A bugler from the US Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment 'The Old Guard' plays taps during a burial service for US Army Captain Andrew Pederson-Keel in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, March 27, 2013. Pederson-Keel, 28, was killed March 11 during an attack on a police station in Afghanistan.(Credit: AFP/Getty Images)
After many years in higher education leadership, the one thing that consistently stands out to me is that, at the end of the day, educators and administrators genuinely have big hearts and sincere compassion for others. We face lots of unique challenges in higher ed, but none more critical than responsibility for the campus safety of your sons and daughters entrusted to our care.
Trust is a value that extends to many things in life, and not just education.
Years ago, back in Marine Corps days, I had a duty assignment that, for reasons I soon discovered, offered challenges I didn’t think I would ever face, but face them I had to do. Those memories were brought back to me again recently, and they tie into the Benghazi debacle and why it matters to know what really happened that day in Libya.
An acquaintance I met in the hallway of a business office suite in Richmond last week, as soon as he found out I had been a Leatherneck as he had had been, invited me to his office to show me his walls of military plaques and other items, mostly interesting, no doubt, only to others who had served “in the arena.” After his Marine discharge he became a successful businessman.
He had something to show me that he’d just received via email. It was part of another Marine’s unofficial “memoir” he had been sent. I thanked him and promised to “read it later.” Now, a few days later, seeing the 12 page large print and stapled email note, I took the time to read it. It brought back memories of the duty I found the hardest and most sobering I ever had back-in-the-day.
The emailed memoir’s author was a retired Marine lieutenant colonel. The colonel had served in the Korean War, the Dominican Republic (1965), and extensively in the Vietnam War. Much combat and stress had he seen over those years, but the duty, as with me, that he found the hardest was not combat or disaster assistance, it was being a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO).
As the official representative of the Secretary of the Navy (or other service chief’s as appropriate), it was the Marine CACO’s responsibility to notify a deceased next of kin (NOK). Notifying families of the death of a serviceman or woman is a tough duty assignment. It gets no easier the more times you do it; it actually becomes harder to the point of almost crushing to the notification officer’s morale if done too many times, and that number varies with each person.
Police and others have the same type of NOK duty time to time, but within the military the duty only begins with the NOK notification. The CACO’s involvement often doesn’t end until a few months into the future as helping the family through the funeral, a myriad of paperwork, and anything else within reason also comes with the job. This means the CACO has personal and emotional buy-in into each family as he/she helps them go through the process.
As happened often with the Korean and Vietnam Wars’ Marine vet’s description of his own CACO assignments, I also had fathers and mothers, and wives and children, faint when they saw me at their front door, or collapse like their bones just left their legs when I uttered the words, “May I come in?”
Anticipating to catch them before they hit the floor was part of the job, or at least steady them when they began to wobble. The whole thing was a job I would rather not have ever had to do, but someone did, and it needed to be done with dignity and class not once, but each and every time. On the outside, as a CACO making a notification call I had to be calm and supportive while all the time on the inside my guts are being ripped apart.
The grief at the loss of a fallen brother is palpable and deep. The funeral details weren’t any easier. I remember one funeral in particular.
My Marines had just fired the rifle salute. It was about 10 degrees outside. The funeral was a small winter service in a quiet cemetery in Michigan. The next thing I heard after the shots had echoed in the falling snow was the quiet weeping of the mother. Sharply folding and then handing the parents the flag was an honor to me, but it was also heartbreaking. When I met the father at the door of his house a week earlier, as soon as he saw me he started to faint, but I caught him. He asked me two questions as soon as he sat down on the couch: “How was my son killed?” and “Would you stay a while until my wife comes home from work? I don’t have the strength to tell his mother.”
What does making a NOK notification matter to Benghazi?
I’m convinced that most Americans truly mourned the lives of the four Americans killed at Benghazi, but the sadness didn’t end at the hands of the terrorists or the hallow excuses of the politicians and others who failed these men “actually in the arena.” There were people who soon thereafter knocked on the doors of four families, one by one, and watch folks bury their heads in their hands and just weep and weep, having heard the words no spouse, child, or parent ever wants to hear.
The Secretary of State exclaimed in the Congressional hearing, “What does it matter now...?” In truth, she was probably speaking for many in the Administration when she said those words. As with all notifications to families that someone close to them has died, it matters to the families, yes. But it matters to others too, including the bearers of the sad news.
Why were those Americans abandoned by their nation? A question of trust that still matters. As with things like this that seem to make little sense, there are always people behind the scenes that have to sweep up the fallout from bad decisions or lack of good leadership, including those solitary figures that later must knock on a someone’s front door.