"What Do You Say Regarding The Death Of A Foot Soldier ? "
Rev. Peter E. Bauer
The recent tragic deaths of the military service members at the Naval Recruiting and Naval Reserve Center in Chattanooga, TN really points to the challenge regarding what can be offered to those who have lost loved ones in these circumstances.
What does one say to a family member of someone who dies and who had their whole life ahead of them ?
This is certainly not a new challenge. Consider that in recent years, we have witnessed the tragedy of the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., the 2009 shooting and massacre at Fort Hood, TX and the subsequent attempted bombing of a restaurant in Killeen, TX.
Military service members now, if they ever did, will especially feel that they are not necessarily safe anywhere. It's one thing, if you are deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, you understandably will feel afraid; but it is an entirely different reality to suggest that you could feel unsafe on Fort Sam Houston, TX or perhaps on a street in Austin, TX.
What can you say to someone who has lost a family member to war or to some senseless act of violence ?
You can sit with them in silence. You can let them grieve. You can say " I am here with you. " You don't want to say, " I know how you feel. "
When I served as a Navy Chaplain, I would on occasion have to perform a Casualty And Assistance Call (CACO). You usually accompany a military official and you drive out to a house and you give the family member the worst unwelcome news i.e. that their family member is dead.
On this occasion, a Navy Senior Chief and I, then serving as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps, drove to a neighborhood in South Chicago, Il. It was 1990 and the sailor in question was killed in the Persian Gulf War ( Operation Desert Storm Desert Shield ).
This was the first time that the Senior Chief had been assigned a CACO call. I spent the drive out to the house orienting the Senior Chief as to what to expect and how he should interact with the family member.
We arrived at this row house which had rot iron all over the door and over all of the windows . When the mother opened the door and saw us in our uniforms she started to scream.
For the next hour, I sat with the woman in her living room as she grieved. She had just spoken with her son a few days ago and he was fine. The house was dotted with many photographs of the service member and his family.
After about an hour, the woman looked up and she asked me through her tears would I like to go for a walk with her in the neighborhood ?
I immediately said " Yes". The Senior Chief looked puzzled but he stayed behind at the house while the mother and I went for a walk.
For the next hour, the mother took me on a walking tour of this South Side Chicago Hispanic neighborhood. I got to see the service member's grade school and most importantly I got to see the service member's Catholic Church. All during the time of this walk, the mother of the deceased service member got brighter, her sadness was a little lighter. She was able to share stories of her son's life growing up in the neighborhood and was even able to laugh at funny remembrances.
By the time we got back to the house, the woman was able to hear what the Senior Chief would be able to tell her about burial procedures and Navy benefits.
I was struck by how a simple action i.e. taking a walk with a grieving family member on a warm Fall afternoon through a South Side Chicago neighborhood could bring forth such healing not only for the mother but for myself as well.
Perhaps what can be said to someone who loses a family member, military or civilian, to war or to some other senseless violent tragedy is that even in the midst of this pain, God or the divine however known can be present. Also, that a manifestation of that reality can be someone else being willing to walk with, alongside, the person who is experiencing the loss of the loved one. In other words, we can support those who lose family members in such tragic circumstances by being companions to them, by walking and being present with them in the journey of healing.
May this reality be realized for us all now and always.