'Ma'am, We Regret to Inform You ... '

October 18, 2004

Sometimes it's just called "the knock."
It's that knock on the door that more and more family members are receiving since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And, as a military chaplain, I've accompanied many commanders as they've made the "knock."
The summons to make this visit always comes from my beeper, as it did one typical Saturday during an afternoon of yard work.
"It's the base calling," I told my wife, "and it looks like the Mortuary Affairs Office."
Thirty minutes later, I was in my dress uniform meeting with our death notification team. Made up of a lawyer, a chaplain and a doctor, the team seemed more like the predictable beginning of a Bob Hope joke. Only this script, delivered by our commander, was no joke:
"Are you Mrs. John E. Jones?"
"Is your husband Capt. John E. Jones?"
"Ma'am, we regret to inform you that your husband, Capt. John E. Jones, SSN 5N5-55-5N5N, was killed ... "
Of course, we rarely get that far without a torrent of tears and a hemorrhage of hope, but we stay with the written message until it is delivered.
As many times as we have brought this news, we always read from the script. It's the only way to get through without cracking. The delivery is to be compassionate, but professional.
"Professional" means we always rehearse it and watch a refresher video that details the process. It also means checking and rechecking our facts before navigating our stereotypical Air Force blue sedan through the heart of base housing.
Uniforms in base housing on a weekend are a rare event, and their sudden appearance in the cul-de-sac make us look like a small parade. We are a living, breathing cliché from some late-night television movie.
As we step from our car, a little boy meets us at the curb and points out his mother coming from the garage, wiping motor oil from her hands.
"Can I help you?" she asks.
Suddenly, she rocks back on one foot as she absorbs our presence.
"What's this about?" 
"May we talk inside?" the commander asks.
"Uh, no, I think you should come back later. No, this isn't a good time," she stammers. 
"We're sorry, ma'am, but we can't do that. Please, we need to come inside," the commander repeats.
As passage is granted, the commander starts his script, but she refuses to let him "regret." Her oily hands form an airtight seal over her ears.
Eventually we are all able to deliver our lines. The medic explains the stages of stress and grief while he watches for signs of fainting. I hold her hand, read a scripture passage and pray. And the lawyer explains how the Air Force will pay to have her husband's body escorted home by a trusted friend.
The compassion was as real as it could be in the absence of any reality whatsoever. This had been a base exercise enacted to prepare us for future realities -- which now come far too often.
It is a potential reality known by every person who has ever served in the military -- that it is appointed unto a man once to die. It is a fear played out hundreds of times in the minds of the service member and family. Despite that, they deploy, do their jobs and most of them return home.
And yet, some don't. Some, like Marine Capt. Ryan Anthony Beaupre, whose family was among the first to receive the "knock" after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom.'So, it is in his memory and the memory of many before and after him that I ask you to pause this Veterans' Day and honor the valor of those who never wavered when called to serve.
That Saturday afternoon exercise was much too real. It was exactly the way it happens every time. We received a high rating on it, and I suppose that was good, because the next visit we made was real.
Interrupting a child's birthday as our team turned away partygoers on the doorstep, the commander began the script:
"Ma'am, we regret to inform you ... ."

Burkes, BA '79, double majored in religion and journalism. He is a pediatric hospital chaplain in Sacramento, Calif., and a chaplain in the Air National Guard. He writes a nationally syndicated column for Gannett News Service. (This story was adapted from a piece that ran in the Denver Post.)