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Chopper tragedy and dread of 'The Knock'

By Rebekah Sanderlin, Special to CNN
  • Rebekah Sanderlin: Military families panicked at news helicopter was downed
  • They exchanged phone calls, text messages, used Facebook to find who had died, she says
  • Sanderlin says the relief you feel that friends are alive comes with survivor's guilt
  • She describes dreading "The Knock," when you are told your loved one has died

Editor's note: Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, a mother of two and a freelance writer who lives near Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She writes the "Operation Marriage" blog about military family life.

Fayetteville, North Carolina (CNN) -- I was barely through my first cup of coffee Saturday morning when my husband called. He's not deployed now, but had to spend Friday night training at Fort Bragg. He'd heard rumors about the helicopter crash in Afghanistan but didn't know any details. I quickly jumped on and found the headline "Dozens of Americans dead," and my heart fell like an anchor.

Once together, my husband and I immediately began a roll call, anxiously suggesting names to each other of everyone we know who is deployed in Afghanistan, wondering if any of our friends might be dead.

Details were few and panic was high among my Army wife friends. Throughout the day Saturday, we exchanged phone calls and text messages, each containing tiny bits of information. We tried to piece those bits together, to determine what missions our friends were on, and who might be lost.

We didn't know if a friend, a Chinook pilot who lives in Alaska, was deployed or not. We had other friends we knew were definitely in Afghanistan, but with few details released about the dead, we had no idea who had been on the helicopter.

The Knock is the notification, the day that uniformed service members come to your door to tell you that your life will never be the same.
--Rebekah Sanderlin
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And so, a testament to our times, we turned to Facebook, checking statuses of the deployed and their spouses. Pictures posted on Saturday or Sunday from a trip to the zoo or of a newly adopted puppy ushered in waves of relief that we shared with each other. "If he's dead then she doesn't know yet," we said, checking the same profiles later in the day, thrilled to see new pictures of toddlers eating ice cream and teenagers lounging by the pool. Nobody who had lost a loved one would be posting such ordinary and happy photos.

Late on Saturday, the Chinook pilot posted, saying it was a very sad day for "hookers," Army slang for the people who fly on Chinooks. I clicked "like" on her status, but only because I was happy she was alive. Nothing about the sentiment she posted was likeable.

As more news trickled in, so did more relief. Mine is an Army family and we live in an Army town -- most of the 30 American troops killed on Saturday were Navy SEALs, elite warriors who serve under Special Operations Command. Our circle of friends had been spared, this time.

But relief in these cases always comes with guilt. We began to speculate on how "The Knock" had been received, grateful that no one among us had been obliged to answer the door.

The Knock. That's what we call it, and 10 years into this war none of us has to ask what it means. The Knock is the notification, the day that uniformed service members come to your door to tell you that your life will never be the same.

We -- military wives, parents, husbands, children and friends -- live in fear of The Knock, knowing that we are never more than a day or a deployment away from receiving it ourselves.

Perhaps the family members of those 30 troops who died were still asleep, or meandering around their houses drinking coffee and wearing pajamas, when The Knock came. Perhaps they had plans to work in the yard or to have dinner with friends -- plans that were forgotten the moment they opened the door and saw those crisp uniforms.

We think about our own plans for the day, our overgrown flower beds or the planned bicycle adventure with the kids, and consider canceling everything because it seems selfish to enjoy life while others are grieving. But we know there is nothing we can do. If we know the family, then perhaps we bake a casserole to take to them, or we offer to babysit the children, who are usually still too young to understand why everyone is crying.

We go to the memorial service and we cringe when, by tradition, roll is called and no one answers for the dead soldier. We try not to stare at the young widow in the front row. We see her babies, sitting perfectly still on the pew beside her, and we think of our own children, the same age as hers. We offer to bake more casseroles and to babysit more. We think that if we are kind enough, helpful enough, necessary enough -- we will be spared the same fate.

But we know that the one thing the grieving family wants -- to have been spared The Knock, to still be like us -- is the one thing we cannot give them.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Rebekah Sanderlin.