For weeks after Bryan left for Niger, I worried. The calls I received were few and far between, and often we were cut off after only a few minutes. In one call he conveyed that a film crew for the National Geographic channel was there. Bryan said he had been enjoying getting to know some of the crew while they were staying on the base near the village of Ouallam. Being a Green Beret, Bryan felt it was not acceptable to be filmed in his work environment, so he’d been avoiding the camera. I had lectured him that he needed to get in there and to be excited for the opportunity. I told him no one would ever be that interested in my life and he should be grateful that people found him interesting enough to want to put him on such a cool show.
Not many days after that conversation came the last call I received from Bryan. Monday, October 2, 2017. He told me he had only five minutes to talk. They were getting ready to do another mission to a town near the border of Mali, so it would be a few days before I heard from him again. He also said he was busy working in the office and was using the office phone. Which let me know the other guys were nearby and he didn’t want them listening in, so he wouldn’t talk, but I could talk to him. For five minutes I spoke, telling him what was going on with the kids and me. Then he interrupted me and said he needed to go. “I love you and I’ll call you soon.” He hung up the phone.
As the next days passed, my anxiety increased by the hour. By Tuesday I found myself checking out my windows, looking for an unfamiliar car in my driveway or for men in uniform coming to knock on my door. I didn’t understand why I was feeling this way and kept trying to calm myself down and convince myself it was all my imagination.
Midday on Wednesday, October 4, I was crossing my bedroom when suddenly I stopped in my tracks. What I can describe only as the spirit of God suddenly surrounded me. In that moment, I felt overwhelming calm and peace. A small voice whispered to me, “Trust me. Everything is going to be all right. You will be okay.” I stood there for a moment, contemplating what it meant. The last time something like that had happened to me was the day before my dad died. Remembering that, I was scared out of my mind, so I breathed deep and willed that feeling of peace to wash over me again.
At 8:00 that night, I was in the kitchen finishing the dishes after the kids were asleep when my phone rang. It was Bryan’s mom, Karen. I had been avoiding speaking to her all week. Due to the nagging worry for Bryan’s safety, I’d decided not to call her until I heard from him again. I hadn’t spoken with him in four days, which wasn’t unusual, but this time it felt significant, and I didn’t want to frighten her with my concerns.
As I answered the phone, I was cautious about how I came across. I did not want her to hear the tremor in my voice. After saying hello, she told me that she had seen a newswire on her phone saying there had been an attack on U.S. soldiers along the border of Niger and Mali.
“That was Bryan,” I said, my voice shaking. “Bryan was there. That’s his group.” Karen tried to convince me that we did not know this for sure, and to ease her mind, I agreed. But I knew right then that my husband was dead.
I sat on the steps in my darkened front room trying to breathe as I waited on hold for someone with Bryan’s command at Fort Bragg to answer the phone. My whole body trembled. I had closed the double doors separating my living room from the rest of the house so I wouldn’t wake the kids. My mind drifted from Bryan to each of the other team members I had met or heard Bryan speak about. I prayed for all the men to make it home to their families. “Please, Lord,” I said, “if Bryan didn’t make it, I pray his new captain did and the communications sergeant with the young family. The team sergeant needs to come home to be with his wife and son. They don’t deserve this. Please let him come home.” Bryan’s best friend on the team was Sergeant First Class Brent Bartels, and throughout that night I felt pressed to pray for him. I felt Brent needed to make it home—otherwise, another part of Bryan would not be coming home, and I couldn’t handle that, as well.
Finally, I heard a click on the other end and a female voice told me that until next of kin were notified, they were not authorized to tell anyone—even a spouse—whether a deployed soldier had been killed. I was read a statement filled with words saying nothing. It only served to heighten my fears.
Next, I called the team sergeant’s wife to ask if she had heard anything about the attack. “Well, I heard from Smith a little while ago and he said they were out on a mission and things went bad. Real bad. But he wouldn’t say what and he said he’d call me again tomorrow because they needed the phone lines open. I’ll try calling him, though, and see if he can tell me anything about your husband. Okay?”
I hung up the phone. The last time we spoke, Bryan had called on the office phone in Ouallam, but I didn’t have that number. There was nothing I could do but wait.
It was 9:30 at night when I heard the car drive up. It seemed to take an eternity for the knock to come. I paused for a minute before opening the door, realizing the moment I opened it nothing in my life would ever be the same. When I finally turned the door handle, I saw two chaplains standing there. They solemnly asked if I would please allow them to come in. We stood in my entryway, sorrow written plainly on their faces.
Protocol requires them to read the statement on a spouse’s death. As the statement was read, the words seemed to come at me in slow motion, each one hitting me like a brick, heavy and deafening. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Black. I’m afraid we have some bad news. I’m sure you have some idea why we are here. Your husband and his unit were attacked. I’m so sorry, Mrs. Black, but your husband did not make it. Bryan was killed earlier today in Niger, Africa.”
I backed away from the two men until I hit the corner of the wall. I took several deep breaths as I began to shake. My mouth went dry and my stomach lurched. This was real; this was happening to me, to my family. I looked up the stairs, terrified that the boys might have heard noises and woken up. I was so scared that they would come downstairs before I could be brave for them.
The chaplains asked if I had anyone who could come over and stay with me. I panicked and said I did not. That’s one thing about being a military wife: You are far from family. Too far, when things go wrong. It took a few minutes for me to come to my senses and realize I could call a friend from up the street. When my friend answered her phone I could say nothing but “Something happened to Bryan. Can you come over?” She immediately said yes and hung up the phone.
I had promised Karen earlier in the night that if I found anything out about Bryan, I would call her, no matter what it was. I dialed Karen’s number and steeled myself to tell one of my favorite people in this world that her baby boy was dead. The depth of pain I felt as I unleashed that monstrous truth on her is something I wouldn’t wish on any person.
The phone’s ring sounded hollow as I waited for Karen to answer. “Hi. What’s going on, did you find anything out?” she asked.
Shock had wiped away my emotions and I responded robotically. “I did.”
There was a sharp silence that came over the phone, like an icy wind. She knew. After a few long seconds I realized I needed to finish.
“Chaplains are here,” I said. “Bryan is not coming home.”
There was no use trying to speak further. There was nothing to say as the thing of every mother’s nightmares settled on us both.
Finally, Karen broke the silence. “I need to go. I need to let Henry know.”
I sat on my couch for the next several hours as my friend arrived, the chaplains left, and more people began to come over. I couldn’t talk and I couldn’t sleep. All I could do was sit in shock, staring at the wall. The realization of what my life now was ran like a loop through my mind. “I am a widow, I am a single mom, I am now the sole provider, my job doesn’t pay enough . . .” Fear of my unknown future without Bryan was palpable. Where do I begin a new life, I wondered, one without Bryan? How is that possible? I couldn’t wrap my mind around any of it. Was there any chance some mistake had been made? He’d come walking through that door again, wouldn’t he? I sat up all night, holding vigil, thinking these terrifying thoughts and staring into an abyss of uncertainty.
The next day came in a haze. I had sent the kids to school without telling them about Bryan. I decided early on that first night after being notified that I needed a plan. The children had slept well and would come down the stairs in the morning happy and ready for another school day, so they would have one last good day. If this was all I could give them this year, I would do it. I would pretend everything was normal even if it killed me. And my plan would be to take the kids to school and wait for as much family as possible to arrive before picking them up. I knew the boys would need to see the support they had.
My cousin Gwen, who they know as their aunt, had arrived around 2:30 in the morning. Henry, who was in DC for work that week, would be arriving in Fayetteville after the kids were at school. I called the school to inform them of the situation so they could prepare the kids’ homework packets with extra work so they could be absent. I also needed to make certain that if anyone was aware of the attack because of media reports, no word of it got around the school or to my children before I spoke with them.
Then I simply had to wait for Henry’s arrival. When Henry got out of his car that afternoon it was clear he had not slept. Dark circles were etched under his eyes and his normally light and friendly manner was silent and solemn. It seemed like he had aged overnight. He didn’t say hello, just hugged me tightly, then walked into the house.
It wasn’t much later that the school day was over, which meant it was time. I was sick with the truth that I was going to have to unleash on my own children. After picking the kids up from school, Henry and I took them out to a deserted playground in a wooded area. I wanted to tell them somewhere away from home. Someplace where they could wrap up this nightmare and leave it. Home should hold happy and comforting memories, not memories of devastation. I wanted them to leave the ruin of that moment and come back home to family and positive memories of their dad. I didn’t want them to think of the news every time they walked through the door from school or sat on their beds.
So here we were on a winding road driving deep in the woods on a cool October day heading for a deserted playground. They were so excited to find out why Grandpa had come to visit and what we were doing at the park with him. After parking the car, Henry and I hung back as the boys ran for the swings. A cool October wind blew, kicking up leaves all around us as we stared at the ground, slowly making our way toward the playground.
“Do you want me to tell them?” Henry asked.
I did want that, but it was my job. No grandfather should ever have to tell his grandchildren that their dad—his own son—is dead. I looked up at the tall pine trees around us and felt the far-off sun rays peeking through their branches as I tried to fight back the terror I felt. It took a moment, but the wave of fear finally passed. I stepped forward.
“Hey, boys!” I yelled. They came running and met us near a park bench on the edge of the playset. “Grandpa and I brought you guys here to speak to you. We have some bad news.” The boys looked at me with confusion as I searched for the right words. “It’s okay to be angry or sad. It’s okay to cry or yell. Okay?”
Both kids nodded in understanding.
“You know how we’ve been praying for Dad’s safety?” I asked. “You know how we prayed he would be safely brought home?” Suddenly I saw fear in their eyes and I could not stop tears from coming to mine. I took a jagged breath and pushed ahead. “Well, his unit was attacked.” My voice began to tremble as I continued. “Dad and his friends were there.” Now I saw panic in their faces. “Some of them died and some were injured.” I could barely breathe as I whispered, “I am so sorry, boys.”
I could no longer contain the torrent of emotion, and I heard myself make an awful noise as I began to cry and the tears flooded my vision. “Dad is not coming home.” Isaac let out a panicked shriek as his face took on the most devastating shape I’d ever seen. “He’s dead?” Isaac asked, incredulous. “Yes, he is dead.”
By now we were all weeping and the kids began whimpering like injured animals. So did I. Henry turned away and shook. Isaac looked at me, desperate, and asked me a question I wish I could have given him a different answer to. “No, not halfway dead,” I answered him.
“All the way dead? Maybe he can still be fixed and come back?” he begged. I responded shakily, “You know the answer to that. No. There is no coming back.”
Isaac turned, wailing, and ran away from me. “Please don’t run away and hide. I’m sad, too, and I need you here.” But it was no use; Isaac was gone.
Henry, Ezekiel, and I stood there in silence for a long while, crying. Then we all hugged, trying to ease the pain. Finally, everyone separated and went off on their own. I found my younger son hiding under the slide. “Isaac?”
“Honey, I’m so sorry. Why don’t you come out and let me give you a hug.” He couldn’t even look at me or respond. I glanced behind me at my older son, who was kicking at the dirt sobbing. Henry followed one boy and I followed the other. Then we just sat and gave them time.
They say that time heals all wounds, but some scars are everlasting. Even in the moment, I knew that this would be one of those ugly scars seared forever on our souls. Breathe, I told myself. Just take a deep breath and trust He who makes all things new. Remember, He can work all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His good purpose. I repeated this in my head as I stood by the slide. Those promises were all I had left that day. The only hope I could cling to that offered some glimmer of light in such a dark place.
After a while, Isaac emerged and I gathered my children to me. Then my older son made the most honest comment, which brought the ugliness of the situation into glaring focus. “I can’t believe my dad was murdered.”
My breath caught in my throat and my heart ached on a whole new level. I did not know how to respond, mostly because he was right. An eleven-year-old autistic boy had more clarity on the situation in that moment than most people I know, including myself when I heard about the ambush.
After a few more minutes our tears began to subside. Henry and I coaxed them onto the swings and the boys finally began to calm down. The quiet solitude of the forest helped bring some peace to the situation and I finally felt a small amount of calm come over me. That is when Ezekiel looked at us and said, “Who is going to teach me how to do everything now? Dad was supposed to teach me to fish and wrestle and everything.” He began crying again.
Desperate in that moment, I glanced at Henry, hoping he’d be willing to back up my next words. “Grandpa will. That’s why you have Grandpa.”
Henry and I locked eyes and I saw fresh tears well up as he said, “Yes.”
We continued to push the kids on the swings in silence. After a few minutes, Isaac got off his swing and walked over to the jungle gym where he spent some time climbing. We gave the boys another half-hour to just be alone and cry before deciding it was probably time to get back to the house. I asked Isaac what he wanted.
“Can my friends come over?” he asked.
I texted my friends who knew what had happened and asked if they could bring their kids by to play for a little bit. My sons needed their friends to feel like they would be okay. By the time we arrived home, the sun was setting and there were friends at my house waiting to support and be with us on the hardest day of our lives.
From Sacrifice: A Gold Star Widow’s Fight for the Truth by Michelle Black, to be published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Michelle Black.
Featured image: After the graveside ceremony. Michelle placing a white rose on top of Bryan’s casket and saying goodbye for the last time. (Photo: Rich LaSalle).
Michelle Black is a mother of two boys and is a Gold Star wife. She has a background in environmental sciences and horticulture, is an experienced snowboarder, and has a passion for writing. She lives in Washington State.