A matter of death and life
Sunday, October 21, 2007
News staff writer

At 3 a.m. Oct. 1, Marine Master Gunnery Sgt. David Holladay is awakened at home by a phone call. On the line is Lt. Col. Fritz Pfeiffer, his senior commander at the Marine Reserve Center in Bessemer.

A Marine whom Holladay has never met, Gunnery Sgt. Jerome Murkerson, has just been killed in Iraq. Murkerson's parents live west of Bessemer, in Adger, and they need to be told.

Every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, Marines and other U.S. service members are carrying out life-threatening jobs. At home, they have counterparts who have an additional, emotionally demanding mission: Knock on doors and tell those who answer that their loved one has died.

The Marines' term for these bearers of the worst possible news is CACO, casualty assistance call officer. CACOs have dealt with families nationwide of nearly 1,000 Marines who died in and around Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. Like their counterparts in other services, they do more than knock on the door. They are there to help grieving family members with benefits and the sometimes numbing details of paperwork, and they often stay in touch long after the worst of the hurt has subsided.

Holladay is one of the trained CACOs at the Bessemer Reserve Center, where he is family coordinator for the Antiterrorism Battalion. Telling the Murkersons was his first CACO assignment. In the days that have followed their son's death, the Murkersons and Holladay have formed bonds that may well endure for the rest of their lives.

"Obviously, you hope and pray that you never have to do it," Holladay said of his duty with the Murkersons. "But nevertheless, for those of us who are trained, it is always in our minds, hoping that we can do honor and justice for the Marine should it ever be required."

As far as the Murkersons are concerned, Holladay and his team did honor and justice to their oldest son, a 17-year Marine veteran, husband and father of three who was a month into his third Iraq tour when he died in combat in Al Anbar province.

"If my (late) brother was here, he would be standing beside me like David has done," Brenda Murkerson said in a faltering voice late one afternoon last week outside the Reserve Center.

Her voice would break some more inside, as would Holladay's, as they discussed the recent events that had brought them together. Jerome Murkerson Sr. stood in a doorway and listened quietly to the emotional ebb and flow of conversation marked by moments of hand holding, exchanges of paper towels to wipe away tears, and intervals of silence.

Making the call:

After getting the call on Oct. 1, Holladay drove to the reserve center, put on his green gabardine Service Alpha uniform and contacted two officers who would be with him at the Murkersons' - Navy Lt. Jim Dewey, who is a chaplain, and Marine Capt. Ricky Nail.

Before sunrise, the three were at the door of the Murkerson home. But the couple had already left for work. At home next door, however, was their daughter, Dee Musgrove.

By that time, Brenda Murkerson was sitting in her Ford pickup outside Regions Bank's operations center on Lakeshore Drive, where she works as a processing specialist. She had arrived early and was reading a book when her cell phone rang and she saw the caller was Dee.

"She called me and told me that her dad and I had to come home," Brenda Murkerson said. "And I kept on at her until she finally had to break down, and all she would tell me was that the military was there, and I knew."

Murkerson picked up her husband at Hardwick Co. steel processing plant in Bessemer, where he is a machine operator. Their son Derrick, who also works at the plant, followed them out in his Chevy Malibu. Before they had reached home, son Darryl had joined the mini-convoy.

Holladay, Dewey and Nail were waiting in the front yard when the Murkerson vehicles arrived. Brenda Murkerson told them to tell her that Jerome Jr. was not dead, just hurt. Holladay asked them to step inside the house, where they sat and heard what another CACO had already told Jerome Jr.'s wife, Wendy, in Jacksonville, N.C.

"I kept seeing my mom there, that was my overriding thought," Holladay said in an earlier interview. "You know, what if that was my mom sitting on that couch, about to be told her son has been killed. How would I want that delivered?"

"We didn't want to hear the words, that's for sure," Brenda Murkerson said. "But we knew we had to."

Jerome Sr. asked if the Marines were absolutely sure the dead Marine was his son. Other relatives soon began arriving. Calls were placed to another Murkerson daughter, Ellie McFarling, and another son, Johnny, who each lived at Fort Walton Beach. At some point, Darryl, who had wrestled with Jerome Jr. from childhood to adulthood, struck the front door with an open hand, causing a noticeable crack.

`He had compassion':

Tears were plentiful. Later, Holladay himself would say he had shed more tears during his first week with the Murkersons than he could ever remember. His tears are part of the Murkersons' own pain-drenched memories, but so is the way he, Dewey and Nail handled themselves in the family's presence.

"He was patient," Brenda Murkerson said. "He took time to see we were OK and asked if we had any questions ... and he had compassion that we needed and I could see it in his face. I knew it was as hard on him ... as it was on us.

"He was just there, and he's been there every day since ... I think he'll be there, I don't know, I feel that there is probably a bond there, not just with him but with his wife, too."

Sitting nearby, Holladay said he was doing no different than anyone else from the Antiterrorism Battalion would do. No different than the Marines who had formed the honor guard that was on hand when Murkerson's body was flown into Bessemer, those who had stood guard at the visitation, carried the casket to the grave, sounded taps and fired a salute. No different than the 33 Antiterrorism Battalion members from Alabama who now are on duty in Anbar.

"When a Marine goes down, taking care of his family is the most important thing we do as Marines, outside of winning battles," Holladay said.

E-mail: tgordon@bhamnews.com