Spring / Summer of 2012. I was serving aboard a warship which was homeported in Norfolk, Virginia.
I had reported aboard about two years prior and in that short amount of time, my schedule was the most hectic it had been in a long while. I was senior enlisted and assigned my own work-center to manage and Sailors to lead.
It wasn’t an easy job, and it came with a never-ending list of challenges; with both the personnel and the equipment.
I spent countless hours aboard conducting my mission and performing my duties to the best of my ability. In many ways it was my dream job; leading a crew of Sailors while executing our craft and performing our mission at sea.
While aboard that ship, we spent a lot of time away from home; mostly conducting various training evolutions in preparation for a major upcoming deployment.
In the spring of 2012, we departed Norfolk, Virginia and headed across the Atlantic Ocean to perform the assignment we had spent so many weeks and months preparing for.
Within the first few weeks of that deployment, I became aware of the early signs of challenges which were taking place back home with my wife and children; specifically with our oldest daughter Elizabeth.
While I was at sea, one particular evening really stands out in my mind. My wife Erica had reached out to me via email and asked me to call back home, as soon as I had the chance: our 13 year old daughter Elizabeth was having some issues at school and was saying some things that had Erica very concerned.
I called home at my first opportunity and talked to my wife. Erica explained to me that she had received a note from school about Elizabeth’s behavior. One of the teachers had caught Elizabeth making cuts on her arm and trying to cover them up.
There I was, aboard a warship thousands of miles away from my family which was going through a crisis, and there was absolutely nothing I could do but listen and try to help with my words.
My heart sank and worry enveloped me. The last time I was on a major deployment, I had lost my little brother; I couldn’t stand the idea of losing another loved one…especially my own child. I felt helpless, alone and afraid.
I asked Erica, “Did Elizabeth tell you why she was cutting herself?” Through her tears, Erica said, “Because she doesn’t want to be here anymore…”
Immediately my heart began to race, and my mind was in a panic. My first thoughts were “Please God, don’t let this happen…please.” Considering all the other people I lost, I didn’t want my child do go down a self-destructive path as well.
As I gathered my composure, I asked Erica to put Elizabeth on the phone. I could hear in the background Erica say “Elizabeth, your father wants to talk to you…”
A couple of seconds went by, and then I heard a timid yet familiar voice, “Hi daddy…”
I started to sob. The thought of my little girl struggling with such dark thoughts and hurting herself broke my heart. “Elizabeth, what’s the matter honey…tell me what’s wrong”, I calmly said.
Over the next several minutes, through her tears and sobbing, Elizabeth tried as best she could, to explain the struggles she was having with her school work and some of her classmates. I earnestly hung onto every word. I wanted so desperately to hug my little girl and let her know everything was going to be o.k., but there was nothing I could do but listen and try to tell her how much we loved her. I told her that no matter what was happening, everything was going to be alright. I told Elizabeth that I was going to be home before the holidays and that when I got back, things would be better.
At this point, the exact words of the conversation are a blur, but I remember that I did my best to encourage her to focus on her work, reach out to her teachers if she needed help and that I was only an email away if she needed to talk. Towards the end of the conversation, Elizabeth seemed like she would be fine, and I felt that I had somehow made a difference.
As the conversation came to a close, I told Elizabeth how much I loved her, how much we needed her in our family and that I would see her again soon.
Erica came back to the phone, and we spend a few more moments together. Although my heart was still heavy and my mind was flooded with worry, I told my wife to be strong and keep an eye on our daughter. Erica knew that if she needed to get a hold of me for any reason, all she had to do was send me an email and I would call as soon as I could.
We told one another how much we loved each other and then we said goodbye.
Later that night when I went to bed, I cried my heart out. The thought of my own child wrestling with the same thing which had taken so many others in my family, broke my heart.
That phone call weighed heavy on my mind for days and weeks. Whenever my hectic schedule permitted, I would send an email back to my wife and daughter, to check on them and remind them how much I loved them. I was preoccupied with worry about home, which was compounded by the stress of my work.
During this season in my life, my family and I were not active in a church or connected to fellow Believers who could mentor and support us. Sure, my wife and I believed in God, but we were not plugged into a network of faith; a connection which is so vital…especially during moments like the one we were navigating.
It was around this time that a shift took place; an intersecting moment between eternity and time. This is when Heaven stepped in and connected me with someone aboard that ship, who is not only a fellow warrior, but a man of Faith…someone who I look up to as a Big Brother and mentor, and still have regular contact with, to this day.
Through that connection, a bond was formed. My new-found Big Brother had several more years of experience and was a senior leader aboard the ship. He took me under his wing and began to mentor me. Soon we were spending time in God’s Word and praying for one another. Before long, a couple other senior guys aboard, joined our Bible study and fellowship time. Within a short while, a small cadre of warrior Believers was formed.
All of these gentlemen were senior to me in both position and military experience, yet during our weekly time of fellowship, a bond of faith and support was formed. Although we shared kindred faith, our professionalism never faltered, and the lines of military protocol were never blurred. We respected one another’s rank and title; for the sake of the service and the fact that we knew we were also accountable to a Higher Authority.
August 24th, 2012.
While the rest of my Sailors were still asleep, I got up and went to my office so I could get the day’s business and tasks started. As I sat down at my desk with my morning cup of coffee, I logged into my computer to check my email for whatever assignments and correspondence awaited.
Among all the emails sitting in my inbox, there was one that nearly jumped off the screen.
It was from my cousin, and the subject line told me it was urgent. I didn’t even bother opening up my other emails; this one had captured my attention.
I was not prepared for what I read next.
One of dad’s older brothers, a pillar in our family and very close uncle, had taken his own life. I was in utter shock. How could this possibly be happening? This was the same uncle who had stood close by me during the days, weeks, months and even years of me wrestling with the grief of my little brother’s death.
This particular uncle was admired and loved by everyone in our family. His humor, grit and street-smart personality were larger than life; his bold presence and ‘wise-guy’ swagger would fill the room. Every one of his nieces and nephews, including myself, had a special affection and admiration for him.
In my mind, there was absolutely no way the terrible news of his passing could be true.
At that moment, I felt as if I was reliving the loss of my brother all over again. In the same way that I was deployed at sea when I received the heartbreaking news when Benjamin died, so it was when I found out my uncle died…thousands of miles away, aboard a warship performing my duty.
In spite of the eerily similar circumstances, this time I wasn’t alone…I had my fellowship of warrior Brothers to lean on.
Gathering my composure, I contacted my immediate supervisor and told him what happened to my uncle. As the words describing the contents of that gut-wrenching email left my mouth, my mind was stuck in slow motion as I struggled to comprehend the surreal reality of what I was saying.
My chain-of-command knew the history of losses that I had already endured up until that point; they knew that the blow of receiving that awful news would have a massive impact on my family and me.
Right after I spoke to my boss, my next call was to my cousin (who had sent me the email), so I could get the rest of the details, and find out what my family back in Rhode Island wanted me to do.
It was a short phone call. The ship was in the middle of conducting real-world operations, so communications off the ship, primarily via the phone, were minimal.
Within the few short minutes I was able to speak with my cousin, I found out the hurtful details of what had happened to our uncle, and I told my cousin that I would do everything I could to get back home as soon as possible.
When I hung up the phone with my cousin, I still had one more phone call to make…I had to call my wife. When Erica picked up the phone, I could barely get the words out to tell her what happened.
When I finally told her, she was stunned and silent…and then I started to weep; “Why Erica…why…why does this keep happening!”, I kept repeating in-between sobs.
On the other end of the phone, my wife and best friend, who was half a world away, wept with me. She knew all too well the massive toll that my uncle’s death had taken on not just me, but my entire family.
I’m not sure how long Erica and I talked and cried together, but at some point, I managed to let her know that I’d be flying off of the ship and heading back to the United States on emergency leave.
“I love you Erica…pray for my family…pray for me…I’ll see you soon”. When I hung up the phone, the ship’s chaplain, who was part of my fellowship of Brothers, was already standing by my desk.
Putting his hand on my shoulder, he gently asked if I would like to go somewhere quiet to talk.
When we sat down in his stateroom, the chaplain told me that the captain and executive officer had already been briefed about my loss and they were vigilantly working to make every arrangement to get me back home. Considering where we were at in the world and the type of work we were doing at that time, getting back home was not going to be an easy task.
Amazingly, within a couple of hours, all the arraignments were made. I was aboard one of our aircraft and heading off the ship to a military installation nearby. I stayed at that location for about two days, caught a flight out of a small third-world airport, and after a layover in another country within the region, I was on a commercial jet heading back to the U.S.
August 26th, 2012.
Three days prior, I had been halfway around the world, on assignment. When I finally arrived back stateside at the local airport, I was exhausted and emotionally drained. I picked up my seabag from baggage claim and waited for Erica to pick me up, outside of the ‘Arrivals’ section of the airport.
As I saw my pickup truck pull up, the sight of not only Erica but my two beautiful daughters put a spark of energy and happiness back into my weary soul. All three of the most important people in my life were there to greet me. Hugs were exchanged, and tears were shed.
It had been almost five months since I had last seen them. The girls had grown so much in that time, and Erica looked fantastic. It was bittersweet to see them; it hurt that I was back on U.S. soil because something so terrible had happened.
I didn’t have much time to stay at our house. The day after I flew in to see my wife and children, I had to drive about 10 hours to see my family in Rhode Island. Erica and the kids wouldn’t be able to go with me. Elizabeth was in school, and her grades couldn’t afford for her to miss any more classes.
So, I took that long drive by myself. It was probably the loneliest 10 hours of my life, but I knew I wasn’t truly alone. My soul felt the prayers and love from my Brothers back aboard our ship. Even though they were thousands of miles away, the time and distance had no bearing on the Divine Connection we shared. Because I had been strategically connected within their fellowship, my heart and mind were better equipped to navigate through the shock and grief.
I spent a lot of time in prayer during that long drive north. A thousand different thoughts were going through my mind; each one I shared with my Creator and sought solace in His perfect love. He knew this would happen, and through His Divine Invisible Hand, He had placed me in the midst of fellow warriors and Men of Faith whose comradery would form the foundation that I would need to lean on during such a time as this.
As I neared the last mile of my journey in route to my cousin’s house, I drove by the cemetery which had become all too familiar to my family and me.
I knew that once again, I would be walking into that place, not only to pay my respect to those we had already lost…I was going there to say goodbye to yet another one of our precious own; someone who had been stolen from us by the same thief who had snatched away all the others.
The pattern of losses was, and often still is, so hard to fathom. How could so much tragedy and pain happen within one family? The series of losses I had witnessed had almost begun to feel like a drumbeat; a pattern of saying goodbye to people who had chosen to leave this world well before their time. Something, or someone, was doing this…but I didn’t know where to look.
Because of the faith-based connections I had back aboard the ship, my mind and soul were better equipped to walk through that valley; but I still didn’t have the words, vision or drive to identify, attack and push back against that thing which had spoken the lies of self-hurt and hopelessness to so many in my world.
With each funeral caused by that evil darkness, I had hoped it would be the last; I wanted those that I love to live a long life and fulfill their God created purpose. But August 2012 would not be the last time I’d have to say goodbye to someone in my family.
Within a few short years, I would once return to that place and look into a freshly dug grave. My wife and I would be shaken by a level of pain and horror that I wouldn’t wish on anyone: I was going to be faced with a morbid nightmare of heartbreaking proportions and lay to rest in that hallowed ground, my dearest, most precious blood.