It was in late 1971 that I caught the second worst extra duty in the military service, a case as Survivors Assistance Officer, as it was called then. It was the only time for me and I thought I could have done without it; I was wrong, I needed to see it, to appreciate it, and to understand it.
The worst extra duty by far was that of Casualty Notification Officer. Typically working in pairs, they had to break the bad news to the next of kin in person – the Secretary of Defense regrets to inform you that… died… I don’t think the family hears much after that part. Yes, it is just like in the movies, the official vehicle and/or uniforms tell the story before a single word is spoken.
Having delivered the worst news, the Casualty Notification Officers moved out the way and the Survivors Assistance Officer, in this case me, started to work. My job was to help the family deal with this devastating news as best I could. I did not feel I was much help. Some of it was just conversation, talk about the Army and what kind of a boy and son he was, some was the inevitable paperwork for insurance and arrangements for a simple funeral.
I asked a lot of questions; I wanted to know about him because I thought it would aid me in helping the family; who was this soldier, this kid, where did he die, why and how? He was only 21, and place of death was the Republic of Vietnam and it turned out the how was not important and the why was impossible to define.
Now, more than 40 years later, I have two great-grandchildren and their mom, our granddaughter, is on active military service. That soldier’s friends and parents, if they still live, have only memories.
I never knew this soldier in the traditional sense, but in some ways I knew him well and I have not forgotten him. I remember him, especially every Veterans Day. The thread of his short life, like the thread of so many others, runs through all of us. Thanks brother.