I want to spend some time this week before Memorial Day Weekend, focusing on military families who have lost a loved one to war. Yes, they are the parents, spouses, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends who have been left to face a future filled with grief, despair, disbelief, anger and in some cases feelings of shame. These families are the real heroes. Each post will be a little different, because I want to include resources and information about a number of support organizations that are available to help families begin to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives.
I especially wanted to begin my posts sharing a very compelling book, Heart of a Hawk, about one family’s sacrifice and journey toward healing, by Deborah H. Tainsh. Deborah and David Tainsh’s son, U.S. Army Sergeant Patrick Tanish, died while serving the military in Iraq on Feb. 11, 2004. Sgt. Tainsh was at the end of his year-long tour making plans to return home to his family and girlfriend, when he was on patrol near the airport in Baghdad that fateful night. A roadside bomb exploded near the convoy of Humvees. He remained behind and defended his unit so they could reach safety, while he had taken a fatal bullet. He received a Silver Star for his heroic efforts.
Early in her book, Deborah comments that many stories are written about the lives of soldiers and the personal battles they fight. But, not a lot is written about the families at home. Deborah’s words are so beautifully written, that I want to do them justice by directly quoting her:
“Little is written about the heroes left at home, those who must smile bravely when they hug or kiss for the last time a loved one deployed to a war thousands of miles away. These heroes wake up every morning with a prayer on their lips, say several more during the day, and fall to sleep at night saying another. They either watch too much news, look for a certain e-mail every morning, wait for the mail carrier, and hope the next ring of the phone is that call they’ve waited on for weeks. They write letters every day and mail a package once a week. They stand stoic and smile gratefully when someone asks how things are going. Then, for some, the day comes when a military chaplain and a casualty officer knock nervously on their door and deliver the worst conceivable message. These heroes are left with only a folded flag, a cabinet of awards and medals, a last letter, and a bittersweet pride that only military families understand.”
It is because these stories go untold that Deborah began to chronicle her family’s life beginning with their rebellious, drug-addicted teenager who had overcome his addictions and found his calling in the military. That transformation in Patrick and his passion for his work, only added to their grief, sacrifice, and journey towards healing. Dave, a retired Sergeant Major in the U.S. Marines, had the hardest time accepting his son’s death, and wouldn’t talk or share his feelings with Deborah. The book is candid and raw, portraying the depth of grief, anger and suffering, and the toll it can take on a marriage and family. I was surprised that Deborah chose to write the book in third person and would love to know why. Although a moving story, I felt it would have been even more powerful if she had told her story in the first person. On the day of Patrick’s memorial service, a red-tailed hawk appeared on an oak tree. It filled her with the memory of the spirit hawk legend and its great healing powers. For Deborah, the hawk symbolized that Patrick had embraced his spirit hawk with all of his soul. Thus, the title of the book.
A year after Patrick’s death, Deborah and Dave became aware of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a nonprofit organization that provides support for grieving military families. A portion of the proceeds of her book, go to TAPS. She also has written another book, Surviving the Folded Flag, where parents of war share stories of coping, courage and faith. Both she and Dave are active with TAPS and mentor many military families. In an upcoming blog, I will focus on TAPS and other support organizations.