The Other Side of the Door
The phone call came just after 4 AM. A few hours earlier, a few thousand miles away, Sergeant Daniel Halton had been killed in action.
Captain Stoss answered, already aware of what was coming.
“0500? I’ll be there.”
He quickly got out of bed and walked over to the closet, taking soft steps to avoid waking Sara. His dress uniform was ready, thankfully. Quietly, he took it out of the closet, gripping the hooked end of the coat hanger tightly to make sure the uniform stayed crisp and unwrinkled inside its protective jacket.
Sara shifted underneath the blankets and let out a sigh.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, having been married to him long enough to know that Army phone calls at this hour were never good news.
“There’s been a casualty. One of the guys from the other brigade that’s deployed right now. I have to drive to post and get a briefing.” He paused, feeling the full weight of his duty. “And then notify the soldier’s family.”
Sara didn’t know what to say, so she wished him luck and told him to be safe.
Once on post, Stoss drove to the Casualty Affairs Center, tucked away in an office at the end of a short steep hill that soldiers often ran up and down for morning workouts. He parked his car and walked inside. The chaplain and the casualty manager were already waiting. After exchanging what felt like forced pleasantries, they went to work.
“Several hours ago,” the casualty manager began, “Sergeant Daniel Halton was the vehicle commander of a convoy heading south on Highway 1 in Zabul province, Afghanistan. His vehicle was first in the group, and came to a culvert in a known hotspot for improvised explosive devices. Wanting to take a closer look and sweep for command wire detonators, Sergeant Halton dismounted his vehicle along with several other members of his squad from the trailing vehicles. As he was walking down the side of the ravine towards the culvert, he stepped on a pressure plate that triggered an explosion beneath him. His right leg was severed just below the knee, and he was knocked unconscious. The platoon medic attempted to perform combat lifesaving resuscitation and stop the bleeding, unsuccessfully. He was pronounced dead upon arrival at the FOB Lagman medical facility, and is currently pending manifest for a dignified transfer from Kandahar Airfield.”
A man’s life was over. His family was less than an hour away from learning that their beloved husband and son was gone. They would never hear his voice again. He would never embrace them, smile with them, or share anything with them. His spirit was removed from this Earth, but they did not yet know it.
Captain Stoss knew it, but internalized his emotion. After all, he was a professional, and had a job to do.
“Do we know anything about his family? His wife?” asked the chaplain, a scholarly yet lively protestant priest known for his enthusiastic preaching abilities and incredible singing voice. He had won numerous contests and boasted a loyal following not typical of most military chaplains, many of whom had trouble communicating with their soldiers and congregations for one reason or another. Stoss knew him rather well, which helped.
“Not much apart from what he wrote on his family information sheet.”
“You know the procedure, right Captain?”
“Yes.” Procedure was the delicate term chosen to represent destroying a family forever.
“Okay, it’s 0515 now. Can the two of you be at the house by 6?”
“Okay. Call me when you’ve made the notification, and let me know if there is anything else I can do for you.”
Stoss and the chaplain thanked the casualty manager and made their way to the vehicle without saying much to each other. Only minutes remained for Sergeant
Halton’s wife before she would never be the same.
The drive was solemn but not uncomfortable. Both Stoss and the chaplain kept their thoughts to themselves, each focusing on the multiple scenarios they could encounter after delivering their news. How would she react when she heard that her husband was dead? Would she be violent or angry, or simply break down into inconsolable sobbing? The stories from those who had already done this kind of task ranged from the expected to the unbelievable. Some spouses fainted or went into hysterical screaming fits. Others tried to stifle a wry smile knowing that they would receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits and gratuities. These were the ones who most likely already had a lover either hiding in the closet or just escaped from the bedroom window. Sad and shocking as it may have been at first, it was all too common to be a surprise anymore. Some family members had slapped the notifying officer in the face, seeing his crisp dress uniform with colorful rows of ribbons and shining insignia as a symbol for the entity that had taken their husband or son or daughter. Why were these men here, and not my son? Why not my husband? These questions exist during and after every war, never to be answered but by God.
The car turned a sharp corner onto the street where the Haltons lived. Stoss checked his watch – 0552. The sky tinted a light pink and orange as the summer sun fought its way over the horizon. The lights in the house were still off.
The chaplain parked the car on the street between the neighbor’s driveway and the Haltons’. When he cut the engine, it felt as if all other sounds in the world had gone silent, amplifying each of their movements. Stoss closed the passenger door behind him and took slow, deliberate steps towards the front door. As each foot hit the ground, he was strangely worried that she would hear him coming up the pavement and the porch before he reached the door. With one final push, he stood before the old fashioned wooden doorframe, looking like the decorated entrance to a castle. His eyes lined up directly with an ornate golden name plate written in embellished lettering –
DANIEL & JENNIFER
He knocked on the door.
Nothing. Inside the house there were no signs of movement or life.
He knocked again. A light went on. Then another, brighter and seeming closer to the front door. 0553.
A dark-haired woman, a girl really, appeared from behind the door. She couldn’t have been more than 22 years old, wearing a soft pink bathrobe with house slippers. A brief moment of agonizing acknowledgement passed between them before anything was said.
“Good morning ma’am. My name is Captain Will Stoss and this is Chaplain
Hutten. Are you Jennifer Halton, wife of Sergeant Daniel Halton?”
Tears began to form in Jennifer’s eyes. Her lips quivered involuntarily. Her hands began to sweat. She knew. She knew.
“Did something happen to Dan? What is it? What’s going on?”
Her shaking became more frantic.
The chaplain spoke up. “Mrs. Halton, may we come in?”
Reluctantly, Jennifer allowed the heavy door to swing completely open. Until that moment she had been blocking it with her right knee, revealing only a fraction of her already small frame. Stoss couldn’t help but continue to think how young she was.
Once inside, Jennifer again pressed for answers while fighting back the inevitable flood of tears precariously held back by the smallest chance of hope. She had to hear it first though. Until then it might not be true. It might not be true.
“What happened? Please just tell me what happened!”
Stoss and the chaplain herded Mrs. Halton into the living room and sat down on the couch. For such a young couple, their taste in decoration was remarkably antique, Stoss thought to himself. He wasn’t sure why he noticed that.
“Mrs. Halton,” he began in a sympathetic, controlled tone, knowing he was about to ruin this poor girl’s life and change her forever, “the Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret to you and your family.” As soon as he had said “regret,” Jennifer’s eyes went blank. “This morning, the 20th of June, your husband was performing a dismounted combat patrol in Zabul province, Afghanistan, when a roadside bomb detonated beneath him, knocking him unconscious. He was brought to Forward Operating Base Lagman’s medical facility, where he succumbed to his wounds. The Secretary extends to you his deepest sympathy for your tragic loss.”
For a moment, no one said anything. Jennifer, overcome with emotional shock, went numb. Then the ocean of memories slowly came back to her. Their first meeting together. Their first hug. Their first kiss. Laughter. She remembered lazy nights lying together on the couch watching television or cuddling under their warm blanket. Walking together hand in hand through their hometown. He loved one particular store that sold tacky souvenirs, and she always yelled at him for trying to pull her in there. The way he held her hand and kissed her cheek the morning that he left. Crying together the night before, staying up all night to enjoy every last second they had together. He loved her. She loved him. Why was that not enough? She thought of their wedding day. The church. It was so beautiful. He cried, you know. When he saw me in my dress. He cried and hugged me and kissed my hand and told me he’d love me forever and never leave me but now he’s gone and what am I supposed to do without him how can I live or breathe or exist without him what am I supposed to do how how how why why why.
She broke down. The memories were all that would be left, an oasis in a desert of emptiness that would fill the rest of her life. Her screams were those of a shattered heart, the void that would take its place.
Captain Stoss and the chaplain watched and waited helplessly. When she was ready, there were forms that needed to be filled out.