680,000 Veterans die in the United States every year, 25% of all deaths…. I would like to tell you about one of them, my father.
My father, Clarence Conrad Butts, was deployed to Vietnam in 1965 as a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. It was the second most traumatic experience in his life.
When dad returned from Vietnam the family was reunited and we moved to Rocky Creek, a small community just outside of Birmingham, Alabama. When we moved there I was in the second grade. From a child’s eyes, it was a peaceful place, a lazy little southern community, and my father sitting in an old worn out chair. He was the first to get the Sunday paper; while I made the enormous sacrifice of waiting to see the comic strips. He was home.
It was during this time that I began to marvel at how the military cared for their dead. On several occasions I attended military funerals with my father. There he was, my father, standing rigid, so still I often wondered if he was even breathing. A memory that hangs in my second grade mind is my father standing in a quiet place, green trees and rolling hills, and a bright blue sky. He is standing at the end of a casket, covered by Old Glory herself; at the other end stands another Marine frozen in time like dad. Behind them is another group of Marines with “spit shined” shoes and rifles. Dad and his friend will soon take the flag, hold it up for all of us to see, then snap it really tight and fold it into a triangle, and give it to the lady in the front row. I would like to have one of those flags. I try to stand as straight and still as dad.
It would be almost thirty years later before I would be able to partially see those peaceful days in Rocky Creek from my father’s perspective. What I know now; I did not know then. During those exiting childhood memories my father was assigned to the “Death Notification” detail. His responsibility for nearly four years was to inform the families in the southern half of Alabama that their loved ones had died in military service to their country. He and an officer would spend the next four years together driving to cities, small towns, and down wooded dirt roads seeking the families to inform them that those they loved would not be coming home. They would be still and repeat the news of death over and over again. Over 300 notifications, all sharing a common thread, death; an all uniquely different, were faithfully carried out. As an adult I learned that there were all kinds of receptions and reactions by the families they informed. The visits were marked by gentle weeping and uncontrolled sopping. Moms and dads expressed appreciation for my father’s service and others cursed him and his fellow Marines. They were often greeted with a gracious southern hospitality and on one occasion fled for their lives as a distraught father greeted them with a shot gun and less than “friendly fire”.
It was during these “peaceful” childhood days that the entire family had attended an evening service at Rocky Creek Baptist Church. When we returned home dad became so angry. Angry at mom, God, me,…? He stormed out of the house and drove away. Dad would later tell me that he ended up on a hill outside of town pouring his anger out in all directions, weeping so hard that he could hardly see. (I was sharing my story with a group of clinical supervisors in San Antonio a few years ago and made reference to this part of my history. One of the counselors present had lived in Southern Alabama and was familiar with the duty that my father had fulfilled. He stated, “Mike, your father was exposed to more emotional trauma during those days than you can possibly imagine”. Dad would later tell me they were the worst experiences of his life.) Dad returned home late that night, sat down in that old worn out chair, and poured his anger and grief out to my mom and the preacher. He made his peace that night with his Maker and would spend the next forty years fleshing it out. Dad was home.
Years later I find my home in Lubbock, Texas. Transplanted here in 1978 courtesy of the United States Air Force; reflecting on the final days of my father’s life. He became and was a remarkable man. He learned to give of himself in ways I have yet to learn. He learned how to give back to veterans through participation in the Marine Corps League, Toys for Tots, and mentoring young Marines and their families that were injured in combat. He provided companionship as a hospice volunteer through direct patient contact, many of them veterans, for the last 13 years of his life. He would sit and listen for hours and if the grass needed mowing he would promise them the “chaplain (a retired army chaplain) would get right on it”. In January of 2009 I received a phone call from my mom informing me that dad had been diagnosed with lung cancer that had metastasized to his spine and his liver. It was time for me to go home.
Over the course of the next 10 months I made five trips back home. I had conversations with my father that I will cherish and pass on to his “children’s children”. The hospice staff that he volunteered for cared for him with the utmost dignity and respect in the final months of his life. And yes his bothers, Marines were present; the League was such a huge part of dad’s healing process On October 23, 2009 dad died.
I find myself surrounded by familiar sights and sounds and yet they are strangely different. It is a quiet place, the rolling hills of Georgia are in the background, and a cold still Fall rain is soaking the ground. In front of me is a familiar sight. Two Marines, standing rigid and still, I know that they are breathing. Between them is a casket covered with Old Glory herself. Soon they will present the flag, the shots will ring out, taps will sound…. It happens just like I remember from my childhood and nothing like I remember. The flag is snapped, folded tightly into that familiar shape of those peaceful days in Rocky Creek. The Marine approaches the woman on the front row; the woman on my left arm and hands her the flag. The child in me no longer wants a flag. My heart is breaking. I try to stand as straight and still as my dad.
Dad has gone home.
In reality this is one story. Last year alone there were 679,999 other stories that touched the lives of millions of people as they laid loved ones to rest that had served their country in military service. It is because of those men and women, and those like them today, that you and I enjoy the freedom and safety that we cherish. We have an opportunity to honor veterans and their families. May each of us seize the opportunity while we still have the chance and thank them.
The proud son
Mike Butts MDiv
Regional Bereavement Coordinator
Interim Healthcare Home Care and Hospice