written by chris cannida, May 27, 2016
This is for seven men who died in the summer of 2009. They had made a one-way trip to war. Because there had been a surge of conflict in Afghanistan in recent months, I’d been cautioned to be ready and responsive for early-morning calls, or calls at any hour for that matter. I decided that on this beautiful Saturday morning in upstate New York, I would do just that, be ready. I’d jumped into the shower at around 6:30am and actually missed a call from the brigade commander. When I noticed the missed call, I responded quickly and vowed to be on brigade footprint no later than 15 minutes out.
There is no grief like a warrior’s grief.
When I arrived, there were 5 people sitting in a large conference room adjacent to the commander’s office. The Rear D commander, his deputy command, the chaplain, the wife of a down-range commander, and one of the unit’s senior noncommissioned officers were gathered to discuss how best to support the seven young families whose “Welcome Home” banners would now be lost in a sea of grief. The air was thick and I could almost feel the sting of tears they refused to let fall and the cries being choked back. The notification to spouses was still in process, but they wanted to make plans for providing support. Seven men had been lost by one roadside bomb. I was fully prepared to offer my complete and mindful presence to these families. What I wasn’t prepared for was a quiet request from the commander later that morning in his office. His directive to me was to get his senior enlisted officer to open up. This man had trained these seven warriors. They were his pride and joy. He’d been chosen to stay behind and provide support in garrison, so being absent from this last moment in their lives was unbearable to him. The commander was concerned.
I was unable to reach him. For the remaining weeks of my time serving this unit with counseling, I exercised every quiet presence, every subtle and not-so-subtle invitation to talk, and eventually, just every prayer that he wouldn’t collapse from the weight of his sorrow. To this day, I imagine that some comrade he trusted did reach him. I’m not sure, though I have to believe that. I consider it a failure on my part that I wasn’t able to do so. Every so often I consider what else I might have done to lend support so that he could avoid the hell that is true survivor’s guilt. Most of us only know that term – survivor’s guilt – from a distance, as a headline or catchphrase in the occasional documentary on the topic.
True survivor’s guilt presents as an emotional, and even physiological, chokehold.
I can tell you, there is no one who experiences Memorial Day like a service member or veteran who has lost comrades in combat. Warriors hold in their hearts, forever, their brothers and sisters lost in battle. So, I am certain he is somewhere this weekend remembering these seven. I can still see him sitting over in the corner, lips pressed so tightly I wondered if he was breathing. His eyes refusing contact with anyone, his mind surely locked and loaded on despair. I can also say with some certainty that if we met today and I mentioned my concern for him, he would sternly redirect my thoughts to those seven men. This is a weekend to remember them, not him, he’d likely admonish. So be it. Here’s to seven young men who had an outstanding and loyal leader.
I can reflect on those who’ve given their all to protect me. My reflection will never compare to the way Memorial Day is experienced by those who survived as they remember anyone who served beside them.
If you are a veteran or active duty service member struggling this weekend, or any day, please reach out.
Veteran’s Crisis Line – 1.800.273.8255 or http://www.veteranscrisisline.net
Vets4Warriors – 1.855.838.8255 or http://www.vets4warriors.com