Several years ago, Ben and I sat in our living room when my phone rang. It was a Friday afternoon, and one of the few Fridays Ben had off. He was supposed to have a 4-day a week schedule but usually ended up working 5 or 6 days instead. I was looking forward to the long weekend that would end with Martin Luther King Junior Day the following Monday, but the incoming phone call was set to derail any and all plans we had.
The incoming call came from Ben’s mother, Denise. She asked me if Ben was with me. Then she asked if we were sitting down. Immediately I thought something had happened to Ben’s grandpa. We had been expecting his passing for a few months now, and with every text and phone call we worried the next words we would read or hear would be the dreaded news. The news we received was worse.
What I remember is not what Denise actually said. I remember the lighting of the living room. It must have been a cloudy day because our apartment was dim with pale winter light coming through the living room window. I remember sitting on the edge of the couch with my knees turned towards Ben. I remember not being able to keep it together as I heard Denise choke on her words. I remember feeling like I should have been able to keep it together as the news pertained to Ben, and I needed to be strong for him.
The news was that Ben’s cousin, Clayton, had been killed in a training accident a few days earlier. Clayton was a captain in the army who had been flying a helicopter when something went wrong. The details are fuzzy for me. The truth is that there was something wrong with his chopper, and it could have been prevented. The other truth is that Clayton’s actions in this moment saved the rest of his team.
Clayton was someone I’d heard stories about throughout my years dating Ben, but I never had the chance to meet him until my wedding day. He was the kind of person you really only had to meet once to make you love him. He was fun, energetic, loving, adventurous. He knew me all of five minutes but continued to chat with me over social media after our wedding and even gifted Ben and me one of the five American flags he’d received for his tours flying Black Hawks. That’s the kind of person he was. Ben and I always like to say that he was the best of the Carpenters. He was such a brief part of my life but made such an impact that our son, Henry Clayton is named for him.
At his internment, the impact of Clayton’s death was apparent in the number of people who came. Standing in the crowd on that freezing February day, listening to his girlfriend’s haunting cry, talking with his mother and aunties, seeing the grief-stricken faces of so many people who Clayton had touched with his generosity and joy was a testament to just the kind of person who had sacrificed his life for this country.
I don’t usually tell this story, as it’s not mine to tell. It’s his mother’s story, his brother’s, his family’s. It’s the people who knew him the best, who felt his loss the most. But, then, anyone who knew him would feel his loss in some way or another.
I know Clayton’s story hits home to too many families in this country. And on this day, we think of him, and we think of everyone who has had to mourn the loss of a military member. These men and women have given themselves to our country to keep us free, to protect us. They rigorously train, deal with the fallout of their jobs, mentally and physically, and then, sometimes, a lot of times, they don’t come home. Or they come home only to be killed in accidents that never should have happened.
Today, we pray for them. We pray for their families. We think of Clayton and the huge impact he had on each of us and the world he lived in. This country is better because of him.