Military Humanist Grieving – Stop Worrying and Love Life

by guest contributor Juan Morales, retired blackhawk pilot

Juan and Alex with their company

I lost a friend last Thursday, and for a moment I was devastated. I just retired nary a couple of weeks ago after 26 years of military service. Like many folks I know, during my final days the thought crossed my mind: “I hope I don’t lose any more friends on my way out.”

It’s not an original thought. If you spend an extended time in uniform you’ll collect memories of friends, colleagues and acquaintances that you’ll lose through all manner of twists of probability. Some folks you’ll have met in passing and some you’ll have known well. Some you’ll even consider family. It’s a reality of life, and for many of us in the military, one that presents itself all too often.

I’m a lifer, and I get that my experience is at last count about 18% of us stay to retirement, but even if you’ve only served on your first enlistment or your original service obligation, you’ve likely attended a memorial service or at least lost someone in your unit that at some point gave you pause. For a moment, you catch sight of how fragile life is. You may even have served funeral detail or as a pallbearer. A few of us may even have served as a Casualty Notification Officer or Casualty Assistance Officer, and dealt with the second hand grief of a family member up close. These are intense human emotions that traditionally people have dealt with through religious counsel of some shape or another.

As an atheist in fact and a humanist in practice, I’ve had to navigate my way through my thoughts and feelings and cook reason out of emotion. To navigate the impact of meaningful experiences shared with someone who was here yesterday and gone today. I continue to struggle with the finality of losing someone with whom I’ve shared intensely personal experiences at different levels of intimacy. The thoughts are overwhelming at first, while your mind catches up to the facts of the matter, then as acceptance sets in, you begin to find peace with the memories of moments you shared.

The first service-related death I experienced was before I’d even attended basic training. I’d signed on during my first semester of college and was enrolled in ROTC. I was to report to basic training in January, but I was committed to finishing classes that winter, and that included a late December FTX (training) with my ROTC detachment. During a night road march, one of my classmates was taken to the hospital where he died on the table of a cardiac condition that was previously undiagnosed. At 3AM we all gathered around the headlights of a passenger van while a Captain related the events in that military voice we’ve all grown familiar with. When he mentioned Cadet Guillermo Prado passed away, there was silence followed by disbelief followed by everyone embracing each other. There were tears, and the rules of stoicism were lifted until sunrise. I couldn’t have put it into words then, but we had gone through the same processing of emotions that soldiers have experienced since the forming of tribes.

The same scene plays over and over in my career like milestones. CPL Wayne Spurgeon, of the 82nd Airborne committed suicide over one weekend, and those of us who were close to him did not see it coming. SSG Jason Pringle of the 1-508 Parachute Infantry was killed on a parachute jump into Kosovo. MSG Andy Fernandez of US Army Special Operations Command drove a Humvee into the night to break his surrounded unit out of encirclement and never returned. CW3 Steve Redd of 1/160th SOAR was killed when his AH-6 Little Bird suffered an engine failure in a dive during a live fire training exercise in Fort Benning, GA. The list goes on. Every single one of these losses sends a shock wave through a community of people. Friends. Colleagues. Acquaintances. Family.

Proximity is both a factor and not a factor. I stood on a wooden deck on a night in Afghanistan and watched the eerie glow of a recently crashed aircraft burning in the near horizon, believing I’d lost two close friends, then feeling both relief that one got out ok and the simultaneous grief at the one we lost. I’ve had conversations in passing where one finds out we have a friend in common, only to find out that friend you lost touch with was killed a year or two earlier.

Loss has no boundaries in scope, no expiration date, and seems to jump decades with an almost magical speed. SGT George Murray, a paratrooper I knew and liked intensely in the 1990s died from ALS in 2009. I didn’t find out until 2015 and it still hit me with the metaphorical emotion of a punch in the gut.

Every one of the deaths I’ve experienced had some kind of meaning to me. Every single one brought with it questions, situations, mental puzzles to work out. Some you internalize by yourself. If you’re lucky, some you can share with people in your life who understand. It is a profoundly true statement that joy shared is joy multiplied, as grief shared is grief divided.

For a long time, I felt that as servicemembers, we have a special connection to loss that others outside the military do not understand. I’ve since reconsidered, and this is an important point, because it doesn’t matter if you’ve lost thirty friends or one, one is enough to be able to relate to the emotion of loss. Most anyone you know outside the military can relate to losing a family member. A father, a grandmother, an uncle or a cousin, a high school friend, loss will carry tragedy, and it’s proportional to how the departed touched your life. Don’t limit your avenues of support because you might think people “just won’t understand.” That’s a trap that isolates you from people who can help you carry the emotional load. Sure, you might run into people who will feed you the religious line of, “He’s in a better place” or, “She’s with the Lord now.” That’s more about them than it is about the people they lost. Show compassion because religious people are grieving too and trying to make sense of loss.

What has gotten me through loss, is when I focus on the joy I’ve felt in having met those who I’ve lost and how they affected me. How much I cherish their memory.

SSG Alex Dalida was one of those people you love to have around for any occasion. A person of depth and character, with a quick wit and a sharp tongue, but just as quick to be there for you when you needed someone to shoulder part of your load. He was a buddy who would always have your back and also call you out when you were justifying your own weak behaviors. He was an honest and ready friend. I met him as a private when he arrived at my unit. We stayed in touch when he assessed to 160th SOAR and I felt the pride of knowing someone with such a warrior spirit. I had beers with him in February of this year shortly after he’d assessed for Special Forces and I was passing through Fort Bragg on the way to somewhere else. He was killed in training for the Special Forces Engineer Course last Thursday at Fort Bragg. I remember everything. I remember being deployed with him. I remember attending a hockey game with him where the entire unit almost got kicked out for tomfoolery. Most recently though, I remember that beer I had with him in February and I’m thankful that we had that moment.

Be present. Share your load. Celebrate life.

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Guest post by CW4 (Ret) Juan Morales. CW4 Morales is a former Army Ranger and UH-60 Standardization Instructor Pilot and has deployed four times in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation New Dawn and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel/Resolute Support.

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