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War Brings Dread of a Knock at the Door


Through the living room window comes the flash of headlights, a car turning into the driveway, an unannounced visitor in an already tense time. Muscles clench, hearts race--there's a knock on the door.

In times of war, families of soldiers live in fear of that unexpected knock. It signals an incomprehensible change, a knuckle-to-wood rap that hints that life will never be the same.

"Sir or ma'am," a uniformed officer will say, "we have some sad news. Your son or daughter, your husband or wife, has died in the service of his or her country."

It's the thought every mother chases from her mind; it's every father's lowest moment. The United States has been engaged in military operations in Afghanistan since Oct. 7, and the knocking has begun.

Three Air Force officers arrived at the rural Maine home of Odber and Mary Andrews in the early morning hours of Oct. 11. Their son, Master Sgt. Evander Earl Andrews, was killed in a heavy equipment accident in the Arabian Peninsula, supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.

The families of Pfc. Kristofor Stonesifer and Spc. John Edmunds opened their doors about a week later--the Stonesifers in Pennsylvania, the Edmundses in Wyoming--to find somber officers in crisp uniforms. The two Army Rangers were killed Oct. 19 in Pakistan when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed.

"It's rarely good news when we show up on your doorstep," said Sherry Lawrence, spokeswoman for Army Personnel Command in Alexandria, Va.

During World War II, when notification came by telegram, people would run inside their homes if they saw a cab driving slow through the neighborhood, knowing the driver had a telegram and was looking for the right house. The war in Vietnam was no different. Window blinds were quickly pulled down at the sight of an official military car, as if that would somehow shield a home from tragic news.

The few who've been notified of deaths in the last month are still too shaken to speak. Beverly Oliver, who lost her son in the Gulf War, understands why.

"It seemed like forever before I was able to do anything but cry," she said from her home in Bedford, Ind. "You don't sit down, you don't rest, it's hard to even learn to sleep."

Though it was more than a decade ago, Oliver vividly recalls the chilly February night when she learned that her son, 20-year-old Marine Cpl. Brian Lane, had died from shrapnel wounds.

She was watching news of the war on television and in the footage she saw a man's silhouette. For a fleeting moment she thought it might be Brian. She'd been trying to clean house, emptying shelves and closets, but couldn't keep her eyes off the news.

Then it happened.

"It was dark and I saw the headlights," she said, "and I knew who it was."

Still, she waited: "They knocked. I let them knock. I just knew what they were there for."

Maj. Jerry Couvillion, chief of the Air Force Casualty Operations Center in San Antonio, said his goal, and that of all branches of the service, is to provide families with as much compassion and support as possible.

Once a member of the military is confirmed dead, notification teams made up of at least one officer of equal rank or higher and usually a chaplain are assembled from the base closest to the next of kin.

The officers are briefed on how the person died before going to the next of kin's home; they are taught to handle a wide variety of reactions. "It's our top priority to ensure that that knock on the door is as timely, as dignified and as compassionate as possible," Couvillion said. "We're going to give them news that will change their lives forever."

Neil Talbot knows what it's like to fear that change. He's a retired Air Force officer working at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. And he has a daughter--"a bright young lady," he calls her--working aboard a Navy destroyer.

He has no idea where she is right now. But because of his military experience, he knows that she faces risks, and that any day a uniformed officer could show up at his door.

"Sometimes," Talbot said, "you have nightmares."

Lawrence, of the Army, recalled a time during the Gulf War when a family learned of their son's death before officials could get to them. When the notification officers did arrive, they found the front door wide open, the family gathered in the living room with friends.

The soldier's mother explained why the door wasn't closed.

"I know why you're here," she told the officers. "I just couldn't bear to hear the knock on the door."

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