There is a feeling or event, which is not unique to the military community, but they may have the most experience with it. It is something which I can only describe as The Wait.
It starts with a notification, blip on the news, note on social media. A flight commander with a carefully blank face directs people to a meeting. A direct message on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. A text.
“Did you know…?”
“Have you heard…?”
“I don’t know if you know him but…”
Sometimes the notification is already the end of The Wait. The message is complete. There is no question, only pain, and the world tilts on its axis.
But sometimes, more so in modern times, it is a statement that is a half question: “I heard that…” followed by a silent question mark. A silent plea for more information. A tacit denial that anything is wrong.
And now it begins, The Wait.
The scenario that has played out in bars in Las Vegas, where rumor of a downed aircraft spreads like wildfire from crewmember to crewmember. Or in queries that flow across social media & messaging platforms around the globe: Barksdale, Minot, DC, Offutt, Whiteman, Beale, Al Udied, Bagram, Yokota, Guam. Around the world at the speed of an electron.
Queries are answered, heedless of time zones, by people loosely connected. Long dormant group chats firing to life as people around the world seek answers.
A group is established and turns inward.
Unlike the outside world, where family ties help weather a tragedy, a military group’s bond snaps into effect. That person who, five minutes ago, drove you up a wall, is your brother in arms. This person, who five minutes ago, you would have gladly punched, you now stand back to back with, ready to punch your way out together if only for some scrap of information.
You sit, sometimes quietly and sometimes, when the outcome looks bleak, telling stories and reminiscing on the better times. Over a beer, a canteen, a Diet Coke at the DFAC tables.
Spouses and significant others join you, on the periphery. They work their own networks of information. They sit with you as you sob. They hold you and swear to never share that you cried and called out your friends’ names during The Wait.
In the end, news will reach you.
For some, the lucky ones, the news is good. You smile and nod but a stab of guilt slides through you as you know your good news is someone else’s bad. It wasn’t your friend, but it was someone’s daughter, friend, husband. You make a somber toast: “to those who have gone before.”
Sometimes the news is the worst.
You find yourself curled up against a rusty rack of weights on a floor dusted with the sands of the Middle East, sobbing into your phone as you read the news.
You escaped to your hotel room, but when the notification comes, you are now you are honor bound to drag yourself back out; to carry the message back out to waiting friends who know the answer as soon as they see your tear streaked face.
A Chaplain joins the group that was waiting solemnly for the news they knew was coming.
The sun rises and searchers find wreckage. The cellphone you’ve called relentlessly for hours is answered by a solemn voice, but not the one that belongs to the cellphone’s owner.
The Wait feels like it is over and once again the group turns inward.
They are formed by tragedy, a bond not easily broken. The group is strong at first, but dissolves over time. Each person grieves differently, recovers differently, and drifts away in their own time.
A year passes and miraculously everyone makes it physically or via video chat to the anniversary memorial. A toast is made, “to those who’ve gone before,” and the group loosens.
A year later, fewer join.
Five years later, most have healed, and moved on; a different kind of grief arrives, the grief that the group is gone. A sense of loss that the bonds a not broken, but that the group has dissolved while hearts healed.
Now, The Wait is finally over.
Today, I’m the lucky one. My Wait is over with little information available, but what is can only be characterized as good. I feel that stab of guilt, that I can turn away, when it goes on for others.
It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last. But we go on.
A toast, to those who’ve gone before.
This post originally written by @AirPowerUnicorn on 27 January, 2020, here: https://twitter.com/AirPowerUnicorn/status/1221976195551715328?s=20
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About the Author: AirPower Unicorn is a USAF Officer and a rare breed of mythical creature, educated in the toughest of schools. 75% officer, 30% glitter and magic, 10% snark and sass, 101% bad at math. Probably a Jedi, definitely sassy.