When a soldier is killed, there is a special unit that goes into action. It is called the casualty notification team. Every non-commissioned officer in the Army and the Army Reserves goes through training, and hopes they are never called upon to fulfill this duty.
During their rotation, they are to have their Class A dress uniform on hand at all times, so that if they get that call, they can be on the road to the home of the family at a moment’s notice. The teams consist of two members, one of whom is a chaplain if at all possible. This is the initial notification team, and the third member is assigned as that family’s Casualty Assistance Officer.
The two men who came to my door were a sergeant and a chaplain. There was very little they could tell us, but their kindness and caring were just a taste of the treatment we would receive over the next days, weeks and months; care we still receive to this day.
I will never forget watching a big, tough, Special Forces-trained sergeant struggle for composure at my kitchen table as he helped us absorb the news, make the arrangements for us to travel to Dover Military Base in Delaware and assure us that we would not be alone on this journey unless we specifically requested to be. I found out later that because of how I found out, changes were made in the way notifications are handled, so no other parent gets the news that their child is dead while standing in a parking lot, alone.
It was only later that I understood that part of the emotion this sergeant and chaplain were wrestling with at my kitchen table was rage at the way I found out my son was dead.
Because of the unusual way my son had specified notification was to be handled, there was a lot of confusion. Normally, the Army will send only three family members to Dover. Somehow, my ex-husband, his wife and daughter had been scheduled to go, meaning I would not be allowed. This was not something this sergeant would accept as an answer, and he had stepped outside to express his opinion of these arrangements.
When he came back in, my husband and I were informed of our flight time, what to pack and the name of the Casualty Assistance Officer that would be meeting us at Dover. There was another CAO that was assigned to us here at home, and he and the Sergeant were beyond apologetic that he would not be able to accompany us, as only one CAO can go and the one assigned to my ex-husband would be making the trip.
They both assured us again and again that we would be taken care of, that we would not be alone, that they would both be not more than a phone call away. Our CAO even insisted that we allow him to take us to the airport at 5 a.m. the next morning, as well as pick us up upon our return.
When we understood that meant this man would have to be at our house at 3 a.m. to get us to the airport, and that he would have to drive from Ft. Sheridan to Plainfield to O’Hare Airport, just so we didn’t have to drive ourselves or arrange transportation, we insisted he stay put. As it turned out, those few hours in the car to and from O’Hare were the only moments we had alone, something we really wanted and needed.
When we arrived at the airport in Philadelphia, we were met by a young sergeant who informed us he would be our driver and escort while we were there. We soon came to understand that everything we could think of, anything we could possibly need would be taken care of, before we even thought of it.
The Mortuary Affairs team at Dover had a hotel next to the base whose sole function is to provide a place of comfort for the families of those who are being returned to U.S. soil in a flag-draped coffin. We arrived and were shown to our rooms, then escorted to a comfortable lounge where we met the family of the other soldier who died in the attack that killed my son. We were first asked if we wished to meet this family, and they were asked the same.
It broke my heart to meet a young woman, now a widow and a mother to a baby girl who would grow up without her father. The parents of this soldier looked as shell shocked as we felt.
Once my ex-husband and his family arrived, we were brought into a conference room where we were told what instructions my son had given, in the event he did not come home. It is sort of like the reading of a will, but it must happen before his body is even returned to U.S. soil, because how his remains are handled, who is to make the funeral and burial arrangements and what those decisions are have to be known.
It would be days before the Army released his body to be sent on to his hometown, funeral and final resting place, but where he was to be sent had to be answered immediately. Because he was killed in action, we had the option of an immediate interment at Arlington National Cemetery, an honor reserved for our nation’s heroes. Normally, it can take months for arrangement for burial there in our nation’s most hallowed final resting place.
My ex-husband and I agreed that he would be brought back to Chicago and he would be buried at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, even though it was a trip to Arlington when my son was 4 that sparked his decision to join the military in the first place.
Unfortunately, it was the only thing we agreed upon. We were told that despite his father having been listed as the first to be notified, my son assigned to me the task of making all the decisions for his final arrangements; it may have been a highly unusual decision from the Army’s standpoint, but it was wholly typical of my son.
He had no memories of his father and I living together as we divorced while he was still in diapers and I had been granted sole custody of him for 17 years, but I was so very proud of him for making sure his father was included and recognized in the event of his death. I did not begrudge my ex-husband for being the first notified, I was happy for him to receive this recognition from his son.
Unfortunately, because he had been notified first, he had assumed it was his responsibility to make all the arrangements, which he had done before he arrived at Dover. In the end, the decision was made that he would be waked in Plainfield, where he grew up, so both of our extended families and all of Andy's friends would be able to attend.
We had arrived at Dover a few hours before my ex-husband and his family, so we had a little down time. I will never know how, but before my son’s remains were back on US soil, reporters had found my cell phone number. I will never forget standing outside the hotel in Dover, having my phone ringing again and again. It seemed every reporter in the country was calling me, asking for an interview. After the first call, I didn’t answer my phone unless I recognized the number.
After we flew back to Chicago, my husband dropped me off at my mother’s house while he went on home to get the boys. His sister had come to spend the night at our house, and reporters were camped out there, calling and even knocking on our neighbors’ doors. I simply couldn’t face the media, and certainly wasn’t about to give an interview, answering questions about how it felt to lose my only child and what I thought of the war.
Once I was at my mom’s, I called my brother and asked if he would be the contact person for the media. I told him it was going to be a week to 10 days before Andy’s body was released by the Army, and that was the only information we had. He agreed, but was more than a little surprised when I read him off the list of news organizations, names and phone numbers that had piled up in my voicemail. Once we added those who had left messages on our home answering machine, and the cards that were slipped under our front door, my brother had more than twenty five phone calls to make.
The very few who left messages asking for my feelings about the war now that my son was dead were put on our own little "Do Not Call" list.
I have very little memory of what I did between Nov. 2, when we returned home from Dover, and Nov. 9, when Andy’s coffin was flown into Midway. I know we went to the funeral home and to the cemetery to sign papers. I remember the kindness and professionalism of the funeral director, Brian Dames of Dames Funeral Home.
He had very few questions, that I remember. What I do remember is his assuring us that he would take care of everything, which he did. I don’t recall if it was at our first visit, or even how many times all together we were there, but he told us that he had been contacted by the Illinois Patriot Guard who requested our permission to stand for my son and to participate in the procession.
At that point, we were thinking the wake would be pretty big, maybe as large as a couple hundred people. We had no idea, no inkling that it would turn out to be a couple thousand.
Some of the other scattered memories I have from those days, waiting for Andy to finally come all the way home are a testament to the kindness and character of people in this town. One of the only calls from a number I didn’t recognize I answered turned out to be a woman I’d never met, from Plainfield. I answered only because I knew the exchange of the number was local; I thought it might be one of the schools calling.
I’m sorry to say I wasn’t initially very nice to her, questioning who she was and how she got my number. I asked her quite pointedly if she was a reporter or worked for the media. Thankfully, she has turned out to be as gracious as she seemed in that initial phone call and I now count her among my friends.
She is a military mom, had heard the news and was calling to volunteer to have her army, as she referred to them, of other local military moms cook and bake for the wake. She even apologized for not finding me sooner, before my son was killed, as her little group meets monthly for mutual support.
I remember telling her that her offer was kind, but I couldn’t accept because I thought there would be as many as a couple hundred people who may show up to pay their respects, and that was an awful lot of food and baked goods to supply, even for an army of military moms. After making sure I had her contact information and extracting a promise to contact her if there were anything I needed, I put it out of my mind.
A day or so later, my girlfriend asked if I had given any thought to refreshments and food at the wake, or if this was being handled already. She had been aware of how much our CAO and Brian Dames had been taking care of for us, and not having any experience with the military, didn't know what the protocol was. I didn't either, but I remembered that military mom’s call, and asked my girlfriend if she would call her back and just handle it. She said she would talk to the funeral home and between them would figure out what to do.
I was very relieved when my girlfriend told me to simply put it out of my mind and she would take care of it all. I know she and the military mom spoke, and that was the last I thought about it. This, and picking the color of flowers were the only decisions I made. Every other detail was, from my perspective, magically handled. I had no idea what was going on, and even if I did, I probably wouldn’t remember it anyway.
When we finally received word of the day and time the flight from Dover bringing Andy’s body home would arrive, I really began to get nervous. Or, I should say, if I weren’t so numb I would have been nervous. As it was, I was barely able to hold a thought in my head, so though I was aware there was a lot going on and I had a low level of anxiety about it all, no emotion could really break through the cloud of disbelief, of unreality I was living in.
I still don’t know who called whom, how it was all handled, and can’t even begin to imagine the gargantuan task of coordinating all the details of Andy’s arrival into Midway Airport. I know our CAO seemed to be constantly on the phone, and was forever writing things down, notes to follow up on this or that detail. I know he talked to Brian Dames at the funeral home; I know he spoke with someone at Midway to get the details of where we were to go, how the plane would come in, etc.
But, what I experienced was simply being a participant in this event. We were told to be at the funeral home at a specific time and that there would be a procession to Midway, a ceremony there while Andy’s casket was taken off the plane for immediate family only, and a procession back to the funeral home that would go through town and loop around Plainfield South High School.
There is a video of that day, the wake and the procession from the funeral home to Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery for the internment, without which I would have very few memories of those events. I was there, but unable to absorb what was happening around me, both because of the scope, the unbelievable turnout and because of the emotional fog I was under. I will never be able to thank Heidi Kelly enough for putting those images together; they remain my primary memories of those days.
What I do remember is being shocked, simply astounded when I realized as we were travelling down Interstate 55 that the highway had been closed to all other traffic. Then, seeing on every overpass, every bridge, police and firemen, trucks with their ladders raised and flags flying was simply more than I could absorb.
I remember thinking, how did someone make all this happen? I also remember telling myself to look, to see it all, and to remember, knowing I’d never be able to but I had to try.
My astonishment turned to awe when we came into town. I saw old men struggle to a stand from wheelchairs to salute as we went past the nursing home; I saw mothers with babies in strollers standing in front of lawn chairs where they had sat for who knows how long, waiting for the chance to stand in honor of the procession. There were the kids, hundreds and hundreds of them, lining the side of the road.
Later, my husband remarked that what struck him was the solemnity on the faces of a bunch of middle school kids, and how they stood still with none of the jostling and fidgeting one would expect out of a bunch of kids that age.
Then, the high school. Over 2,000 high schoolers, the entire student body, lining both sides of the roadway through the parking lot, so many crying, so many tears from kids who never knew my son, only knew he was a boy from their school, from their hometown, coming home from war.
Then, on to the funeral home with seemingly every inch of roadway lined with people from businesses, homes, subdivisions, cars hastily pulled off to the side with drivers standing in front of still open doors, and flags everywhere.
At the wake, there was so much, it all was a blur. I remember most of all the feeling of being surrounded, bracketed and held up by those I love. I remember feeling my niece being nearly attached at my hip more than I remember seeing her there. My sister-in-law half laughingly told me later that she was right next to me, the whole time, though I have no visual memory of her.
I know that either my husband or our CAO was next to me at all times, every moment; one of the clear memories I have is of our CAO taking up position to relieve my husband so he could go off for a minute.
Then there were the people and the mementos so many gave us. The handmade quilt and pillow; the statute of a woman holding a folded flag, which sits next to me on my desk; the huge box of letters from school kids that accompanied a giant poster they made; the plaque from the Military Order of the Purple Heart; the beautiful print of a crying bald eagle with an American flag and words of comfort.
I was astounded and am still at how these people knew, got my son’s picture to place on the plaque, how they had time to have these things made, engraved, personalized for him. The care, the time and effort required to make all of these things moves me still.
The images most clearly seared in my memory are of the people, literally thousands who lined the roads, came to the wake and filled out the procession to the cemetery. I found an article written of the day that described the 3-mile-long procession from the funeral home; I still can’t wrap my head around that number.
In the past two years, I have often looked back on those days and wished I could find every person, every single one who came out, showed their respect and gave comfort to a family they never knew. From the soldiers who came to my door on Nov. 1, those who took care of us, cried with us and simply held us up at Dover, the countless police and firemen from a dozen municipalities who joined the procession and lined the overpasses and roads, the neighbors and businesses who donated enough food to feed an army at the wake, to the friends and family who made sure the only thing I had to think about was breathing, it still and will always choke me up and bring tears of gratitude to my eyes.
Last year, the Illinois Patriot Guard honored me, asking me to come speak to them at their annual meeting. I said to them, and I say to all of you, all who were there, all who showed your care and concern for a family you didn’t know, for a boy you never met, “He was my son, my only child, but you made him your own, your soldier”.
I will never be able to express my gratitude, my eternal thanks, for the comfort I’ve received, for the blessings granted me. God Bless you all, and God Bless America, for being the kind of place where strangers will stand for another, making him one of your own.
Read the first two installments of Denise's story:
Last Day of My Life as I Knew It
It's A Mistake