When writing about difficult things, I generally try to include humor or funny anecdotes. In this case, I could find neither. I share this mainly to provide the background of my story and to educate those who do not have firsthand experience with deployment. For those of you who went through this with me, this post is about our experiences with FRG, Care Team, and memorial services during the 2008-2009 deployment. I am not sharing anything you haven’t experienced. You may want to skip this if you still struggle with that time period.
During his first deployment I was his company’s Family Readiness Group leader. I coordinated contact information for the family members of each soldier, held meetings, fundraisers and events for the local families, and passed along important information from command. A lot of my work was done remotely, since I accidentally gave birth two months early, 1000 miles from home, four days after he deployed. That’s a story for another day, though.
As part of our leadership education, we attended a Care Team¹ training course. The Care Team is set up to support a family in the immediate aftermath of a casualty notification. Much like extended family, they come to the home of the bereaved and help cook, clean, arrange childcare, help organize visitors, make phone calls, and anything else the family needs. They have strict guidelines, are bound by confidentiality, and are taught how to deal with a family in crisis.
Until the training, I was afraid of Gold Star families (Gold Star families have lost a loved one in combat). In some small way I wondered if they were contagious. I didn’t even park next to the Gold Star parking spot at the commissary no matter the distance to the next open spot. The first time I came face to face with war widows was during the training. They came to share their stories, how they were notified, how they felt immediately after the notification, what was helpful and what was harmful. Compassion finally outweighed my fear and I was able to embrace them by the end.
I wanted to believe that they were different than me somehow. I wanted to believe that we had nothing in common. I wanted to believe that there was no way that I could one day sit on the other side of that room, sharing my story, training people how to deal with my life. The realization that we were not different in any way was particularly harsh.
The casualty notification process is tightly controlled². The team consists of a chaplain and a casualty notification officer. The goal is to notify a family in person within 4 hours of the death of their servicemember. They work hard to make sure that the family does not hear rumors before the official notification. The FRG leaders were responsible for keeping correct contact information for each family, including their travel information. We needed to know where they were at all times so we could find them if their soldier was killed in action. It was a sick and necessary part of our jobs.
To help us understand what a family has just gone through when a Care Team arrives, a casualty notification was acted out in front of us. We gathered at the home of one of the senior leaders. A casualty notification officer in training and a chaplain rang the doorbell. A woman (who was single in real life) portrayed the wife of the home. She answered the door with a laundry basket in hand, welcomed the officers and sat on the couch. We listened to the CNO stumble over the words caught in his throat to inform her of the casualty. It may have started with “I regret to inform you…” but I was working so hard to keep my emotions in check that I didn’t hear the rest of his speech. Afterward, we discussed notifications with the chaplain. We talked about the various reactions of family members he had seen. We huddled together and ate hors d’oeuvres, hoping we were never the person on the couch, hoping we never needed any of this training.
We were as prepared as we could possibly be, but nothing could have prepared us for what we experienced.
Our first brigade casualty occurred while I was away. I sat on my cot in the NICU in Asheville, North Carolina, wondering if my husband would ever meet his tiny son. It was within days, maybe a week or two, of our guys’ boots hitting the ground. In the same time period, a battle in Eastern Afghanistan left nine American troops killed and twenty-seven wounded. It was the first thing I saw when I turned on the television–I wasn’t even intentionally watching the news. I watched in horror and wished that we were close to our military family. The community I was in was supportive but had little understanding of the depth of my struggle. The phone rang and I answered with a cracking voice. A member of my family asked what was wrong so I told her what I had seen on the news. She replied, “Well, you knew what you were getting into when you married him.” We didn’t talk much after that.
Unfortunately, the casualties didn’t slow down. In the beginning the brigade planned to have individual memorial services for each fallen soldier, but there were so many that they combined them into monthly services. When there was a casualty in the unit, the FRG leaders were called to a closed door meeting. They gave us information and instructions about what to tell our families. Then we would go and call each spouse and notify her about our loss. I explained repeatedly that I was not calling about their soldier, that I would never notify them about anything directly related to their husbands. After the first couple of calls, some of my spouses asked me not to tell them any more. I respected their wishes and only called them regarding meetings, resources, and welfare checks. Some of my spouses wanted to hear the bad news from me before they heard it through the rumor mill. Some of the spouses didn’t want to hear from me at all.
At memorial services the leaders sat together behind the bereaved family. We held hands during roll call, the rifle volley, and Taps. We witnessed one of the commanders who was home for R&R break down as he eulogized one of his men. Silent tears rolled down our cheeks as one mother wailed loudly and collapsed in the chapel. We stood outside and watched the ambulance take her away.
We gathered in support of the family of a young soldier who, rather than face more months of deployment, took his own life in Afghanistan. I will never forget his official photograph, which was obviously out of regulations. He was sporting a huge goofy smile instead of the usual military grimace. He told the photographer that if he was killed over there, he wanted his mama to see his smile.
When we walked outside after his memorial, we were pulled to the side by one of the senior leaders. “Get ready,” she said, through tightly controlled emotions. “We’ve had a mass casualty.”
By the end of the deployment, even the strongest among us was emotionally, mentally, and in my case, physically shattered from the stress. We each volunteered 20-30 hours a week (often more), supporting the unit, supporting the families, supporting each other.
We didn’t need to go to war to know it was Hell. Hell came home to us.