Brace for Impact
by Brian Kerg
A thrumming rattle cracked the night’s solace. Alan sat bolt upright. The pounding of his heart echoed at his temples. Each pulse ached like the aftershocks of a steady quake of punches to his head. His first sharp intake of breath was that of a drowning swimmer breaking the surface of a frigid lake.
His eyes, survivor wide, dilated in the dark. The orange glow of the streetlight through the window reassured him and eased his panic, soothing him like the strokes of a mother’s fingers across the brow of a frightened child.
The rattle sounded again. Not SAF, Alan thought, not Small Arms Fire ripping across a darkened valley after all, but a vibrating cell phone bouncing across his friend’s, Nate’s, coffee table. Other sensations crept forward – the sour tongue from a bummed cigarette, an aching back from a night curled on a cramped couch, the fatigue of three drinks too many; the sensations of a night poorly spent.
The States, the States, Alan told himself, a comforting mantra, as he rubbed at his face. Not Helmand. Not combat. Not for a long time. Maybe never again.
The incoming phone call brought a different kind of unease. He shot a glance at the alarm clock sitting at the other end of his friend’s apartment, and saw the slices of light carve the time into the living room’s shadows: 2:41.
The certainty of an approaching vileness wrapped around his neck, insidious and gentle, like the seductive caress of murderous hands. He reached toward the phone, hesitated as his breath caught, retreating briefly from the object as though it would scald him. He grabbed the phone, looked at it, identified the caller: First Sergeant Kass.
A cascade of memories impressed themselves upon Alan, each one a train-wreck, involving one of his Marines and Something Gone Wrong: A DUI, a motorcycle crash, resisting arrest, even, once, a suicide. In this job, all news after 6:00 PM is god-fuck-awful, Alan thought.
The phone vibrated again. It reminded Alan of a ticking bomb.
“Goddammit,” he sighed, and answered.
“Captain Hackett,” Alan said, identifying himself. He reached low into his diaphragm for a professional octave, a knowing tone, despite the hour. Both he and the caller would know this for a sham, at this hour. Both knew they’d play along regardless.
“Sir, its First Sergeant.” Kass sounded cool, alert, and resigned. “Just got word from Casualty Affairs. We’ve got a CACO.”
Alan knew the phrase, its implications, and the dread that should accompany it. Kay-ko, he pronounced, slowly in his mind. Casualty Assistance Call Officer. He found himself distanced from the phrase – he’d never told anyone their son was dead before, and was no father himself. The terror inherent in his new task was, presently, purely intellectual. He tried to position himself in the midst of the anguish he was charged to carry and deliver like an abandoned child, found and returned to its wayward parent. In this he aimed to inoculate himself, to dull, by empathy, the blow he was about to deliver. The effort eluded him.
CACO, Alan thought again. The word became suddenly abhorrent. He wanted to hang up the phone, turn it off, slide it under the couch, bury his face in his pillow. I don’t want this, he thought.
“Christ,” he said instead, dropping his stoic facade. The exclamation felt heavy with the wet-rag weight of his sour dreams.
“Yeah,” Kass agreed. “Not the first after-hours conversation I was looking to have with you, Sir. And thought we’d have you on station and rocking this billet for more than a couple days before we got another CACO. With the drawdown, and all. I was hoping to snap you in to this over the next week or so. Hoping we could just dodge this altogether. Looks like you’ll have to learn by doing after all.”
“Yeah, looks like it,” Alan said, pivoting on the couch and letting his bare feet slap onto the hardwood floor. “Any details?”
“Sergeant John Dustwun, KIA, Helmand Province. Next of Kin lives just down the road from our armory. The Personnel Casualty Report will get launched to my work email. We’ll go over it together when we link up.”
Alan nodded. “Okay. You’re going to have to hold my hand through this whole thing. What happens next? Are we showing up in dress blues?”
Kass grunted dissent. “No Sir, uniform for notification isn’t the blues anymore – it’s Service Alphas, now. Is your pickle suit ready?”
Alan stood, grimacing at the wave of nausea that assailed him as he shuffled to the open closet. He saw his green Service Alpha jacket hanging on the inside door. He’d worn it to his check-in just three days prior, and knew there’d be incidental wrinkles, perhaps some lint or stray, caught hairs.
Can’t inspect it here and wake him up, he thought, glancing in the direction of Nate’s closed bedroom door. I’ll police it up at the armory.
“Ready as it’s going to be,” Alan said.
“Bring it in – we’ll meet at the armory. If we’re lucky we’ll have the PCR in hand and be ready to notify before the morning rush hour. We want to catch the Next of Kin before she heads off to work. If we miss her we’ll be up the creek, Sir.”
“I think we already are,” Alan said.
They already were.
Alan and Kass sat side-by-side in the govvie, the green, 12 passenger government vehicle attached to Alan’s command. They were parked outside Mrs. Dustwun’s single story, two bedroom home in Depot Town, the neighborhood built around the city’s ancient train tracks and rusted warehouses.
It was 8:32. There were no cars in her driveway.
“Doesn’t look good,” Kass said, wiping at his forehead. The gesture made Alan suddenly aware of the sting of sweat on his own brow. The thick service uniform did not agree with June’s humidity. His neck chafed at his tight collar, and his hangover’s vise gripped at his skull.
“But this is the only start we’ve got.” Kass turned to face Alan, his face weary, gripping his service cap in one hand. “If she’s there, remember, don’t just jump right into the notification. Last thing you want to do is notify the wrong person. SOP calls for double verification – verify she’s the person you want, and verify she has the relation to the Marine in question. Then, the notification.”
Alan nodded, and repeated the lines they’d rehearsed at the armory. “’Ma’am, are you Mrs. Jane Dustwun? Ma’am, are you the mother of Sergeant Jonathon T. Dustwun? On behalf of the President of the United States, I regret to inform you…’”. Alan trailed off, opting not to complete the line again, not until it was real.
Kass nodded back at his captain. “Roger, sir. You ready?”
Alan stared at the front door, standing sealed above a simple, cracked cement stoop, the three uneven steps up, the leavings of the mowed lawn scattered across the walkway, and the American flag hanging from the house, unmoved in the still air, drooping like the head of a beaten dog.
“No,” he said.
“Neither am I,” Kass said. “Done this twelve times. Never gets less awful. On your mark, Sir.”
Alan swore, opened the passenger side door, and slid out of the car. Kass followed suit. With sharp precision he put his service cover on, checking the angle in the reflection of the van’s window. Then he marched to the front door, with Kass trailing just behind.
Alan’s shining Corfram shoes clicked on the cement as his heels loudly ground down pebbles and dirt. The door grew before him, rising, a specter. Alan felt a knot grew in his stomach, doubling in size with each step, tightening, cinching, reaching up around his lungs, squeezing at his breath, threatening to suffocate him, bend him, bring him low.
He raised his fist. He could not breathe.
He waited. The pressure grew, a hideous grip on his head. He grew dizzy.
No one answered the door.
He breathed out in a gust, realizing he was holding his breath.
He breathed in again, glanced at First Sergeant Kass. Kass simply looked forward, pretending not to notice the discomfort of his commanding officer.
Alan raised his hand, knocked again. His anxiety let him be for the most part, instead dancing at the periphery of his consciousness, a taunting ghost.
No one responded. He listened, waiting for the approach of a footstep, any disturbance from inside the home.
He knocked again, called out, “Hello? Ma’am? Mrs. Dustwun?”
Alan turned to Kass. “Do we have anything else? Another name? Another address?”
Kass shook his head, as if in reproach, and glanced away from the house and down the drag of the street, toward the whistling blare of a passing train. “The RED – the Record of Emergency Data – only lists the one address. He’s got a younger brother listed, but the same address is listed for him, so that doesn’t do us any good. All we can do now is either start canvassing the neighbors or play the waiting game.”
Alan shook his head. “Screw waiting. I’ll take left, you take right.”
“Got it, Sir,” Kass said, and headed to the next house down.
Alan mirrored him, knocked on the door. An older man answered, apologized, and said he didn’t know where Mrs. Dustwun could be right now, she normally worked second shift.
He closed the door. Alan looked up into the sky, and was overwhelmed by a sense of vertigo, felt the sky opening up like a chasm, felt as though he was falling into the blue. I don’t want this, he thought again.
Alan heard the click of a storm door opening across the street. He came back to himself, and looked toward the noise, saw an old, wrinkled woman in a night shift and a bathrobe, a newspaper in her hand, staring curiously at Alan and Kass.
“You boys Marines?” she called.
Alan and Kass glanced at each other and back at the woman. “Yes, Ma’am,” Alan called, quickly walking toward her. He held out his hand, shook the woman’s and introduced himself. “We’re looking for Mrs. Dustwun. Do you know her?”
“I know Janie,” she said. “But she’s not here now.”
“Do you know where we could find her, Ma’am?” Kass asked.
The woman nodded. “She’s at that center at the edge of town, where Johnny went when he shipped off for the service. I don’t remember what Janie called it.”
“MEPS?” Alan guessed, confused.
The woman smiled. “That’s what she called it. MEPS.”
Military Entrance Processing Station, Alan thought. What’s she doing, enlisting? Why the hell would a forty-something mother of two be at MEPS?
“Yes,” the woman continued, smiling, “she’s seeing her other boy leave for the Army today.”
This cannot be happening, Alan thought.
“This cannot be happening,” the woman in front of him echoed. The MEPS Operations Officer, an Army major, was livid. “We’re swearing in and shipping off sixty fucking kids today. Over half of them have parents with them. They are going to grab their sons and daughters and run for the hills.”
Heat rose up Alan’s face, meeting the pain at his temples. He felt his phone vibrating in his pocket, undoubtedly the Casualty Affairs watch officer asking for another update, the third call this hour. Alan took a breath and tried to lick his dry lips, stifling the anger. “Ma’am, I’m not asking to do this in front of God and everybody. By no means is that what we want. We do need to do this now – this news cannot wait – but we need an isolated area. Somewhere she can….” Alan grasped for an appropriate phrase. “Somewhere she can grieve in peace.”
The major grimaced. “I know. I know. I’ll see what we can find. I need to let the CO know, first. Stand by, captain.” She walked back to the office behind her desk, where the MEPS commanding officer, a full-bird colonel, was visible working at his desk. She shut the door. Alan could still see the two of them through the office window.
Alan looked over at Kass. “This is a goddamned nightmare,” he muttered.
Kass nodded. “Each one of them goes a different way. This will probably be the worst one you have.”
Alan raised an eyebrow as he watched the colonel’s face shift across a range of emotions, like an image in a flip-book: confusion, surprise, anger, indignation, resignation.
“Why do you think so?” Alan asked.
Kass looked around him, taking in the MEPS. “When you find them in their homes, and they look out their window, and they see you, standing there, in your uniform… they get walked through a couple of things.” Kass navigated the next sentences by counting them off on his fingers, punctuating each one with the gesture: “You are a Marine. Their son is a Marine. Their son is deployed. You are at their door. You are wearing a service uniform. You are not their son. You have something bad to tell them.” He looked down at his belt, adjusted it to fix his gig line. “They’ve all seen this in movies. They know what’s coming. For that brief second at least, they know what’s coming, and they can brace themselves for impact. Here,” Kass pointed at himself, at Alan, at the officers behind the door, “they don’t expect it. Everyone here is dressed like the people who knock on your door and tell you that your son is dead.”
“She can’t brace for impact,” Alan said.
Kass nodded. “Nope. She can’t.”
The operations officer approached them, her face stressed and taut. “We’ll get them in our conference room. The mother and the brother. Give me five minutes.”
Mrs. Jane Dustwun and her only living son, Jacob, were seated in the conference room. Alan and Kass walked in. Jane stood to greet him, smiling, her words gushing forward, ideas, waves of enthusiasm overwhelming Alan: You’re Marines! My Johnny is a Marine! He’s in Afghanistan! Jake’s joining the Army today.
She doesn’t know yet she doesn’t know she doesn’t know, Alan thought. God, just stop talking about him, please, catch your breath.
Alan cleared his throat. He felt the crushing vise start to squeeze at his chest. “Ma’am,” he said, “Are you Mrs. Jane Dustwun?”
“Yes,” she said, still smiling, eyes shining, “I am.”
Alan’s eyes flicked over to Jacob, who watched Alan with attentive curiosity. He’s eighteen years old, Alan thought. He’s a man. He’s a kid. He looks like a kid.
“Ma’am,” he continued, “are you the mother of Sergeant Jonathan T. Dustwun?”
“Yes,” she said, still at ease, still smiling, still proud, still excited to be here, at MEPS, sending her second son off to follow his brother into service, away from the tracks and warehouses of Depot Town, away from the traps that only such places can lay.
She hasn’t connected the dots yet, Alan thought, with the pressure rising from his chest to his throat, cinching down on his windpipe, threatening to strangle the words, to keep him silent, to bend him from this dreadful task. He glanced again at Jacob.
Jacob just got it, Alan thought, watching the color drain from Jacob’ face, his eyes growing wide, the twitch at his mouth, a precursor to a shock, to a stab to the gut, a knife’s blow seen swiftly approaching but unavoidable.
“Ma’am,” Alan said, forcing the speech out against all instinct, his very body rebelling against him, trying to hold the words in, as though by not saying them they would not be made true, “on behalf of the President of the United States,” and he saw the enthusiasm in Mrs. Dustwun change to confusion, “I regret to inform you,” and he felt the seed of what would become her anguish blossoming inside him, “that your son, Sergeant Jonathan T. Dustwun,” like the flower in the chest of a corpse, “was killed in Afghanistan,” and as he finished the words, the death sentence, the spell of doom, he watched her fall to the ground, as though he’d struck her in the stomach with a bag of bricks, and her face broke before him like a shattering window.
Alan stood there, rigid as a statute, battling her grief, a consuming despair that echoed within him as he watched it flare within her, and kept his bearing. I can’t, I can’t, he told himself, biting his cheeks, bracing himself, keeping the grief at one arm’s distance, forbidding himself to weep for this stranger, this brother and son, and fellow Marine, though a man he did not know, would never know, ensnared by this incidental pain shared for this idea of a person.
And then Mrs. Dustwun stood, sobbing, shaking, her body wracked by a tempest, and she wrapped her arms around Alan, and whispered, “Thank you.”
And Alan wept.
Brian Kerg enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2003 and commissioned in 2006. He is an OEF veteran and is currently serving as the Marine Officer Instructor for the University of Michigan NROTC.