Friday, December 23, 2005

Death notifications

Reposted from the original site, which is no longer online

It always happens - right after I announce one of my rare recesses from blogging I find a topic so compelling that I break my own vow to take time off writing.

In this case it is the combined media project between Time magazine and the Rocky Mountain News. They shared coverage of the procedures of US Marine Maj. Steve Beck, on whose shoulders falls the sad duty to notify families of Marines over a few western states that their loved one is dead.

Time's version is almost exclusively a photo-essay with minimal narrative while RMN's is a fairly detailed written narrative with extensive photo-illustration. Both are gripping, compelling pieces that should be read by every American.

They took me back to Dec. 2 when 10 Marines were killed and 11 wounded by bombs in Fallujah, Iraq. My son was based in Fallujah. Would I have heard quickly that he was one of the ten? I didn't know. I didn't know how long notification takes. 
Now I know how long: not long. There is a frenzy of necessary confirmation activity by Headquarters, Marine Corps and the headquarters of the officer who make the notification, then the two-Marine notification team drives to the next-of-kin's home and makes the notification. If the NOK isn't there they wait. Out west, where Maj. Beck is assigned, the longest delay is often the time it takes for him to travel to the NOK's home, which may be one or two states away.

The stories also took me back to the one time that duty fell to me. It was peacetime, the early 1980s - before cell phones or GPS to navigate. I was a first lieutenant assigned to Fort jackson, SC. My name reached the top of the installation-level duty roster just in time to be tabbed for NOK notification. I reported to the post's casualty office for instructions. There I was assigned a government van and driver and given a written packet of information about the deceased soldier, the address of his NOK, a map and a government credit card.

My instructions were simple: "Memorize this paragraph. You are required to state it verbatim, without notes, to the next of kin. That's all you have to do." Unlike the Marines, the Army assigns different officers to notification duty and survivor-assistance duty. An assistance officer (actually a senior NCO) would be assigned to help the dead soldier's parents with the funeral and settling his affairs; the soldier had not been married.

I got one final instruction before departing: "You must make the notification between 0600 and 2200. Use the credit card for any expenses related to this mission, including food and lodging if you need it. Don't come back until you have made the notification."

The dead soldier had been a member of the 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC. He had died in an auto accident (fact was, he was DWI, but relating that fact was not my problem). The civilian casualty staffer at post HQ told me that tthe soldier's father already knew his son was dead (via unofficial grapevine channel from his unit), but that it didn't matter: the Army always sent an officer, in Class A uniform, to deliver the official word. Unlike Maj. Beck, I was alone; my driver was a driver, that's all. I was also distinctly forbidden to call the NOK by phone, even to ask directions.

We set out for rural northwest South Carolina. The NOK's address was an RFD box from a very small farming town. Because it was wintertime darkness had long fallen when we arrived. Absolutely everything was closed for the day; there wasn't even a place to get a cup of coffee.

The van needed fuel and we did manage to find the town's one gas station. It was, thank heavens, still open. I asked the attendant where Mr. "Smith" lived and showed him the address without telling him why I wanted it. The man shook his head and said he'd never heard of "Smith," but that the RFD route started along a certain state route heading out of town, so maybe if we began at the first mailbox and kept going, we'd find it.

I remember clearly the RFD box number: 479. What a plan.

Refueled, I bought some snack crackers and a coke for my driver and myself and we drove off to find the state route. Much to our surprise, once we left the town the first mailbox was number 100. (Apparently, all the RFD numbers were three digits.) But the next was, yes, "101." We kept going.

Believe it or not we followed the mailboxes all the way to number 479. There were many stops, wrong turns and restarts as we tried to stay on the state road; intersections were often not marked which road was which. Many mailboxes also were not marked at all and we simply proceeded on faith. Sometimes we drove a long way without seeing any box, then there would be one.

After almost four hours of navigating in the darkness, a mailbox marked 479 in simple handwritten, white paint ghosted into the headlights. It was 2145 hours. The house was set off the road about 40 yards. Bright lights shone through every window from interior lights. We turned in and parked near the front stoop. When I opened the door my ears were assailed by soul music coming from the house, very loud. I reached into the back seat and got out my Class A blouse (coat for you civilians) and saucer cap.

"Good luck, sir," my driver called as I turned to go to the house.

"Thanks." I walked up the wooden, rickety steps to the front door. I paused and ran my hands along my blouse to make sure it was straight and checked my cap. Then I knocked on the door loudly so it would be heard over the music. Momentarily a middle-aged (or so he seemed, hard farm labor can age you quickly) man opened the door. He was bleary-eyed and I immediately saw why: there were several open bottles of liquor on side tables behind him.

"Sir," I said to him, "I am Lieutenant Sensing from Fort Jackson. I am told this is the home of Mr. 'George Smith.' If so, I would appreciate very much speaking with him."

The man motioned for me to come in and said, "That's me." I stepped inside two steps, removing my saucer cap as I did. A young man in the room yelled at a boy to turn off the music, who quickly complied. I recall that there were a couple of women in the room, too.

"Mr. Smith," I said very formally, "on behalf the secretary of the Army, I extend to you and your family my sympathy in the death of your son, Sergeant 'Jim Smith.'" I don't remember after so many years the paragraph I had memorized then. I know I said that another officer would contact them about making arrangements and settling their son's affairs, and that he would be able to answer all their questions.

Uttering those words was 100 percent of my duties. I finished and Mr. "Smith" mumbled, "Thank you." He offered his right hand. I shook it and said, "I really am very sorry for your loss, sir." We dropped hands and briefly looked at one another face to face: he of a weatherbeaten black face, an uneducated farm laborer who had toiled in tobacco or bean fields all his life, who had worked dawn to dark to see his eldest son graduate from high school and become a soldier with a bright future. Then his son got killed one day on a rural road in North Carolina. And the next day I, a lily-white young officer, walked into his home from the night's darkness. With no personal connection to his son, I stood in his sharecropper's home purely by random chance of a duty roster to tell him that the secretary of the entire US Army mourned his young son's death.

Mr. "Smith" turned away and so did I. There was nothing else for either of us to say to one another. I stepped out the door and walked back to the van, placed my blouse and cap in the back and slid into the front seat. The driver asked, "Home, sir?"

"Yes," I answered, "if you're okay to make the drive. We'll stop for supper on the interstate."

"Roger that, sir." He turned the van toward the road where mailboxes were, or were not, marked with plain white numbers that haunted the roadside at 2200 hours, local time.

Before we reached the pavement, the former home of the dead soldier was reverberating again with loud soul music, booming through the darkness.

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Remember Pearl Harbor

Last May my wife and traveled to Oahu. On Memorial Day Sunday we visited the USS Arizona Memorial. The ship was sunk on Dec. 7, 1941, along with many others.

This is the original ship's bell of USS Arizona, recovered from the sunken vessel and now on display at the entrance to the National Park Service pavilion across the channel from the memorial, below.

Looking from the visitor's pavilion to the site of the sunken Arizona, topped abeam by the memorial.

A forward turret barbette of USS Arizona projects upward from the water. Across the channel is the hospital ship Mercy. Oil still seeps from the battleship; the oil spots have been nicknamed "black tears of the Arizona." A half million gallons of fuel oil are estimated to have sunk within the vessel. At the present rate of seeping a quart per day it will be centuries before it all leaks out. The oil bunkers seem to be in good enough condition not to spring large leaks for decades, minimally, and probably a few hundred years.

Many of the Pearl Harbor dead are buried in the National Military Cemetery of the Pacific, 
nicknamed the Punchbowl.

The Arizona Renunion web site has many links, photos and videos of movies taken by both Americans and Japanese on this day 64 years ago, including these two (both AVIs):

American movie of the explosion of Arizona. Also several frames of the explosion photographed from a Japanese airplane.

The site was transferred to the custody of the National Park Service 1980, although the US Navy retains title to the ship's remains. The San Diego Union has an outstanding article about the site and the efforts to preserve it.

It is estimated that 900 crewmembers of the ship are still entombed within it. Anyone living today who can document that he was assigned to the ship on Dec. 7 may be entombed within it. About 20 men have been entombed with their shipmates since the Park Service began allowing them. As I recall, the remains must be cremated because there is no way to manipulate a coffin under the water and entombents take place only on Dec. 7, which is certainly appropriate.

Update: See the National Park Service web site about the Memorial. Keep paging down and read the in-depth report on what happened to USS Oklahoma, too, which IIRC was berthed alongside Arizona. The site has a gallery of photos, including this one, which is the only color photo of the Arizona's agony I have ever seen.

Also, Eric Scheie has a link-rich post that is worth the time.

Monday, September 19, 2005

My address to Gold Star families

I addressed Gold Star Mothers and their families, along with many Blue Star families, at a luncheon honoring fallen U. S. Marines on Sept. 17, 2005. The luncheon was sponsored by Tennessee Marine Families, a chartered not-for-profit organization of which my wife and I are members. Many readers will recognize that I modeled five paragraphs of this address on Pericles' oration at the first funeral of Athens' fallen of the Peloponnesian War in 431 bc. You will also see an echo of Shakespeare's "Henry V" in a closing paragraph.

There was a time in our country when families such as ours did not have to form organizations to offer one another moral and material support because a large percentage of Americans served in the military. Almost every extended family had a member in uniform at one time or another and endured separation or loss like we endure. Families of deployed service members were woven throughout the fabric of every town or city and so was a support structure for them. Today the privilege of service belongs to relatively few Americans, all volunteers - except us. Our sons or daughters - we can no longer call them children - volunteered for military service and then we discovered we had been drafted into another, softer service along with them. Softer service, yes, but not easy.

We have seen our sons or daughters or spouses volunteer for war, prepare for war, go to war. We have, most of us, given an embrace that we dared not think may be the last, taken photographs secretly fearing might be final, given and received tearful kisses hoping with all our hearts that they are promises, not really good-byes. And some us sadly have not welcomed our loved ones home and are living with the grief of fears that became fate.

Without reservations the fallen Marines we memorialize today believed in ideals that formed the very soil from which America grew. They held it self-evident that human beings are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. The fundamental premise on which America was founded was that human freedom is the will of God. Over 230 years of our history this idea has become so deeply rooted in the American psyche that even Americans who profess not to believe in God nonetheless say that freedom is the natural condition of human life. Historian and retired infantry officer T. R. Fehrenbach observed that the virtues required to protect a democracy are often at odds with the virtues of democracy. So while we cherish life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as just ends of democratic freedom, our Marines put their lives at risk, surrender many personal liberties and submit to rigorous discipline that is often most unhappy.

Why did they do this? The most reasonable thing to do when battle begins is to run away, not stay and fight. Were they truly willing to die for their country? I don't think so. There's an old story that goes back probably to the Civil War of the young soldier whose commander asked him, "Are you willing to die for your country?" The young man answered, "Certainly not. But I am ready to die, unwilling." The American armed forces really have no use for someone who is willing to die. We do not seek and soon weed out anyone seeking martyrdom in battle; this is a key distinction between us and our enemy. We do not send our soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines to die even though we know some inevitably will. Our country is instead ably protected by those who accept the risk rather than seek it. But why accept it?

What civilians rarely discern but what every veteran knows is that military service, especially in battle, is steeped with the convictions of deepest emotion. In battle there is fear and courage, anger and compassion. There is resignation and determination. There is hope and despair. The chief emotion of the battlefield is an unlikely one. It is love. Across the range of mental, physical and emotional states in the desolation of combat, love abides. Our Marines chose to serve for a variety of reasons, and love of country was a big one. But when enclosed by the mournful mutter of the battlefield, patrolling deserts of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan, men at arms stay where flies the angry iron not for country or flag or other abstractions. In the final sense they fight for their friends. One Iraq veteran wrote,
[T]he first casualty of war is innocence. ... I've found the hard way that war is not glamorous. You quickly lose the idea of being a man fighting for his country when you have to carry your comrade who has been wounded in a gun fight. That nobility is lost quickly. ... It's not about fighting for the flag, it's about fighting for my life and fighting for my buddies' lives. These men I am lucky enough to serve with, I have become so attached to it's like they are my brothers.
A Marine major in Iraq wrote of a young corporal, a squad leader, who, during the invasion of Iraq was wounded by a grenade. This Marine refused evacuation and continued to guide his squad until he passed out from loss of blood.
Recovering at a US Army hospital in Germany, he convinced his doctors to release him, "borrowed" a camouflage uniform from a Navy corpsman, called his wife and told her that he wasn't coming home because his Marines were depending on him, and then talked his way onto an Air Force transport back to Iraq. He had the "golden ticket." He was headed home as a war hero with medals to prove it, but he just couldn't bear to let his Marines down, so he schemed and connived, as only a good Marine NCO can, and got himself back into the fight. There are those who will call that kind of response foolish. Then may God grant that I be such a fool. You may question the wisdom of that Marine, but he's the kind of man you want on your side when the chips are down.
Whether they served in peace or war, the Marines we memorialize today were not so impoverished of spirit that they were unable to surrender the pleasures of life. None of them excused themselves from hard service even though a softer lifestyle could have easily been gained. They deemed that their love of country and duty to freedom were of greater value and more important imperative, so they reckoned that if dangers must be faced, they would face them in the most desirable way, by placing their own mortal bodies "between their loved homes and the war's desolation."

They determined at the hazard of their lives to be honorable in their young adulthood, to make sure of their duty, and to leave everything else for later, if later ever came. They gave over to hope their chance of lifelong happiness and the uncertainty of final success, and in mortal danger they relied only upon themselves, their buddies and the Corps itself. They chose to risk death young as free men rather than live long as conquered ones. And when fearful lethality loomed they resolved to resist and suffer, rather than flee to save their lives; they ran away not from danger but from dishonor. On the battlefield they stood steadfast, and in an instant, at the height of their resolve, they passed away from this life but not from our lives or the destinies of generations yet to come.

Such was the end of these men's lives. We need not desire to have a more heroic spirit than they, although we do pray that others and their families suffer no such fate. The value of their spirit is poorly expressed in words. Anyone can speak to you about the advantages of such devotion, but you know about that already. Instead I hope that we can fix our eyes upon the greatness of our country and of these men's love of it and one another, and reflect that this country was established and has been preserved by men and women who knew their duty and determined to do it even at cost of life.

We should make them our examples. Their courage is our freedom and our freedom is our happiness. We whose loved ones still serve must not weigh too hard on the perils of war. We accept their love of country as our assurance and their service as our blessing. So it is comfort rather than pity I have to offer you, the families of the fallen. There are numberless chances to which lives of men and women are subjected: none of us here is promised even to see our own homes again today or ever.

These Marines' service ended in their honorable deaths and your honorable sorrow. Their passing is truly sad, for which you rightly mourn - but their deaths were not tragic, for tragedy is found in futility and selfishness, never by attaining the great honor of selfless service for freedom's sake. I know how hard it is to hear this, for the good fortune of others will too often remind you of the gladness which once lightened your hearts. There is a portal you have passed through that we frankly hope never to cross ourselves. So we honor your grieving and will never forget your sons and husbands.

In gratitude we should offer them praise that does not grow old, and acknowledge they occupy the noblest of all tombs. I speak not of that in which their remains are laid, but of that in which their glory survives and is proclaimed whenever people protect their freedom or are liberated from tyranny. For the whole world is the memorial of these Americans; they signed the earth itself with their blood and their honor. Not only are they commemorated here in their own country, but in Iraq and Afghanistan there are countless, unwritten memorials of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of tens of millions of peoples newly freed from murderous oppression.

Because of these men's sacrifice we go safely to our homes. Henceforth we should stand in humility when their names are read. Their comrades in arms who see old age will recall them fondly and show their medals and say, "These ribbons I earned beside true heroes." We will forget many things in years to come but we shall remember these great men and what feats they did one day. These dates shall never go by but that in them our fallen shall be remembered. They were a few, a band of brothers; and may we gratefully call them who shed their blood for us our brothers. And people in our country safe in their beds should think themselves accursed they knew them not, and hold their courage cheap when we speak of those who fought and died for freedom's cause.

The prophet Micah wrote that the time will come when God will judge between all the peoples and will settle disputes between strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. All people will be at peace, and no one will make them afraid (Micah 4:3-4).

Let us pray that day comes quickly. Until then may the Lord watch over those who serve today, to make them instruments of justice, enablers of peace, and finally to see them safely home. To our Gold Star families, may God bless you and keep you and comfort you, from this day until the ending of the world.

In honor of and gratitude for the service and sacrifice of these Marines:
LCpl. Benjamin Gearheart - Franklin, Tennessee
Cpl. Patrick Nixon - Gallatin, Tennessee
Capt. Brent Morel - Martin, Tennessee
Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Savage - Livingston, Tennessee
Pfc. Daniel McClenney - Shelbyville, Tennessee
Lance Cpl. Timothy Creager - Millington, Tennessee
Lance Cpl. Brad McCormick - Allons, Tennessee
1st Lt. Andrew Stern - Germantown, Tennessee
Lance Cpl. Tyler Cates - Mt. Juliet, Tennessee
Sgt. Christopher Heflin - Paducah, Kentucky
Lance Cpl. Joshua Dickinson - Lafayette, Tennessee
Pfc. Nathan Clemons - Winchester, Tennessee
Sgt. Morgan Strader
2nd Lt. Heinz Ahlmeyer 
Added Oct. 2006
: Lance Cpl. Richard A. Buerstetta, Franklin, Tennessee
They will not grow old as we that are left grow old. 
Age shall not weary them nor the year condemn. 
At the going down of the sun 
and in the morning we will remember them.
From, "For the Fallen," Laurence Binyon, 1914

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The fastest jet pilot ever

Transcontinental speed record holder, retired SR-71 pilot Ed Yeilding,
showing a remarkable unconcern about with whom he is photographed.
Today at church I had the pleasure to meet retired Air Force pilot Ed Yeilding, who honored us by attending before he headed home to Alabama. He said he had seen me on The O'Reilly Factor on April 4. In Nashville for a couple of days, he looked me up, which was very kind. Ed was an SR-71 "Blackbird" reconnaissance aircraft pilot for several years. When the plane was retired from service in 1990, 
... an SR-71 (972) accomplished history on a record breaking flight from Los Angeles to Washington, DC Pilot Ed Yielding [sic] and RSO Joseph T. "JT" Vida made the flight in 64 minutes, 54 seconds, averaging 2,144.8 mph, setting the coast- to- coast world speed record. On that historic event, aircraft 972 was turned over to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum at Dulles International Airport. [link]
Ed Yeilding, right, with co-crewman J.T. Vida
As you may imagine, it is fascinating to talk with Ed in person. There are only about 100 SR-71 pilots, according to Ed, and about that many navigators. It's a very exclusive club! Many thanks to Ed and all his comrades for their invaluable service for well over two decades of the Cold War.

Update: I like this story, too: The King of Speed, US Navy F-18 Hornet v. USAF SR-71, guess who won?

Saturday, April 2, 2005

Pope John Paul II and Polish communism's fall

Leopold Stoltch writes today that John Paul's role in the fall of communism is "overstated." He cites a quote by Lech Walesa:

"We know what the pope has achieved. Fifty percent of the collapse of communism is his doing," Walesa told The Associated Press on Friday. "More than one year after he spoke these words, we were able to organize 10 million people for strikes, protests and negotiations. "Earlier we tried, I tried, and we couldn't do it. These are facts. Of course, communism would have fallen, but much later and in a bloody way. He was a gift from the heavens to us."
To which Leopold responds,
It seems to me that Walesa and others completely overstate the Pope's impact on the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. In fact, it has been my position that the Pope (and the Church in general) has been extraordinarily weak in the face of tyranny, always counselling the United States against using military force but never calling the Soviets or other dictatorial regimes to account for their persistent violations of natural law. The most recent example of this one-sided pacifism occurred when the Pope admonished President Bush not to invade Iraq, but never called on Saddam Hussein to stop murdering his own people. To constantly call for the good to stand down in the face of evil, in the name of allowing peace to come in God's time, seems a contradiction that I can't get over.
I would reply thus: First, it is far too much to credit John Paul II for the fall of communism as a whole. The credit he deserves relates to what he did to bring about the fall of Polish communism. That is what Walesa was addressing. What he did, in conjunction with Walesa's Solidarity movement, was de-legitimize the Polish government and lead, not exactly to its collapse, but to its growing inability to monopolize the political life of the nation. Once men like Walesa found political effectiveness outside the Party, communist rule there was doomed. The pope visited Poland in 1979, a year before Solidarity was born. By 1982 (IIRC) the Communist government had outlawed Solidarity and had imposed martial law. But John Paul visited Poland again in 1987. Reported the BBC:
When he re-visited Poland in 1987, the Polish leader, General Jaruzelski, and the Communist leadership gave the Pope the welcome due to a foreign Head of State. But the pomp and ceremony could not disguise the authorities' nervousness. Television viewers noted the General's trembling voice. The battle for the Polish soul was an unequal one. In a sonorous baritone, as yet untouched by the Parkinson's Disease that afflicts him today, the Pope told the customary huge crowds that came to greet him what many wanted to hear... ."
There was still a long, hard row to hoe before the Warsaw Pact broke up, followed by the Soviet empire itself. The Polish political revolution was not the foundation of the fall of Soviet empire, it was a big crack in the wall. The foundation was Communist East Germany. When the people there threw off the authority of the government, the whole facade collapsed and the Soviet empire - indeed, the Soviet Union itself - was shown to be a house of cards, politically speaking. John Paul's role in the revolution in East Germany was nil. The locus of resistance there was the Protestant Lutheran church, not the Catholic church. But I hold that without the example of the Polish resistance the East Germans would likely not have been so bold. As for John Paul's one-sidedness in dealing with Saddam, I have no explanation. But this article by Father Raymond J. de Souza, writing from Rome in 2003 sheds a lot of light, I think. It first appeared in the National Catholic Register.
George Weigel, the papal biographer, once asked his subject what he learned from the Second World War. Pope John Paul II answered instantly: "I learned the experience of my contemporaries: humiliation at the hands of evil." The moral of the war story for so much of Europe is just that: humiliation and evil. ... The Holy See, too, felt the pain of humiliation, with the tiny Vatican City State surrounded. The Church felt compelled to moderate her voice to preserve the neutrality upon which her freedom depended. It was a defensible policy but there was no glory in it รข€” there was only humiliation in the face of evil. Indeed, with the exception of Poland - which fought bravely and lost -and Britain - which fought bravely and won - the moral of the war story for Europe was that, as John Paul is fond of saying, "nothing is solved by war." The subsequent Cold War only reinforced the view that war brings more evils in its wake and further underscored the impotence of free Europe to combat evil in its own neighborhood. ... So the Iraq war has produced an odd situation. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair are men of deep Christian faith, explicitly motivated by the morality of their policy and committed to the role of religion in public life. Yet the Holy See has opposed them every step of the way.
De Souza's point is that Europeans generally do not see military force as being inside the moral universe, that war is purely destructive, never politically liberating. See also, Janet Dalety piece in the UK Telegraph, "Freedom? Why Europe's not bothered." 
Update: Arthur Chrenkoff was a child in Krakow when John Paul visited there in 1983.
My John Paul, not surprisingly, is the political Pope, the Polish Pope, the one who helped to bring down the Soviet Empire. There is no doubt in my mind about the role he played in this grand spectacle of history. Forget all the rather silly theories about cooperation with the CIA, or some "holy alliance" with President Reagan; he made a difference not on the account of some covert shenanigans but because of who he was, what he said and what he did out in the open, in front of the billions. If you distill it all into one word, it is this: hope. He gave us hope. By us, I mean initially the Poles, the troublemakers who in 1980 started rocking the communist boat ...
Read the whole thing.