Volume 8 | Spring 2018
by Ken Sabatier
Davis read aloud the last couple house numbers on the modest vinyl clad bungalows as the grey government sedan crept down the street. For the hundredth time his thoughts rolled through what he would say when the moment came. Two more driveways to the house, and the mother of the late Corporal Denison, James Patrick, service number A32 542 067, of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, who had grown up in this blue-collar prairie suburb was about to be notified her son was dead.
“You ready, Colonel?” Captain Gingras asked, a strong French-Canadian accent touched his words, as he steered the car onto the narrow cement driveway.
“Yeah Padre… not sure what ‘ready’ is supposed to feel like.” Rows of military ribbons lined the left side of Davis’ chest and a black beret was shaped tight to his head. Davis glanced over at Captain Gingras and they shared a supportive look. Davis tried to mask his uneasiness, but a heavy sigh that dropped his shoulders revealed his emotions.
There had been a few times in the past when Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Davis had to tell a soldier of a death of a family member when their unit had been deployed. On each occasion, the ritual had been simple: state the facts, pat the shoulder and empathise, then help the soldier get to the closest phone to call home. Heck, everyone has to die at some point, he had thought. Why get all weepy about it? He knew in a few short minutes lots of tears were about to flow amongst total strangers, and he didn’t want his crusty attitude to make things worse.
Earlier that day, Davis had been sitting in his office at the flour mill he now worked at as a Human Resource Manager. Since retiring from the regular army this job was his first foray into civilian life. After five overseas tours, postings back and forth across Canada, and months away training each year, he and his family finally had enough of the separation and disruption. Instead of leaving the military completely, Davis transferred to the army reserves and soon found his experience put to use commanding a local armoured unit. He figured becoming a part-time soldier would alleviate the stress of being an absentee father and husband but still keep him involved with the job he loved: leading soldiers. With a steady paycheque, and no deployments on the horizon life settled into a routine.
The reserves helped cushion Davis from the culture shock he experienced at his civilian job. At the mill he discovered every “people” problem was pushed his way so the business managers could focus on making money. Davis was often left baffled; in the army commanders looked after their own soldiers not some specialist paid to care. Getting the smell of cordite on his fatigues, hearing the satisfying WHOOMPH from a grenade, and feeling the tingle of frostbite on the fingers after a day of training in the cold kept Davis attached to a world where leaders led, and soldiers bust their ass if they knew they were being respected.
His family’s life seemed balanced the first year, but the demands of a regular army that needed reservists to volunteer for positions in Afghanistan changed all that. A few days training each month became work every weekend and evenings at the local armoury preparing for the weekend’s training. His responsibilities to his unit, and his work at the flour mill were squeezing out what time was left for his family.
Concerned parents, wives, and employers of reserve soldiers who were volunteering for duties overseas were leaving messages at his unit daily, asking why their loved ones were needed for some mission that seemed to have no relevance to their lives in Canada. In response, Davis found himself holding evening coffee sessions assuring them “Johnny or Sally” weren’t going to their imminent death, and some moral purpose was being advanced by their deployment. One evening after coming home from a session Jim vented his frustration to his wife, “I’m paid to command soldiers, not their families!” In the Regular army your soldiers’ extended family were usually hundreds of miles away, not standing next to you in the grocery line.
“Good thing you only talk like an ass in private, and not behave like one in public,” his wife Deanna shot back, reigning in the prickly side of Jim’s personality. “I know it needs to be done, so do it well and quit complaining. It’s not like the kids and I don’t know how to look after ourselves.” Deanna knew Jim well enough to know he sometimes needed a blunt rebuke to smarten him up.
Truth was, Davis relished the responsibility, but justifying a soldier’s duties to middle-aged parents, pacifist in-laws, and pimply-faced teenage kids was foreign territory. In the regular army Davis hadn’t volunteered for deployments, he just went when he was told, and he trusted his tough, independent wife to capably handle the home front when he was gone.
He knew from experience that a family’s support of a soldier influenced their health and survival overseas as much as decisions on the ground did. In combat, a soldier needed focus to survive and help keep his friends alive, and if there were problems at home a soldier was never as sharp as one needed to be. Sixty soldiers from his unit had deployed in the last year alone; meaning hundreds of parents, spouses, children, and extended family now looked at Davis as the overzealous commander who convinced their loved one to go work in a combat zone. Davis knew he owed it to his soldiers to help their families understand that the commitment their loved ones were making wasn’t irrational adventure seeking, as well as give his soldiers confidence their families were supported on the home front.
Slouching back in his chair, Davis digested his Friday lunch and shuffled through some resumes when his phone rang. He recognised his brigade commander’s number on the call display. Crap, my annual training plan is overdue, Jim thought as he picked up the receiver. “Hello, Jim Davis here, how can I help?”
“Jim, it’s Rob, I hope you aren’t too busy right now.” Jim’s commander, Colonel Robert Poirier usually got right to the point.
“Sir, odd to hear from you on a Friday afternoon, what’s up?” He and the commander had become close friends the past couple years. Colonel Poirier was one of the few people Davis could open up to and discuss the peculiar stresses of commanding a reserve unit. A reservist as well, Poirier worked as a big city administrator, was a family man, had nine other units to deal with and knew all too well the stresses Davis felt.
“Jim, I have a serious matter I need help with and have to skip the chit chat.” The commander’s tone made Davis sit up and search his desk for a pen and paper. “I just got a phone call from the national operations centre to find a commanding officer who can give a death notification for a “Patricia” soldier in Afghanistan who was killed a few hours ago by a suicide bomber. No one in our Brigade has had to do one of these yet.” He paused, waiting to hear a response from Jim that didn’t come. “I know it sounds odd saying that I think you are the right person to give a death notification, but I need a commanding officer to get on this now, and this being the first one we’ve been assigned to do I want it done right. Can you leave work now and get your uniform on?”
As he heard the question Davis’ felt his heart make an odd flutter, but settled back into a normal rhythm as he processed what the commander had just asked. S***… thank God it isn’t one of my own soldiers, he thought. One of his biggest fears had been the possibility of having to visit one of the families he had convinced of the ‘nobility’ of their service member’s deployment. This soldier was from the regular force battalion stationed a few hundred miles west.
“Jim, are you still there? I need an answer.” Colonel Poirier’s request pressed into the silence.
This time there was no hesitation. “Sorry, sir. I was just processing. Definitely… yes I’ll do this.” Davis answered.
The commander went on, “Good, the next of kin listed on his notification form is his mother, Cheryl Denison, who lives here in the city. No name or number of his father, and his sister is listed as the alternate. The staff are double-checking the home and work addresses of the next of kin in the notification records before they release them. It’s Friday afternoon and by the time you are ready it will be probably best to try their house first. I don’t have any more info yet, but the rest will be coming fast once they know we have a notification officer identified.”
The conversation quickly wrapped up and Davis shut down his computer, grabbed his coat, and left a sticky note on his office door saying that he would be out for the rest of the afternoon. He managed to slip out a back entrance, avoiding anyone else at the mill. Some parts of his life were too foreign to his civilian co-workers. The few times he had tried to share some of his past military experiences they either thought he was boasting, or his topics were too intense for common office talk.
In minutes he was home and hurriedly donning his army dress uniform for the notification. As he mentally walked through what he would have to say, he was certain the family would know something terrible had happened as soon as they saw a strange soldier pull up to their house. While he readied himself his army BlackBerry rang, “Lieutenant-Colonel Davis speaking,” he answered.
A Captain from the national operations centre introduced himself, and he and Davis exchanged the few details that were available of Corporal Denison’s death. With the official introductions made the notification details came fast, with Davis writing them down and repeating them back to ensure he had all the facts accurate.
“You’ll need to link up with, Captain Claude Gingras from the local airbase. He’ll be the chaplain support for the family.” The Captain finished by giving the Padre’s contact number. Ready now, Davis went to the mirror at the entranceway to straighten himself out.
Deanna had quietly come over to run a lint brush over the shoulders and back of Jim’s dark green uniform, and then straightened the ribbons on his chest knowing the solemnity of what was occurring deserved the best appearance. As Jim looked in the mirror he saw she had tears welling in her eyes.
“Hey…” Jim whispered, catching her hand and holding her eyes. A tight lump formed in his throat. Deanna’s motion stopped and they each absorbed the concern, support and love their looks conveyed to each other. After years of marriage words weren’t needed to communicate how they felt.
“I know it’s selfish to say this Jim, but right now I am thanking God I never saw a uniformed man walking up our doorstep the many times you were gone. Be as gentle with that family as you can be.” Despite the tears in her eyes, Deanna spoke in a steady tone. She helped Jim run through the list of things he needed and handed him the keys to the mini-van.
After a quick call to the chaplain he drove off to a coffee shop rendezvous they were both familiar with, hopped into the sedan the Chaplain had picked up from the base and talked through the notification plan. From there the Denison’s home was only a couple kilometers away.
The sedan came to a gentle stop, Captain Gingras switched off the engine. “Well Padre, ask God that He would give us some wisdom, and we do this right,” Davis said as the two of them stepped out of the car. Davis took the lead to the front entrance.
Standing in the neighbouring lawn watering oversized yellow flowers along her house front, was a middle-aged lady, hair pinned back, wearing an ankle-length sundress and sandals. A miniature rainbow glistened in the mist of the spray as she stared at Davis and Captain Gingras climbing the steps to her neighbour’s front door. It was late Friday afternoon and the appetizing scent of meat grilling on a barbeque was in the air, a faint stream of smoke rose above the fence from the backyard of the Denison’s house. A “Support Our Troops” yellow ribbon sign was taped on the entrance screen door and the main door was open, giving view to brightly painted walls and shining hardwood floors that led to a sunlit kitchen in the back. Voices and a burst of laughter floated through the house from the backyard deck. Davis glanced back to the neighbour’s yard and saw the lawn had been silently vacated; the end of the watering hose lying in the flower bed, water still running from the end. We better get on with this before the whole neighbourhood panics, Davis thought.
“Ring the doorbell or walk to the back yard?” Davis questioned out loud. Best not to surprise the hell out of them by showing up on their deck, he thought. Before the Padre could respond Davis reached forward and pushed the doorbell. After a few seconds, they heard a lady’s voice, “Be there in a minute, door’s open so let yourself in.”
Davis stood motionless. Through the front entrance he could see the sliding deck doors open and a slender lady with cropped blonde hair, wine glass in hand, step through the door looking back to the deck. She turned and walked towards them with a shining smile on her face. A few steps into her approach, ten feet away, the smile wrenched into a contorted look of anguish. Her glass crashed to the floor, and she dropped to her knees.
“No-o-o-o, not me! This isn’t happening!” the lady’s words threaded through her soul-piercing cry. Sliding chairs and a rush of feet erupted from the back deck. Three people pushed through the deck entrance coming to her side. Her sorrow hit Davis like a punch to the chest, cracking the hardened crust over his emotions. His throat tightened, lower lip quivered, and he took a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, then exhaled through his nose. He knew he had years of emotions sealed up behind an inner wall, rarely did he allow any to spill over it. He mastered his breathing, slowed his racing heart and calmed the nerves, just the same as stepping out the back ramp of an armoured personnel carrier before an assault.
Captain Gingras nudged Davis’ elbow and whispered, “I think we should go in, sir.”
“Yes, of course,” Davis replied. Hold it together man! Sort out who is who here, and just tell them he’s dead, he demanded of himself. His lip steadied as the waves of his emotions settled and didn’t splash over his wall. Davis and Captain Gingras stepped through the doorway and approached the family.
“Ma’am, I’m Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Davis, are you Cheryl Denison?” By this time there was a heavyset, middle-aged man kneeling and comforting the lady on the floor. A twenty-something couple holding each other were standing behind them.
“Yes,” replied the lady on the floor, her voice was a faint whisper buried in restrained sobs.
“Ma’am, I am heartbroken to have to tell you your son, Corporal James Denison, is dead.” Done, it’s out there. Stated clearly with no vague language, no elaboration. After they hear the word ‘dead’ nothing registers, let reality sink in, and the questions will come. Davis recalled from the mandatory seminar on death notifications that all Commanding Officers attended a few months ago in anticipation this Afghan mission would result in deaths.
Standing behind Cheryl Denison and the man, the young lady’s face was buried in her companion’s chest as she emitted muffled sobs while his chin rested on her head. Sorrow enveloped the group and the emotions seemed on the verge of erupting into something more. Davis felt their swirling sorrow start to draw him in along with them. He knew if his wall started to crumble he would be down on the floor crying with Cheryl. Time to try to put some order into this, Davis thought as he knelt beside her.
“Mrs. Denison, if we all move to the living room you can sit down. I have a few more details I can tell you.” As he shifted his feet he felt the crunch of glass beneath his soles. “We can look after the broken glass later. Be careful you don’t have any on you.” Davis held her elbow awkwardly and gave her a hand up, feeling uncertain on how to comfort a stranger. He looked over at Captain Gingras wondering if he was doing the right thing, but he had already turned and was leading the young couple to a love seat in the living room. Satisfied some order was falling into place, Davis felt calm return.
As the middle-aged man put an arm around Cheryl and tried to guide her to a seat it awakened her reactions. “How . . . why . . . what happened? Why is my son dead? Tell me now!” she demanded.
Davis took another deep breath, removed his beret, and gripped it as he took a moment to gather his thoughts. “About twelve hours ago, at 6:35 in the evening, Afghanistan time, your son was on a foot patrol in a small village west of Kandahar when his section was targeted by a suicide bomber. Your son and another soldier from his Regiment were killed immediately. Two other soldiers are in serious condition, along with four Afghans. We should go sit down. I am expecting a phone call within the next hour that might provide some more details, but for now that is all I know.” Davis looked at the Padre, hoping he would take over.
Cheryl silently took a seat by her daughter on the couch and put her head in her hands, her shoulders shaking. Davis took a seat in the corner of the room. Captain Gingras stepped in and steered the conversation gracefully, putting on display his expertise as a military chaplain. Davis, not knowing quite what to do, offered to bring everyone a glass of water. Having been through his own father’s death and experiencing the silent support of his buddies back then, Davis figured that simply being there and available to answer questions as they came was supportive enough. “Burdens are meant to be shared,” was a quote he recalled from a devotional reading years ago, and he had put this concept into practice a few times over the years. Shoulders support burdens better than words.
Over the next couple hours the family’s grief transitioned from the initial stab of emotional pain into the dull, steady throb of a wound to which the mind becomes accustomed. The operations centre had called to confirm the next of kin had been notified and asked permission to lift the media blackout back in Kandahar. After discussing with Cheryl, the family asked for another hour in order to call extended family they thought needed to hear of this death directly and not from a media report. Davis repeated the now familiar process of passing on the details of the death over the phone to other extended family—grandparents, aunts, and uncles—handing the phone to Cheryl each time to speak after Davis gave the initial details. As Cheryl set the phone down after the last call, her eyes red and puffy, she stared out into the backyard at the scene of the abandoned barbeque.
“Why? Why are good young men and women in some Godforsaken land getting killed? I don’t understand why my son is dead?” Cheryl spoke with rekindled anguish.
Davis was unsure whether she was asking him or just voicing a thought out loud. He went ahead and spoke, “Mrs. Denison, that’s a question I asked myself many times as I left my wife and kids to go off on another tour, knowing something could happen. What satisfied my conscience and helped justify things to my wife was not that I was solving the problems of the world, but it was assurance that the work I could do as a soldier could give someone in that country more hope than they had the day before.” Davis paused to take a sip from his glass of water to calm his nerves, he knew he was walking a thin edge between giving words of assurance and imposing his own convictions on a family that may not share his convictions.
Judging by the nod the Padre gave him Jim continued, “In the places we go to, peoples’ hopes aren’t fixed on setting off on a lifelong plan for happiness. Hope is simply having some assurance they can walk to the village school tomorrow knowing they aren’t going to be shot by a sniper because they are going to learn from a new textbook. String enough successful days together and people begin to develop real hope. Maybe at some point a parent will have enough confidence to spend the family’s meagre savings on some seed knowing that there is a good chance to see a crop grow to harvest before some local militia comes through and burns it because they didn’t get protection money.” The looks and nods amongst the family encouraged Davis that maybe he was saying something that touched them.
Cheryl had been listening hard and her look implored Davis for more of an answer than what she heard in government talking points. “Colonel, what you are saying sounds grand, but my son is dead and I don’t really understanding why Canadian soldiers are in Afghanistan?”
Davis took a moment before responding; with the sorrow and cynicism mixed in Cheryl’s tone he knew that tossing out some jingoistic crap wouldn’t be appreciated. “Cheryl, I never knew your son, but I have commanded many soldiers just like him. Your son was doing a job that only a soldier can do; protecting his buddies, and civilians around them who are just trying to live life, and maybe get on their feet and push back themselves to build some semblance of stability that only hopeful assurance can give. Yeah, our government sends soldiers to the world’s gutters for all sorts of crazy reasons, but the work your son and every other Canadian soldier does in those places contributes in a physical, tangible way every day to making a hopeless situation hopeful.” Jim had to hold back a flood of strongly held opinions of the government’s decisions. He quickly calculated what best to say so he could stop talking.
“Any answer to ‘why’ beyond that is in the realm of diplomats and politicians to explain, and success or failure falls at their feet – not the soldiers’. I’m not some philosopher, but that is the ‘Jim Davis’ answer that helped me sleep at night for the last twenty-six years.” Davis concluded.
As Davis had been talking he felt his comments turn inwards, and his throat tighten hard. He tried to keep out his own persistent questions of whether his past actions had really given hope to the hundreds of lives his decisions had brushed against over the years. He felt cracks forming inside him that he didn’t want to burst open just now. NOT NOW! he thought. He quietly took another deep breath . . . held it . . . and released it slowly through his nose. His throat loosened up, his eyes didn’t overflow. He let go the clenched grip he had on his folded beret.
His comments left a quiet period. No one wanted a debate. Conversation turned to reflection on James time as a soldier. His sister shared memories of James’ decision to join the army. Cheryl spoke with pride about hearing when he passed the various phases of his training, been assigned to his regiment, and his thrill when he was promoted to corporal. It infused Davis with a quiet pride and respect knowing that every soldier makes a decision to serve, recognising that a “normal” way of life is being sacrificed. You leave your family and hometown, and then give the army control over most of your life. The army, a faceless institution that assimilates you with other young men and women and commits you to deployments around the world to promote and defend your country’s values. Snap to attention, click your heels, give a “Yes, Sir,” and get on with it.
As Davis sat apart from the conversation he wondered what his own family thought of him and the toll his career choice had taken on them over the past nineteen years. It was a conversation he and Deanna had avoided, choosing to keep that genie stuffed in a bottle. They were still married and his teenagers talked with them easily; the answers likely lay in those facts.
Four hours had crawled by and Davis noticed out the living room window the shadows getting longer. The conversation was starting to drift and after the operations center was informed that they had the family’s permission to lift the media blackout, Davis felt like he and the Padre would be intruding on the family’s grief if they stayed any longer.
“Well, Ma’am, I think Padre Gingras and I should give you and your family some privacy. You have our contact numbers and your son’s regiment will soon have an assisting officer assigned to help your family going forward. If you have any questions or concerns over the next few weeks don’t hesitate to give either of us a call. Sometimes dealing with the military can be daunting and we can help if you need,” Davis said as he stood up and glanced over at the Padre.
“The entire military is grieving with you for your son today. We will be praying for you,” Captain Gingras added with deep sincerity.
Cheryl and the rest of her family walked Davis and the Padre to the door. Davis’ heart was heavy knowing that something intimate had been shared between him and the others. Cheryl spoke, “Lieutenant-Colonel Davis, Captain Gingras, your words and patience today helped. James and I talked a lot about what he was doing in Afghanistan, but not so much about why. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.”
Davis admired the poise Cheryl had held throughout the day and felt awkward about being thanked. He returned the comment with a silent sad smile, but their gratitude eased his mind right then. Both Davis and the Padre excused themselves, walked down the driveway without looking back, and got into the sedan. Neither officer spoke during the ten-minute drive back to the coffee shop parking lot. As the Padre pulled the sedan to a stop beside Davis’ minivan, he put the gear shift into park and broke the silence.
“Sir that was a pretty intense afternoon…are you alright?”
“Don’t know, maybe a bit numb,” Davis replied, knowing he had buried much of what he had been feeling all day. “Don’t suppose I feel any different than I did this morning before all this happened. Cops and doctors have to do this every day, don’t they? Still, not sure what I am supposed to feel like.” Davis emotions were well behind his wall now and he had no intent of sloshing them around before he got home.
“You did well today, Colonel,” Captain Gingras offered. “It isn’t easy telling someone to their face that their son has died. Your thoughts definitely connected with the family.”
“Thanks for your help, Padre. Maybe, if I run into you at the officers’ mess, I’ll buy you a beer. If not, thanks again,” Davis said. “I’m heading straight home, cracking open a cold one, and think a little.”
As Davis got in his car and navigated his way out the parking lot he wondered, what makes a soldier’s death overseas garner such attention? Good people die every hour. Maybe it is the unpredictable potential of it. Having a soldier in your family is like owning a lottery ticket, but in reverse, you hope your number never comes up and if it does your soul is crushed. Every soldier’s family thinks of their loved one overseas every day, praying for their safety and counting the days until they return; always hoping that their son or daughter, mother or father, won’t be the next name on a local monument. The Denisons’ son had been in some dusty, heat-whipped outer province in Afghanistan for the past five months, with only six weeks left in his tour. Now for months and years later they will be asking, “Why him and not one of the hundreds of other soldiers who were deployed along with him?” Davis had asked himself the same question over the years.
As he turned onto the freeway access, Davis looked at the dash clock and saw it was 7:00 PM. Time for the hourly news. He flicked on the radio to the local CBC station.
” . . . and in our top stories tonight: breaking news from Afghanistan. It is being reported tonight that two NATO soldiers are dead and two others wounded in an apparent suicide bombing west of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan where Canadian forces are stationed. Few other details are known at this time and our CBC correspondent in Kabul will be providing an update in the coming hours. Now news closer to home, drivers are being told to expect another significant increase in fuel prices as we approach the long weekend. The main suppliers are . . .” Davis’ brain tuned out as he stared out the windshield squinting in the setting sun’s glare and merged with traffic.