Chapter 4

Chapter 4. Ten factors that complicate your military loss

(This is a selected passage from Chapter 4)

I learned that my son, Alfonso, had been killed in the parking lot of a home improvement store. I’d just pulled into a parking space when one of his high school buddies texted me how sorry he was to hear the news. I didn’t know what he was talking about. So I called my wife. Apparently, it was all over Facebook about a serious mishap in Al’s squadron. Those first posts weren’t good. Bad news travels fast, I guess.

Around suppertime, the Air Force came to our door. At first, I wanted to believe they were there to tell us that Al was okay. But that wasn’t the case. Al was one of the nine squadron members who were killed. They didn’t have too much to tell us about what had happened, though. That part of the bad news didn’t travel fast.

Later that night, I sat alone in the dark, feeling utterly helpless. The Air Force just notified us that our son was dead. I told them I wanted to go to where Alfonso was killed and help out. But, they said they had skilled personnel for just this purpose and it was all under control. They assured my wife and me that our son would be coming home soon.

I told them they didn’t understand—a boy always needs his Dad when times are bad.

Manny, California

The death of a son or daughter is always an overwhelming loss for a parent. Muddling through the emotional devastation and unspeakable grief makes this loss a challenge for any parent, military or civilian. When the death occurs because of military service, this grief-laden challenge is often weighed down by unexpected twists and turns. To help you understand your multifaceted loss better, we’ll look at ten factors that complicate a military death. These factors are grouped into three key areas and we’ll carefully examine each one:

  • Life and death of the service member
  • Current life circumstances of the survivors
  • America and military service

Life and death of the service member

To gain a better personal understanding of why a military death is complicated, let’s start by looking at a few characteristics of the service member.

Then we must take into account how he or she died and the location at the time of death. Here’s why these first four factors strongly influence your reactions to the death of your military son or daughter.

Life and death of the service member

1. Service member was young
2. He or she led a purposeful life
3. Often died a sudden, traumatic death
4. Sometimes died on deployment

1. The service member was young

There’s an old saying that military service is a young man’s—and now a young woman’s— game. A look at the 2010 DoD age demographics confirms this as true:

  • thirty years old or younger: 66 percent of the total active duty force
  • twenty-five years old or younger: 50 percent of the enlisted active duty force

Our service members are young. They’re also in good physical shape, well-trained and well- equipped. Top off their age, fitness, equipment and training with a healthy dose of enthusiasm, and our service members think they’re invincible. That’s a good thing, because it’s normal and expected for young men and women to think this way, according to developmental psychologists.

As the parent of a service member, you most likely saw your child as strong and skilled, too. When your capable son or daughter died, you undoubtedly struggled with the disconnect between youthful invincibility and death. In those early days of shock and disbelief, you probably asked yourself, and anyone else within ear shot, “How could my young, healthy and strong child be dead?”

66 percent of the total active duty force is younger than 30.


“My baby was only nineteen.”

2. The service member led a purposeful life

Military service has an important purpose in our troubled world. Our service members understand the importance of this purpose and, to the best of their ability, each willingly contributes to it. Ask a service member who he works for, and most likely he’ll tell you, “I serve my country.” Ask a service member why she puts on the uniform and there’s a good chance she’ll say, “It’s the right thing to do.” Ask any service member why he or she will go into harm’s way and you’ll probably hear, “It’s my job.”

When your service member died it was a personal loss to you and your family and a public loss to society. At a young age, your son or daughter had already made a meaningful contribution to the greater good. Our society was robbed of this valued member who had the potential to contribute much more.

Your adult child’s death was a personal loss to you and a public loss to society.

3. The service member may have died a sudden, traumatic death

Most military deaths are sudden ones. If your son or daughter died a sudden, traumatic death, you had to contend with the unexpectedness of the death, the preventability or deliberateness of it and the known or unknown damage inflicted onto your child’s body, especially if it wasn’t viewable or recoverable. These factors had a great influence on how you reacted initially, and what you struggle with now and in the future.

You didn’t send your child out the door and potentially into harm’s way expecting your son or daughter to die. While you may have feared for your child’s safety—especially if he or she had a high-risk occupation or went off to war—you anticipated your child would live and eventually make his or her way home.

You may have feared for your child’s safety, but you anticipated your child would live and eventually make his or her way home.


“My son’s remains came home to me four separate times.”

4. The service member possibly died on deployment or in another operation

Deployments and military operations are a necessary part of the military’s job. They occur for peacekeeping purposes, armed combat, deterrence, humanitarian needs, to show the flag and to pre-position military assets in the world’s hot spots.

If your son or daughter died on deployment or in some other military operation, you likely dealt with a distant scene of death, limited details and information, and the transportation of your child’s body back to the States. There was little you could do but sit and wait. Because the recovery and identification of the deceased are a part of the military’s casualty process, you had no control over this process, even though this was your son or daughter.

You had no control over the process to bring your child home.


“She was twenty-two days away from the end of her deployment”