Army Lt. Col. Jeff Yarvis looked out at the cemetery where 41-year-old Army Lt. Col. David Cabrera, believed to be the first military social work officer killed in action by enemy fire, would be buried this day.
After hearing in October 2011 that Cabrera was killed in Afghanistan, Yarvis experienced symptoms similar to the ones he sees in his patients. Restless sleep. Waking slick with sweat, sheets and blankets in a ball. Then there were the dreams.
In one, he’s standing in the funeral home where he left that first stone. But nobody notices him. People file in and he tries to get their attention, but he’s just a shadow, frustrated that nobody can see him. That’s when a funeral director wheels in another casket. When it is opened, Yarvis sees his own face staring back.
“It threw me for a loop,” he said. “I think it was part of my own realization about my own guilt of not being there on the mission.”
Guilt permeates Arlington. The military mental health specialists have heard it from so many patients: Why wasn’t I there for my buddy? Why did he or she die instead of me? Therapists take on the nightmares of others, counseling troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They hear the stories of soldiers killed, the stories of children who would never again see their fathers or mothers. They listen to the stresses of military marriages and multiple deployments. They are the ones trained to deal with it. But who helps them?
“We care for those in harm’s way, and yet we’re in harm’s way all the time,” said Yarvis, 41. “People ask us, ‘Who cares for you?’ The simple answer is we care for each other. That’s partly why Dave and I became close.”
When Yarvis first enlisted and served as a tank platoon leader two decades ago, he didn’t know the Army had social workers. Then he became one and, like Cabrera, made a point of being there for the troops by being there with the troops.
“I got out there, and I had some ‘Oh, s---’ moments, where, if things had gone a couple of inches in another direction . . .” Yarvis said. “That definitely rattles your cage. But I only had a half-dozen of those. What about those guys kicking in doors every single day?”
As the funeral procession crept into Arlington, Yarvis thought about the other caregivers among the headstones. After Cabrera’s funeral, he planned to visit the grave of Col. Brian Allgood, a former chief surgeon in Iraq killed in 2007 in the crash of a Black Hawk helicopter — a flight Yarvis often took.
According to the Department of Defense, since the beginning of military operations in Afghanistan in 2001 until the end of July, 290 medical service members have been killed in action.