Two Weeks in Tullahoma

“James”

“James”

“It’s six in the morning,” I said. “Why are you waking me up?”

“It’s your phone, your work phone. It’s been going off for the last 15 minutes. Perhaps you could answer it.”

“Alright,” I said. I walked into the kitchen and flipped open my phone.

Jennifer called to me from the bedroom, “I’m getting tired of this. These calls never stop.”

Jennifer was right. We had been dating for about three months and I think if there was one reason that our relationship would end, it would be the late night and early morning phone calls that every company commander dreads. It’s typically one of two people calling, the battalion commander or the first sergeant. It’s never good news, usually a soldier getting arrested for a DUI or shoplifting at an Walmart. In the grand scheme of life, it was never really important, but to a 26 year old company commander the trivial becomes grand.

This time it was my battalion commander. We talked for about five minutes.

“James,” Lieutenant Colonel Hobson said. “You remember when I told you to be ready as a casualty assistance officer,” he asked.

“I sure do,” I answered.

“Well, a soldier from Tullahoma was blown up last night in Afghanistan. He’s Captain Stephens’s younger brother. That being the case you will be representing the battalion, the 101st, and the Army as you help the family over the next couple of weeks. Do you need anything from me?”

“I don’t think so. We have a training brief to the brigade commander next week, and a rifle range on Friday, so I’m assuming I won’t make those.”

“James, your only job until this is over is helping Captain Stephens and her family. Nothing is more important, and if you need anything from me, or the battalion, call me up and ask. Otherwise report to the casualty assistance office at division headquarters sometime today.”

Lieutenant Colonel Hobson was direct and to the point. And all the credit to him for getting priorities right.

I look back at his first point when he said “until this is over.” Here I am eleven years later writing about it. It never ends.

***

I hung up the phone and crawled back into bed. I tried spooning Jennifer, in the back of my mind hoping I could get Sunday sunrise surprise before driving in, but Jennifer wasn’t having any of it.

“You know what,” she said, as frustration built in her voice. “These calls happen every weekend. What is it this time? Who screwed up?” she asked.

“Nobody screwed up” I said. “Remember last week when I told you about having to be on call in case someone dies?”

“Yes” she answered.

“Someone did. A sergeant in Afghanistan, and it looks like I am assigned as the casualty assistance officer” I explained. “I gotta to go onto base later this morning, figure out the details and what I have to do. Hopefully it won’t be too much.”

“How long does this last?” Jennifer asked.

I thought to myself, It lasts forever. Eventually the late night and early morning calls stop, but the life never changes. When it’s not a late night telephone call, it’s sitting on the deck with a tumbler of whiskey thinking about what happened that day, last week, or ten years ago.

I didn’t answer her. I walked into the kitchen to make some coffee. I figured a healthy dose of caffeine would be good before the hour-long drive to work. It’s not that I didn’t want to answer her. It was a simple question with a complicated answer.

I finished my coffee, filled up my thermos with some more for the drive, gave Jennifer a kiss and walked out the door. As it was a Sunday morning, I knew the roads would be clear, and I could think about what I was doing with my life.

I had been back in Tennessee for about six months. I was a company commander in the storied 101st Airborne Division, the same division chronicled in Band of Brothers. I had come out of a rough deployment, which led me to consider and pursue another line of work. I applied, interviewed for, and was offered a job at the State Department. My thinking was I could continue my service, but without the 3 A.M. phone calls, or the constant stream of fallen comrades.

I made the decision to continue my service in the army for a couple of reasons. First, I spent eight years serving as an officer and did not want to start a new career. Second, the State Department offer began with nearly a 50% pay cut. Third, both my battalion and brigade commander enticed me with the opportunity to continue command into the next deployment. In the end, two years of command was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

In turning down the State Department offer, I figured staying in the military and deploying a few more times would be cake. It wasn’t.

***

I walked into division headquarters to the casualty assistance office. I walked in the door where a middle-aged woman wearing a blue blazer was sitting behind her desk furiously typing away.

“What can I do for you?” she asked, not even lifting her head to make eye contact.

“I’m Captain Mailer. I was told to report here for instructions on casualty assistance,”

“Ok, please give me a couple minutes; I have to print out some forms for us to go over. Please take a seat.” She returned a few minutes later and tried making some small talk.

“Which unit are you in?”

“Second brigade,”

“Oh!” “You guys had a pretty rough deployment.”

Again, my mind started racing. I thought about our time in Baghdad with the weekly memorial services.

“Yeah,” I said, as I nodding my head in agreement. “It was harsh.”

I thought about my friends, many of whom left Fort Campbell upon returning from the deployment. Some got out of the military, others moved to another post. I was in command, and thus continued my journey in the 101st.

“Well, that’s too bad.” She said. A bureaucratic answer said by a bureaucrat, I thought to myself. I assumed she had been doing this job for years, and any story I had to tell she had heard a hundred times over. So many times in life, we go into a situation thinking we are the first ones to face adversity. The woman sitting in front of me was a reminder we are not. I couldn’t decide if I resented her for emotional detachment, or admired her for being sooner to face reality.

The woman in the blue blazer stood up, walked into another room, grabbed some papers off the printer and sat down at her desk. She looked at her watch and took a deep breath. Finally looked at me and said, “let’s talk about what you will be doing for the next couple of weeks.”

I nodded my head without saying a word. I didn’t want to take her off script.

“First, I need to ask you a couple of questions. Did you bring your uniform with you?” the woman asked. “Because I need to physically see it before we move on”

The woman in the blue blazer was professional and curt. I realized she never bothered to introduce herself. Indeed, once she began with the formal instructions, small talk came to a halt. It was a Sunday, so she may have wanted to get her job over with, or maybe she lacked social skills, I really didn’t care. I didn’t want to be there any more than she did. The faster this went for the both of us the better.

“It’s in my car” I said. “Do you want me to get it?”

“Yes, I will need to see it.” It’s not that I don’t trust you, but part of my job.”

“Trust but verify,” I blurted.

“Exactly.”

I walked back to my car and grabbed my Class-A uniform hung up in the back seat. The uniform was the green pants with the black stripe accompanied by the green jacket adorned with all my ribbons and badges. I looked over to make sure nothing fell off the uniform on the commute, then walked back into the headquarters.

The lady in the blue blazer then read off a checklist of my responsibilities. “Uniform is Class A’s. Here is a pamphlet of caskets; they will have to choose one of them. You need to talk to the family every day to ensure they have all the support they need. Here is script for everything you will do.”

She talked through the instructions and gave me a list of telephone numbers to call if I had any problems or questions. I never did call back; the coldness of the process made me think there was an answer sheet, or some kind of teachers’ edition.

At the end I signed a form acknowledging I understood my roles and responsibilities.

There are two additional duties and officer can be assigned vis-à-vis combat deaths. The first is duty as a casualty notification officer. This is the officer that drives to a house, knocks on a door, and informs the next of kin, (be they parents, spouses, or kids) that their son, daughter, husband or wife was killed in action. The second duty is the casualty assistance officer. In this role, the officer guides the family through the process of the funeral and burial. My role was the latter.

It’s a good thing these two duties are separate. I think it would difficult for a family to see the person who informed them of their child or spouse’s death day in and out while arranging for the funeral. Despite what you see in popular movies, performing these functions is not a full time job. Nor could it be: no-one can stomach those scenes daily.

Sergeant David Stephens’s death occurred on April 12th 2007. He died in Ghazni province, Afghanistan. It was a roadside bomb, or Improvised Explosive Device — an IED — that killed him.

It is not normal to assign a captain as a casualty assistance officer for a sergeant. However, Sergeant Stephens’s sister was a fellow captain, and our battalion intelligence officer. I was friendly with her, thought well of her professionally, but I was not close to her personally.

Since David’s sister was a member of our battalion, the honor guard for the funeral came from Fort Campbell. Leading the honor guard was Staff Sergeant Randy Freeman. He was tall, well built with a square jaw, the kind of person you picture in a military honor guard. Like me, performing at a funeral was not his, nor his team’s every day duty. Sergeant Freeman was a sapper, or combat engineer assigned to our battalion’s engineer company. A well respected leader with multiple combat tours under his belt.

Each morning over the course of the next two weeks, I donned my green dress uniform, spit shined jump boots, and black beret to drive from Nashville to Tullahoma Tennessee. I drove a black Jeep Grand Cherokee, one that I had bought in cash. There are two types of people who pay cash for a new car; drug dealers and soldiers back from deployment. It was a good investment until gas prices jumped to four dollars a gallon. My drive started in Nashville, as I was staying Jennifer’s house, and normally took about ninety minutes. I popped a couple of U2 CDs into the stereo system, partly because I love U2, but mostly because I detest country music, which blares on every radio station in Southern Tennessee.

On the third day of my duties, I was leaving Jennifer’s house early and drank a full cup of apple juice. Turned out the apple juice was expired. About halfway into the ride I pulled over on the highway and threw up my breakfast from that morning, and dinner from the previous night. I must have been a sight to see; an officer in his dress uniform, black beret, and jump boots pulled off on the side of the road puking his guts out.

***

On the first morning, I drove directly to the funeral home. I still had to head over to David’s family’s house, but wanted to find my bearings in Tullahoma. After the hour and a half drive, I found the funeral home. It was located at the edge of an empty circular parking lot, designed for a procession of cars to pass by. The building was white with plain columns at the main entrance. I parked my car, and walked inside.

The funeral home’s atmosphere was spartan. Some leather chairs along the walls, tiled floors, with little decoration. The walls were barren, and the horizontal shades were drawn low on the windows. As we were in Middle Tennessee, the air conditioning was on full blast. After about thirty seconds of taking it all in, the home’s director approached me.

“Good morning,” the director said. “I presume you are here for David Stephens?” he asked. He stood at average height, about five foot seven from my estimation. I’m six foot three, so height is usually the first trait I notice in people. He was dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and black tie. His wardrobe would change very little over the next two weeks. Finally, I took note of his mustache. There was nothing unusual about it. I just wasn’t expecting to see one.

“I guess the uniform gives it away,” I said. “My name is James Mailer, it’s nice to meet you.”

“My name is Kurt,” the directed said, extending his hand. “If there is anything I can do for you please let me know. If you would like I can show you around.”

“Sure,” I said. After the long drive it was nice to get out of the car. Kurt walked me from room to room, showed me everything from the bathroom to the viewing room. I noticed some flowers in a separate chamber

“Are those for David’s family?” I asked.

“No,” said the director. “We had a wake in here yesterday and the family left those behind. I doubt they will be coming back for them.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“For the family, it was a week filled with strong emotions. It was a young kid, 19 years old, killed in a car accident.”

“That’s tough,” I said.

“For the family, sure, but when you are around death everyday you get used to it.”

“Wow, that’s pretty blunt, I said. Are you the rule or the exception?”

“The rule. You are a soldier; I would think you have had experience with death. I admit, the first couple of funerals I had to run with were tough. After a while, you get used to them. The emotions of parents, siblings, and friends, they can shock you. But eventually you understand that each of these emotions is common. Every family, every person that walks into those doors has similar feelings. As sad as they are, there is nothing special about them.”

“I don’t think I can agree with that,” I said. At this point, I was getting angry. How could someone become so immune?

“I’ll tell you what,” said the director. “I’m not trying to be disrespectful in any manner. Come the end of next week, when this one is over, we will talk again. I think you will come to my point of view.”

“Well I’m looking forward to proving you wrong.” With that, I walked out of the funeral home, and drove to David’s parent’s house.

I pulled into the driveway. The house sat at the end of a cul-de-sac, and the driveway was a couple of hundred feet long. This was a rural area; the neighbor’s house being about a quarter mile up the road.

I walked inside and sat down at the kitchen table with Mr. and Mrs. Stephens, as well as David’s sister Jane. Although David’s parents were the next of kin, it was David’s sister who I would spend the most time talking to and arranging the details of the wake and funeral. David’s father wore dark sunglasses, and I couldn’t tell if he was staring at me or through me.

I opened up the conversation. “Good morning. First, let me express how sorry I am for your loss. I am here to assist you in any way possible. Here is my phone number, and I know Jane has it as well. If there is anything you need after we talk this morning, you can call me at any time.” This was right out of the playbook the casualty assistance office gave me.

I went on. “There are some decisions I have to ask you to make.” I pulled a brochure out of my briefcase and laid it on the coffee table. “There are three types of caskets to choose from. They are all of similar material, but as you can see they are of different colors black, brown or cherry.”

Jane and David’s parents stared at the brochure. For his father it was the first time I felt his eyes move away from me. About two minutes passed by without anyone speaking David’s mother began to cry. The three of them stood up and walked into the living room to compose themselves. I sat there unsure if I should follow them, but chose to remain seated.

After a couple minutes which seemed to last an eternity, Jane walked back into the kitchen and asked “Which one do you recommend?”

I was not prepared for that question. The last thing I wanted to do was influence decisions, especially concerning how David’s body would rest for eternity.

“I really couldn’t say,” I responded. “I think they are equally fine.” Jane sensed the unease in the room. And after a couple of moments said “I guess we will go with the black coffin.” The father raised his head with his eyes, still hidden by sunglasses, off the page and back to me.

Every conversation after this for the next two weeks had a sense of awkwardness, or some uncomfortable feeling. It wasn’t personality, or bad intentions by anyone, but rather the topic of discussion. After two weeks working with the family, the wake, the burial, and all that came with it, I still had not the slightest clue on how to talk to the parents and sister. I look back, I think and I feel like I did everything wrong.

Selfishly, I was thankful when she surprised me by asking me to call our battalion chaplain to oversee the religious portions of the funeral. Michael, our battalion chaplain accepted as soon as I asked, drove to the funeral home that day, and would be there every day until the end. I am forever thankful for how Michael handled himself, and for how he provided comfort to David’s family.

***

The first day, I could zone out listening to my selection of music on the stereo. It was always U2 whose lyrics seemed to have special meanings. By the end of the week, Bono’s words meant nothing. I was playing out every scene and every conversation of the day in my head. Jennifer could see the stress in my face and did her best to break the ice each evening.

“Why don’t you stay in a hotel up there? “A little less driving might take some of the stress off of you,” she asked me.

“I don’t think so. I need our nightly conversations. I need our talks over dinner. I know it takes a while for me to open up, but I can’t go back to an empty hotel room off the highway and talk on the phone. It’s not the same.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re coming back here,” she said. “Have you thought any more about taking the State Department job?”

“I have,” I said. “This whole funeral thing is emotional. There are days when I’m driving up to Tullahoma and thinking, this is it, I can’t do this anymore. And there are other days where I think to myself, this is exactly why I serve. With those emotional swings, It’s probably not the best time to make a decision like that. Besides, I don’t know if the offer is still on the table.”

Jennifer looked at me and said; “You’re probably right. But in the few months since we met, you have talked about taking the job, and how close you are. You did your best to avoid the topic when we first started seeing each other, but as soon as you opened up about your last deployment, I can see how these things fry you. How many soldiers did your unit lose?”

“Fifty Five,” I answered.

Jennifer continued; “And you attended a memorial service every week for an entire year. Now here you are again, at home, between deployments and having to deal with it again.“

I wanted to talk and spill out my emotions, but stood in silence.

“I know,” Jennifer said, as if she was reading my mind. “I’m here for you now, and will support you whatever your decision ends up being.”

That was the moment. Jennifer was not just another girl I was dating. She was a woman. She understood commitment. For the first time I saw the gap between her maturity and my juvenile antics.

***

Each day I arrived at the funeral home. A couple of the days I would go over the details of the wake and burial service with the funeral director, and other days I ensured the honor guard was informed of all the details such as the timing of events.

There are specific details of the entire week that I still see clearly in my head. The first is the expression on the face of David’s father and sister as I laid out the options for the type of casket the government would provide. It was expressions of surprise as oppose to shock or grief, as if the realization that choices like this had to occur. Mothers and fathers have an expectation that they will leave this world before their children. There are few words to describe the emotion when this expectation shatters.

The drive to Tullahoma seemed to go by quicker each day. The more familiar I was with the route, and the views from my car windows, the easier it was to zone out on the road. Within a few days my job at the funeral home became a routine, but on the fifth day, the day David’s body was flown in, the director approached me and asked a blunt question.

“Have you ever killed anyone?” The director asked.

“Why would you ask me that?” I answered.

“Because I think you need to come to terms on the reality of death,” the director responded. “I do this for a living, and at every funeral I meet someone like you. Someone who thinks that the situation they find themselves in is unique to the world. We had an interesting conversation when you first arrived here. I have found that talking to young men like yourself, being direct and to the point is best for the both of us. I hope you don’t infer any disrespect.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “So you’re like a bartender counseling a drunk? Only you’re a funeral director, and I don’t drink. Not on duty anyway.”

“Exactly,” the director said. “So let me ask you again, have you ever killed anyone?”

“No,” I insisted. “I never have. I was a staff officer and a commander. Pointing my weapon at another person wasn’t my job.” I answered.

“That wasn’t my question,” the director said. “You were on a staff, so you planned things that resulted in people killed. You were a commander, so you told your soldiers to execute missions where people died. You think you’re immune from death, or perhaps you think you can separate planning and execution of a mission. Well you can’t. You have to accept what you did. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you realize how close to death we all are.” The director turned on his heel and swept silently from the room leaving me alone with my thoughts. I still think about this conversation today.

He was right. Over the course of my career, I planned missions and operations from small unit raids to a bombing campaign over Libya. There may be a physical difference between pulling a trigger and picking out targets, but morally they are the same. Sometimes you don’t know which side of innocence or guilt you stand.

The honor guard escorted David’s body from the airplane to the funeral home and later from the funeral home to the cemetery. Moreover, they performed the flag folding before the casket was lowered into the earth. Day in and day out leading up to the funeral, Randy and his team rehearsed every detail.

The director wheeled David’s body into the viewing room. I asked Sergeant Freeman to help me inspect the uniform. As an officer, I’d been taught to always ask an NCO for help with anything related to uniforms. We entered the room, opened the casket and looked down.

“He looks peaceful,” I said, staring at the body. “His ribbons look in order, and his name tag looks about right”

Sergeant Freeman answered, “Yeah, it looks good. Amazing how they got the Purple Heart and Bronze Star on so quickly.”

“Kind of gives me a feeling of inadequacy,” I said.

“How so?” Sergeant Freeman asked.

“I’m looking down at him, I see the Bronze Star, and to earn it he had to die. I look at my chest, I see my Bronze Star, and what the fuck did I get it for? I got it for doing my job.”

“Sergeant Freeman stared at me for a moment and then asked: “What do you tell people when they ask you how you got one?”

“I tell them I did my job. Sometimes I tell them it’s a common thing, which it kind of is. But to anyone who has no idea what we do, or how the awards system works, they think I’m being coy. They think I’m hiding something, and I’m just telling the truth.”

“People have a hard time believing the truth when it’s the simplest explanation,” Sergeant Freeman said. “I will tell you Captain,” he added. “If you’re going to stay in and make a career of this, you will quickly find out that it all evens out after twenty years.”

“Kind of like Karma,” I said, thinking Sergeant Freeman was about to get all religious on me.

“No, not all all,” he answered. “If you believe Karma, is doled out by the universe, or higher power, then you assume there is reason or order to the entire process. There isn’t. You find that in the military, sometimes you get an award for doing nothing, and you ask yourself why I deserve this.” He continued. “Then there are other times when you go above and beyond what is expected. It could be on the battlefield, it could be while your training out in the field, and sometimes when you do that, you get nothing.”

“So that’s how the army works?” I asked.

“How life works,” he responded.

I have since been awarded a second bronze star for service on a subsequent deployment. I earned both by doing my job, nothing more, and nothing less. It’s a simple answer. Sometimes you get a medal for the daily grind, sometimes you get one for your last patrol.

We continued checking his uniform. His air assault wings placed directly above his ribbons, and his airborne wings neatly above them. On the right side of his uniform, his nametag was aligned and spelled correctly. I double-checked the spelling to be sure, figuring that a missing ribbon or unit crest might go unnoticed, but a name spelled wrong would be an everlasting memory.

After checking over the details of David’s uniform, Sergeant Freeman and I walked outside to allow the family to walk in and see David for the first time.

Jane, accompanied by her parents walked into the chamber. A couple seconds passed, and then the sound of a wailing mother. I made eye contact with the funeral director.

“This is the toughest part, he said.”

“How many of these have you heard? I asked.

“Hundreds, how about you?’

“One. God help me I never want to hear it again.”

From a distance, I can look back at my life and see some of the tougher days I had. As a kid, I struggled with algebra, and failed a couple of tests. On deployments, I attended dozens of memorial ceremonies for soldiers I knew. When I heard a mother’s cry when seeing her dead son for the first time, I haven’t had a bad day since.

***

The military offers families of soldiers killed in action the presence of either a general officer or a member of congress. Sergeant Stephens’s family opted for a general officer. The general officer was a two-star reservist. He cared about the family, and performed his role respectfully. This included presenting the family with his posthumous awards, and presenting the flag to the family at the burial.

At my inbrief, I was told specifically that I was not to act as the general’s aide, and to keep my focus on the family. However, focusing on the family, and ensuring a general officer attending a soldier’s funeral is set to perform his duties are two sides of the same coin. Providing background information on the family, providing a schedule of events, introducing him to the family, to the honor guard, and other people involved with the funeral were just of few of the unwritten roles I had to assume.

The burial was about a thirty-minute drive from the funeral home. Hundreds of Patriot Riders escorted the funeral procession. I had read about them, and seen pictures of them on television, but this was my first time seeing them up close. The Patriot Riders form an honor guard at military funerals. They formed as a response when other groups used military funerals as a forum to protest and harass service members and their families.

I was unsure at first what to think of them, but after meeting a number of their members, and seeing how they all attended out of a deep love and respect for a fallen comrade. I have nothing but positive feelings for them. Further, lining the route from the funeral home all the way to the cemetery was an American Flag about every six feet. It was impressive.

At the cemetery, one of the Patriot Riders, an older gentleman with a long gray beard and a leather jacket emblazoned with the screaming eagle of the 101st Airborne Division approached me.

“I see you’re in the 101st,” he said.

“I am, Second Brigade,” I said.

The rider quickly responded, as if he had his story already set and ready to tell the first person in uniform he talked to, “I was in 3rd Brigade, the Rakkasans in Vietnam. When I got back, I went to some funerals of my friends. We never had a turnout like this. There are a lot of us who promised we would never let another generation get the same treatment we got.”

“Well, we are thankful for your support here. There must be a couple hundred of you here?” I asked.

“About three hundred.” The rider said. “We’re a close knit group. A brotherhood if you will. And let me tell you we are proud of what you and your team is doing here today.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“No, thank you,” the rider said, shooting up a crisp salute.

I returned his salute as he walked into the crowd. As I raised and lowered my hand I thought about brotherhood. War, and a closeness to death forged a bond between generations. My hand dropped to my side, and I walked to my place for the burial.

The burial was simple. Members of the family spoke, as did some friends, along with Chaplain Mike. Mike delivered a powerful eulogy. He described the journey David took from his hometown in Tullahoma to the battlefields of Afghanistan. Mike juxtaposed the physical journey across continents with the emotional journey from boyhood to manhood. Mike described bookends on a shelf. He painted a picture of how our lives fill the pages of all the books between them. This was a metaphor for Tullahoma. It was where David was born, and where he was laid to rest.

I kept my head bowed as if in prayer while Mike spoke. I thought about my daily drives to Tullahoma, and I thought about what journey I was starting in Tullahoma. I thought about Jennifer.

The honor guard conducted a 21-gun salute, followed by a rendition of Taps by a member of the Army Band.

The 21-gun salute consists of three volleys with seven shots each. Sergeant Freeman would shout “Ready, Aim, Fire,” three times. Almost in unison, the honor guard pulled the trigger firing blanks that cracked the silence. I say almost in unison, because on each volley I sensed one shot about a quarter of a second behind. This was not negligence, nor was it incompetence, but rather the result of a team having only a week to prepare and rehearse.

The general dropped to one knee, presented the folded flag to David’s mother, and said “on behalf of a grateful nation.” He didn’t give a motivational “now let’s go get ’em, boys” type speech. The ceremony was simple, professional, and gut wrenching.

Following the burial, I hitched a ride back to the funeral home with the general, changed into civilian clothing, and walked over to Arby’s for lunch. I sat there alone staring at my sandwich, but threw it away after two bites. In retrospect, it is probably the best decision anytime you eat Arby’s. As I walked towards the door the funeral director walked in.

“I thought I would find you here,” said the director.

“I figured I would get something to eat before the drive home,” I said.

“I doubt you ate anything,” the director responded.

“So I’m not the first person you had the conversation we are about to have in here,” I asked.

The director looked at me for a moment, then said; “No, you’re not.” He went on. “You told me earlier, when we first met that you had attended memorial ceremonies in Iraq. But I don’t need you to tell me how this is different. Every day you drove back to your girlfriend’s, then got up the next morning and came here. It didn’t stop this time did it?”

“No”, I answered. “It did not. In war, you can’t dwell on the dead. You get a day, perhaps two. But the more you think about what happened yesterday, the less you’re thinking about tomorrow. And that puts lives at risk. These last two weeks I went to bed thinking about David, his sister, his parents. I drive down here and I can’t hear the car radio, I hear his mother. I don’t even want to drive home. I want to drive back to the cemetery and stare at his grave. I never met David, and now all I want to do is talk to him. I know you can’t talk to the dead, but that’s all I want to do, now and for the rest of my life, I want to talk to the dead. “

The director smiled at me with a warmth that seemed to come from somewhere deep inside him. Holding my gaze for a longer than average moment, he finally spoke, “I think you get it. Now if you will excuse me, I am going to order my lunch. I have to prepare for a wake tomorrow. Because it never stops”