Sometime around 1973, at Fort Lewis, Washington, I worked at Building 17 as the Post Food Advisor. It was a small office in the larger Services Division in the even larger Directorate of Industrial Operations. Services Division included the Commissary, the Troop Issue Commissary (mess halls), the Laundry, Mortuary Officer and my office, Food Services Branch.
Building 17 only held the Chief of Services Division, the Mortuary Office and the Food Service Branch. The large sign in the grass outside announced:
SERVICES DIVISION, DIO MORTUARY OFFICE Food Service Branch
The asphalt in front of our sign was covered with skid marks from cars stopping to take pictures. We opined that those stops were more frequent when both the hot-dog truck and contract hearse were both in the parking lot.
The Mortuary Officer was a First Lieutenant. He told me that his family had run a funeral home for some generations, and he was familiar and comfortable with all of his duties. He had charge of all the post cemeteries, and joked that he had 2,300 people “under him.” One day, as I exited his office, I noticed that on the inside of the door molding was a tape measure extending up from the floor. I turned and asked him why he needed to know people’s height. “Length,” he corrected me, “I need to know their length.”
When a soldier passes on, the Army assigns a Casualty Officer to help the spouse or next of kin get through the procedures and paperwork, including the service and burial. The Army treats Casualty Officer duties as highly important. Most spouses look back on the presence and support of those officers as a hallmark of the Army’s desire to bring the greatest honor and dignity to a loved one’s death.
The Command knew about the Lieutenant’s professional background, and assigned him as Casualty Officer for higher profile deaths. When it came time for him to take leave, he told me that I had to hold down his VIP Casualty Officer duties. There was a soldier's passing that he was handling, and I came along to learn the ropes. I had pulled that duty once before, but this would be a good refresher.
Both in formal uniforms, we arrived at the house in an official sedan around 10:00 a.m. Before dismounting he told me, “This was a particularly sad death. The widow is alone in there, and knows that we’re coming. Although she’s in bad shape, we have decisions to make that are very important, and papers to sign that will affect her whole life.
“When I go in, she’ll be resolved to do business and we’ll do fine. But she’ll break down if her friends show up. So, your job is to stand outside the door and keep the casseroles out.”
So she answered the door, and the Lieutenant went in without me. I turned toward the street, and, knowing no better, went to a stiff Parade Rest. About 20 minutes later a car pulled up at the end of her sidewalk. A well-dressed lady stepped out and went to the back seat for something as two more cars pulled up. I started to panic as the first casserole appeared, then another...and another. The ladies started up the sidewalk. From two steps up, I tried to act official. “I’m sorry, ladies, you can’t come in right now.”
Immediately, I found myself surrounded. They were on the landing with me, reaching behind me to push on the door, trying to get around me. It was the, “you can’t mean that I can’t come in” routine, voiced in 10 different rapid-fire ways. I held off as best I could while, without a word to one another, they worked as a well-honed and highly disciplined team to break through my defensive position. They had brought the big guns: sad faces, accusing looks, mock disbelief, utter disdain and threats. The opposition forces were determined to get their casseroles into the house.
The minutes stretched on until the Lieutenant opened the door quietly behind me. We both stepped out of the way as the casseroles crowded past us. I watched as the first casserole stopped in mid stride, 15 feet away from the widow. Screwing her otherwise normal face into something a little more extreme than Edvard Munch’s The Scream, she leaned toward her grieving friend and with quivering lips blurted her friend’s name. They simultaneously began sobbing. Instantly, and as if on cue, the other two became emotional wrecks.
The Lieutenant and I made the tactical decision to retreat. We made our escape without incident, watching each passing car to see if it, too, contained a casserole.