The Bell Tolls

Somehow the information leaked through unofficial channels.  Rumors were flying.  His name was on our lips before we knew for sure that he was dead.  We messaged one another frantically for more information, but all we had was his name.

I remembered him from my FRG roster from the first deployment.  My husband’s friend was dead.  I showered in an attempt to scrub off the guilty relief I felt because it was his friend, not him.  Would this be the combat event which would irrevocably change him?  How was he handling this?  I wanted to hold him close, to comfort him, to tell him it would be okay.  The blackout wouldn’t be lifted until after the official casualty brief.  Comfort had to wait.

Alana watched the kids while I went to the brief.  The look in her eyes let me know that she had been where I was, that she understood.  I couldn’t maintain eye contact for long.  “Take as long as you need,” she said as I walked out the door.

I considered driving past the chapel and going to Tracy’s house instead.  Or maybe going out to dinner.  Or going home for some precious alone time.  The last place I wanted to be was the chapel.  The last thing I wanted to hear was his name, the official announcement of his passing.

Women were milling around outside the chapel when I passed by.  Diane’s car was parked out front.  I couldn’t let her do this alone.  I parked the car.

The air was cold and bitter.  My emotions were barely contained as I approached my friends.  “Don’t hug me,” I was glad my voice didn’t betray me when I spoke.  “I’m sick.”  I had been sick for a few days so it wasn’t a stretch.

“I won’t hug you, darlin’!” Diane assured me.  We walked slowly towards the chapel and paused in the vestibule where Ayse greeted us.

“Don’t hug me,” I insisted.

“I am going to hug you, and you will just have to deal with it!” she announced in her beautiful Turkish accent.  “I do not care if you give me your germs!”

I held myself together and made my way into the main chapel area.  Heather was sitting with her Charlie company wives. I squeezed her shoulder as I passed.  I was grateful that we had mended the fences we’d broken a few months previously.

Diane joined her group of Echo wives. I sat down with Andrea and our Delta wives.  This was her first casualty brief, her first FRG leader experience.  I tried to give her an idea of what to expect and what our responsibilities would be afterwards.  The majority of the wives in the chapel were from Bravo company; the casualties were theirs.  Babies cried here and there; toddlers were shushed.  The room buzzed with anxious energy.

After what seemed like an eternity, the rear detachment commander got up to speak.  In that moment he probably would have preferred facing a storm of bullets rather than a chapel full of terrified families.  He collected himself, drew a deep breath, and then read a statement.

My ears buzzed, my heart raced, and my saliva turned to metal as he said something similar to this:

“On February 27, 2011, while on mounted patrol in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, SGT Kristopher J. Gould was killed in action by an improvised explosive device.”

All of the air was sucked from the chapel.  A baby cried somewhere.  Muted sniffles came from all parts of the room.  I closed my eyes as the commander continued to read the statement, detailing the names and injuries of the three men who were with SGT Gould.  My stomach turned upside as I hear their names and remembered the stories Ollie had told me about them.

When he was done, he called the FRG leaders to the front.  He handed out scripts for us to use for our roster call down to inform the other families about our loss.  There is no adequate description for the resolve, panic, grief, worry, sadness and determination that flares up in the eyes of my Army sisters when we are tasked with this duty.  We do it because we would rather our families hear it from us than from a stranger, the news, or through the rumor mill.

Andrea and I met at her house to make the calls.  I started each one with, “Hi, this is Megan Hughes.  I’m really sorry, but I need to inform you about an incident in the unit.  This is not regarding your soldier.  Again, I am not informing you about your soldier.  I am going to read a statement now, alright?”

I read each wife, parent, or sibling the casualty statement.  When I was done, every single one asked in a cracked whisper, “Are you sure my soldier is okay?”

I wanted to say, “Yes, your soldier is okay.”  The truth is, I didn’t know.  Another incident could have already happened and we weren’t informed yet.  So I just reiterated that the families of these soldiers had been officially informed by the Army.  If there was something wrong with their own soldier, the Army would contact them first, not me.  I explained the casualty notification process over and over.  I did my best to give each one some peace before calling the next one.  My voice only cracked a couple of times.  The families needed me to be strong.

When I tucked Birch into bed later, she knew something was wrong.  I figured she would be more worried if she thought I was not honest with her, so I told her the truth.  A brave soldier was killed that day, and some others wounded.  He was close to Daddy, but not close enough for Daddy to be hurt.  I told her that she did not need to worry–if anything was ever wrong or if I was really scared, I would tell her.  She accepted my words without question.

By the time the kids were asleep, I was too spent, too empty, to feel anything.  I rocked in my chair on the front porch, taking slow drags on the cigarette I bummed from Andrea.  Ollie would call as soon as he was allowed.  Together we would remember SGT Gould.

I have not shared SGT Gould’s personal story here because I have not yet requested or received permission from his family to share it.  The details I have included are easily accessible on the web.  I intend no disrespect to him or his memory by sharing only our reactions on the homefront.  If you would like to know more about SGT Gould, a truly extraordinary young man, you can read about him here or here.  He is deeply missed by his friends and family, who are remembering him on this second anniversary of his passing.

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3 Responses to The Bell Tolls

  1. aysegul ike says:

    It is the day… I donot recall as many details but sounds like I was still my annoying self

  2. Reading this was like it had happened again…..I was on the verge of tears and wished you were here to hold my hand. Biggest lump in my throat. Never realized how much I needed you.

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