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thedrifter
05-24-08, 12:43 PM
Casualty assistance calls officer
Mike Hendricks
Saturday, May 24, 2008

I was awakened early one morning a few years back by a knock on my door. It was the Monday after Thanksgiving and I had just returned home the previous day from Lincoln where I had spent Thanksgiving with two of my three sons and their mom.

My third son, Brandon, was a Navy corpsman stationed in San Diego and he called us Thanksgiving afternoon. He was in his typical good mood and was excited about only being a couple of months away from leaving the military and returning to civilian life. He had joined the navy with the intention of becoming a Navy Seal, but, unfortunately, never had the opportunity.

We had all attended his graduation from Corpsman School at the Great Lakes Naval Station north of Chicago two years earlier and were as proud as we could be that he graduated at the top of his class and was awarded the honor of giving the commencement address.

But back to the knock at the door. As most of us are when we're awakened suddenly, I was halfway between being asleep and being awake and my first thought was that the woman I was in a relationship with had forgotten her key. Then I looked at the clock and saw it was only 6 a.m. and I knew it was too early for it to be her. I pulled on a pair of shorts and a tee-shirt and unlocked and opened the door. When I saw who it was, I collapsed and fell to my knees because as soon as I saw two United States Marines standing there in their dress blues, I knew.

The son I had talked to on the phone just four days before; the son who was in his usual good mood; the son who was so excited about ending his military obligation and coming back home was dead. That was the only reason they would be here.

I don't remember very much at all about what the Marines said or did while they were here. I remember them each grabbing one of my arms and helping me over to my chair and then one of them said the words I knew he was going to say and I didn't hear much after that. I could feel the blood draining out of my face and I could feel my heart pounding rapidly in my chest but the only sounds I could hear were bits and pieces of words that were banging around in my head, competing with an incredibly loud ringing in my ears.

I thought I was dying too.

As I began to recover from this horrific, indescribable shock, one of the Marines got me a glass of water from the kitchen as the other asked me who he could call to come and be with me. I told him that my girlfriend would be here in an hour or so and he asked me if there was someone else they could contact now because I needed someone with me that I knew and that they (the Marines) would not leave me until someone was here to be with me. I told them to call my best friend, Pete Smith, and to this day I don't have any idea how he got here so fast. I know that time and everything else was distorted in my mind at the time but it seemed like he was at the door almost as soon as the Marine hung up the phone.

I recall the most painful, tragic day in my life because of a new book that has just been published titled "A Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives" by Jim Sheeler (Penguin Press; 288 pages).

In the Marines, the person responsible for notifying a soldier's next of kin when someone dies is called a casualty-assistance-calls officer. Sheeler followed Major Steve Beck, a 45-year old career Marine, as he carried out a duty and an obligation he never trained for and never expected.

Beck says that while every door is different, the scenes inside are almost always the same.

"The curtains pull away. They come to the door. And they know. They always know. You can almost see the blood run out of their body and their heart hit the floor. It's not the blood as much as their soul. Something sinks. I've never seen that except when someone dies. And I've seen a lot of death. They're falling -- either literally or figuratively- and you have to catch them. In this business, I can't save his life. All I can do is catch the family while they're falling."

I had to deliver a death message while I was a Tulsa police officer. The dispatcher radioed me in my car and told me to call him on a secure phone line. That was the police department protocol for delivering death messages because so many people had scanners that allowed them to listen in on police calls and the department wanted to make sure that no parent, spouse or relative found out about the death of a loved one in that manner. So I called and received information that a couple's son had been killed in a motorcycle crash in Missouri. My sergeant and I approached the door, just as Major Beck and his colleague approach the door and I'm sure our emotions were very similar. I knocked and a motherly figure opened the door with a smile on her face that quickly changed to dread when she saw the expression on our faces. I told her the name and asked her if that was her son and she screamed yes as she fell to the floor. She knew, just like I knew, before she ever heard the words. It was the most gut-wrenching thing I had ever done up until then and I hoped I would never have to do it again.

I would have never dreamed in a million years that thirty years later, I would get the same knock on the door that mother in Tulsa got from me.

Ellie