Visiting families of the fallen

I can hardly attend a Memorial Day service without remembering the true cost of war. It is a cost I’ve counted during my visits to more than 30 community homes as part of a death notification team delivering news no one wants to hear.

When most people imagine these notification teams, they see them through the lens of their own social experience. They invent a three-bedroom house where Mom is making dinner and Dad is helping a younger sibling with homework. They imagine a four-man squad marching to the door in dress uniforms, knocking, delivering a brief announcement and then retreating to a beige government sedan.

Occasionally, that’s an accurate picture, but that’s not my usual experience. Since soldiers come from all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, I walk into nearly every social situation imaginable, even some you can’t imagine.

For instance, during one visit, I almost called for police support when an anguished father pummeled the kitchen table so hard that I thought we’d be his next targets.

In one home, I answered insensitive questions from a soldier’s stepfather about life insurance while his mother bent over sobbing. In quite different scenarios, I resisted both the slinky advances of a neighbor lady as well as the nausea I felt from a cat hoarder in a home covered with feline fecal droppings.

One visit started like a police stakeout as we stretched the military time parameters to make our notification (between 6 a.m. and midnight). It was just after midnight when the soldier’s parents returned from a winning bingo game to discover they’d experienced the loss of a lifetime.

As I attend our local Memorial Day service this year, I’ll be remembering times such as the six-hour drive I made to tell a father there would be no miraculous recovery for his son who finally died of the brain injury he’d received in an IED explosion the prior year.

But most of all, I think I’ll recall the children of the fallen. I will remember the birthday party we interrupted, the 9-year-old twins who exchanged vacant stares, and the 4-year-old who just didn’t understand.

In short, I’ll remember all the dark porches I stood on until someone flicked on the porch light to draw the screams of those hiding behind a fluttering living room curtain.

If you’ve not known anyone lost to war, then count yourself fortunate. But this Memorial Day, as you see the old soldiers standing on the parade sidelines, you should know that they are not blessed with the innocence of ignorance. They know what it’s like to see a comrade fall.

All they ask is that you remember the sacrifice of their brothers and sisters who weren’t lucky enough to march in the parade. All they ask is that you attend a service, sing “God Bless America,” offer them a grateful hand and promise with all your heart that you will never forget the true cost of war.

Norris Burkes is board certified in the Association of Professional Chaplains and works as a chaplain. You may leave recorded comments at 608-9715, or email or send comments to P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Visit

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