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Commentary: Casualty reports beg to be read

An Army soldier salutes a grave in Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery.
A UMNS photo by Spc. Lorie Jewell.

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Thomas H. Phillips*
Feb. 28, 2008

About three years ago I signed up to receive casualty reports from the U.S. Department of Defense.

I was looking for people from the local area that might have been killed. One of my responsibilities is to prepare for upcoming funeral missions as a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs chaplain and a member of Rolling Thunder, Chapter 1, Tennessee, a nonprofit organization devoted to publicizing and educating the public on POW-MIAs.

I didn’t know how receiving these reports would alter my life. Here’s my attempt at describing it.

The Rev. Thomas H. Phillips (right)
meets with clinical pastoral education students in August 2007 at Veterans
Affairs Tennessee Valley Healthcare
in Nashville, Tenn. A UMNS photo
by Libba Gillum.


After the first 100

Each day they appear on my screen. I find myself just wanting to place the cursor over them and press “delete” rather than open each one.

But they blink before my eyes, begging to be read and remembered.

So I click my mouse and there they are. The name, the rank, where they died, how they died: small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenade, or the now famous improvised explosive device. The language is so sterile.

I sit and stare. I read the name, wondering how it is pronounced. Sometimes I say it aloud just to make sure it gets heard.

No place is left untouched. Alaska, Hawaii, Connecticut, Louisiana, Iowa. Some days I wait and read them all at once. Usually I read them as they come in. I tried to save the names in a file, but I kept getting over the limit and had no place to put them.

Now, I open them, read them carefully – men, women, young people, middle aged – all persons who left someone somewhere. I say a prayer for each one as they appear and disappear on my screen. Some days, it seems that is all I have time to do. There are so many. I’ve lost count.

The names keep coming

When I am having a really bad day, and I think I’m about at my wit’s end, I read those little e-mails and am reminded that a terrible day is just beginning for someone.

Someone is getting a message that there will be no more visits, no more phone calls, no more listening to stories or playing ball in the front lawn. Just a missing face at holiday gatherings and family meals and anything that seems to matter. Just memories.

“Someone is getting a message that there will be no more visits, no more phone calls, no more listening to stories or playing ball in the front lawn.”

I wish the names could appear in the corner of everyone’s TV screen as they watch the "Price is Right" or "House." Maybe they would slow down some then.

I wish the names would just stop coming.

But I know better. So I watch and read and say a prayer. God be with them. God be with their families. God watch over us all.

*Phillips is a United Methodist chaplain with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.  

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