My Most Important Phone Call Was NOT from the President

By Kirsten Yuhl-Torres

Gold Star Mother of SGT JOSEPH W. PERRY

There has been a lot of talk in the news lately about Gold Star Familes, a term that many Americans were not familiar with until now. There has also been a lot of discussion about the tone of phone calls made by the President to Gold Star Families.

I am uniquely qualified to speak on this issue because I AM a Gold Star Parent.

My son, my only child, SGT Joseph W. Perry, was killed in action on October 2, 2006. My husband and I never received a phone call from the President, from any Senator or Congressional Representative, from the Governor of our State or from any State Representatives.

We did, however, receive two phone calls that were infinitely more important than one from any government official. They were from our son’s commander and platoon leader: two people who served with him in combat; two people who lived and fought side-by-side with him; two people who had to watch him die and continue to lead their soldiers.

The phone calls came the day after we were notified of our son’s death.

The first was from Joe’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel (formerly Captain) Stephanie Bagley. She had been with Joe that day and followed the Medevac helicopter in her vehicle as Joe was transported to Baghdad Hospital. LTC Bagley’s tone was compassionate. She spoke with pride about our son’s service and sacrifice. Her voice resonated with strength and honor. It was what we needed.

The second phone call was from Joe’s platoon leader, Captain (formerly First Lieutenant) Mike Miranda. Mike had served with Joe on daily missions. He knew Joe on a personal level. They were not just soldiers serving together, they were friends. We could feel Mike’s pain and anguish. Being connected to someone who shared our grief gave us a sense of relief.

The only information we had about the death of our son was that he had been shot by a sniper. We needed to hear from those who had been with him.

We desperately needed to be connected to them, and those phone calls were the instruments of connection. They brought us a feeling of pride about our son’s service. They brought us a sense of relief about his death. They brought us a sense of strength in our most vulnerable moment.

To be honest, a phone call from the President or any government official would not have mattered to us. My husband and I were in too much shock, grief, turmoil, chaos…I don’t think we could have processed it.

What we could process, what got our attention and shifted us from feeling lost to empowered, were the two phone calls that we did receive. They were a bridge to the other soldiers who were still in Iraq. They made us feel connected to Joe’s life and death and they opened the door of restoration for us.

But it was not only who the phone calls came from, it was their tone that was vital. Stephanie and Mike were compassionate. They were reverent. We could hear the pain in their voices but we could also feel their strength. We were all going through the same thing. We were truly in this together. But something else happened.

Those phone calls resulted in something unexpected:

They were the impetus for the rebuilding of our lives. Through Stephanie’s and Mike’s compassionate action, we became connected to the most important people in Joe’s life. We formed relationships with others we might have never known. We became part of a family whose bonds were forged in blood: our new sons and daughters given to us by our son, through his death, and we are still connected to our hundreds of sons and daughters 11 years later.

So, is a phone call important? YES!

But it matters who it is from. The words matter. The tone matters. Words can either build up or tear down. The initial stages of grief are gut-wrenching and the death of a child is life-altering. When you lose your only child, you feel as though you have lost your future. Those phone calls gave our future back to us.

While we did not receive a phone call from the President or others in office, we did receive beautifully crafted letters of condolence expressing sympathy and recognition of Joe’s service and sacrifice.

For us, these were the appropriate communications from them. We were able to return later to read them and to fully process the expressions of gratitude and condolence that were intended. In fact, we framed them.

With every action we take, with every word we speak, we either build up or tear down.

It doesn’t matter who you are; it matters what you do. We must all choose our words carefully and we must choose the method of delivery wisely. Our words have the power to create renewal or to cause destruction. Choose wisely!

Finally, a note about extraordinary courage and leadership: After the 21st Military Police (Airborne) returned home, LTC Bagley and CPT Miranda visited us. We learned that LTC Bagley made that phone call to us after following the Medevac helicopter in her vehicle to Baghdad Hospital as Joe was transported there. She washed the blood from his body. She literally took care of our son after his death. She cared for him as I would have.

CPT Miranda made his phone call after “cleaning” the vehicle our son was in.

Let me be perfectly clear about what that means: CPT Miranda washed our son’s blood from the vehicle.

He had to take the snacks and other items that Joe had with him that day out of the Humvee. I cannot imagine what that must have been like.

These two soldiers not only had to deal with the immediate effects of Joe’s death, they had to continue to lead their soldiers, to stay focused on their mission, to deal with their emotional trauma and that of their soldiers, AND to make phone calls to us. THAT is extraordinary courage. THAT is extraordinary leadership.

Personal Note: Thank you to LTC Stephanie Bagley and CPT Mike Miranda for permission to use their names and tell a small part of their story.