This tale of courage, heroism, and sacrifice was written to acknowledge the recent, official repeal of an Act of Congress known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The story is posted on this Veteran’s Day to celebrate the service and sacrifices made by any and all who have worn their nation’s uniform—and also by their families—regardless of which uniform…
The firefight continued to blaze all around him. Marine Staff Sergeant Jonathan Torvil had found a good vantage point, just behind a small crag about a meter above the foot of the mountain, on the south side. Unfortunately a round from a Taliban AK-47 had found him before he could take advantage of his new cover. One of his own soldiers had seen him take the hit and yelled out for a medic. And two or three other soldiers were trying to draw the Taliban fire away to help the combat medic reach their wounded comrade. But that effort seemed not to be working. The battle was too intense.
Aware that his wound was indeed serious, he had used the unwrapped cloth from the turban he had worn as a disguise to improvise a tourniquet. And the pain was excruciating. He just prayed that a corpsman could reach him and get him out of there.
However, the battle had continued to be waged with a constant intensity. After a few minutes, they all began to worry that the combat medic might not be able to reach their commanding sergeant in time.
Although the wounded warrior’s makeshift tourniquet had stemmed his loss of blood, that would help only for so long. He could feel himself feeling faint, fighting fatigue, battling to remain conscious. He unbuttoned his left breast pocket and took out a small pocket New Testament. He took out from between its pages a photograph, that special portrait of those most beloved to him. Remembering that day when they sat for that protrait so many years ago, he wished that he might but hold them close to himself yet one more time. So again he cried, pondering the image of his family. That was the thought in his mind just as the gunfire began to lull and he slipped from his waking state.
“Sergeant Torvil, I’m sorry it took so long to get here,” the combat medic apologized. “Are you—?”
The medic frowned. The man had already fallen unconscious. Quickly he examined the tourniquet and looked at SSgt Torvil’s identification tags: blood type AB+. He shook his head and motioned for another corpsman to get the wounded warrior onto the stretcher. A marine from his own platoon took the front end of the sergeant’s stretcher as he and the corpsman waited for the medic to act. Since he had no units of blood in his medical kit, the field medic injected a coagulant into his patient’s wound and, as quickly as he could, worked to stabilize him, re-securing the tourniquet. Then they had to try to evacuate him from the area before the shooting started again.
Peter Torvil had finished drying himself off after his shower and had pulled on his underwear and blue jeans. He opened his closet door to select a shirt to wear and began to slide the hangers across the bar, looking for the right one, somewhat in exasperation. Then he noticed a couple of dresses hanging at the far end of the bar. Letting out a small sigh, he smiled to himself. It had been almost a month since school was out for the summer and he hadn’t even thought about it yet. Both Mom and Jenny had been disappointed when he didn’t dress up with them for Easter. Indeed, Petey had not dressed up with his mother and sister for months.
So Petey bolted out of his room and down the hallway to knock on his sister Jennifer’s door. The door opened.
“Jen, could I borrow one of your dresses?” Petey asked her.
Jenny’s eyes widened a moment before she threw herself at her brother in an impetuous hug, with momentum enough to take them both down to the floor.
“Petra! You’re back!” Jenny squealed as they rolled over on the floor, not letting up on her embrace. Not even for a moment.
“She’s glad to be back, too, Sis,” confessed Petey, quite out of breath. “Could you let me up now?”
Jenny sat her brother down at her vanity. He watched the mirror as she braided his hair into a pair of cute pigtails and secured them by tying them off with pink ribbons. She relaxed, concluding that her brother had always intended for Petra to return. Otherwise, why would he have continued growing his hair longer? And now Petey had escorted her beloved sister back to her.
As “Petra” he was now wearing his favorite of Jennifer’s sundresses while his sister had dressed in her own favorite, now that Petey had decided to get in touch with his girly side again. He could see that his sister was fighting back tears as she finished doing his braids.
Petey got up from the vanity and turned to face his sister. Jenny took his hands in hers and looked into his eyes. Tears flowed as she spoke.
“Petra, promise me now that you’ll never make me and Mom wait so long between visits again,” Jenny demanded. “Okay?”
“I’m sorry, Sis,” her brother apologized. “I didn’t know that you missed ‘Petra’ so much. And until I got upset trying to find a shirt today, I didn’t know that I’ve missed her just as much as you have.”
Petey suddenly felt tears welling up in his own eyes and fought to hold them back. Indeed, Petra tended to hold her tears back until she had enough for a really good, cathartic cry. She hated to feel the tears welling up and the anticipation of breaking into tears. Yet the feeling of her tears bursting and flowing she somehow enjoyed and liked her crying to continue as long as possible. But she most loved the feeling of happiness as her crying ended, especially when she was with her sister or Mom. He also wondered how it would feel with “Aunt” Karly-Marie there.
Actually, this worried Petey sometimes. As “Petey” he felt too embarassed to cry. Yet as “Petra” he would look for any opportunity to cry “happy tears.” That’s why both Jenny and Mom said that he was truly a girl at heart.
Even more so than Dad.
Jenny and Petra stepped back from their embrace and they both happened to glance down at their bare feet.
“Petra, you need to do your nails. Would you let me?”
Within their shared mind, Petey and Petra didn’t always agree about their respective girlhood. Nail polish was often a source of disagreement for their internal dialogues.
“Not right now. I really need breakfast before doing anything else,” replied Petey. But then remembering that a few months had passed since his sister had fun helping Petra get all girly. “But after that, I think I would like you to help me with my fingernails. Don’t worry about my toenails for now. I’m just wearing my pumps today, anyway.”
“I forgot! You don’t have any sandals.” Jenny concluded, “We need to take you shopping, don’t we?”
“Yeah. I may want a pedicure when I have a pair of sandals to wear. Otherwise it doesn’t really matter too much.”
“Speaking of shoes, I need to put mine on,” Petra said. She sat down at her sister’s vanity again and pulled on her ankle socks with frilly, turned-down lace. Petey had his own girls’ shoes, including a comfortable pair of simple black pumps, and his own ankle socks, pantyhose, and matching sets of training bras and panties with just a little padding in the hips. Mom, Jenny, and Aunt Karly-Marie had always made sure that he had at least a few basics on hand anytime he wanted to dress up. He glanced at the family photo propped up on his sister’s desk. The picture showed Mom, Aunt Karly-Marie, Jenny, and himself, all wearing the most elegantly feminine dresses. His matched Dad’s, or “Auntie’s,” and Jenny’s matched Mom’s. They were what age when it was taken? Three and four years?
Jenny was strapping on her favorite pair of high-heeled sandals. “Bro, thanks for letting Petra visit again.” She said. “Will she being staying for the summer?”
“She might want to stay,” answered Petey, smiling. “I guess it all depends on how everything goes for her today.
The doorbell rang.
“Speaking of visitors,” Petra began, “I wonder who that could be?”
“Visitors already?” Jenny mused. “Well, at least we’re dressed now.”
Just then came the most frightening shriek that they’d ever heard.
Patricia Torvil turned the burner off when she heard the doorbell ring. The eggs would continue cooking while she answered it. She put the cover on the skillet and went to get the door.
As she strode through the living room, Patricia wiped the sweat from her brow and paused a moment, just long enough to compose herself and to smile. Standing at the door, she unlatched the bolt and opened it.
“Hello?” Patty greeted two officers, a woman and a man in their full dress uniforms. The woman was an officer of the Marine Corps, her epaulettes carrying the gold oak leaves of a major. She was of average height and trim. She appeared to be of Hispanic origin, but with reddish-brown hair. The taller, gray-haired naval officer’s three bands of gold lace around the cuffs of his dress jacket, informed Patty that he held the rank of a commander, but she felt her jaw tremble when her eyes fixed on the device just above his gold lace. The symbol that had signaled love and joy to her for so long now triggered despair, for instead of the gold star of a naval line officer, the commander’s sleeve bore the cross of a naval chaplain.
Thus, Patty immediately recognized the protocol of the visit, and falling to her knees, screamed aloud the greatest cry of despair of her life:
Petey, rather than Petra, kicked his pumps off and went bounding down the stairs in stocking feet and his sister’s sundress. Jenny followed behind as fast as anyone could ever move down stairs in three-inch heels. When they reached the living room, they saw their mother on the floor, almost in a fetal position, and a lady officer from the Marine Corps, sitting on the floor as well, hugging her, both in tears. Petey and Jenny also recognized the insignia of the naval chaplain kneeling on the floor next to them, his caring hands steadying each woman’s shoulder.
Both brother and sister had quickly deciphered the scene before them. Then Jenny fell to her own knees, breaking into tears…
“No! No! Not Daddy! Don’t let it be Daddy! Please, not Daddy!”
Petey knelt and put an arm around his sister, confirming that the scene before them could unfold as it did, only if, indeed, their father had fallen.
“I know, Jen,” Petey tried to console his sister. “I know.” He hugged her again and kissed her cheek.
Petey and Jenny figured that it had taken at least thirty minutes for the marine officer and the naval chaplain to help them get their mother off the floor and into the kitchen where they were all now sitting. Petey had tried maybe fifteen minutes to get back into Petra’s frame of mind, but to no avail. For now, he was only a boy dressed as a girl. Jenny tried to restore breakfast while Petey made and served fresh coffee to everyone.
Patty and her teen-aged children all sat down with the two officers silently for a moment. Then for the first time, she was conscious that now she had become a widow.
Her husband, her lover, her life’s companion was gone.
The boy-next-door, her boyfriend, her secret girlfriend, her childhood sweetheart.
Her memories remained.
Her playmate, her best friend since childhood, her classmate from nursery school, kindergarten, grade school, middle school, and high school. Her friend and study partner through college and graduate school. The boy for whom she was always giddy and had delicately blushed through years of Sunday school.
Only memories remained of their games and discoveries, of their learning joys and wonders along with the tools of life.
Her first kiss, her first escort to a cotillion, her guy for her first group date, her first “formal” date (including both dinner and movie), her prom date, her fellow bridesmaid at her older sister’s wedding, her steady boyfriend, her fiancé, her ever so handsome bridegroom for their own wedding.
Again, only memories and photographs remained.
Her significant other, her coworker, her accompanist, bandmate, and fellow musician, her partner at the card table and on the tennis court.
Memories of taking their place in the world together.
Her life’s partner, predestined at birth.
Her children’s father taken from her.
Their Dad, their Daddy.
Her children’s “Auntie” and playmate.
The father taken from their children. Taken from Jenny. Taken from Petey.
Taken from them all.
Their children’s innocence?
Petey quietly stuffed the barely warm scrambled eggs and hash-browned potatoes into his mouth. Tears still trickled down Jenny’s cheeks. Patty noticed that her daughter seemed even to struggle with her toast.
This was the first time for Major Brenda Sánchez, USMC, on notification duty as a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO). After the initial heart-rending duty of notifying the family of the loss of their loved one, her job was to take on her own Marine Corps’ bureaucracy on behalf of the grieving spouse. She was also there to help manage anything that the chaplain could not or should not do.
Maj Sánchez would begin by describing SSgt Torvil’s heroic actions on the field of battle, and how he had chosen to complete the mission himself after the expert who had been trained for it had been wounded by an enemy sniper. And then she had to explain how all this had lead to the death of this family’s husband and father. She and Commander George Williams, USN, were the Marine Corps’ and the Navy’s designated shoulders-to-cry-on.
Maj Sánchez opened a green leather briefcase bearing the red and gold seal of the United States Marine Corps and extracted a manilla folder from it. Opening the folder, she turned to the page she wanted. “Jonathan had only recently made staff sergeant, Mis’ess Torvil, as I’m sure you already know. This was his first mission after the promotion and his new assignment. But the specialist trained for the mission had been wounded earlier and couldn’t continue,” Maj Sánchez narrated. “But he and Jonathan had been briefed quite well, so your husband knew exactly where to go and what he needed to do. He would not consider delegating such a critical and dangerous task to another marine nor even ask for volunteers. He decided to carry it out himself. He did ask an experienced sharpshooter to go along with him, who stayed camouflaged outside the camp’s perimeter to support Jonathan as needed. Knowing his objective, Jonathan donned a disguise, strode into a Taliban camp, located the right tent, and found the information that was the goal of the mission. He did this uncertain which of the local spoken languages he might encounter, and knowing just enough written Arabic to identify the documents that he needed to get. And he achieved that objective.
“But as if that weren’t enough, Jonathan discovered an ordnance depot right there and set a few detonators to blow the whole thing up as he left. He also noticed that much of the matériel was American-made and NATO-issued, as well as a lot of older Soviet-made ordnance still stockpiled there. A sample of items that he had brought out with him enabled our intelligence services to identify the original sources of supply and helped us disrupt the entire logistics network for the Taliban and al-Qaida.
“When he and his sharpshooter made their way back to his team’s base camp, he found them pinned down by enemy fire from a machine-gun nest that was positioned further up the mountain. No one knew just how those enemy gunners got there, but somehow Jonathan managed to lead his team to safe cover near the foot of the same mountain. He then found a crag nearby where he had a clear line of sight to watch both the men from his own platoon and the enemy’s machine-gun nest. But he was shot and wounded getting there. Jonathan took only a single bullet in the leg, but he had lost too much blood before he could be evacuated. Marine Staff Sergeant Jonathan Karl-Marie Torvil succumbed to his wound en route to an army field hospital in Kandahar Province, twenty-six June, at twenty-two hundred forty-five hours local time.
“As a result of his gallantry in action and personal sacrifice on the field of battle, Jonathan’s commanding officer has recommended him posthumously for both the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.”
Major Sánchez then withdrew from the briefcase a plastic bag and unzipped it. There were a few small tattered photographs inside the plastic bag, along with a few other personal items, including a small New Testament.
She passed one of the photos, a small print of the same one framed on the mantlepiece, to CDR Williams as she wondered about it a moment. Who all’s in the photo? Obviously, Mrs. Torvil and her daughters are, but who’s the other woman? She does resemble Staff Sergeant Torvil somewhat. Is she his sister? Maybe a cousin?
The chaplain spoke up, passing the photo along to the young widow. “Mis’ess Torvil, your husband was holding this when he passed away. It looks like a smaller version of the one that I saw framed in your living room.”
For the first time since seeing the two officers at her door, Patricia spoke coherently.
“Yes. That’s a family portrait we all sat for,” Patricia confirmed. “It was while Jenny and Petey were still toddlers, in the spring of two thousand one, before Nine-Eleven. Jonathan enlisted right after that.”
“The Marine Corps as well as the other services picked up many new recruits after Nine-Eleven,” Maj Sánchez remarked. “So many younger Americans felt it a duty they had to act on. Quite a few did so immediately. Many took it very personally.”
“I know,” agreed Mrs. Torvil. “My Jonnie was one.”
“I’m guessing that’s his sister in the photo?” asked the major. “In the blue dress? That’s obviously you in the pink.”
Patty knew that sooner or later, the secret would be out, and she just didn’t feel it mattered anymore. “That’s Jonnie,” she said with a sigh. “He liked to dress up with me ever since we were little kids. We wanted a family portrait with all of us dressed as girls. So, Petey’s and Jonnie’s were blue. Jenny’s and mine were pink. We had a lot of fun that day, when we sat for it. And I think it was the first time we ever took Petey anywhere dressed as a girl.”
Maj Sánchez’ brown eyes widened in surprise. Something had been bothering her since she saw the children, and now she understood what. She now remembered from SSgt Torvil’s file, that he did not have two daughters, but a daughter and a son. It was her not-quite-forgotten knowledge of this fact that had been bothering her.
“Petey’s her? She’s your son?” Maj Sánchez asked, seeking confirmation.
“That’s me, all right!” Petey interjected. “Although today is the first time I’ve dressed up in a while. Usually, I go by ‘Petra’ when I’m a girl. But I just don’t feel like I can be her right now, though.”
CDR William looked Maj Sánchez in the eye, and silently, his lips formed the words, “Don’t ask, don’t tell!”
An anxious silence settled over the table, but relaxed a few moments later.
“So Dad’s a war hero, then?” Petey asked.
The major smiled at Petey. “Yes, he is,” confirmed Maj Sánchez. “And don’t either of you girls ever forget the kind of man your father was.”
“We won’t forget,” Jenny assured everyone. “He was our Daddy. And we’ll miss him. But we’ll never forget him.”
“Major,” CDR Williams addressed his colleague, “we should tell them about what else he did.”
“Thanks, Commander,” she said. “Absolutely!
“Well, what you don’t know, because Jonathan didn’t even know it, is that he had just been recommended for the Navy Cross. A while ago, he had showed up quite unexpectedly and saved a NATO convoy of British and Canadian troops. He was in transit between missions, riding in a Humvee to base for his next assignment. He saw the convoy ambushed on a mountain pass, under fire from two Taliban machine-guns. He ordered his driver off the road and climbed up the hillside. He crept into one machine-gun nest, took out its gunner, and then attacked the other across the pass. He took out its gunner as well. Doing that drew the fire of the other enemy fighters away from the convoy. Not only did his own commanding officer recommend him for the Navy Cross, but the Canadian officer who was in charge of the NATO convoy also nominated him for Canada’s Cross of Valour.”
“You mean he’s a hero for two countries?” Petey asked.
“At least two,” assured the chaplain. “Maybe even three. Both Canadian and British soldiers rode in the convoy. The commander of the British troops, I believe, has written in support of his nomination for the Canadian award.”
Then Maj Sánchez continued, “Given what your dad’s done in Afghanistan, especially for many of the kids there, we can really say four countries. Even though he might not get a medal from the government in Kabul, he’s a real everyday hero to most, if not all, of the kids who knew him in the villages where he went. And I would think that the heroism acknowledged in the heart of a child is more real, and more important, than any of the medals or ribbons awarded by generals, admirals, presidents, or prime ministers.”
Everyone remained silent for a long moment until Petey spoke up again.
“I want to be just like Dad when I grow up,” the boy said.
“Kid, you have the courage thing down already,” Maj Sánchez assured him with a subdued grin. She noted that, despite the immediate circumstances. Petey seemed surprisingly at ease dressed as he was. She had watched him consoling his mother and sister as the situation unfolded, and then helping Jenny take over serving breakfast from their mom while she tried to compose herself. Petey honestly seemed to have a girl’s heart, modeling the best in feminine behavior. “You like dressing as a girl, don’t you?”
“Yes, I think so, ma’am,” admitted Petey, now exhibiting only a slight blush. He had not really shown any signs of embarassment until then. “But I hadn’t worn a dress for a few months. This is the first time, I think, since the first day of spring. I borrowed this dress from Jenny today, because I don’t have any of my own for the summer.”
“Petey can wear almost all my clothes, except for shoes. Our shoe sizes are too different,” Jenny said in an almost mindless sadness. “But I like it when ‘Petra’ comes to visit. We had just finished getting dressed upstairs when we heard the doorbell.”
Patty, Jenny, and Petey paused for a moment, trying to take in what they’d heard. They were justifiably proud of their husband and father, but still, their pride felt quite hollow to them.
“That wasn’t his regular job in the Marines, was it?” Petey asked. “Dad was in the Marine Corps Band.”
“Yes, he was a musician for the Marine Corps,” the major confirmed. “But any and every marine might be asked to do other duties sometimes. Even though he was a musician, he went on the battlefield that day because he was needed for something else. He had volunteered to go on that mission.”
“But I think I know what he really did in Afghanistan, even though he never told me,” Jenny mused aloud. “What Daddy did best was teach music. I think he taught their kids music. I just don’t know how he got pianos into villages in Afghanistan, unless maybe they flew them in by helicopter.”
Maj Sánchez was surprised how close to the truth of her father’s classified mission the girl had come. All that she had wrong was that it had not been pianos but other kinds of musical instruments.
“Your daddy’s main job in Afghanistan was a secret,” the major told the girl. “That’s why he couldn’t tell you. Sometimes Marines are not allowed to tell. Not even their families.”
“But Daddy was best at music, so that’s what he must’ve done,” Petey continued his sister’s reasoning.
“Yes, he did seem to love doing music in the Marine Corps,” the major confirmed.
Mrs. Torvil looked up at the two officers. “Commander Williams, Major Sánchez, please come with me. I want to show you something.”
“Commander, Major, this is Jonnie’s office and studio,” Mrs. Torvil said opening the door.
The two officers saw around them a space unlike any that either had seen before. To call it an office or a studio was so inadequate. Yes, it had served those functions for SSgt Torvil, but it had a feeling about it that belied the mere simplicity of a workplace for a man or musician.
The large room was dominated by a traditional black concert grand piano. A beautiful desk in an ebony finish was against the wall at the keyboard end of the piano, flanked by matching wooden file cabinets. Maj Sánchez noticed yet another copy of the family portrait propped up on the desk. Against the wall were a couple of music stands. Instrument stands held a ’cello and a violin with their bows next to the piano, ready for playing.
On the wall at the smaller end of the piano was a trophy case, flanked by the United States’ and the Marine Corps’ flags. Inside the glass of the case were displayed a variety of ribbons, medals, and other trophies, while a number of plaques and certificates were arrayed upon the wall around it.
But front and center on the main shelf of the case, in its open presentation box, was the Bronze Star that Jonathan had received during a previous tour in Afghanistan.
“He had earned that medal as well,” Patty told the officers. “Most of the awards in there are Jonnie’s or mine, but Jenny and Petey have a few in there, too. Most are from our musical competitions, but a few are from the kids’ sports, cheerleading, and chess. Jonnie and I share one from a bridge tournament that we won together.”
“I know that your husband played piano and clarinet,” the chaplain remarked, “but who plays violin and ’cello?”
“I play piano, too,” Jenny said. “Petey plays the violin, and Mom, the ’cello.”
Petey spoke up. “Mom, would you feel better if me and Jenny played something for you?”
She nodded to her son. “You can try. Maybe the Elgar?”
Jenny opened the top of the piano seat and took out a score as her brother picked up his violin and quickly adjusted the tuning. His sister sat down to the keyboard and the score fell open to a much practiced page.
Together, Petey and Jenny began playing Edward Elgar’s Salut d’Amour. CDR Williams knew the work well and was able to appreciate just how passionately, yet elegantly, they played. Maj Sánchez, newer to classical music, was still surprised by how brilliantly the two teenagers performed. But a few bars into the work, their mother dashed from the room and the children stopped playing.
“It was their favorite piece to play together,” Jenny said. “They would play it at the beginning of all their concerts together.”
“We learned it to play for them at their last anniversary together,” added Petey. “That was the last time we all saw Dad, too.”
The major quickly turned her face away from the young musicians. She yanked a tissue out of a box on the desk and dried her tears before anyone else knew. More experienced at dealing with this kind of situation, CDR Williams simply had to order himself not to cry.
They found Patty Torvil sitting on the sofa in the family room, listening to the stereo. The chaplain recognized the same work by Elgar playing, but with ’cello instead of violin. Maj Sánchez picked up the jewel case for the compact disc, showing on the booklet’s cover photo the younger Patty and Jonnie Torvil from a decade earlier. Only then did Brenda appreciate the extent and the depth of what SSgt Jonathan Torvil had given up to become a Marine and just how deep his sense of duty must have been when he had enlisted in the Corps.
Petey padded into the family room with a fresh cup of herbal tea for his mother. He had decided that she did not need any more caffeine at the moment.
Petey looked at Jenny. “Are you okay for now, Sis?”
“Just for now,” she said. Then she began to cry, “but it hurts so much!”
Their mother had taken a moment and allowed the herbal tea to calm her. Then hearing her daughter cry again, she knew it was time for her to take control of the situation. So she stood up from the sofa to address the chaplain.
“Commander Williams, this is a lot for us to deal with right now,” Patty said. “We do appreciate yours and the major’s visit. Still though, we need some time alone now. We will see you again, soon?”
“Of course you will, Mis’ess Torvil,” the chaplain promised. “And we certainly feel your need for privacy right now. If you wish to discuss details of benefits, Major Sánchez can brief you about anything you need.” The major handed the widow her business card. Then giving his own card to her and each of her children, the chaplain added, “I want you and your children to feel free to call me, even if it’s just to talk. I’ll help arrange religious services if you wish. Jonathan is certainly entitled to a Marine Corps funeral with full honors. I can also coordinate with your own minister if you’d like. If I remember correctly, Jonathan listed his preference as Lutheran?”
“That’s right. We attend Saint John’s Lutheran, near the base.”
“Reverend Jim Hohenzollern and Betty have been great friends to my wife and myself since we moved here.”
“Could you call Jim and let him know about Jonnie?” requested Patty.
“Absolutely,” CDR Williams promised. “Just as soon as we get back to our offices.”
The naval chaplain and the marine officer participated in a closing ritual of prayer, hugs, and tears before Patty began reluctantly to escort them to the door. Also, Maj Sánchez had noted Jenny and Petey holding hands. (Or was she now Petra once again?)
“How d’you feel, Major, after your first contact with surviving spouse and family?” George asked his new Casualty Assistance Calls Officer.
“Awful. Does it ever get any easier?” Brenda asked him, as she started the engine in their vehicle.
“Well, not for as long as you remain a decent human being!” he said pointedly. “If notification duty ever becomes easy for you, then it’s time to request a transfer.”
“I’m wondering about what you had signaled to me at the Torvils. Does the Dont-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy apply to cross-dressers?”
“Probably, although I don’t know if Staff Sergeant Torvil’s case would really matter now. First of all, I don’t think he was gay, which is what I know the law does apply to. I don’t know if the repeal has anything to do with him at all, anyway. He appears to have been straight. His crossdressing was something he had done privately with his wife and his family, before being in the Marines. If they had known, I don’t believe he’d have been allowed to enlist, but that’s a moot point now, isn’t it? I think we’d be better off remembering his service and his sacrifice.”
“Well, I do, too. But I’m just wondering if they’d deny awarding his decorations if they knew. And I’d be concerned about them taking away survivors’ benefits from his widow and kids.”
“Then if they don’t ask, don’t tell!”
Brenda remained somewhat sullen as she continued steering their staff car back to the base.
“Why did you pick me for this assignment, anyway?” Maj Sánchez asked her commanding officer.
“You’re having second thoughts, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir. But again why me?”
“Accounting? Logistics? Personnel management? Sorry, Commander, but I don’t follow.”
“That background helps you coordinate the benefits and other needs of surviving spouses and dependents. Filling out forms and following up paperwork is of great immediate practical importance to the surviving head of household. But your other background is why I wanted you for our CACO.”
“My other background?”
“Girl Scout. Candy Striper. Cheerleader and co-captain of your cheer squad. Your churches’ visitation and outreach ministries. The prison ministry you were involved in during your second tour at the Pentagon. Your undergraduate and graduate minors in psychology helped, too. Clinching it, though, were the critics’ reviews of your roles on stage in college and community theater. I even checked with two theatrical directors you’ve worked with.”
“As a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer, you need to be like an actress when meeting the families and friends of fallen soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. You must be able to portray a full range of characters. Sometimes you will need to sob, perhaps uncontrollably, like the weakest female stereotype, while at other times represent the ideal of the coldly stoic marine, and yet always be ready to offer every possible emotional aspect in between.
“You showed me an ability to change your demeanor on command, whether mine or your own, according to the immediate situation you faced. You demonstrated that ability at the Torvils today quite well. Not to mention a wonderful bit of improv back there!”
George flashed a smile. “I loved how you put it,” he recalled, “that the heroism acknowledged in the heart of a child was more real and more important than any medals or ribbons awarded by generals, admirals, and politicians. Where did you get that?”
“Well, that's not improv, Commander, she replied. “It’s just how I really feel.”
Commander Williams smiled to himself. That was exactly why women were need in This Man’s Navy! Only a maternal instinct could inspire that.
“You have set a high bar for yourself, Major!” George said.
“I did?” Brenda pondered aloud. “I hadn’t thought about it.”
“Yes, you did,” confirmed George. “It’s not enough to be able to think on your feet, but to feel on your feet, too. And that’s not easy. I’ve seen that need take its toll on officers whose jobs were less demanding than yours. Yet, I have a good feeling about you doing this. You’ve got what it takes. Seeing you in action this morning, I’m certain of it.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said. “It’s good to know you have some confidence in me. I still wonder how this assignment will work out longer-term, though?”
“You’ve been a good church-going woman all your life, Brenda. D’you remember what the Apostle Paul wrote in First Corinthians, chapter nine, verse twenty-two?”
“I don’t know the cite.”
“To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
“Now I do remember the verse.”
“Then behold your true calling!”
Major Sánchez put the telephone handset down and thought about what she had just been asked to do. Mrs. Torvil’s request was strange, but it made sense. Only the major knew for now, but she had to tell at least one other person for the very practical reason that someone had to procure the needed uniform. Simple enough. They were close friends. She could count on Donna to keep all the arrangements confidential at her end. But she also knew that her friend would be up for promotion soon and didn’t want to subject Donna to any unnecessary risk.
Of course, Brenda would have to tell CDR Williams as well, since he’d need to sign the necessary vouchers. But she couldn’t help but think that he’d approve anyway. Besides, he’d hoped that the widow would agree to a military funeral. So she quickly scribbled the request on a notepad. Then Brenda walked across the workroom to the chaplain’s office and appeared in his doorway. He was still on the telephone.
“That’s right, Jim…,” she overheard CDR Williams saying. “We don’t have a date for repatriation yet… Brenda, our new CACO, will arrange that… She hasn’t mentioned it to me yet, but I think she’ll want it there at Saint John’s… Thanks, Jim… And give my best to Betty, too… God bless you both… G’bye!…“
“What is it, Brenda?” CDR Williams asked her.
“I have a request for Staff Sergeant Torvil’s funeral.” She passed the note face down across the chaplain’s desk. George read it.
“This comes from his widow?”
“Yes, sir,” Brenda confirmed, nodding. “And Mis’ess Torvil was quite clear that he had wanted this and any military services are contingent on compliance with her husband’s request.”
CDR Williams just shook his head, trying unsuccessfully to suppress his chuckling as his grin widened to a fully regulation naval smile.
“Major, I would deem this an administrative detail, therefore it’s your decision. I won’t tell you what to do, but I’ll support your call, whatever you decide. Personally, I kind of like it. But fulfilling the request may take some courage, if you agree to go ahead with it.”
“I’m Marine Corps, Commander. Courage is in the job description. Besides, I’ve already made my decision. We do it, George,” she confirmed. “However, I think it should be classified under confidential, also at the widow’s request.”
CDR Williams nodded and opened his desk drawer. He took from it a file folder labeled “Torvil, SSgt Jonathan K.-M.” He also picked up a rubber stamp from his desk, but paused for a moment, put it down and picked up another. He then inked it and stamped the file SECRET.
“Since his mission in Afghanistan was classified secret, I’m applying the higher classification to his file here as well.”
“So it’s more sensitive than merely ’confidential’?”
“Very well may be. So, let’s err on the side of caution.”
“But why? His daughter figured it out.”
“Yes, but she didn’t hear it from us,” the chaplain reminded her. And there’s a description of what he did in the file. She doesn’t know all of it.”
“No, but she did guess that his assignment was teaching music to indigenous personnel, especially to children.”
“You don’t think she knows about the smuggling, do you?”
“No, I don’t think so. That was the only thing she got wrong. And once she realizes how absurd it would be flying pianos into villages by helicopter while under fire, she’ll quickly come up with what he did bring in and how. Those kids are quite remarkable and very bright. So I wouldn’t be surprised if she figures that out someday soon as well. Torvil’s was an interesting mission, anyway, smuggling musical instruments into Taliban-controlled villages and helping teach the kids how to play them. Apparently, this effort was helping to undermine the Taliban’s hold on the villagers and also encouraged leaders among the local folk musicians to build resistance against their regime.”
“And here I thought all the Marine Band did was march in parades and entertain the general staff and their wives at formal balls!”
“Not at all, Commander! We had our boots on the ground, panpipes in our backpacks, and batons-in-hand. The Taliban had banned almost all music and destroyed many folk musicians’ instruments. We distributed in their villages as many musical noisemakers as we could. It was really dangerous work given the Taliban’s attitudes toward music.”
“Sounds like Calvinist England under Oliver Cromwell. He ordered all the church organs to be torn down and put to the torch.”
“Exactly, sir. The only music that the Taliban permitted was the chanting of prayers by the muezzin. Torvil engaged the native Afghani musicians by replacing their instruments. He also won credibility with them because he was wonderful on the clarinet.”
“And I had thought he were just a pianist?”
“According to his file, sir, he was a virtuoso on the piano, yet for his mission, it was more important that he was also gifted as a teacher of music. But he was also accomplished on the clarinet and he loved to play that as well. He would jam on it with the local folk bands in Afghanistan. That seemed to have built his trust among the Afghani bandleaders more than anything else. And he would smuggle both modern Western as well as traditional Afghani instruments into villages. And accessories, too, which had always been hard to procure, even before the Taliban came. He had learned some native songs and transcribed their music for us. That intelligence became very useful for our other troops to learn.”
“So our troops could show up in Afghani villages able to sing two or three folk songs. They hand out not just candy, but give away flutes and panpipes, too. Then you sneak in a music teacher and the Taliban’s discipline begins to erode. Soon, they’re caught up with infighting between stalwarts and moderates. Yes, it sounds like a special ops mission to me.”
“That’s why it was classified,” Maj Sánchez confirmed. “Our Marine Band was engaged in a covert mission. Our constantly replacing all the little instruments that they would repeatedly confiscate and destroy grew from a minor irritant to a major crisis for quite a few Taliban leaders. We seriously undermined them in a dozen villages or more that way.”
“I take it that this operation is still ongoing, Major?” the commander asked.
“I think so, sir,” she ventured a guess. “But then surely it would have suffered seriously from the loss of Staff Sergeant Torvil’s personal efforts. I would imagine that we’ll try to maintain contact with the musicians he had engaged. But so much of that was done with his clarinet. I’d have no idea if anyone else in the Marine Corps could accomplish what he had.”
The chaplain’s face fell into a frown for a moment as he thought about the lives that this remarkable man had touched. He had met him once at a holiday party on base. SSgt Torvil had played the piano that evening for the chamber ensemble entertaining troops leaving for Baghdad just before Christmas. They just didn’t award medals adequate to what this heroic yet gentle marine had given before he died in battle.
George forced himself to smile. “The Turtle Hill Naval Base Tactical Winds Ensemble strikes again!” he said.
“P.D.Q. Bach, Major,” CDR Williams chuckled. “The music of P.D.Q. Bach, a character created by composer Peter Schickele. One of his albums is Music for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion, performed by the Turtle Hill Naval Base Tactical Winds Ensemble.
“A naval base on a hill?” Maj Sánchez smiled wryly as she raised an elegantly shaped eyebrow.
“Well, why not? Perfect place for it,” George laughed. “Would you look for a naval base on a hill?”
“I guess not so long as no one talked about it. Loose lips sink ships after all, sir?”
“Well, loose slips, perhaps,” he answered with a wide grin.
Maj Sánchez puzzled a moment at her commanding officer’s remark, then suddenly covered her grin with her own hand as her face reddened in embarrassment. This was going to be such a long tour of duty for her.
CDR Williams smiled again. “Brenda, you need to work more at holding back the giggles. Besides, a blushing major might appear a little too demure, anyway,” he remarked chuckling. Maybe you should join us for poker on Thursday nights? You could use some practice. A Marine Corps officer should really be better able to keep a straight face.”
Maj Sánchez giggled even harder. “But you’re laughing, too, sir,” she protested.
“Well, of course,” George beamed. “I’m Navy!”
Brenda Sánchez had not spoken with her college roommate Donna FitzSimmons for a while. They had promised to talk again once Brenda had settled into her new assignment, so she did owe her friend a call. But she did not really like mixing personal and professional business in the same discussion. Still, that was how the situation had evolved. But Brenda and Donna would be excited to renew their friendship no matter what the circumstance.
Brenda turned to the contact pages of her agenda and scanned the list of names until she found “FitzSimmons, Capt Donna, USMC, Quartermaster Corps.” With a smile, she dialed her friend’s office number.
The telephone rang only once.
“Quartermaster-General’s Office, Captain Donna FitzSimmons speaking…,” a familiar voice answered.
“Lookie! Lookie! Nookie bookie!”
“Omigosh! Is that you Brenda?” Capt FitzSimmons squealed quietly with subdued giggles.
“You know it, girl! Got my oak leaves now,” Brenda informed her friend, maybe teasing just a little more than bragging. “How are you?”
“I’m doing fine. Congratulations, Major!” Donna acknowledged her friends promotion. “Up for mine next month. But is this call business or pleasure?”
“Business, I’m afraid, Captain,” Brenda answered. Donna could hear the sadness in her voice. “Today was my first time on notification duty. The marine’s coming home from Afghanistan. The surviving spouse has requested full honors. So we need the full uniform, United States Marine Band women’s red and blue full dress uniform with skirt.”
“Staff Sergeant,” Maj Sánchez answered.
“She could also wear the regular Marine full dress blue and red uniform, if preferred,” Capt FitzSimmons observed. “But the Marine Band women’s uniform is so beautiful. I wish I were entitled to wear it.”
“You’d be gorgeous in it!” Brenda said with a smile, thinking of her Irish friend’s striking red hair. “You should’ve majored in music after all, huh?”
“It would’ve been more fun than accounting for sure,” Donna recalled wistfully.
“Or human resource management,” added Brenda. “Anyway, Captain, I’m sending measurements by email now.” She clicked the mouse button for the “Send“ command.
Donna received the message and opened it. She studied it for a moment. Something didn’t look quite right, almost as if… No, all women have trouble getting their clothes to fit in one way or another. This sergeant’s figure was simply more boyish than most.
“No wonder you called me first!” remarked Capt FitzSimmons. “Her sizes aren’t often stocked by quartermasters at most Marine bases. Her measurements read almost like she were—Omigosh! Is she—?”
“Uh-oh! Busted!” Brenda giggled over the phone. “Don’t say it, but you guessed it, right?”
“You gotta be kiddin’ me, Major!” Donna replied.
“The request came to me directly from the widow,” the major explained. “She says that they had discussed it and, if at all possible, he wanted to be laid to rest in that uniform. He had given up his own dream to join the Marine Corps after Nine-Eleven, but he had hoped to be allowed in death what he couldn’t have in life. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have agreed to a Marine Corps funeral. That would’ve been a big morale buster for many of us, especially with the decorations that he’s been nominated for.”
“A hero then?”
“He’s been recommended not only for the Silver Star and the Purple Heart for the battle he died in, but also, for a previous incident, he was to receive the Navy Cross and the Canadian Cross of Valor. Single-handed, he saved a British and Canadian convoy from an ambush. Took out two Taliban machine-gun nests by himself. He’s a war hero to three nations. If you include the Afghani villagers whose love and respect he won, it’s four.”
“Yet he wanted to be…“
“Open the attachment to the email, Captain.”
Donna did as her friend had told her. It was a photograph of two women and two children, all in matching dresses.
“Staff Sergeant Torvil is in the blue and their son is wearing the matching blue dress. The sergeant’s spouse is wearing pink and their daughter’s in the matching pink dress.
“Their children are young teenagers now. When we visited this morning, the boy was wearing the prettiest sundress that I’ve seen in a while. When Mis’ess Torvil collapsed, he and his sister took over as our hostesses and served us breakfast. That family is so very close. I think they’ll make it through this all right, somehow.”
Capt FitzSimmons opened her top desk drawer and grabbed a few facial tissues to brush her tears away. “That’s so sweet.”
“Isn’t it, though? I was sneaking tissues from the sergeant’s desk when those kids played this music for us,” lamented Brenda. “The boy plays violin, and his sister, the piano. They had learned to play it for their parents’ anniversary. Then their mom listened to a recording she had made of the same piece with her husband before he enlisted. It was all too much for me. After my tour in Iraq, I thought that nothing would ever get to me again, but I’ve already gone through a whole box of tissues at the office and the day’s not over.”
“And I’m into mine here just talking about it,” admitted Donna as she dropped another tear-soaked facial tissue into her wastebasket. “You need this order expedited?”
“Please do,” Maj Sánchez requested. “When can you get it here?”
“I have a fighter pilot flying out to El Toro at oh nine hundred hours Eastern tomorrow morning,” offered Capt FitzSimmons. “There’s a helicopter going from El Toro to the barracks there in San Diego, scheduled to arrive at fourteen hundred hours Pacific. Do you need the insignia sewn on here?”
“No. I’ll have the quartermaster here at the barracks take care of it. The sergeant’s body doesn’t even arrive at Dover until tomorrow afternoon.”
“All right, then. You can expect the uniform tomorrow afternoon.”
“Thanks, Donna,” the major said reverting to personal mode for a moment. “You free for a phone call tonight?”
“You on Skype?”
“I can be.”
“Good!” Donna beamed an unseen smile to her friend on the opposite coast. “I wanna see your face again!”
“Is that everything you need, Major?”
“That’s all for now, Captain. G’bye!”
And their conversation concluded with both feeling both joy and sorrow. They felt happy to have heard each other’s voice again, yet sad that the loss of another human being was the occasion of renewing their friendship.
Patricia Torvil, Jennifer, and Petra had placed their flowers onto Jonathan’s casket and stood under the darkening skies, waiting for their husband and father to be lowered into his grave.
The traditional military rituals had already been completed. SSgt Torvil’s flag-draped coffin had been drawn by horse to Meadowlawn Veterans’ Cemetery, another horse bearing an empty saddle following behind the caisson. The riflemen had fired their salutes and the bugler had sounded “Taps.”
Then a lieutenant and a lance corporal operated the hoist, lowering the coffin of SSgt Jonathan Karl-Marie Torvil, USMC, husband and father, into the silence of hallowed ground.
Patricia stood quietly, clutching the triangularly folded flag tightly to her bosom, flanked to her right by Jennifer, and to her left by Petra. The son and daughter both wore black blouses, skirts, pantyhose, flat-heeled shoes, and hats. Also all in black, their mother wore flat shoes and a broad-brimmed hat with a veil over the top of her face. But instead of a blouse and skirt, she had chosen a somber black dress coming just below the knees.
The Rev. James Hohenzollern, vested in cassock, surplice, and stole, and CDR George Williams stood by as Maj Brenda Sánchez formally dismissed the commanders and members of the funeral guard and caisson details.
The pastor thanked the chaplain for his assistance while their wives also renewed their acquaintance by discussing plans to invite the Torvils to dinner that evening. Meanwhile Maj Sánchez approached Mrs. Torvil and her children.
“How are you holding up, Patty?” asked the major.
“As well as can be expected, I guess,” the widow said, her tears catching alternately the corner now of a smile, then of a frown. “But before I forget, Brenda, I want to thank you for what you were able to do for Jonnie. How ever did you manage it, anyway?”
The two women stood there a moment, Patty’s tight-lipped facial expression losing its battle with her mischievous grin, and Brenda once again unsuccessfully trying to stifle her giggles by covering her mouth with her hand.
“My college roommate works in the Quartermaster Corps. Donna knows how to get anything. So I owe her a big favor now. But it was all worth it to have him laid to rest in that uniform. He was so pretty in it. I cried.”
“It meant so much to me and the kids that Jonnie could have it for his burial. Especially to Petra. You’re certain it won’t affect him getting his decorations now?”
“I really think it’s moot now, anyway,” Maj Sánchez confirmed. “The ’Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell’ policy will be history by the time all the paperwork is done and Jonathan’s decorations have all been approved. But I don’t know if it even applies in his case, since he wasn’t gay. But all the same, we’re keeping it all quietly on a need-to-know basis, anyway. And that’s no small thanks to Commander Williams. He really knew who not to tell and even more important, how not to tell them, while doing it all by the book.”
“So his secret is safe?”
“Patty, let’s just say that the uniform, and everything about it, has been buried with Jonnie.”
The Marine Corps officer smiled at Petra. “Well, I thought I’d see you wearing a suit and tie today.”
“No, ma’am. I did plan on a suit and tie, but I just couldn’t let myself wear it. Somehow, dressing like a boy didn’t seem right today.”
“I’m so sorry,” the major offered the teenagers her condolences. She pulled them into a hug. “Petra and Jenny, you can call me anytime you want. Petey, too, when he’s around.”
“We will,” Jenny reminded her. “You promised to take Petra and me shopping. And you’re a Marine. You keep your word.”
“That I do,” Brenda assured the two teenagers. “That I do.”
By that time, the two ministers and their wives had caught up with the major and the Torvils. The Rev. Hohenzollern spoke up to offer the invitation.
“Patty, you and the kids are invited to join the Williamses, Betty, and myself for dinner,” Jim offered. “It will be in the dining room of the parsonage. It’s our tradition after committing any of our family or friends to Eternity.”
Patty glanced at her children, noting by their expressions that they wished to attend.
“Yes, we’ll be there.”
“And Major,” George reiterated, “your attendance is also requested and required for the evening.”
Petra and Jenny nodded to Brenda with expectant looks.
“I’ll be there, sir,” she announced, more to acknowledge the teenagers’ expectations than her commander’s.
Everyone there hugged one another before they began getting into their cars and trucks. Soon they all were driving off, except for the chauffeur of the limousine and funeral director, who were waiting as Patty, Jenny, and Petey as Petra stood pausing for one more look back at the gravesite.
The caisson and horses were already passing out of view as they followed a bend in the access road behind a small hill. Watching them was Petey, who had stepped a short distance away from his mother and sister.
Petey looked again to his father’s grave as a light rain began to fall. Then for the first time in her strange life, Petra shed her own tears, not in happiness, but in sorrow.
So Petra turned back to join her mother and sister, placing her hands in theirs.
©2011, 2017 by Anam Chara
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