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U.S. Naval Academy Chaplain John Owen, a 1983 Whitworth alumnus, wrote and recorded the following essay to air on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" on Memorial Day, May 28, 2007. The essay describes his experience informing a family that their son/brother had died in Iraq, and observing the family's and the community's response to the tragic news. After receiving his bachelor of arts in English from Whitworth, Owen served 10 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, then completed a master of divinity degree at Louisville Theological Seminary. Owen served two years as a Presbyterian pastor before returning to active duty in the U.S. Navy, in 1998.

A Reluctant Angel of Death

There is only one thing that the appearance of a Naval officer and a chaplain can mean in the dark of night. Not long ago, I had to make that night-time trip, bearing the news that would change a family's life forever. Their son, a 21-year-old Navy corpsman, had been killed in a helicopter crash outside Baghdad.

As soon as his father saw us walking up the drive, he knew. And his world collapsed around him. To unleash that kind of anguish on a mother and a father, and two younger brothers, was all but unbearable.

I hate being the Angel of Death.

In the days that followed, I helped accompany this family on their first few steps on a road of grief and anguish – a road I can only pray that I myself will never have to walk.

Two weeks later, there was a memorial service at the local funeral home. Afterwards, our little motorcade pulled onto the main street of the family's small town. Along every block, people stood on sidewalks and in their front yards. I don't know how they knew we were coming, but there they were. At intersections traffic stood still. Police officers saluted.

When we turned up the driveway to the VFW hall, it was lined with people. There were farmers, children, bikers in leather riding gear, high-school students, each holding a small American flag. Sailors and Marines and soldiers stood at attention, saluting as we drove by. They had all gathered to pay their respects to one of the best America has to offer.

I watched the family at the reception as they shared stories and memories, smiling and sobbing, giving and receiving hugs continuously. I couldn’t imagine what they were feeling.
Leaving the reception, I was momentarily stunned. Inside the hall, a family's life had been turned upside down. Outside, the world moved along as if nothing had happened. But I knew it had. And I felt more acutely than ever how indebted we all are to the small circle of families who have sacrificed so much on our behalf.

 

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