Awaiting the List of the Dead

By: Dennis Anderson (Editor's Note: The author is editor of the Antelope Valley Press, a daily in Palmdale, Calif. He has twice served in Iraq as an embedded journalist with a local National Guard unit. Anderson has written frequently for E&P about the Iraq war and having a 19-year-old son in combat.)

I heard the first snippet of early-morning news on National Public Radio: A helicopter in Iraq went down with 30 or more killed.

Through the day Wednesday, the father in me felt an iron ring constrict around my heart. Then the newspaperman/former Army man/embedded journalist took over, calculating a deteriorating set of personal family odds.

Details advanced through the day, none particularly surprising to me. Hearing it was a CH-53E Super Stallion troop-carrying helicopter, I knew it had to be Marines. Two hundred or so miles west of Bagdhad -- that would be the Marines I know, the ?Hawaii Marines,? my son among them.

On Sunday night, I'd gotten a hurried satellite ?phone card? call from Lance Cpl. Garrett P. Anderson, telling his dad he was ?packing up and leaving ... and just glad it?s not Ramadi.? Me too. Several Marines were killed there this week. This newspaperman?s son, whelped in media, practices good ?opsec,? operational security, the habit of not sinking ships with loose lips. He didn?t tell me where the boys of his battalion were headed.

Later in the day Wednesday, my ex-wife, Sue, one of the world?s great moms, called, confirming it was ?Hawaii Marines,? from the Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Base in Hawaii. In other words, our son?s outfit. The ring around the heart constricted again.

Hearing the news that the CH-53E heavy helicopter that crashed was carrying ?K-Bay? Marines, I canceled dinner with a dear friend and headed home to surf the Internet. All these information devices -- cell phones, the Web, 24-hour satellite and cable -- we labor under the illusion that they give us added control. Which, of course, they do not. They give information, which can be helpful or even life-saving in an emergency. But they do not give us an iota of control.

I punched and kicked my way through an hour of martial arts to raise the sweat level and dampen the fear level. And in our illusions of control, my worst fear was to return home from the dojo and see the official car parked in the street, bearing the dread news. I almost bagged the martial arts workout in the childish belief that if I remained at home I couldn?t return to find the official car.

I even know the guy who would likely be in the car. We are friends. But I don?t want to see him in an official car parked at my house.

The phone call from the Marine?s mother brought qualified good news. She had tracked down a public-affairs officer at Kaneohe Bay, who told her our son was ?not on the list? of the dead. But this newspaperman and former Army guy knows lists are sometimes inaccurate.

Turned out to be 31 killed -- 30 Marines and a Navy corpsman, the medic that all the infantry grunts consider to be blood kin. Twenty-seven of the Marines were ?Hawaii Marines,? making it ?the worst day for Hawaii-based Marines since Pearl Harbor.?

And that?s when the memory of other lists started recurring. The Civil War-era photographs of the kind Matthew Brady made famous. The weeping, stunned relatives searching the lists of Gettysburg dead. More wars, and more lists. Lists from D-Day, and lists from Iwo Jima, yes, and, most recently, lists from Manhattan, from 9/11.

Such lists are sickening, even when one of your own dear ones is not on them. Lovely people, friends at work, friends in the community, have sighed with relief, that in this case, this father?s son was not on one of the lists. Answered prayers. Yet I have friends whose prayers were answered in a different and much more saddening way.

Still, hearing the qualified good news, I feel a lifting of weight, like a large boulder easing off my chest. He is such a fine son, see? So brave. So generous. So fierce. So tender. Losing him would be about the hardest thing. But I have to temper my relief and not dance the dance of joy. Others are on the lists.

Today, my son survives. And that is one family?s cause to rejoice. But my arms and care and prayer encircle the strong backs and taxed shoulders of the families who were, and are, on the lists. We know who each other are. They pray for my son?s survival. I light candles to their sons? memories. For anyone who knows it directly, war is a terrible thing.

In the measure of relief, I think about the grief of all those mostly young Marines who survive and who have lost their chow-hall buddies, and the guys they owed money to, or loaned money to, or played cards with, or smoked a careless cigarette with and exchanged snapshots of their favorite girl.

The morning of a patrol down the flyblown streets of Fallujah, my son not long ago showed his buddy the picture of his favorite girl. And the buddy said, ?She looks nice. I like nice girls.? They both agreed on that. And that afternoon, terrorists took the top of the buddy?s head off, probably with an explosive shell. Life is fragile, and transitory, and, as helicopters, tsunamis, train wrecks and terrorists exist to inform us daily, we are not in control.


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