Page 11: Hard Goodbyes & Unsteady Ground – Part 1

Hard Goodbyes & Unsteady Ground

March 2004.

By now, I had been in the Navy for about six years; an eager and enthusiastic Second Class Petty Officer, on the fast track to earning my next rank.

My family and I had moved to Japan about seven months prior. Erica and Elizabeth were quickly getting accustomed to the new culture and climate of our host nation. Meanwhile, I was serving aboard the USS KITTY HAWK (CV-63), an aircraft carrier which was forward deployed out of Yokosuka, Japan.

During the spring of 2004, we were on deployment, conducting training and working on various qualifications. After a few weeks underway, the ship made a liberty port visit to Hong Kong where we stayed several days. At the conclusion of our liberty port visit, we head back to the ship, got underway and sailed to our next assignment.

I was working the night shift as the watch supervisor. I was in my rack (bed) asleep, getting much-needed rest for the upcoming shift, which started at 1900 and ended at 0700.

After only a few hours’ sleep, I was woken up by my supervisor. He had a strange sense of urgency about him. Normally he was relaxed and had a friendly sort of demeanor about him, but this time I knew something wasn’t right.

He said, “Petty Officer Mattera, I need you to get up and get dressed as quickly as you can and come with me.” Still groggy from sleep, I replied, “What’s the matter; is everything alright, did my watch team mess something up?”

I’ve always had a personal level of pride and interest in how my team performed their duties; accuracy, professionalism, and attention to detail were my top priorities. With all that in mind, my initial concern was that my boss was waking me up due to an error on the part of my team…which would ultimately be my responsibility.

My supervisor uneasily replied, “No, everything’s fine at work…your guys didn’t mess anything up.”

As I was putting my uniform on, I started to grab my shave kit, which contained my toothbrush, toothpaste, and razor.

“You don’t have time for that…don’t worry about it”, he said.

Now I was really puzzled! Here I am being woken up by my supervisor, who tells me that the reason he’s waking me up is not work-related and that I don’t have time to even brush my teeth or shave.

I said ok, finished getting dressed, laced up my boots and started to follow him outside of the berthing (the area on a ship where the Sailors sleep, shower, etc…)

As we were walking, I realized that we were not taking the direct route to our shop.

Being stationed aboard an aircraft carrier, there is almost always more than one way to get to any location or space on the ship. USS KITTY HAWK was no exception. She was a hulking mass of steel that, if stood on her end, would be taller than the Empire State Building. Over 5000 Sailors lived aboard her. She was truly a capital ship, the pride of the Forward Deployed U.S. Navy Fleet, the flagship of Carrier Air Wing 5 and the hub of our battlegroup.

Noticing that we were not taking the most direct and usual route to our shop, I told my supervisor that we were going the wrong way, to which he replied, “We’re not going to the shop; we’re heading to the Chaplain’s Office.”

“The Chaplain’s Office”, I thought to myself, “Hmmm, maybe the chain of command has set-up an impromptu appraisal board, for the officer program I had recently applied for.”

At that point in my Naval career, I had determined early on that I wanted to be an officer, and the Navy has several venues for young aspiring Sailors through which to apply. Earlier that month I was preparing to apply for the ‘Seaman-to-Admiral’ program; an enlisted-to-officer accession program which takes the most eligible and best qualified young Sailors through a myriad of training and then they earn a commission as a Naval Officer. So, with the assumption that I was heading to an unannounced appraisal board, I quickened my pace and followed my supervisor to the Chaplain’s Office.

When we got to the office, I asked my supervisor if he was sure it’s ok that I didn’t shave or even brush my teeth. After all, I thought I was about to have a board of officers ask me a series of questions about the Seaman-to-Admiral program…I wanted to look my best!

My supervisor replied, “Yeah man, you’re fine…don’t worry about it.”

After a few minutes of waiting, I notice leaders in my chain-of-command start to come into the chaplain’s office…one-by-one. My Chief, Division Officer, and Assistant Department Head walked with somber looks on their faces, huddled around and give me a big group hug, to comfort me and show their support. I started to suspect something was wrong.

If I was here for an officer applicant appraisal, they would have seemed a lot more excited and wouldn’t be acting like something bad just happened.

Shortly after my immediate chain-of-command arrived, the Chaplain walked in. He had too a very somber but caring look on his face. Now I knew something was wrong. I had already been in the Navy for about five years at this point. I knew, from hearing stories told by other shipmates, that being called to the Chaplain’s office, while deployed and with your chain-of-command in tow, is never good…something bad had happened.

My heart was pounding, palms sweaty and my mind was racing. I couldn’t take the suspense anymore. I had to know what was wrong. “What’s going on sir?” I asked the Chaplain. I quickly shot a glance at my leadership. They quickly looked back at me and then indicated that I needed to listen to the Chaplain…he had something very serious to tell me.

Looking back at the Chaplain, with my voice trembling I asked, “Is my wife ok, is my daughter ok?”

“Yes, your wife and daughter are fine…everything is ok with them”, the Chaplain replied.

Then I asked, “Is my mom ok…what about my brother?”

At this point, he gently put his hand on my shoulder and softly said, “I need you to come into my office so we can talk.”

My heart felt like it was going to jump out of my chest. My stomach was tight and queasy. I knew this wasn’t going to be good…but at least Erica and Elizabeth were ok.

As I stepped into his office the chaplain shut the door behind him; the ambient buzzing and humming noise of the ship silenced.

Aboard a U.S. warship, the chaplain offices are almost always soundproofed…on purpose…for moments like this.

The chaplain told me to have a seat and that he had some bad news. I drew in a long deep breath, bracing myself for the unknown.

“Matthew, your little brother was found the other day.”

It took a moment for those words to make sense. In the previous 18 months, he had been having some issues with his behavior; at one point in the summer of 2003, he even hitch-hiked all the way to Las Vegas.

The weeks and months prior to this deployment, he had been living in and out of our mom’s house; often staying with friends.

“Found…what do you mean found…where was he found?”,I asked.

When the chaplain said, my little brother had been found, I had assumed my little brother Ben had either been arrested, was in a hospital or was in some other kind of trouble. Whatever was wrong, I was not prepared for what I heard next.

The chaplain calmly replied, “Matthew, your little brother Benjamin, passed away sometime yesterday or the day before. We received the message aboard the ship just a little while ago.”

I almost fainted…my gut felt like it had been hit by a truck and felt sick to my stomach. I was reeling in disbelief.

I thought to myself, “This can’t be true, it’s got to be a mistake. My little brother is fine.”

The chaplain then proceeded to explain that a message was sent to the ship a few hours prior. It was An American Red Cross Message, which is the official channel by which military service members are notified of an emergency involving immediate family.

He went on to tell me how that the message was confirmed, and I needed to contact my mother immediately.

Shaking in disbelief, I struggled to compose myself. My mother was never good at coping with even the smallest of crises. She always had the tendency to be dramatic and overwhelming. I had lived through the nightmarish aftermath following my dad’s death. She never really dealt with my dad’s death; now my little brother is gone. I dreaded calling her, but someone had to be the grown-up and get to the bottom of what was going on. I wanted facts and I wanted them now.

All the crisis-response training the Navy had given me kicked in. In my mind, I told myself…“Stay calm, assess the situation, take charge and get the facts…whatever you do, DON’T PANIC.”

The chaplain handed me a piece of paper with several numbers scrawled onto it. “Here is your mom’s number…”, he told me, “…go ahead and give her a call, she’ll be expecting to hear from you.”

I put on my war-face and braced myself. My hands were shaking, and my guts were in knots, but I was going to be the warrior. I had to be strong…I was about to call my mom and find out the first-hand-details of why her youngest son, my little brother, died.

I dialed the number, first punching in the series of digits needed to first get an outside line to link-up our off-ship satellite relay, followed by country code and then the area code.

It was such a long string of numbers and my hand was shaking so badly that it took me three times before I was able to make a connection and get through.

The phone was ringing. The satellite uplink, combined with thousands of miles across the globe, resulted in a faint echo and feedback.

I heard a faint yet familiar voice on the other end…“Hello?”

“Mom? Hi, it’s me, Matthew”.I said as I strained to hear over the buzzing and echo on the line.

Suddenly all I heard was sobbing and weeping. I stood up a little straighter and struggled to maintain my composure.

I was not going to fall apart…I was going to be strong.

After about 30 minutes of trying to console my mother and decipher what she was saying through her crying, she handed the phone to her friend and pastor. He would give me the facts, as he best knew them, uninhibited by emotion.

Over the course of about 15-20 minutes, I learned that my little brother was found unresponsive the day before. He had been at a party with some other young teenagers; they had been drinking, and he was doing most of it. The official prognosis was that he had died from an overdose; severe alcohol poisoning. After I was done speaking to my mom’s pastor and I had as much of the facts as I could gather, he put my mom back on the line.

“Mom, I’ll be coming home soon…we are still at sea right now, but the chaplain says that as soon as we pull into our next port, which is tomorrow, I will be able to fly home right away.”

A few more minutes passed, and my mom continued to weep on the phone. “Mom, I really have to go. I’ll talk to you soon, ok? Love you, mom.”

I hung up the phone. My brain hurt. It was too much to comprehend…it was an overflow of information. None of it seemed real. In a state of shock, I softly whispered in disbelief; “My little brother’s dead…”

And then suddenly the tears I had been holding back while on the phone with my mom came rushing out. I couldn’t stop them. A hollow gut-wrenching pain from deep in my soul was forming. I must have wept for about half an hour. The chaplain hugged me while I rocked back and forth; shaking and trembling as the reality of my loss came in waves; my only brother, my best friend and childhood companion was gone.

As I gathered my composure and thoughts, I knew I had a long trip ahead of me.

My chain-of-command, who was waiting outside of the chaplain’s office the entire time, saw me walk out of the office with my eyes swollen and red. They knew the whole time what was going on and were ready and able to make all preparations necessary for me to take emergency leave.

Still reeling from the news of my little brother’s death, I looked at my Chief and said that I needed to call my wife and wanted to know if I could use the phone in his office, which was located back in our workshop. He, of course, said yes, and that I could use it as long as I needed to.

I went back to the office. The day shift had assumed the watch a few hours prior, so when I (the night shift supervisor) was awake and walking into the shop with our chain of command, they knew something was wrong.  I avoided eye contact; I was not in the mood for banter, jokes or chit-chat. My shipmates had no idea of what was going on.

They didn’t know that about half an hour prior, I just found out that my little brother, the only biological connection to my deceased father, was now also dead.

I walked into the Chief and Division Officer’s office. Chief sympathetically looked at me and gently said, “Mattera, you can use the phone for as long as you want. I’ll be right out here if you need anything buddy.”

I picked up the phone and heard the familiar shipboard dial tone, a dull buzzing noise that feebly attempted to mimic the dial tone of a telephone ashore.

My hands trembling, I started to once again push the long series of numbers and access codes to get an open outside line off the ship.

Unlike when I dialed from the chaplain’s office to call my mom, who lives back in Rhode Island, my wife and daughter lived in Japan where the USS KITTY HAWK was homeported. It didn’t require as many numbers nor was I calling from the other side of the world this time.

The satellite relay connected and after a few short rings, I heard a soft familiar voice…“Hello?”

My steel exterior and warrior demeanor crumbled. Just hearing the soft tender voice of my wife Erica made me weep like a baby. She was the one person I could trust, I didn’t need to pretend to be strong with her. She was the one person I wanted to be near and close to the moment I found out my brother had died.

With her now on the phone, I was for but a moment, as close as I could be to my safe harbor and place of refuge. Even though many miles of ocean separated us, hearing my wife’s angelic and loving voice was the healing ointment my broken heart so desperately needed in that dark hour.

“Matthew, what’s the matter…is everything o.k.?”, Erica gently asked. She wasn’t overly alarmed; my wife has always had a calm and demure way about her.

Through the sobbing, I was barely able to whisper and stuttered the words “B-B-Benjamin’s dead”.

“What…I don’t understand what you’re saying love, what do you mean?”, Erica replied.

“I just got an AMCROSS message…My little brother Benjamin died”, I replied through my tears.

For the about the next hour, I stayed on the phone with my angel. She cried with me and hurt with me. She knew my heart was broken and wanted desperately to be there to hug and hold me.

She put our daughter Elizabeth on the phone, who had just turned four years old. Her little tiny voice was so cute and adorable; it had a magical way of lifting my spirit despite what was going on around me.

Looking back now as I write this, I can’t believe that about 11 years from that moment, I would be feeling those exact same feelings of pain, loss and grief amplified a trillion times more; because something bad would happen to that little girl.

“I love you Elizabeth,” I said; a little tiny voice replied back “Love you too daddy.”

“Ok, hugs and kisses sweetie…I’ll see you soon. Please give the phone back to mommy

“Mommy, here’s daddy,” I could hear Elizabeth call out to Erica as she handed the phone back.

“Hey love”, Erica’s warm voice once again greeted, “you stay strong out there, we’ll see you soon. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure the stuff here at home is taken care of. I love you, Matthew.”

After a long pause, I drew a deep breath and tearfully whispered, “I love you too.”

In the final moments of that conversation with Erica, we discussed travel arrangements and other plans related to heading back to Rhode Island from Japan. I told her that I would be there back at our house on-base within 24 hours. There were some logistical things I needed her to take care of; luggage, packing, etc. We said a couple more tearful goodbyes and then I finally hung up the phone. My aching soul wanted to be back in the loving arms of my wife and see my little girl again.

Monologue: The loss of my little brother magnified the wound from my dad’s loss, which I had been carrying for so many years. The sense of abandonment caused by my father’s suicide became deeper and wider. My little brother was the last physical connection that I had with our dad. Ben was my best friend and partner in suffering during the years of dysfunction and abuse which we experienced because of our mother’s behavior.

Ben and I were inseparable…until he was gone.

Back in my home state of Rhode Island, I had returned to the same cemetery, where my dad had been laid to rest so many years prior and watched as my little brother was buried in the same cemetery, near his dad; our father…

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