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The Last Person...


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I know this is kind of long...so if you don't want to read it...then don't.

I recently ran in the "Run for the Fallen" event here at Camp Victory, Iraq. Basically it was our mini-version of the official event that is occurring in the United States. Check it out at www.runforthefallen.org. There was a list of names of fallen servicemen and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. You pick a name, write it on your race number and run in their memory.

I picked HM3(FMF/NAC) Manny Ruiz. I didn't know him, or anything about him other than he died serving his country.

I signed his guest book at the official "Run for the Fallen" website...and the next day I received an email from his CACO pointing me to the below article.

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The Last Person they Never Wanted to See.

by MCC(SW) Misty Trent

On Feb. 7, 2007, a CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter assigned to the Purple Foxes of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364 (HMM-364) was shot down in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. The Navy and Marine Corps crew aboard were responsible for casualty evacuation missions, retrieving injured personnel from the battlefield and flying them to safety. All seven perished. I will never forget that day for as long as I live.

I had the distinct honor and privilege of serving as the Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO) for the family of Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class (FMF⁄NAC) Manuel "Tito" Ruiz, one of the crew members who lost his life that day.

For those of us who have not yet served "boots on the ground," the Global War on Terror may seem abstract. The notion that we are all serving a nation at war can feel distant and remote from the beautiful landscape of the Naval Academy's carefully manicured grounds. Serving as a CACO is a reality check about the hard truths of war that nothing can truly prepare you for.

After receiving notification that I had been assigned as a CACO, I pulled my Service Dress Blues out of my closet. More than a year later, I can still remember the way my hands were shaking as I put my ribbons on the jacket. I had a million questions running through my head, and I felt nauseous. I frantically searched for the CACO handbook I'd received when I attended the training at the Navy Yard, hoping beyond hope that it would tell me exactly what I was supposed to do.

I was blessed that Lt. Cmdr. John Owen was the duty Chaplain that night. As we made the drive to the Ruiz family home, we chatted about religion, politics, life at the Academy, our careers, everything but what we were about to do. Every time I tried to think about it, my mind drew a blank. When we started to get closer, Chaplain Owen asked me if I'd thought about what I was going to say once we got there.

What do you say? I mean, really. What do you say?

Chaplain Owen helped me rehearse it a few times. It was surreal. While we were practicing, I couldn't believe these horrible words were coming out of my mouth. Nothing I came up with sounded right. It was all so inadequate, so cold, so incomplete.

"Chief," Chaplain Owen said gently, "listen to me. It is human nature to want to make things better. You can't make this better. There is nothing you will be able to say to this family that will make them feel any better. You are the last person they never wanted to see."

His words gave me the sense of absolution I needed to do what had to be done. We pulled up to the Ruiz family home, my stomach in knots, my heart pounding, hands sweating. As we walked up to the door, HM3's parents saw us coming. It was exactly like you see it on television. When you see the uniforms, you know it's not good.

From across the yard, I could hear his father crying, "Please don't tell me something bad! Please don't tell me something bad!"

To this day I don't know how I did it. It felt like the world had stopped.

"Sir, I'm sorry to tell you that your son died today in a helicopter crash outside of Baghdad."

And there's nothing else you can say, when it comes down to it.

Chaplain Owen and I stayed with the family for about an hour. There was nothing more we could do, and not much we could tell them. We were, in a way, intruding on their unfathomable grief. As we got ready to leave, I said the only thing I could think of.

"Your son was my brother. They all are. And his family is my family."

Over the course of the next two weeks, I was with the Ruiz family almost every day. When I delivered the $100,000 Death Gratuity check to his family, I literally had to back his father into a corner and force him to take the check out of my hand. I drove them to Dover Air Force Base at 2 a.m. and stood with them on the tarmac in the bitter cold as the Navy Ceremonial Guard escorted their son's flag-draped casket off the plane. I hand-delivered their son's dog tags. I put together a CD of music for his memorial service and realized that "Eternal Father" is truly the most beautiful song I have ever heard. I helped plan his funeral at Arlington and rode with them in the limousine behind the hearse. I delivered HM3's personal effects when they returned from Iraq and inventoried each and every DVD, every pair of socks, even the coins from his wallet.

And I cried. I cried every day. When I woke up in the morning, his family was the first thing I thought of. As I went to sleep each night, they were the last thing on my mind. I dreamt about them. Over the course of two weeks, I lost ten pounds. By the day of HM3's funeral, I was emotionally drained and mentally numb.

Throughout all of it, the Ruiz family was so gracious, so kind, so grateful. Their friends, relatives and neighbors kept thanking me. That was the hardest part about the whole thing. They were thanking me! In my eyes, I had ruined their lives, yet they were so incredibly thankful. Every time I had to go see them it was some new awful thing, and just as they would start to come to some form of acceptance, I would show up to rip the wound open again. But every time I came to their door, they hugged me.

My friends said, "I don't know how you do it. I couldn't do that."

You do it because you have to. You do it because it's the right thing to do. You do it because you are representing that Sailor's chain of command to the family and you want to represent the Navy well. You do it because, deep in your heart, you want the Navy and Marine Corps to take care of your family the way you would if something happened to you. You do it because you were taught Honor, Courage, and Commitment, and if you never fully understood what those words truly meant before, you do now...

In a few short months, this will be the reality for the Class of 2008. The HM3 Manuel Ruiz's of the world will be under your charge. And because of that awesome responsibility, I wanted to tell you this story from the other side of the battlefield, this tale of living and dying that is the reality for our nation at war. This is one small yet incredibly significant part of what it means to be the face of the Navy. I was the last person they never wanted to see, but it was the most meaningful, rewarding, and honorable duty I have ever had. In memory and in honor of HM3(FMF⁄NAC) Manny Ruiz, I hope I did it right.

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