Friday, 16 April 2010

Peace At the Eye of the Tempest: Remembering Sgt. Maj. R.J. Cottle

"If at the eye of a tempest peace lies, shouldn't at the heart of darkness light await?"--Bradley Kayl

Every badge is covered with a black band. Every hand that touches the casket wears a white glove. Flag draped, the remains of USMC Sgt. Maj. Robert James Cottle slowly process down the streets of downtown Los Angeles, led by a pipe and drum band. He is followed by his wife and baby girl, family, police officers, Marines (“More Sergeant Majors than I’ve ever seen together in one place,” marvels my Marine Corps uncle), and firefighters. Every eye along the route stops to watch. The six pallbearers, all SWAT officers, walk purposefully alongside the rustic open wagon—the shortest of them is my father. The man in the casket is his SWAT team partner and Brother Warrior.

For several blocks around Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, the streets of Los Angeles are shut down. My mother is ready to jump out and hot foot the last few blocks, heels and all. But the off-duty SWAT officer in the front seat manages to weave his SUV through traffic in record time and flash his VIP badge at the final check point. Every major news station is covering the event—even the flags at the state capitol were set at half-mast, this week. KNX 1070 Radio News comes on with an update on the somber procession approaching the cathedral. They mention Dad by name.

Today, my father walks one of many routes he’s followed, both physical and emotional, since March 24th, when the call first came informing R.J. Cottle’s loved ones and closest companions that his recon group had been hit by an IED in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Dad has flown across the country and back, following R.J. and accompanying his wife, Emily, and baby girl. He and his SWAT brothers have shared stories and drinks, laughter and tears. And after nearly four weeks, it doesn't seem to have gotten one iota easier for any of them.

Everyone deals with grief in his or her own way. As parents, we deal with our children’s sorrows, large and small, on a daily basis. Sometimes it also falls to us as children to console our own parents when they walk through the Valley of Darkness. I knew there wasn’t much I could do. I’ve never been on a call-up or shared more than a dinner with most of my father’s buddies; he has never made good on his promise to take me to a shooting range. Although I’ve heard countless hours worth of war stories, I’ve never been more than a peripheral part of that world. But I can send flowers and leave a loving note. I can call and listen. I can show up with hugs, share a black-and-tan, take out the trash, and offer a pat on the back while he tweaks the eulogy. I can be there for my distraught mother, who has been with Dad through it all. I can slip Dad a Power Bar after the Hearst pulls away and he lowers his final salute. It isn’t much…it feels like nothing. But sometimes just being there is half the battle.

I look down, straighten the creases in my slacks, and hope that it’s enough.

As we leave the parking garage and walk out into the open courtyard of the cathedral, my mother halts mid-sentence to grab the hand of the first Marine she sees and thank him for his service. Startled, he puts his hand to his heart in grateful appreciation and smiles. “You caught me off guard, there,” he says warmly. A Vietnam vet, my father’s brother remembers a time when people spit on returning soldiers. As my mother walks back, Uncle Gerry takes her under his arm. He’s clearly proud. “If you keep that up, here,” he says wryly, “you’re going to be a very busy lady, today.”

We swim into a sea of uniforms and black coats as we enter the concrete and marble hall of a church built for giants. Someone hands me a program with R.J.’s handsomely-uniformed picture on the front. Looking at his picture, I can imagine his deep voice. He’s leaning on Dad’s bar, looking at me with unblinking eyes, probably teasing me about one of my lame college boyfriends, his adam’s apple bobbing as he laughs. We continue down the hallway. I am afraid to look at his photo again, lest I lose all decorum and begin to weep.

Dwarfed and subdued, we make our way to one of hundreds of pews. I’m overwhelmed by the brown, concrete walls, the massive emptiness, the clouds letting only vague hints of daylight through the opaque windows. I know I should feel cold. Wedged in among thousands of people, instead I feel comforted and calm. Looking around, I wonder if this cathedral can contain all of the grief that is palpably held barely in check.

The officers lining the hallway outside suddenly snap to attention, saluting. The first chilling strains of a lone piper’s dirge echo off the high, flat walls. Having lived in Scotland, I still connect strongly with that distinctive, lonely sound. It tears at my heart. This same piper, Sergeant Matt MacWillie, played “Scotland the Brave” at my wedding. In fact, he sat next to R.J. at my reception. These won’t be the only tears of the morning, but they are some of the most deeply personal, for me.

R.J. ultimately receives not one eulogy, but seven, from his father, sister, and boyhood friend, as well as LAPD’s Chaplain, the Police Chief Charlie Beck, a fellow SWAT Team Element Leader—my father, and a fellow Marine Corps Sergeant Major. Each of them carries within them a part of R.J. Together, they paint a vivid picture of the man, breathing life into their stories of the tall, lanky, “one hundred forty-eight pounds of twisted steel”, as R.J. once described himself.

When my father stands to speak about his partner, it’s clear from his very first words he is only marginally coping. Unlike the others who speak that day, Dad doesn’t need a microphone. His voice booms through the cathedral in what my mother calls his “work voice”, the one that cuts through high-stress moments and gets done what needs doing, the good, the bad, and the worst. Even laughing about R.J.’s Twinkie-driven escapades, he is torn up. We all are. The weight of every one of R.J.’s SWAT brethren is my father’s to carry, their sorrow his to express. When he promises R.J.’s widow and baby girl that he will never forsake them, the soul of the entire Department is behind his husky-throated words. Chief Beck echoes the same: “The Los Angeles Police Department will stand by you until the end of time. This organization is a family. And you are part of that family. If you didn’t understand it before, understand it now.”

R.J.’s wife, Emily, and his 9-month old baby girl have been met at every airport, cared for at every turn, and promised by both the LAPD officers and Marines who knew her husband that they will never be left behind nor forgotten. Because R.J. was not killed on SWAT duty, Emily Cottle would not, under normal circumstances, receive death benefits from the City of Los Angeles. That’s the cold nature of paperwork. But, true to his word, Chief Beck has taken the unprecidented step of listing Officer Cottle's death as "on duty". A family, indeed.

It hurts to see those we have always seen as a source of strength torn apart by heartache. But these are our parents and we continue to learn from them, even after we go on to raise our own families in our own ways. We are reminded that our mothers and fathers have deep, difficult, overwhelming challenges, just as we do ourselves. And it helps us to remember, in our own moments of darkness, that someone we know and love has been there before us, trampling the path, perhaps illuminating the obstacles ahead, showing us how to cope and accept our grief as part of the natural cycle of life. Without that darkness, we cannot know how valuable is the light.

My father has finally returned from Arlington, Virginia, having followed the Sergeant Major to his final rest. I’ll meet up with him soon for a black-and-tan and a Twinkie. That’s just how R.J. would want to be remembered.

Please remember the men and women of our police departments and armed services who protect you every day from dangers both global and local—shake a hand and thank them for their service. Some rarely hear the words and you have no idea how much it means to them. Don’t wait until they’re gone.

To join us in support of Emily and Kaila, please make checks payable to “Blue Ribbon Trust for Robert J. Cottle” and send them to: Los Angeles Police Federal Credit Union, Attn: Blue Ribbon Trust for Robert J. Cottle, P.O. Box 10188, Van Nuys, CA 91410.

Photo by Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times - April 13, 2010 - All rights reserved by owner - no copyright infringement intended.