I don't like fish.
My wife loves fish, but she's always a bit superstitious about cooking it. She claims that the chaplain's duty pager routinely interrupts our fish dinners.
Emerging from the house one Saturday afternoon, she interrupted my yard work by fashioning a "time-out" signal with her hand and my beeper.
"It's the base," I said reading the number. "Mortuary Affairs Office."
"Let me guess, I won't be cooking fish tonight?" she called as I ran toward the house to shower.
"Don't slice the lemon just yet!"
Thirty minutes later, I was in my dress uniform meeting with our death notification team. Composed of a lawyer, a chaplain, and a doctor, the team seemed more like the predictable beginning of a Bob Hope joke.
Only this jokeless script, delivered by our commander, read:
"Are you Mrs. John E. Jones?"
"Is your husband Captain John E. Jones?"
"Ma'am, we regret to inform you that your husband Capt John E Jones, SSN 555-55-5555 was killed …"
Of course we rarely get that far without a torrent of tears and a hemorrhage of hope, but we stay with the script until it is delivered.
As many times as we have delivered the news, we've always read from the script. It's the only way to get through without cracking. The delivery is to be compassionate, but professional.
"Professional" means we always rehearse the script and watch a refresher video detailing the process. It also means checking and rechecking our facts before navigating our stereotypical Air Force blue sedan through the heart of base housing.
Uniforms in base housing on a weekend are a rare event and their sudden appearance in the cul-de-sac made us look like a small parade. We were a living, breathing cliché extracted from the script of some late-night television movie.
As we stepped from our car a little boy met us at the curb in time to point out his mother coming from the garage wiping motor oil from her hands.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
Suddenly, she rocked back on one foot as she inhaled our presence.
"What's this about?"
"May we talk inside?" The commander asked.
"Uh, no, I think you should come back later. No, this isn't a good time."
"We're sorry, ma'am, but we can't do that." The commander's pained look demanded. "Please, ma'am, we need to come inside."
As passage was granted, the commander started his script, but she refused to let him "regret." Her oily hands formed an airtight seal over her ears barring the pain further entrance.
Eventually we were all able to deliver our lines. The medic explained the stages of stress and grief while he watched for signs of fainting. I held her hand, read a Scripture passage, and prayed. And the lawyer explained how the Air Force would pay to have her husband's body escorted home by a trusted friend.
The compassion was as real as it could be in the absence of any reality whatsoever. This had been a base exercise enacted to prepare us for future realities — future realities which are now a part of our present reality.
The reality of the script gives breath to the fear known by every person who has ever served in the military — that it is appointed unto a man once to die. It is a fear played hundreds of times in the mind of the service member and family. Despite that fear, they deploy, they do their jobs, and most of them return home.
And yet some won't return — some, like Marine Captain Ryan Anthony Beaupre whose family was among the first to receive such a visit after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is in his memory and in memory of his fallen comrades — indeed, in memory of all who have fallen in battle — that we pause this Memorial Day to honor the service of these who never wavered as they served.
Frankly, I'd have rather eaten the fish than taste the flashbacks generated from that exercise.
They were flashbacks of barking dogs protesting our late-night arrivals on moonlit porches. They were flashbacks of contorted people blurred by screen doors they refused to unlatch. They were the flashbacks of the midnight screams of children, parents, and siblings as they were told of their new reality.
This exercise was much too real. It was exactly the way it happens every time — too much of the time.
We received a high rating on the exercise, and I suppose that was good because the next visit we made was real.
Interrupting a child's birthday as our team turned away party-goers on the doorstep, the commander began his script.
"Ma'am, we regret to inform you …"
• That the Lord would keep our troops safe;
• That He would help them overcome fear;
• That He would grant them strength, love, and sound minds;
• That He would enable the redeemed of our troops to be a witness in a Muslim world searching for the meaning that only Christ can give;
• That our troops would have the moral courage to do the right thing and resist vengeful thoughts;
• That God would bless our chaplains' efforts to give comfort and bear witness to our soldiers of the Good News of Christ;
• That we would not forget the sacrifices made by our troops and their families for our safety, freedom, and right to worship.