colonel, a Lieutenant Colonel, and a Captain. We engage in the hardest part there is of soldiering — dealing with the aftermath. The ugly, dirty, evil. bloody aftermath.

“Killed in Columbia?” he asks having read the packet. “Didn’t know we had any troops down there.”

One of them suggests it must be related to drug interdiction.

“Shitty duty,” one of them says. Everyone agrees.

The General invites everyone to the Officer’s Club for brunch. I pass on it. Next week, he’ll be down inspecting my company. He asks, me, “You OK?”

“Yes,” I say, lying because I’m really not.

I never will be. I don’t to be. I want to remember that moment for the rest of my life. I never want to expunge the memory that I was that cruel. I want every politician who wants to go to war to experience what I did.

But there is something much worse. I cannot remember that soldier’s name. It haunts me on every Memorial Day. There is a hole in my soul where that information should be.

Never, ever, ever put the word “happy” in front of the words “Memorial Day.” It is not a happy day.

God bless those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Let us all be worthy of that