Best Defense

Waiting for that official knock on the door: A military spouse’s thoughts

The "sacred trust" between military families and the commander in chief provides secure ground

Headstones are seen at Arlington Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia on Sept. 21. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
Headstones are seen at Arlington Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia on Sept. 21. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)


By Katherine Voyles
Best Defense guest columnist.

A knock at the door, a pair of straight-backed figures — these were what dominated my imagination during the first months of 2003 when my husband participated in the invasion of Iraq. Coming home from picking up diapers at Target or a burrito for dinner, I’d scan the parking lot of my apartment building for unfamiliar cars. With our infant son strapped into his carseat, I’d look at the front door of our apartment to see if people in uniform waited for me. In my mind, the visit would always come after I’d run an achingly routine errand and in my imagination they always waited.

It felt like stepping off a cliff into air. It felt like being at the top of a roller coaster with no bar to clutch. My imagination kept firing because I couldn’t figure out how I’d get from one moment in time to another, I couldn’t work through how I’d get from a life before the knock on the door to a life after it.

But if that knock came I knew that I’d have to carry myself from one time to another. The reality of parenthood would demand it. So I imagined building a bridge under my feet, lowering the bar and gripping it. If called on to do that work one immediate source of strength would be the distinctive patterns, the mix of formality and humanity, of tradition and innovation, that characterizes life in the military. The future would seem so big and so unwelcoming, but a pause rested in those rhythms, and somehow stopping, for even a while, seemed the only way to confront that future.

At my own door that knock never materialized, but for other families it did.

Today under bright public glare and with almost unimaginable rancor this topic of unbearable sensitivity is being examined. At heart are the issues of what a Commander in Chief owes families of the fallen, the forms the Executive employs to discharge that duty, the correspondence between those forms and the emotional content and heavy weight of responsibility, risk drowning in shrillness. Exceptions, of course, break through: General Martin Dempsey’s wonderful Twitter feed outdid itself on Monday when he wrote, “POTUS 43 & 44 and first ladies cared deeply, worked tirelessly for the serving, the fallen, and their families. Not politics. Sacred Trust.” More than seventy-three thousand of us liked that message.

General Dempsey’s words brought home to me that words and deeds that honor the sacred trust provide secure ground, not air, beneath the feet, they are a crucial part of what carries a family and our nation from life before the knock to life after the knock.

Few of us know what the families of the men who died in Niger need right now — eating a favorite food, wearing a beloved’s sweatshirt, looking at pictures, or something else. But we all know that something profound is withheld them. Inaction, silence and words that are ill-suited to the circumstance are accelerants: they push the roller coaster down the track at the very moment when the brakes need to be applied.

Hollowing out the sacred trust widens the already gaping hole of loss, a loved one is gone and the pause, the rest in the time between the knock and living into an unbearably sad reality, hasn’t even been granted to the ones they loved. The public outpouring of support in particular for the family of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, from the GoFundMe page to a Congresswoman’s words and everything in between, is amazing, but it is no substitute for enacting the sacred trust.

Katherine Voyles holds a Ph.D. in English from UC Irvine, and now lives in Seattle, where she teaches and writes. Her veteran husband is an attorney specializing in aviation transactions.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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