“You’re here about LeRoy! He has 3 daughters! Jessica is my friend!” My voice sounded like it was coming from a stranger’s mouth.
Their eyes told me the truth even though they were unable to confirm. My knees finally gave out completely. The Chaplain caught me and held me in a tight hug until I could stand on my own again.
In cases of high emotion, I quickly go into “we have shit to do, no time for crying” mode. “You have to find her. You have to go to her now.” They didn’t have her correct address. I assumed her unit lost the paperwork she submitted before she left. Her oldest daughter mailed me a letter, which I put “somewhere safe” so I could write back to her. With the officers watching, I tore apart my house to find it so these messengers of death could track her down.
“Please don’t tell her,” they said. “There are procedures that have to be followed.”
“Your procedures have gone really well so far, haven’t they?” I snapped, “I won’t call her. She doesn’t need to hear this from me.”
One of the Gold Star wives from Care Team training received a botched notification. It prolonged the agony, offered her false hope (“maybe my friend is wrong”), and it made a horrible situation even worse. I couldn’t do that to Jessica, even if she never forgave me for it. I knew that her husband was dead before she did, and I didn’t tell her.
With the officers still there, I considered texting her to ask for her address. It was an innocuous question and wouldn’t alarm her. They asked me not to contact her, though. I wasn’t sure I trusted myself to do it anyway. I regret listening to them. The CNOs in her small town managed to botch the notification there, too. I didn’t find the letter before the officers left my home. The only information I could provide them was the name of the small town where she lived and her phone number.
Shane, our unit’s rear detachment commander, was used to getting the weird calls from me. “I’m across the country in pre-term labor in the ER of a small town civilian hospital. Oh, no, don’t worry about me, I’m calling about a problem one of the wives is having. Can you help her out?” “Sorry it’s the middle of the night, but one of the wives just witnessed the accidental suicide of a close family friend who just returned from Afghanistan. There’s nothing in the handbook about what I’m supposed to do with this.” “So, um, I’ve landed in the ER again and they don’t know what’s wrong. Also, another of the wives is having an issue with pay. Can you send somebody over for me and help her out, too?” “A wife has disappeared after dumping her kids off on another one of the women. We think she might be in Vegas.” “One of the wives is having serious heart problems and was rushed to the hospital. A Red Cross message is being sent.”
And now, “The notification team came to my house by mistake. My friend is dead and his wife doesn’t know.”
Shane still has the comforting presence of the funeral director he was in his pre-Army life, but in this case it took him a minute to find his voice. He calmly made sure I was okay, instructed me not to contact her and reaffirmed that it was best for her to learn the news through official channels. He urged me to go to a friend’s house for the night.
The senior FRG advisor called me in tears to make sure I was okay. I wasn’t. This was never going to be okay. My friend tended me as I sat, unseeing, in her living room. She kept our children busy and listened when I needed to speak. Each moment I wondered if this was the one where Jessica’s knees fell out. Jessica’s moment was real. Hers was forever.
I felt like someone was trying to shoot me but I ducked, so they shot her instead. It doesn’t make logical sense, really. The guys were in two different countries, fighting two different wars. It was an administrative mistake that they came to my house at all. Survivor guilt bears no logic. I couldn’t, and still can’t, shake the feeling that my dodge somehow created her loss. My elation to hear “not my name” was her anguish. My emotions betrayed her. Part of me will always believe that it was supposed to be me–the bullet was meant for me.
In a unit that experiences a lot of casualties, family members go through a vicious cycle of emotions. When communication from downrange shuts down, we know that they are on “black out.” Something happened. Someone is dead. Someone is hurt. Our soldiers won’t be calling us again until the family is notified. We sit there hoping they aren’t coming for us. We sit there hoping they are coming for someone else, for anyone else…even though we know the only other “someones” are our friends. Every single one of us has breathed a sigh of relief when it was “not me” and we will forever bear the guilt of wishing that pain on people we love.
The doorbell ring is an eternal moment. It still lives, suspended in time. I am still standing in the living room, looking through the window at the two men in Class A’s. My husband is dead, and all I can do is plead, “No.”
Nearly four years later, with Ollie safely at home and in no danger of deploying, the doorbell still brings me to my knees. My heart races, my ears buzz, I have tunnel vision. In the moments after it rings I have lost my whole world, it has vanished from under me and I am plunged into darkness. It is a little better if I’m expecting a visitor or delivery, but even then I open the door with trepidation. After twenty minutes or so I am able to breathe freely and put everything back into its proper place. Sometimes I still go touch my husband just to make sure he is really home.
Jessica wishes I had called, but she forgives me. We stay in contact, seeing each other when we travel. The girls are growing and thriving. Their lives are moving forward, they are healing. Jessica approved my writing this and one day she may share the story of her journey where my telling of it leaves off. She is strong, resilient and courageous. Her path is not what she’d hoped, but she fucking rocks it.
The botched notification was a serious deal. I spoke with the division commander for LeRoy’s unit and made very strong suggestions about keeping accurate contact information for their families. The Casualty Assistance Office provided further training for their officers about the bizarre idiosyncrasies of on-post housing numbers. Soon after the incident, every home was provided with a name plate to attach to the front of the house. It included the soldier’s name and rank. If anything improved because of the mistake, if anyone else was spared this horror, I am grateful it happened to me.
It was two weeks before Ollie was back from a mission and able to call home. I didn’t truly believe he was alive until I heard his voice. We did our verbal mourning dance when I told him about LeRoy. We lightly reminisced about the time their middle daughter broke her arm on our porch and how Ollie set it with a George Foreman spatula while LeRoy cuddled her. We chuckled about his big round eyes popping up over the fence, the cheap beers he like to drink and his excellent barbecue. My husband grew quiet when I told him about the patrol, the sniper who found the only vulnerable spot in the armor. We shared mutual disbelief. LeRoy’s deployment was supposed to be easy. This wasn’t supposed to happen. None of us had even been worried.
LeRoy Otis Webster, you are loved. You will never be forgotten. Rest easy, brother.