I hate war. I hate death. I hate funeral homes, wakes, and cemeteries. Heck, I even hate hospitals. When I was a young officer, wearing my dress uniform and attending ceremonies was fun because it always seemed to be about celebration. For the past 11 years it has symbolized death and tragedy. Over the past 11 years I’ve been to way too many memorial services for my fallen brothers.Last Friday I buried my 40-year-old brother in my hometown of Whiteman, Massachusetts. My bother Brendan left behind a wife and three small children. In February of 2011 he was diagnosed with lung cancer that spread to his lymph node and brain.
After I stoically delivered my eulogy, someone asked me if I had ice going through my veins. I had some choice words to say but opted for a simple statement: “No, I’ve just seen a lot of death in my life.”
This was my fourth eulogy. One for my father, one for my blood brother, and two for soldier brothers.
People that have never been to war just don’t understand the death and destruction war causes. They don’t understand what these experiences do to us service members. But the war is only part of the challenge we face as service members. I was in Afghanistan at the time Brendan was diagnosed and was unable to be there for him. Fortunately our family, his friends, and nearly the entire 13,000 residents of Whiteman rallied around Brendan and his family.
Brendan entered into a ferocious battle and defeated the cancer in his chest. Unfortunately the cancer in his brain was simply too much.
He lived in Whitman his whole life. I left when I went to college.
This past week, our small town south of Boston flooded to the wake and funeral. I stood for hours receiving condolences and making small talk with people, most of whom I had never met nor would I recall their names.
They loved and respected my brother. They barely know who I am.
The community rallied around my brother and his family. The community surged to help. There is truly something magical about a community of people who pour their hearts into supporting one of their own.
When my brother could no longer work, this town sprang into action. The Whiteman Mothers Club hosted a fundraiser. Brendan’s friends hosted another a month later. An anonymous donor made it possible for Brendan’s family to take the trip of a lifetime to Disney World.
Meals were planned and delivered each night to Brendan’s home by wonderful people. People lined up to take Brendan to his never-ending doctor appointments in Boston. There were always ample volunteers to babysit the kids.
We do these types of things in the military as well for our fallen comrades, but it is not the same. The military life is extremely transient. You make friends that you keep forever, but you never stay together for very long. My family goes back three generations in Whiteman, Massachusetts.
Here is a great example. My mum babysat for Kathy.
Kathy babysat for my brother and me.
My brother and I babysat for Kathy’s kids.
You can’t replicate that type of history as a soldier.
There are support networks for Soldiers. But it is not the same as having the community you grew up in rally around you.
Service members have a sense of community, but it is always in a state of flux. It is also diluted if you chose not to live in the (generally speaking) outdated, cramped and project-like military housing on the military base. You just simply lose something when you are constantly starting over in a new location.
Someone is always coming or going. You or your friends are constantly changing duty stations. Your circle of support is never stable. Local family support for military members is limited in most cases.
The military is a fast and exciting lifestyle. It is filled with hardships and triumphs, heartbreak and jubilation. As service members we make many sacrifices. After witnessing the support the community I grew up in this past week. I believe the most important thing service members give up in defence of this great nation is the people we leave behind–our friends, family, and most importantly our community.
You want to always be there for your family in a time of need. But you can’t. You want to always be there in the good times as well. But you can’t.
I’ve buried a lot of brothers over the past 11 years, but this was my first and only brother of blood. I’m lucky though—I have a band of brothers that I’ve served with. I can call upon them anytime. But it is not the same as the person I have 38 years of history with.
I’ve always been proud to say that I am from Whitman, Massachusetts. It is a small, blue-collar town that provided my foundation. It wasn’t until my brother’s battle with cancer and subsequent death that I realised how much I cherish the community where I was born and raised.
Brendan and I a month after I returned from Afghanistan. Mark Herzlich wore number 94 for Boston College. Mark was considered an early-round prospect before being diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a form of cancer that attacks the bones. He went undrafted after missing an entire season of football. He now plays for the New York Giants. Brendan never wanted to be a professional football player. He just wanted to be a husband and father.
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