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May 26, 2006

Memorial Day 2006 - The Notification

Do not stand by my grave and weep ...
I am not there;
I do not sleep.
When you awaken in the morning's hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds circling in flight.
Do not stand by my grave and cry ...
I am not there.
I did not die.
-- Royster

I am the great-grandson of a soldier of the Civil War.
I am the grandson of a soldier of the Great War.
I am the son of a soldier of Korea, and Vietnam.
I was a "Brat".
I was a soldier.
I am still a soldier, albeit in the Retired Reserve.

In a different life, now seemingly long ago and far away, I answered a ringing doorbell. I opened the door, and there stood the Western Union man. I was 12. I knew this was Not Good. Mom came up. She saw the Western Union man. She froze. The Western Union man looked miserable. I took the offered envelope. Opened it. Mom was a statue, frozen in her own private hell. The Western Union man was fidgety, and downcast.

I opened the envelope. Read it out loud.

"The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you that your servicemember, LTC Timothy H. Donovan, was wounded in combat in the Republic of Vietnam.

He was shot while flying in a helicopter. The a/c did not crash or burn."

That's it. Dad was wounded, not dead. Mom could breathe again. The Western Union guy was all smiles.

All smiles. Here we had definitive proof that Dad had been wounded in combat and that didn't strike any of us as a Bad Thing. Because we were giddy, too. Because it was a telegram, not a Notification Team.

No military sedan in the driveway. No somber-faced officer and Chaplain. Just the Western Union guy. But sometimes the Army screwed up - and it *was* the Western Union guy who essentially was the notification guy, hence the tension.

Now, over 2000 times since the crossing of the LD for Operation Iraqi Freedom, teams of officers have made visits like that one.

Only there were no giddy smiles and tears of relief, but rather tears of grief, fear, and not infrequently, anger.

Since the Founding of the Republic, some form of this process has played out 2,623,552 times, give or take.

America's Wars Total (Less conflicts after Gulf War 1)
Military service during war 42,348,460
Battle deaths 651,008
Other deaths in service (theater) 13,998
Other deaths in service (nontheater) 525,256
Nonmortal woundings 1,431,290

Joseph Stalin observed: "The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic."

Those are the statistics. Read now the story of one soldier, his wife, and his family and friends - the impact of the death of one man, a soldier, Leonard Cowherd, Second Lieutenant, United States Army.

I am starting Memorial Day today. There will be a key post each day through Monday - that chronicles how Memorial Day suddenly, sadly, explosively, numbingly takes on a wholly different texture for military families during a time of war. All of these posts will be long. But however long it seems for you, it's way too short for the body in the casket and a never-ending ache for those standing around the grave site. This is the story of 2lt Leonard Cowherd, Sarah Cerri Cowherd, and the Cowherd and Cerri families, as seen through the eyes of my Scorpion brother-in-arms, Tony Cerri, and in the final post, the Cowherds. This is a great country. And this is just one proof. This is the price of freedom, hope, and the fight for the future. As has been asked before - where do we find such men? Answer: look around you - they are everywhere. You just don't notice them. It is not my intent to exalt 2LT Cowherd above other casualties of this or any war.

It is just to let the story tell itself.

This is the story of two military families dealing with the death of a soldier. This is the story of bravery, fortitude, family, love. It is a story that plays out across all the services, the differences only reinforce the similarities.

It's real, it's true. It happened. And will happen again, as long as warriors have to man the ramparts and look outward to guard against what lurks in the darkness. As long as there is darkness.

Two years ago, a notification team made one of those visits to the home of one of my Army buddies, whose daughter's husband had just been killed in Iraq.

I have fought a good fight
I have finished my course
I have kept the faith.

Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness,

which the Lord, the righteous judge,

shall give me at that day:

and not to me only,

but unto all them also that love his appearing.

-- 2 Timothy 4:7, 8

So, let it begin (and yes, I have the family's permission to share this with you).

Friends---below are a series of emails, edited only to delete all the headings, from my good friend LTC(R) Tony Cerri...His son in law 2LT Leonard Cowherd was killed last week in Iraq. Leonard's death puts a face on the growing list of young men killed in Iraq. I think you will find these emails will touch your hearts....

We will carry the torch for you, Leonard.

The story of two families coping with the death of a soldier is contained in the Flash Traffic/Extended Entry.

Now to let the Army, then Tony pick up the tale:


The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

2nd Lt. Leonard M. Cowherd, 22, of Culpeper, Va., died May 16 in Karbala, Iraq, when he received sniper and rocket propelled grenade fire while securing a building near the Mukhayam Mosque. Cowherd was assigned to Company C, 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, 1st Armored Division, Friedberg, Germany.

1st Platoon, C 1/37 Armor. 2LT Cowherd stands in front of the tank on the right.

My son-in-law, 2LT Cowherd, was killed this morning in Iraq. He is the armor soldier currently being referred to in the news. Platoon Leader. USMA class of '03.

My daughter has been staying with us since Leonard deployed. I was with her when the car pulled in the driveway and she was notified by the team from Ft Eustis tonight. Surreal is not the word.

You can imagine that this is a numbing time for us.

We expect an onslaught of details and issues tomorrow. I will be at home until such time as we are settled.

I know you'll ask, "Is there anything I can do?" I appreciate and I will not hesitate to call should something arise.
Sorry it has been so long since I've sent an update. Things have been busy. I also apologize that what will follow has the shape and sound of an FAQ and that's not the intent. However, I want to tell you what's going on and where we are and answer your questions; that just leads me to a particular kind of format. It's late and it's been a long day I apologize for grammar errors.

First - how are we?
We are as fine as can be expected. I realize that sounds trite and rote. However, it is heartfelt and rings true while living it. I have come to understand that we are on a journey of stages and phases and, all things considered, we are doing fine. We have gone through the initial moments of absolute shock, horror, disbelief, rage, and soul emptying sorrow. I classify the next large chunk of time as numbness.

Finally, and currently, we are in emotional, and sometimes physical, exhaustion. And all are exactly right. The initial notification and emotions are something I wish on no one. The numbness and exhaustion are welcome.

They allow us to get on with things and deal with the realities.

We are making decisions. There has been some degree of normalness return. There has even been some laughter and lightness in the house. We are fine.

How is Sarah?
My daughter is strong and has proven to be a warrior's wife but I ache for her. No one should be a war-widow at 23. While Beth and I experience ups and downs, she is more so. If we are at a 7, she is at an 8. If we are at a 3, she is at a 2. She comforts others as she is being comforted.

Although she's a brat, she did her serious growing up years right here. She has a large circle of friends and family that have reached out to her. Further, and to digress a moment, she attended the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership and Leonard attended the United States Military Academy. Both institutions forge strong relationships amongst their graduates. Both institution's graduates have a respect and place in their hearts for their owns spouse. Sarah has had her hand held by people literally around the world; generals, lieutenants, civilians, male, female, serving, retired, her friends, Leonard's friends, their friends. She obviously grieves. She is proud of what her husband was doing and believed in. She wishes he had done something else. She understands he wouldn't have been Leonard if he had. Further, she has a special friend - Leonard's identical twin brother Charles. You've read and heard about twins. If my experience is normal, everything you've ever heard about twins is right.

Sarah, Leonard, and Charles were always the three musketeers. We kidded Sarah that she was actually getting two husbands. And she reveled in it. Charles is not and has never been Leonard for Sarah - he is Leonard's other half as Sarah was Leonard's other half for Charles. They are both missing something significant...and together they form a whole of sorts.

Charles is spending time with us and I couldn't ask for anything better for the two of them. Sarah is fine.

How is Leonard's family?
About the same as we...but no one should ever have to bury a child. Do NOT take that wrong. They are incredibly proud of their son and everything he believed in and stood for. We spent last night together after they drove down from Culpepper.

We celebrated Leonard's life.

There were no second guessings, misgivings, or hesitation. They miss their son and grieve for him and are going through the same stages as the Cerri's but are strong in their faith and the certainty that Leonard was doing what was important to him. They are comforted by the principles of a small town and a close knit family. Their 3 other children and an extended family are around them and providing both solace and support. I suspect they'd have no problem reading that I say they are as fine as can be expected.

Is there anything you can do?

Sarah, Charles and I have discussed this. We need nothing. We appreciate everything. However, if you want to 'do' something we have two requests. First - somewhere in your 6-degree circle of friends and family find a deployed soldier, sailor, airman, or marine. Talk to them. Send them an e-mail, a letter, or package. Tell them you're there. Tell them you care.

It doesn't have to be Iraq or Afghanistan.

We have folks around the world that are doing our business. Just reach out to one of them. One of Leonard's biggest concerns was the soldiers in his platoon who received no mail or support from folks outside the company. Our warriors shouldn't have this problem. Second - stand a little stiller, stand a little straighter the next time you hear the National Anthem. There are generations of warriors that have made that possible.

What happened?

Leonard caught a sniper's round in the chest. He did not suffer. As far as we know at this time, his platoon and company had been engaged in relatively heavy combat all day long in Karbala. Leonard died at around 1720 Iraq time on Sunday. We do not know if he was off his tank or if it happened while he was mounted. During the same period two other soldiers were wounded although they do not appear to have been with Leonard's platoon. Again, as far as we've been able to determine, the unit returned fire and carried the field. Some reports indicate they killed the sniper.

When will his body be returned?
We were notified that his remains were due to arrive in Dover today. It will take some 24 to 36 hours for the Army to finishing positive identification and other details at which time the remains will be released.

What are the plans?
At this point we are planning on a civilian ceremony in Culpepper, VA on Saturday with eventual internment at Arlington. The Culpepper ceremony will be in Saint Stephens Episcopal Church at 1400. Please note - this is a small church in a Middle America with ~100 seats. This is where Leonard grew up and he is a hometown hero. PLEASE feel welcome if you would like to attend but be prepared to stand outside, or in an aisle, or in a tent. The Arlington ceremony is yet to be nailed down. I will notify all when details are known.

What about flowers and such?
Sarah and Charles are still discussing this and are narrowing the field. Flowers already fill our house (and our thanks). They are discussing everything from donations to the USO (if you've ever deployed - you understand. Leonard constantly talked about how well the USO took care of him.), to establishing a history award at Leonard's high school (history was his thing, he was good at it, he believed in it), to establishing a scholarship to attend summer camp (Leonard was a camp counselor for many years and strongly believed that every child should be able to attend). Give them some time and they will sort it out.

How has the Army treated Sarah?
Wonderful. Dignified. Caring. You may know that I am retired Army. I always believed that the Army took care of its own. I now know it is true. We are in Yorktown but the unit is in Germany. Regardless, the Army has wrapped its arms around Sarah as only the military can do. The notification occurred as you've seen it in the movies or read about it.

The car pulled up in the drive way and two officers came down the walk. They were professional and Sarah-oriented. They had a horrible message but delivered it in a manner worthy of emulation and admiration. Those poor guys. The causality assistance officer is equally squared away and Sarah-oriented. He will be with her till all the details are finished. He's done his homework and has thus far been able to answer everything we've asked up to the point it is known. Again, the poor soul. He has drawn one of the most awful details any soldier could ever dream of. He has deported himself well and I couldn't ask for better. The Army will carry many, if not most, of the funeral and interment expenses. Sarah will continue to receive full military benefits. Some of the next details might raise an eyebrow or two but they are available on many web sites and I share them so you may understand. She was given a check today for $12K. This benefit is not a quantification of the value of a soldiers life. It is the Army's way of providing immediate help to a spouse. Sarah is young and living with us. However, if she was a Private's wife, on her own, or with children, the fund would be a god-send of help. She will receive the Serviceman's Group Life Insurance (SGLI) payment. She will not be wealthy but she will have time to think and plan. We have received offers of help from General Officers to Lieutenant friends. From local, to Korea, to Germany, to West Point, to points around America. The Army is closing ranks to take care of my daughter. I am proud and grateful.

They both went to military schools. What's going on there? Leonard is the first USMA '03 grad to die in combat. I'll just have to report that the Corps had a moment of silence and his company is holding a military memorial. The emotions behind these ceremonies can not be put in an e-mail. If you're curious, ask me when I get back or ask a grad. They are soul searing and will stay will the Corps forever. Sarah is the first VWIL grad to experience this - ever. Her military friends around the world have reached out and her civilian friends as well.

The Commandant and the Corps have been very much a part of all this.

When am I coming back to work?
I know, I know, I know - you didn't ask and every body and their brother has said to take the time I need. I will. However, I need to get on with things as well. As of this point, it looks like Monday next is as good day to shoot for as any. I'm sure I'll need to take some periodic time off in the upcoming weeks to help Sarah and the Cowherd's settle things but they'll taper off with time.

OK y'all...LONG e-mail and it's late and I need to hit the sack. However, this is what I know as of the moment and wanted to share. I'll keep you posted.

Tomorrow - the funeral ceremony. Sunday, the burial. Monday - Memorial Day.

Note that through it all, the Cerris and the Cowherds were thinking of others. The living.

However, if you want to 'do' something we have two requests. First - somewhere in your 6-degree circle of friends and family find a deployed soldier, sailor, airman, or marine. Talk to them. Send them an e-mail, a letter, or package. Tell them you're there. Tell them you care.

I recommend you follow their advice.

Right now would be a good time.


The tale continues here.

John | Permalink | Comments (7) | Something for the Soul
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