“How’s your day going, Chaplain?” asked a colleague.
I would’ve considered it a wasted question, but my inquisitor was Nancy Bloom, the licensed clinical social worker embedded with our Air National Guard unit in the 2010s. An Auburn, Calif., resident, she was a 40-something woman of slight build and light brown hair.
“Fine, I guess,” shorthand for leave-me-alone.
I searched her blue eyes for signs she's taken my hint, but since her job was to monitor airmen for stress, she wasn’t going to leave me alone.
“I heard you made another notification yesterday.”
“Yeah,” I said with trailing silence.
She allowed my reticence some space before slipping herself into my office chair.
Resigned to unscheduled therapy, I began unpacking my day in military monotone.
“The Casualty Assistance Office at Fort Lewis, Wash., sent me and Webster to do another NOK notification.”
Bloom knew Rob Webster was the Chaplain Assistant, but she clarified NOK. “Next of Kin?” she asked, coating the acronym with empathy.
“We went to the home, but there was no answer,” I said.
I wanted to end the story there, but Bloom seemed unlikely to leave, so I continued.
“Just as we were returning to our car, a pickup pulled into the driveway and a 40-ish woman stepped out to meet us. She saw the uniforms and quickly surmised this was about her deployed son.
“We barely made it into the house before she fell apart.”
Bloom noted signs that my military bearing was heading for the rocks.
“How many does that make for you now?”
“Are they always like that?”
I shook my head, words were stuck.
As Bloom waited for details, I felt myself standing on a dark porch in military dress uniform. I was waiting for a door to open and family members to scream at the sight of us.
I must have been shaking as I told her how I’d once stopped a family in their driveway as they tried to leave for the airport to pick up their son. He wasn’t coming home.
I searched for the breath to tell Bloom how I’d recently driven six hours to tell a father there would be no miraculous recovery for his son. The soldier finally died of the brain injury he’d received in an IED explosion the prior year.
“Norris. Norris,” she called as if looking for me in a storm.
Tears were coming steadily. “Most of all Nancy, I can’t forget the children, the birthday party we interrupted.” The image of the 9-year-old twins exchanging vacant stares, and the 4-year-old who just didn’t understand.
“I think you need a break,” she said.
“But I have to ...”
“For now, our commander must find another chaplain to do this.”
The counselor knew that her chaplain was broken. She had confidence that he could be fixed, but for now, he was broken.
“You’ve done your part. I can’t let you go again.” Her words carried authority, but more importantly, they offered a forgiving cover.
Bloom was true to her word. Her advice to my commander brought me a year-long break before I retired in 2015.
I found Nancy Bloom recently in her Auburn private practice. As I told her I would write this story, my tears returned like they do every Memorial Day.
During this year’s remembrance, I hope you will give sacred thanks for the men and women who’ve made the supreme sacrifice. Please say their names aloud and sing Amazing Grace. Voice your prayers and gratitude for the survivors—wives, parents, children and friends.
But this year—perhaps more so because of COVID-19—join with me in adding one more word of thanks.
I say “thank you” to the caregivers, the doctors, nurses, chaplains and mental-health workers like Nancy Bloom. Thank you for your healing touch, your caring words, your listening ears and your open heart.
Thank you for bearing the warfighter’s pain and making it a part of your own pain. Thank you for your determined presence that guided the rest of us in finding our way home.