The knock on the survivors' door is, Beck says, "not a period at the end of their lives. It's a semicolon." Deployed military personnel often leave behind, or write in the war zone, "just in case" letters. Army Pfc. Jesse Givens of Fountain, Colo.: "My angel, my wife, my love, my friend. If you're reading this, I won't be coming home. ... Please find it in your heart to forgive me for leaving you alone." To his son Dakota: "I will always be there in our park when you dream so we can still play together. ... I'll be in the sun, shadows, dreams, and joys of your life." To his unborn son: "You were conceived of love and I came to this terrible place for love."
The manual for CACOs says, "It is helpful if the NOK (next of kin) is seated prior to delivering the news. ... Speak naturally and at a normal pace." Sometimes, however, things do not go by the book.
Doyla Lundstrom, a Lakota Sioux, was away from her house when she learned that men in uniform had been to her door. She called the father of her two sons -- each serving in Iraq; one as a Marine, one as a soldier -- and screamed into her cell phone, "Which one was it?" It was the Marine.
Sheeler says that troops in war zones often have e-mail and satellite telephones, so when someone is killed, communication from the area is stopped lest rumors reach loved ones before notification officers do. "As soon as we receive the call," Beck says, "we are racing the electron."
When the Army CACOs came to the Arlington, Va., door of Sarah Walton, my assistant, she was not there. She rarely forgot the rule that a spouse of a soldier in a combat zone is supposed to inform the Army when he or she will be away from home. This time Sarah forgot, so it took the Army awhile to locate her at her in parents' home in Richmond.
Her husband, Lt. Col Jim Walton, West Point class of 1989, was killed in Afghanistan on June 21. This week he will be back in Arlington, among the remains of the more than 300,000 men and women who rest in the more than 600 acres where it is always Memorial Day. This is written in homage to him, and to Sarah, full sharer of his sacrifices.