We got a lot of rain last night and early this morning, so the weather was unusually cool during my run. Now I’m alone at my kitchen table, still, at this late hour in the morning. My night owls are still in bed, Nick is upstairs getting his regular early start on Fortnite. I’m having coffee, listening to the birds outside, and it is grand.
Today is Memorial Day, which is a federal holiday honoring the sacrifice of service members who have died while serving in the military. This is not to be confused with Veteran’s Day, which celebrates the service of all military veterans. Later we’ll take a family outing to a war memorial in Asiatown, which is about a 30 minute drive in an area we visited often before the pandemic. The story of Houston’s Vietnam War Memorial is showcases how diverse a city Houston is.
Since it’s Memorial Day, I’m reminded of a mother in Staten Island, New York, who I met during my tour of duty at 6th Communication Battalion in 2011.
As part of the permanent active duty staff, all officers and staff non-commissioned officers were on a rotation to serve as the Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO). In February 2011, a Personnel Casualty Report arrived in my boss’ inbox conveying only the most pertinent details of a Lance Corporal Omar Mendez (not his real name), killed in action as a result of a gunshot wound while on an dismounted patrol in Helmand Province, at time X, date Y.
Our administration section pulled up LCpl Mendez’s record and determined his parents were divorced, which required two sets of CACOs, one set to deliver the news to each parent. I was handed LCpl Mendez’s record, and set off in parallel with my Staff Sergeant assistant and the other set of CACOs, to change into my service dress blue uniform and find LCpl Mendez’ mother.
It was a typical overcast and gloomy February afternoon. As the Staff Sergeant and I drove through a light rain across the Verrazano Bridge, I thought about the Marine’s name, and wondered if his mom preferred Spanish to English. I wrote out a Spanish translation just in case my Spanish deserted me at the critical moment.
I had never been to Staten Island, but like many of New York’s Burroughs that seem worldly, diverse, and interesting in my head, it’s not until I’m there when I realize the urban thing is not for me. We found her apartment on the corner of a dreary street and parked close, but not too close. I got out of the car with a business card and an index card with my notes.
The Staff Sergeant and I waited at the front door of her apartment for what seemed like a while. In the event that she wasn’t home we would have gone back to the car and waited until we saw her. In these circumstances, the Marine Corps wants to notify next of kin first and as soon as possible, with condolences delivered in person. Since we did not know where she worked, if we had to sit there all day and wait for her, that’s what we were going to do.
“Yes?” She said to us as she walked up from behind us standing at her front door.
“Can we go inside?” I said. She let us inside, and there at the foyer, I began, “The commandant of the Marine Corps has entrusted me to inform you that your son, Lance Corporal Omar Mendez has been killed in action…”
I did not get through much the remaining dialogue. She threw herself on the couch and cried and screamed. Her 16-year-old son came out from a room in the house and was soon anguished as well. I left my card with her son and told them both we’d be in touch. What followed over the next seven days or so were several visits back to this mom and coordinating with the other CACO for LCpl Mendez’s dad, to talk through military funeral arrangements and benefits. We spent time in the funeral home hearing the family discuss arrangements and burial preferences, with family intermediaries relaying messages between mom and dad. LCpl Mendez had a big family and three brothers. Two were also Marines, his twin brother had been serving in Afghanistan at the same time he had been killed.
It occurs to me how surreal this must be for the families. LCpl Mendez had probably been in the Marine Corps, maybe two years. He had been in Afghanistan only a couple of months. He got the same send-off as many had before and many would after, but he just never came back. I remember on a separate occasion talking with a Gold Star mother at a community relations events representing 6th Comm. She talked about losing her son a few years back and how she’d come to get involved in the military community in New York.
“It’s hard some days. Some days I tell myself, ‘let’s pretend he’s still on deployment.’”
There’s a lot of other stories out there. These are mine. This is what Memorial Day is about.