This month marks ten years since I left the Marine Corps. Although I love being a Marine I can honestly say that I don’t miss active duty. In fifteen years of service I sat on the sidelines during three separate wars, and like most Marines, being away from the action drove me insane. Although I had it easy, for some of my comrades, being on the supporting end back in the U.S. was almost as stressful and emotionally draining as being in a combat zone. This post, which I originally wrote in 2003, is for all the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in foreign lands—and all of those in the states who wish they were with them.
When a Marine is killed or seriously wounded, the duty of notifying the next of kin falls to the Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO). The tasks of the CACO team (comprised of a senior NCO, a commissioned officer, and a chaplain) are generally carried out by the same people, a semi-permanent team. But the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased the need for more CACO teams and so I’ve been added to the roster of those assigned the morbid duty. Since my unit is one of the few active duty commands in the state, we’ve been assigned a large swath of Texas and are responsible for notifications over an area that spans hundreds of miles. Normally, a command can expect to make one or two “casualty calls” a year; we made that many this week.
Marines are, of course, no strangers to death. While we would rather see the enemy be the one to die for his country we realize what sacrifices we may be called to make and stoically accept of our fate. But though we may be able to face our own mortality, nothing prepares us for the chore of carrying such news to the family of a fallen comrade.
No training can adequately prepare us for all the factors that can go wrong as we carry out the mission. For example, my unit was recently forced to call upon a mother who, when she saw a trio of Marines in dress uniform standing on her porch, began to break down sobbing. When the officer asked the woman’s name he found it didn’t match the next of kin for the deceased. There had been a mix-up in the addresses and after a few frantic phone calls it was confirmed that this mother’s son was still alive, the correct address was a home across town. After profuse apologies the Marines left, leaving the woman to be alone with the guilty relief that somebody other than her would be grieving the loss of their child.
Such tales are shared by CACO members like war stories passed on to new troops in a combat zone. We listen somberly and secretly hope that we’ll be spared the unenviable responsibility. After a month of dread, my turn on the two-day watch finally began today. The assignment requires nothing more than to wait for bad news that may never come.
I look for signs. I watch CNN to monitor the situation, wondering if an uprising in Sadr City or Fallujah will lead to the death of another one of my brothers. I sit by the phone hoping that when it rings its just another telemarketer rather than from headquarters. I pray that I’ll be able to make it through the day without seeing the tears of a mother or the pained expression of a father trying to appear strong.
Then I remember it’s Good Friday and I begin to wonder who told Jesus’ family and friends that he had been killed. Since many of his disciples had fled the night before, they were likely still in hiding until it was too late. Who told them they had lost their teacher? Or what about James, who was probably just returning home from work when he heard the news. Did he see the tortured expression on Mary’s face and realize he had lost his brother? And how long until the report reached Jericho, where a reformed tax collector named Zacchae’us would grieve over the loss of the man who changed his life?
Over two millennia ago, the greatest “casualty call” in history spread throughout a small Roman province in the Middle East. The news that the truest friend, the most beloved son, the gentlest teacher anyone had ever known had been crucified must have spread like wildfire through the land, sparking the most profound grief our universe has ever known. From this side of the calendar we can’t begin to comprehend the magnitude of loss that must have weighed on the hearts of Christ’s followers, family, and friends. We look backward on Good Friday, seeing it from the perspective of the glory that came on Sunday morning. But they saw only the darkness and pain, the loss of hope and bewilderment; they saw nothing but heartbreak.
My phone may ring later this evening. I may have to don my uniform and put on a stoic front. I may have to drive for hours only to take the longer journey up someone’s front steps. I may have to knock on the door and see the melting expression of a parent’s dawning realization of why I’m standing on their porch. I may have to face the grief and pain and sorrow of a family that has lost someone they loved.
But I can offer them hope and take comfort in knowing that the heartbreak won’t last—at least not forever. After all, I know how the story ends. It may only be Friday. But I know that Sunday’s coming.