This post is authored by Katheryn Wolfe, an American Red Cross worker serving troops in Balad, Iraq.
A series of events took place this past Friday that reminded me of my own mortality. The human heart has its more vulnerable moments, especially when it comes to the subject of death. We avoid thinking about it, and when it is suddenly brought to the forefront, like it was in my world today, no one can walk away unscathed. It must be the humanity in all of us makes our heart hurt when we hear of death, even the loss of perfect strangers.
Two service members lost their parents tonight, and one service member lost his own life. All were sudden or unexpected, making them even more tragic.
My first case was about a service member’s mother who had passed away after a battle with cancer. Only a few hours earlier, a Red Cross message had been delivered, and the doctor had estimated she had only a few days to live. The mother was in bad shape, but still alive. There was a glimmer of hope that the service member would return home in time to say goodbye. But when I opened the case, that hope was lost. The update on the message was the sister informing us that the mother had just passed away. Though he was scheduled on a flight, it was too late. All I could think of was that it was too late. He would have to say goodbye in a different way, and was left with a long plane ride home. I hope and pray that he was able to think about the happy memories he shared with his mother, and was not totally overcome with sadness.
Only a few hours later, I received another case of lost parent. In this case, a sudden and unexpected accident had taken a father’s life. And to make matters worse, the intended recipient of the message was in transit; he was at the beginning of the deployment and at JBB awaiting a flight to his permanent deployment site. When service members are just traveling into theater, it is like finding a needle in a haystack. With the help of two wonderful soldiers at the transient housing office, I finally confirmed a room location for the service member, but had no way of contacting someone in his chain of command. I was left with a tragic message and a room number.
The family had requested a chaplain be present at notification, so luckily my manager Jocelyn had come in and she assisted me with contacting a chaplain. With the two soldiers from housing in one car, and my manager, the chaplain and I in the next, we drove toward the service member’s chu. I was desperately hoping he would be there; I had worked very hard to try to find him and wanted to do all I could to get him home to his family. Since it was an all male housing area I had to wait in the car, but the chaplain and other soldiers went to knock on the door. No servicemember.
But, they did find someone in his unit (I was so grateful he wasn’t traveling as an individual) and he joined our convoy in search of the service member. It took two more stops before we finally found him. Though I never saw him, I was able to speak with an officer from his unit. He was intent on getting him home quickly, and mentioned that the service member was probably the person most close to his family in the unit. Back in the US, the service member only lived about an hour away and would visit his parents frequently. Now that he was half way across the world, he would have to turn right back around, faced with grief not even caused by war.
My heart already heavy, I was shocked to hear that earlier that morning, the chaplain was faced with another loss; this one a soldier from his own unit who had passed away unexpectedly.
It was a day of loss. But even in my sadness for these soldiers, I was encouraged by help I received in getting out the messages. A good picture of the military helping to take care of their people, something I have always respected. And it was an experience in casework very different from what I am used to. Unlike the older days of Red Cross messaging, we usually don’t find or even contact the service member directly, but relay it to the chain of command.
Today I saw my work come to life, and it will be something that I remember for a long time.