True Cost Of War
Team delivers news no family wants to hear
By Norris Burkes
The true cost of war is something I learned about while serving as chaplain on death notification teams. We delivered news no one wants to hear.
Movies often depict these teams visiting a three-bedroom house where Mom is making dinner and Dad is helping a younger sibling with homework.
Television dramas cast the teams in a four-man role as they approach the door in dress uniforms, knock, deliver the brief announcement and retreat to a government sedan.
Occasionally, that’s an accurate picture. But that wasn’t my typical experience in the 30-plus homes I visited before I retired in 2015.
That’s because our service members come from all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Nearly each of my visits was different from the last one.
During one appointment, we almost called for police support when an anguished father pummeled the kitchen table so hard I thought we might be his next targets.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to call police that day. But we did call law enforcement for help with an uncooperative landlord. Unbelievably, the man refused to give us the forwarding address for a tenant who lost his daughter on Christmas Eve.
Sometimes we found the home unoccupied. We asked neighbors if they knew the location of the residents. While they answered our questions politely, they sometimes asked if we were recruiters.
Our blank stares gave them the only possible answer. They slapped a hand over their mouth at the unspoken horror of their next guess.
Each family was unique. In one home, I answered insensitive questions from a soldier’s stepfather about life insurance while his mother bent over sobbing. In a different scenario, I resisted the nausea I felt from a cat hoarder whose home was covered with feline droppings.
One visit began like a police stakeout. We hoped for the parents to return before our military orders required us to make a midnight retreat. Then, just before midnight, the soldier’s parents returned from a successful bingo game. That’s when they learned they had experienced the loss of a lifetime.
I remember the time I drove six hours to tell a father there would be no miraculous recovery for his son. After nearly a year of praying, the soldier finally died of the brain injury he received in an IED explosion.
Most of all, I think about the children of the fallen. I remember the birthday party we canceled when we told the boy his father drowned. I can’t forget 9-year-old twins who exchanged vacant stares as our team fulfilled its legal requirement to deliver the notification directly to them.
I recall the dark sidewalks our group walked until we were illuminated by porch lights. Often from behind a fluttering curtain in the living room, we’d hear screams that can’t be removed from my memory.
If you’ve not known anyone lost to war, count yourself fortunate.
At Fourth of July parades, if you see old soldiers standing on the sidelines, know they are not blessed with the innocence of ignorance. They know what it’s like to see a comrade fall.
All they ask if that you remember them, sing “God Bless America” and extend a grateful hand.
One more thing. Promise you will never forget the true cost of war.
Norris Burkes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit thechaplain.net.