If you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, you probably recall the scene in which the commander and the chaplain make the long drive up the farm road to inform Mrs. Ryan that three of her four sons were killed at Normandy. What is most haunting (and accurate) for me is that Mrs. Ryan seems to know who is in the car and why they are coming to see her. She has an instinctual sense of foreboding. Once the awful news is delivered, she collapses on the planks of her wooden porch. It is a powerful scene.
I've participated in those official “next of kin” (NOK) notifications twice as an Air Force chaplain—the last time being the hardest thing I've had to do since joining the military. Our NOK notification team consisted of the deceased’s stateside commander, a medical officer, and me. We had to inform a woman, who was the mother of five children (ages eleven, nine, six, three, and one), that her husband, an Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician, had been killed in Iraq, two weeks before he was supposed to come home. When we pulled up to the house, all of her kids, except the one-year-old, were playing in their front yard. When we saw them, we froze.
Finally, after mustering the resolve, we walked up the pathway and rang the doorbell. And like “Mrs. Ryan,” when she opened the door, she knew what we were going to tell her. We made our way inside and delivered the news in the living room. We maintained a professional bearing as she called her children in from playing outside, one by one, each by their name, to tell them the news: “Daddy's not coming home.” The older three children understood what was going on, but the younger two were confused and cried only because everyone else was. We left the house, rounded the corner, put the car in park, and began to weep bitterly. We had to wait a few minutes before we could drive on. The driver could not see through his tears.
That's what I think of when I think of Memorial Day. The scene has been repeated in some form or another, over 1.3 million times since our nation's founding. Today is not a day to thank a veteran. Today is a day to honor those who didn't get to come home. Happy Memorial Day.
“We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace.” —St. Augustine
James A. Hamel is a Catholic priest serving on active duty in the Air Force. He is currently the Command Chaplain at 25th Air Force, headquartered in San Antonio, Texas.