Norris Burkes: The reasons we go
There are a lot of reasons men and women will volunteer for military deployments, but on the last day of 2007 my wife, Becky, flatly demanded to know my reasons for going to Iraq.
I wasn’t sure I could tell her. Why did any soldier want to go to war? Perhaps their recruiter promised money, or they were drawn to the sex appeal of the uniform. Perhaps a wartime video game told them that a reset button would bring an extra life. I didn’t really know, but I wanted to.
I tried to shrug her off.
“Norris,” her stiff blue-eyed gaze shredded my trumped-up confidence. She’s petite, but she wasn’t going to be trivialized. “I really need to know why you must do this now,” she said.
“What makes you think you’ll be the only volunteer here?” she blurted. “What about me? Aren’t you asking me to volunteer for 120 days of solo parenting?”
“What are you afraid of?” I asked her.
“First, I’m afraid you’ll die,” she said.
“Don’t worry. There hasn’t been a chaplain killed in the line of duty since Vietnam, so don’t count on getting my life insurance.”
She showed no appreciation for my gallows humor. These weren’t things she found funny. She’d been afraid of the death possibility ever since I joined the Air Force, but this was the first time she’d been so blunt about it. As a chaplain’s wife, she knew better than most how routinely death calls on a soldier’s home.
She pushed further.
“I’m not so much afraid that you will die. I’m more afraid that you’ll come back different.”
“You know, like what happened to you before — in Stockton.” She’d dared cross the boundary of “before.”
In 1989 I volunteered to help in the aftermath of the madman who killed five kids and wounded 32 at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton. Becky saw her husband come back “different.” She knew volunteering had its pitfalls.
Volunteers get hurt too. Bullets aren’t just hardened projectiles that shatter bodies. They ricochet into the shadowed places of the soul reminding us that every aspect of life is theirs for the taking.
But I stubbornly held a different opinion. “I’ll be fine,” I said, “That was 20 years ago.”
How could I tell her that I wanted to go to Iraq to fathom the sorrow that had become my job to understand, not just regret. More than that, I wanted to tell families that I had seen how their loved ones handled the act of dying. I wanted to be able to answer the questions families asked: Was my son brave? Did my daughter have misgivings about the war? Did they feel honor? Or did they just feel cold?
Finally, I said, “I need to go because the Air Force is asking for a hospital chaplain, and I can’t sit here when I know I can help.”
I stopped at that, unable to state it more profoundly, but it must have been enough because after another week of detailed discussion, Becky placed her hands on my shoulders and flatly said, “You need to go. You need to feel you’ve done your share. I understand.”
At that point, I composed the email response to the Chief of Chaplains office volunteering to serve as the chaplain at the Air Force Field Hospital in Balad, Iraq.
Then I asked Becky if she would press the “send” button. Her index finger hovered over the keyboard in some hesitation until she finally gave the button a definitive push. With all she had and with all she knew, she understood.
A year later, according to the Los Angeles Times, Christy Goetz had a similar conversation with her husband, Dale, who wanted to deploy to Afghanistan as an Army chaplain.
“I told him, ‘You’re not going over there and getting killed,’” Christy Goetz recalled. “I mean, he’s my honey. I love him. I don’t want anything to happen to him.”
Nevertheless, she honored his request to go.
On Aug. 30, 2010, he and five other soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb, making him the first chaplain killed in action since Vietnam.
On this Veterans Day, I have a favor to ask. As you offer a grateful handshake to a veteran, turn to the spouse and say, “Thanks for your sacrifice.”
After all, most of them have certainly done more than they ever “volunteered” to do.
Norris Burkes lives in Auburn.
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