Truth and Death in a Quiet Room

By John Kelly
Monday, May 25, 2009

The Navy doctor had told everyone he would speak frankly, and he did.

"Some of the things I'm going to talk about may have you relive some things you don't want to relive," said Capt. Charles Blankenship.

Two women, and then a third, got up from their seats and left the hotel conference room. Everyone else stayed. It must have been the quietest, saddest room in America.

The name of Saturday morning's seminar was "Did My Loved One Suffer?" and was part of the annual gathering of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a support group for the families of military personnel killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. About 1,200 TAPS people are spending Memorial Day weekend at National Harbor.

Blankenship, from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, went through a PowerPoint presentation describing medical facilities in the war zones. He explained the difference between KIA (killed in action) and DOW (died of wounds). When he was finished, it was time for questions. Hands all around the room went up.

"My son was killed in an IED [improvised explosive device] incident," said a gray-haired man sitting near the front. "I wondered if you could address the question of the concussive effect of a massive blast as it relates to loss of consciousness."

Blankenship explained that the overpressure wave from the explosion probably knocked the soldier out, rendering him unconscious before the fragmentation injuries that took his life a split second later.

A woman asked about the helicopter crash that killed her son.

A sudden acceleration/deceleration usually tears the body's major vessels, Blankenship said. But even before that happened, the G-forces would have caused her son to black out. "He probably didn't have any idea," Blankenship said.

"My son wasn't killed in combat," said another woman. "He drowned in a lake in Alaska. What did he feel?"

"He probably had a period of time when he panicked," Blankenship said. "There's a point at which you lose control of everything and then you're euphoric."

A woman raised her hand. Her son was in the turret of a Humvee in Iraq when the road underneath gave way and the vehicle rolled upside down into a canal.

"More than likely, he was knocked out when it rolled and he hit his head on the armored shield of the turret," Blankenship said.

One woman said her husband died of smoke inhalation when the Pentagon was struck on Sept. 11, 2001. What would that have been like? Another wondered whether her son had heard the bomb that killed him, another whether a chaplain had held her son's hand while he died.

They were looking for facts. They were looking for consolation. They were looking for the company of the only people who could understand what they've experienced.

"The first time I came, I wasn't ready for this session," Susan Hernandez, 30, told me later. Her husband, Sgt. Irving Hernandez Jr., was killed by a sniper in 2006 in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. She and her children first came to the TAPS event last year from Alaska, where her husband had been posted and where she still lives. Through TAPS, she'd become friends with Irene Prather, 33, whose husband, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Clint Jeffrey Prather, died in Afghanistan in 2005 when his Chinook helicopter crashed in a sandstorm. He was a pilot, and he'd helped struggle to get the chopper higher and higher, above the storm.

The loss of their husbands -- both the open-ended sadness of raising fatherless children and specific questions about the precise circumstances of death -- fill their thoughts. When Irene flew in from Augusta, Ga., last week, she looked from the window of the plane and imagined what it would be like to fall from the sky.

"I had his autopsy report, but I shredded it," Irene said. She'd never read it. She was having nightmares as it was: Clint at the door, mangled in his flight suit, wondering why she had moved.

Susan requested the incident report for her husband's death. When she first got it, it was almost entirely blacked out. She filed a Freedom of Information Act request and got a less edited version. "It didn't answer what I wanted to know," she said.

And what was that?

"An explanation that would help me to know, did he suffer? . . . I just needed something from a doctor."

Blankenship helped somewhat, but Susan said she'll always wonder.

The real meaning of Memorial Day is lost on many of us, the "normal people" as Susan put it, the people who don't serve in the military or know anyone who does. What can we say to her and Irene on the day that honors their husbands, soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice?

They don't want us to say we know how they must feel. They don't want us to argue politics.

They want us to say, "I'm sorry for your loss. I thank you for your sacrifice."

And they want to believe that their husbands were ushered into the forever -- living one moment and gone the next -- with no pain and no fear and no suffering.

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