As first military social work officer killed in action, Army Lt. Col. David Cabrera was a ‘soldier of kindness’
By Jim Sheeler,
Just outside Arlington National Cemetery, an Army social worker dug into his pocket and pulled out a smooth rock onto which he had written a single word: GRATITUDE.
Seven months earlier, he had held a similar rock inside a funeral home in Texas and, following Jewish custom, had left the stone with his friend’s casket. Now he would do it again, at the graveside.
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.
If anyone knew how to deal with the sudden death of someone close, it was Cabrera. He was the one people would turn to. Now he was gone.
On June 19, just after 9 a.m., Yarvis and more than a hundred mourners edged their cars up a hill in Arlington where a caisson of six horses and a flag-draped casket waited along with a crisp honor guard and brass band.
Yarvis held his arms at his sides, Army straight, his thumbs aligned with the yellow stripe on his dress pants. In the crook of the fingers of his left hand, he cradled the stone.
Just past 2 a.m. on a warm October night in Afghanistan, an Army psychologist picked up the new social worker from the airport in Kabul.
After all the flight delays, she was surprised at David Cabrera’s enthusiasm. During the walk from the airport to another part of the base, he quizzed her on her interests and her family, and shared his own. As much as he talked, she said, he listened.
“I think he could have seen a patient right then,” said Army psychologist Capt. Melissa Boyd.
Though space was tight, they managed to find a makeshift tent and bed for him on the base. Soon, however, Cabrera saw a small group of soldiers he had been stranded with earlier while waiting for a flight. They had no place to sleep.
He walked up to the soldiers and told them to put their stuff inside his tent, on his cot.
He then walked outside to sleep with them on the concrete.
“They weren’t a team,” Boyd said. “But he thought it was important to see them through the night together.”
By then, Cabrera had spent years studying PTSD and publishing papers in scholarly journals. He thought every social worker should be deployed at some point. He had witnessed the immediate bond formed when a soldier sees a therapist wearing a combat patch.
The military is developing programs to teach civilian mental health experts to understand the deployment experience. Still, as Cabrera knew, there’s often a vast difference between understanding and experience.
If Cabrera seemed built to soak up other people’s problems, perhaps it was because he spent the first part of his life absorbing plenty of his own.
He rarely talked about his childhood in Florida growing up in a broken home with a different last name. His parents divorced when he was young, and he was bounced among relatives’ homes.
When he was 11, the boy moved to Houston to live with his mother, but she had no place for him. She asked a friend, Robert Cabrera, if he could take David for a while. Cabrera was known in the neighborhood for “taking in strays” — providing a home for wayward children — and the kid they called “Shorty” definitely qualified.
David got into his share of trouble and fights in school, but later learned to disarm opponents with humor as life continued to throw him obstacles. His face was pitted with scars from severe childhood acne that his family initially couldn’t afford to treat. Later in life, he took thousands of pictures, but hated being in them.
By the time he headed for college, he adopted the last name of the first man to offer him a place that felt like home.
He graduated with a psychology degree from Texas A&M University and earned certification as a licensed clinical social worker. He joined the Army to experience other cultures, and served in Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia and Germany. He earned a pediatric fellowship at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he counseled children and heard questions such as, “Will my daddy’s legs grow back?” In 2006, he spent five months in Iraq, where he heard questions from soldiers wondering if they could be made whole.
Returning home, Cabrera served as a casualty assistance officer, caring for families after they had been notified of a loved one’s death. He received an engraved plaque from one soldier’s wife.
“During the most difficult hours of my life, you quietly insisted on doing everything within your ability to ease my pain and grief,” reads the plaque sent by Diana Griffin, wife of Army Staff Sgt. Darrell Griffin Jr. “You did not patronize my grief with empty platitudes, but allowed me to be who I am, and feel what I needed to feel. You did not speak trite words of sympathy but sought to know and understand my husband, to glimpse a portion of my loss. . . .”
Cabrera hung it in his office, in a place more prominent than any of his awards or degrees.
In 2010, he was named an assistant professor of family medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, which serves as the medical school for the Department of Defense and bears the motto “Learning to Care for Those in Harm’s Way.”
He counseled soldiers and students in a down-to-earth style of tough love and raw humor. Even after earning his PhD, he was known as a street-smart academic.
“He’s just very energetic, approachable and human,” said Col. Brian Unwin, a doctor at USU who worked with Cabrera. “He related well to people, and he had no trouble dropping an f-bomb — in a therapeutic way.”
When Cabrera arrived at Camp Phoenix outside Kabul, he was one of three mental health specialists caring for 10,000 NATO troops. That meant shuttling among the 10 forward operating bases while coordinating care with the designated psychologist and psychiatrist, who were stationed on separate bases.
The psychiatrist had never deployed and asked Cabrera’s advice.
“He said, ‘Make sure you’re part of the deployment experience. Make sure you’re going through the same rigors that everyone else is going through,’ ” said Maj. Joe Coles. “ ‘They won’t come to you unless they feel they can count on you.’ ”
Cabrera befriended a former bomb dog named Lucy and made her a partner. Soldiers often give a wide berth to mental health workers, so the friendly chocolate German shorthaired Labrador served to open mental doors.
One of his patients, Staff Sgt. Janel Travis, called Cabrera “awesome weird.”
“I’ve had a lot of therapists. He was unique,” she said. “It was like he was born to help people. Or at least to help me.”
Because it can take so long to move between bases, Cabrera would often see patients into the night (Travis’s regular appointment time was 11 p.m.). Then he was up the next morning, often on the “Rhino” armored bus.
Cabrera was heading to another base on Oct. 29 when a van packed with explosives and driven by a suicide bomber swerved into the Rhino. The explosion killed a Canadian soldier, one civilian member of the Department of Defense, seven contractors and four U.S. soldiers, including Cabrera. The blast also killed an Afghan police officer and four Afghan civilians, including three children, and Lucy the therapy dog.
Have you watched the news today?
Jackie Johanning heard the voice on the phone, and knew the question could lead to only one answer.
Months earlier, her friend Dave had asked her if she would be the person to watch over his wife, August, and their two boys if the worst happened. He might have thought he understood what that meant when he asked it, but she doubts it. Nobody could have known what it would mean.
When Cabrera left for Iraq five years earlier, August had refused to talk to him about “what ifs.” When he brought the paper home to discuss his will, she ripped it to shreds.
Before giving her blessing for his deployment to Afghanistan, she made one stipulation: If the worst happened, she didn’t want to see the soldiers in dress uniforms alone on her driveway. She wanted to see a friend first.
Johanning, 38, is a mother of two who calls hugs from her children “sugars,” and changes the subject by saying “anyhoo.” She is also a 20-year veteran and Air Force master sergeant who barks orders when she needs to. She runs the family clinic at USU, where she met Cabrera, and had the same commitment to care, the same biting sense of humor.
A medic, she was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and worked in the emergency room that received the wounded after the suicide bombing of a mess hall on an Army base in Mosul that killed 22 people. Remember that? she asks, because not everyone does.
Then, seven years later, on Oct. 29, another explosion, in another country.
When she received the call at 7:30 p.m., the Army officials were sure they had Cabrera’s body but had yet to make final identification. That might not happen for hours.
That’s when Jackie received a text from August.
August, 39, had awakened the night before from a bad dream. Her 6-year-old also awoke; he had a nightmare about a fire. It gave her a bad feeling that something had happened to Dave. Later that day, she stumbled on a story online about a NATO convoy hit near Kabul.
She texted Jackie.
Jackie called her superiors. August is not stupid, she told them. She’s going to find out.
The casualty assistance officer told her they would have to wait until morning, since notifications are restricted from midnight to 6 a.m. He advised Jackie to remember her military role and placate August without telling her the news.
“But the wife in me and the mother in me couldn’t comprehend that,” she said later. “How was I going to the door the next day and be her friend and still be Master Sergeant Johanning? How can I be all these people?”
She knew she couldn’t keep her composure if she talked to August, so she texted back not to worry.
Then she and her husband began to plan.
The next day was Sunday, so Jackie knew August would head to church in the morning. They prepared to notify her once she returned. Jackie and her husband, Richard, who works at the Pentagon, met the casualty notification officer and a chaplain at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts.
Before Dave had left for Iraq, both he and August had been insistent that if he were killed, they would need to shield the boys from August’s reaction to the news. “Uncle Rich,” as they called Richard, would need to find them first and get them out of the house.
They drove to the Cabreras’ home in Olney, but August wasn’t there. Since an official government sedan idling in a residential neighborhood is impossible to camouflage, they retreated. Eventually, August texted that she had made a detour to the farmers market, and she was back home.
She was raking leaves while talking on the phone when she saw Jackie, with the men following. She dropped the phone.
Jackie caught her as she collapsed, and the new widow sat in the grass, hyperventilating, her eyes unfocused. She’s slipping away, Jackie thought. You need to stay with me, she said, and asked where the boys were. August motioned to the back yard, where they were playing ball with August’s father.
Richard ran to the back to scoop them up and take them to a friend’s home.
Is he hurt or is he dead? August asked. Hurt I can fix. Just tell me. Just tell me.
They told her she needed to go inside.
JUST TELL ME, she shouted.
The casualty officer looked at Jackie, who nodded, and he began the speech. The secretary of the Army regrets to inform you . . .
Don’t tell me what the secretary of the Army thinks, August shouted. He didn’t know my husband.
August stood and screamed a single word.
They knew each other for 10 years and 10 days. Until the end, the couple seemed smitten, embarrassing some friends with their public affection, making others jealous.
They married for the first time — eloped, really — at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner in October 2002. They married again along a stream in Maryland. They renewed their vows two more times, in Washington state and at a castle in Germany. Dave promised August they would marry each time they moved.
Inside their home, a digital picture frame displayed photos from around the world, from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro to underwater coral reefs. Dave always had to have the latest gadget and pored over electronics manuals as if they were beach thrillers. He always set his computer screen saver to photos of his family.
A similar slide show continued on August’s digital frame, projecting images of Dave with their two boys, 7-year-old Max and 6-year-old Roanin. She also had interspersed photos of his two children from a previous marriage who live with their mother, Angela, in Texas. Corbin, 14, and Gillian, 13, spent half of each summer with David and August, usually on a new adventure, such as the time they rented an RV and drove across the country.
“I told him I wouldn’t marry him until I could love his kids like my own,” August said. “When people ask me how many kids I have, I say four.”
Before volunteering for Afghanistan, David knew he would have to ask August.
“His passion was helping soldiers, and he knew he could help. And I think that deep down he needed to go,” she said, still trying to convince herself. “He didn’t have to go. I think that’s what kills me. He asked my permission to go. And I know he needed it. And so I said yes.”
She pulled out her phone and pointed to a text message: “UR my world. Be strong and keep our kids safe. I love u.”
It was his last text message before he left. It was hardly his last love note.
Before he deployed to Iraq, he left notes for her on Post-its hidden throughout the house; for weeks, August would find them tucked away in cupboards, in shoes, behind towels. One she keeps in her closet reads: “Will you marry me again when I come home?”
When he left for Afghanistan, he handed her a stack of index cards and told her to read them when she needed to hear him. “You are my one and only love,” reads one she keeps on top. She can’t read the others; they make her cry.
The day after she was notified of his death, she traveled to Dover, Del., to receive his body. Then she had to figure out how to tell the children.
“I’m not a child therapist — that was Dave’s job,” August said. “We talked about everything, except we never once talked about what would happen if he died. How do you tell a kid that his daddy is dead? We never had that conversation.”
She sat the children on her bed and told them there had been a terrible accident and their father wasn’t coming home. Roanin screamed, NO! Max just sobbed.
“They say little kids don’t know,” August said. “They know. They understood.”
They held a memorial service at the church the family attended in Fulton in Howard County. Everyone wore Hawaiian shirts (“This looks like a Jimmy Buffett convention,” one friend said before offering his eulogy). They held the official funeral just outside Houston on Veterans Day. The armistice ending World War I was signed at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. They started Cabrera’s funeral at 11:11 a.m. on 11/11/11.
The night before the burial at Arlington, Army Maj. Scot Pears walked over to a green velvet bag and unwrapped it, revealing a wooden box.
He walked onto a porch in Beltsville and set the box containing his best friend’s ashes on a table. Atop the box, he placed a cigar printed with the name of his daughter, Eliette Lynn Pears. Her first name is in honor of Cabrera’s middle name, Elliot. They call her Ellie. She was born less than a month after he died.
Pears slid a drink near the box, then picked up one for himself.
“He would have had a 7 and 7. This is a Crown and 7. Close enough,” said Pears, 41. “We would always have cigars, we’d sit like this and talk.”
They met in Fort Lewis, Wash., where Cabrera was assigned to the 3-2 Stryker Brigade, just before the two deployed to Iraq in 2006. Owing to his love of scuba diving, Cabrera had a mural of tropical fish covering an entire wall of the metal housing unit in the desert. That wasn’t the only thing different about him.
“Dave always went where the soldiers were. He was willing to go on the road when most docs would stay on the base,” Pears said. “Dave went out to every soldier he could.”
After returning from Iraq, Cabrera had counseled Pears on his marriage, and likely saved it. He talked Pears into going for counseling for PTSD.
“I went to 58 funerals on our 15-month tour,” Pears said. “I love the bagpipes, but I can’t listen to them anymore.”
Before Cabrera left for Afghanistan, he had one last instruction for his friend.
“Dave was like, ‘Watch out for my girl.’ And I was like, ‘I got it.’ But I heard her crying on the phone last night, and it got me. He said watch out for her.”
As the evening wore on, fireflies blurred past. Pears continued to sip his drink and puff his cigar. Eventually, Master Sgt. Johanning came outside. She had invited Pears and his wife, Annika, to stay with her before the funeral.
“Before you go to sleep, I want to make sure you put your BFF in the car,” she said, nodding to the box of ashes. “If I pull up to Arlington tomorrow and he’s not in the car . . .”
After receiving his assurance, she ducked back inside.
He tapped his cigar, held up another drink to his friend, and looked out into the dark as the fireflies winked out.
In a corner of Camp Phoenix, there’s a makeshift shack that looks lifted straight out of “M*A*S*H,” papered with cigar box labels and girlie photos, adorned with a sign that reads “Welcome to the Afghan Club Tiki Hut.”
When Cabrera arrived, the club had its regulars. For most, the new social worker wasn’t the first person they’d choose to approach.
“I’m an infantryman. My job is to hurt people and break s---,” said Lt. Col. Richard White, 45, speaking in a gravelly voice during a call from Afghanistan. “But Dave was there to help fix things, fix soldiers and make things better.”
That included the grizzled veteran.
“I’d never be the guy who would go to a doctor’s office. Rub dirt on it. Suck it up. Boys don’t cry,” White said. “But after a while, smoking a cigar with him, he’d end up talking to you. After a cigar, everything seemed better. He could get things out of you, and you’d never even know it. Dave saved me from a lot of crap. I was a patient, but not officially.”
There was a long pause.
“Dave was my human tranquilizer,” he finally said. “Relax. Calm down. Breathe.”
He followed those instructions, then continued.
“Spending time with Dave made life tolerable. This is my fourth deployment. Dave makes eight that I’ve lost.”
“I speak to a lot of people every day, but the number of people I talk to I can count on one hand. And Dave was one of that very small group,” he said. “You can’t talk to guys like me unless you’ve been there.”
At the top of a hill in Arlington, August Cabrera joined hands with her children and asked them to pray.
For strength, she said, for peace and for Daddy.
The honor guard took the box that, 12 hours earlier, had sat near a cigar and a drink, and placed it into the flag-draped casket on the caisson. Clopping horse hooves soon accompanied the cadence of a snare drum as the procession followed August and the boys down the hill.
Among the crowd, Jeff Yarvis still held the stone he had carried through the cemetery.
After Cabrera’s death, Yarvis had seriously considered retiring. Eventually, he thought about the work he’s doing and what still needs to be done. He thought about his patients, and Cabrera’s — some of whom he’s now seeing. After the burial, he had planned to join friends at the reception but would instead spend much of the day counseling a suicidal soldier.
“I’ve been on this whole mourning and spiritual sojourn since that time, and I’ve really come full circle,” he said later. “In a way, the whole piling of the stones is sort of coming full circle, in terms of, ‘This is who I am, who Dave was.’ Piling up stones keeps them alive, keeps their memories alive.”
The honor guard carried Dave’s ashes to the burial site, past a “Happy Father’s Day” balloon anchored to a new grave.
The chaplain said a prayer, followed by the rifle volley and taps. The few who weren’t crying by that point couldn’t hold it when Roanin let loose in loud, choking sobs. Max cried softly.
Miss Daddy, Max said.
I know, little bear, his mother said. I miss him, too.
Robert Cabrera, who raised Dave, approached the box with Gillian. Her brother Corbin kneeled by himself and placed his hand on the box.
Then, when most everyone had gone, August kneeled down before the box. She put her hands on both sides and dropped her head. Then she raised her eyes to the sky.
Dave, she cried. Dave.
Three days after the funeral, a group gathered at the Uniformed Services University near a new bronze plaque at the entrance to the clinic that reads, “The David E. Cabrera University Family Health Center.” Johanning figures that’s too much to say at once; she says they’ll eventually answer the phone, “Dave’s place.”
At the dedication, Navy Capt. Mark Stephens addressed the crowd.
Stephens signed one of the orders that allowed Cabrera to deploy. He has struggled with guilt of his own — feelings he didn’t fully acknowledge until a recent talk at a social workers’ conference dedicated to Cabrera, when he struggled for composure while trying to describe Cabrera’s impact.
As the dedication began, he walked past the podium, to the middle of the crowd, and began to read a poem he wrote.
Today I followed a caisson
To lonely drummers’ sound
Midst friends (yet quite alone) I walked
Our nation’s hallowed grounds.
A widow’s cry; a son’s lost stare, my thoughts
Did render pause,
How high the price? How great the man
After volleys fired the bugler’s tones the sounds
Did quiet cease.
Godspeed, my friend, farewell for now
My Brother, rest in peace.
August Cabrera had one more decision. She hadn’t planned her husband’s headstone.
She knew how the top would read. The first five lines are relatively standard.
NOV 26 1969
OCT 29 2011
She knew he would like to have PhD on there somewhere — he worked so hard for his doctorate. But she figured he had enough initials on there already. Some stones have traditional epitaphs, such as “A LOVING FATHER” or “WE WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER.”
She asked her two little boys what they should have engraved — something that would capture who he was — and Max immediately had a suggestion. As soon as he said it, she knew the 7-year-old’s words would be the headstone’s last line:
“A SOLDIER OF KINDNESS”