Veteran Voices: The Phone Call

This post is part of a series called Veteran Voices. The story that follows is told directly by a Veteran. These words offer insights into the souls of our warrior class.

Rather than thanking a Veteran for their service, read their stories, connect with their losses, and find your own strength in their courage.


They’d be 15 and 16 this year.   

The commander always has his or her phone.  When I took command, I vaguely remember passing the colors, reading a speech, and singing the Army song. I distinctly remember picking up the simple Motorola flip phone from the podium where my predecessor had left it for me. 

I never could have imagined what that phone would mean to me.

In 2009, I was in the B boarding group – somewhere between 31 and 60 – shuffling along to board my Friday morning flight when my work phone rang.  We were off today because it was a holiday weekend and the higher command gave everyone a four-day weekend. I did not recognize the number as I flipped it open to answer the call, while continuing to shuffle forward with my boarding pass in hand.

“Hello, this is detective Tom.  Is PFC Smith one of your Soldiers?”

I racked my brain. I had about 150 Soldiers and, while I knew their names, the most junior were the ones I had the least interactions with. I recognized the name but couldn’t place a face.

“Yep,” I said. “What happened?” Already I was running through my mental list of which senior NCOs could go pick Smith up from jail following a DUI or domestic and which officers were around to write the CCIR for the event.  Given it was a holiday weekend, there were not many people around to handle these tasks.

“Ma’am – You need to come to the sheriff’s office.  PFC Smith has been murdered and we need someone to handle the children. We figured the military would know what to do with the kids.”

I dropped my boarding pass. The shuffling stopped.

The sheriff’s office was a trailer. Seriously. Like one of those trailers that overcrowded public schools use for classrooms.  Temporary and cheap. A detective met me along with my battalion commander, battalion CSM, and my first sergeant. 

And we saw the children. Two boys. One was 5 and one was 6.  When I first saw them, the little guy was sitting in the lap of an officer, playing with a toy of some sort. The older boy was coloring. I didn’t look long. I couldn’t. I didn’t know then why I couldn’t look at them, approach them, or hold them. I hurt to see them. I was ashamed. I knew – seeing them there and knowing what had happened, that I had failed them.

PFC Smith was murdered by her husband. We will never know what exactly happened, but he killed her, in front of their boys. He then called the police, reporting the event, and killed himself. In front of the boys.

They’d be 15 and 16 this year.

My battalion commander and I didn’t always get along. Seriously – for those who read this, know me, and sat through command & staff – I know those words are a little understated.  However, that night, he might have lived one of his greatest moments. The boys were in the clothes they’d worn when their parents were killed.  They were not clean. They had no snugglies, or blankies, or favored animals. Nothing except the stained clothes of murder.

That night, my battalion commander and CSM walked out of that shitty trailer into a shitty town. They passed the crime scene tape, and local news trucks, and cops just sitting around – and went back into that terrible house. They passed the blood and bodies and fear and death. And they found clothes, blankies, and favored animals.

That night, they pulled from a house of death what remained of love. Two children, who’d seen the death of their parents before their own young eyes, were given fresh cloths, and something to hold – when all else was gone.

They’d be 15 and 16 this year.

The children became wards of the state that night. Shortly thereafter, the state split them up. PFC Smith had no living relatives – and the boys had different fathers. The state sent each to the nearest relative, who of course, were not the same person. We closed PFC Smith out of the military. We returned her gear to the warehouse. We gave her death benefits to the guardians of the boys. Her life ended. Her boys, brothers, were split.

I joined the Army to protect people. To defend those who could not defend themselves. To step up when no one else would. To give my life so you did not have to give yours. But I could not protect PFC Smith from her husband. I could not protect her boys from what they saw. I could not even keep those boys together after her death.

They’d be 15 and 16 this year.

PFC Smith was a good Soldier.  She was middle of the road on PT (most of us were). She came to work every day and did her job. She smiled and joked, even if she was just re-stocking bench stock. I think she was qualified to drive the 10 ton forklift and I know she could drive an LMTV.  She raised two boys – while living in what was probably an abusive relationship, and she never said a word. She came to work. She was prepared to deploy. She served her country. 

She is the strongest generation.

Today, many years later, I still fall apart the on the anniversary of this weekend. The sadness is overwhelming. The image of those boys in that shitty trailer, brings me to my knees. I could not fix this. I failed them all.

But then I think of Smith. I think of her everyday courage. I think of how she came to work each day carrying a load I will never understand. Staying too long in the memory of her death dishonors her life. How her life ended doesn’t define her. Rather, how she lived is how we should all be.  We have almost no control over what happens to us.  The state splits us up. The world we love attacks us. We can’t change what happens to us, but we can choose how we live in this world

Each year, I re-affirm to live like Smith. The bear my burden to the end. To face each day with strength and courage.

They’d be 15 and 16 this year. I hope someday they read this and know how amazing their mom was. 


Smith is a real story and a real person but I have changed a few things to help project her identity. She and her children are the silent casualties of GWOT. No one will ever thank them, memorialized her, or write a book about simple courage. So I am telling her story.

One thought on “Veteran Voices: The Phone Call

  1. Pingback: Veteran Voices: Series Introduction – The Owl's Voyage

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