Here in New England | The Man Who Listens to Soldiers
He told me about one notification in a small Vermont city. The soldiers arrived at an office and everyone in the cubicles started crying. They knew who had a son overseas. But the father seemed oblivious. He kept thanking them and saying he would write his son and tell them how kind they’d been to visit. The young soldier assigned to say, “We regret to inform you …” couldn’t utter a word. He tried three times. Finally the chaplain with them took the father aside. “That experience will linger with them,” Coffin said.
He told me about a Guardsman assigned to stand vigil beside a casket in a small-town armory. “It was one of those cases where we recommend that the remains not be viewed by the family,” Coffin said. “But the family has a choice. So it’s the middle of the night and the wife shows up and wants to view the remains. And [the Guardsman] is all by himself. The wife is clawing at the coffin. He calls the soldier’s father. He comes right down there. So they’re all around the casket. And the boy’s father is trying to persuade her not to open the casket.”
Coffin stopped. He rubbed his hands over his face. “There’s no book on this one. The father was able to get her to come to his house and sleep, telling her they were all crazy with grief. But there’s that soldier still standing vigil. Whom will he talk to about this?”
It’s no secret that Vermont has drawn some of the toughest assignments–their elite mountain training seemed to demand it–and it’s no secret that for the size of its population, the state has suffered more losses than any other. Nearly everyone seems to know someone whose life has been forever changed by war. “We’ve been put in some awfully tough places,” Coffin said.
I replied that the ripples must touch nearly every town in Vermont. “Not ripples,” he corrected. “Tsunamis.” He shook his head, and stopped until he gathered himself. “We just had the largest deployment of the National Guard in Vermont history–1,500 soldiers. Many were just starting to re-adjust to being back home from Iraq, and then we had to crank them up again for Afghanistan. There’s no state of the art for this. I’m emotional because it’s too much.” His hands engulfed his face again. “Too much war,” he said. “Eight years in, it’s too much.”
He said that the soldiers who had left five months earlier, in January, would come home in time for Christmas: “When we see them off, I say, ‘We’ll be waiting when you come down the stairs.’ It’s profound when these guys get off the plane. It’ll be 3:00 in the morning. Almost every soldier says it’s unbelievable to see the welcome. First thing I say is …” For a moment he couldn’t speak. “First thing I say is: ‘I love you.'”
On July 1, 2010, eight days after I met Colonel Coffin, Ryan Grady, a 25-year-old Guardsman from West Burke, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. He was the first from the January deployment to die. On August 22, the news came again. Steven DeLuzio, age 25, a Connecticut native who had attended Norwich University in Vermont and wanted to serve with a Vermont unit, and Tristan Southworth, age 21, both members of the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, had died together in a firefight in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
Southworth, who only three years earlier had been the starting pitcher in the state championship baseball game, came home to the Northeast Kingdom in a convoy that wound its way east from Burlington through the village of Walden, where he’d grown up, before halting just northwest of there, in Hardwick, where he’d attended high school. Its sidewalks were lined with people clutching flags. Our Hero You Will Never Be Forgetten read a banner across the front of the small inn in the town center.
He was buried on a blue-sky morning. Helicopters bearing officers in their dress uniforms landed on the green lawn of Hazen Union High School, whirling dust into the air. The gym overflowed with mourners, and all was stillness and heat and solemn military ritual.
His high-school teammates, dressed in their baseball jerseys, sat together; his family sat in front, their faces set hard in determination to make it through the morning. An officer knelt and handed them their son’s medals, including the Bronze Star. After the service, everyone walked silently out into the searing sun, where volunteers offered chilled bottles of water, and then the long, slow procession bore them away to the cemetery.
After the gym had emptied, Colonel Coffin lingered behind, his face weary and drawn. He stood beside a memorial to Tristan Southworth: boyhood photos, his basketball jersey signed by teammates, a story he wrote honoring his cousin, who had received the Medal of Honor after giving his life by falling on a grenade in Vietnam.
Coffin wants to be the last one to leave a service, the last to leave the cemetery. “I’m looking to see if somebody is hanging back,” he said. “Most likely they’re hanging back for a reason.” Lately he has suffered headaches, at times he has been unable to read or to sit at a computer. A pain specialist told him it was because his eyes never stopped looking, as if he were afraid he’d miss something–so vigilant, so tense, he was a cord ready to snap.
He remembered one summer funeral when he was waiting at the cemetery: “I saw two young guys, country boys dressed up, a tie and zippered jacket. ‘How you boys doing?’ I said.
“‘Not quite done yet?’
“‘No, no, want to just say goodbye.’