A consoler's consolation

Aberdeen chaplain's faith helps him cope with daughter's death in Iraq

Profile -- Doug Duerksen

April 09, 2006|By LIZ F. KAY | LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTER

.. Doug Duerksen is familiar with the grim task of consoling the families of soldiers killed in war.

As an Army chaplain, Duerksen has delivered tragic news to many families - sometimes even about his friends.

Now the chaplain and his family are the ones grieving, after the death of their 19-year-old daughter from a noncombat gunshot wound in Baghdad, Iraq, last month.

"I'd much rather be the caregiver than the receiver," said the father, who is based at Aberdeen Proving Ground. "It's an unusual role to be in."

Amy Duerksen, a private first class in the 4th Infantry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, was shot March 8 and died three days later.

Grieving the loss of their daughter, the Duerksens have found comfort in their ardent faith, and in the fact that they, like many military families, possessed a full grasp of the risks of war going in.

"All of us have the potential of experiencing exactly what we're going through," said Duerksen, a Protestant clergyman.

Even those trained to help others can struggle with a personal loss, said Bonnie Carroll, chairwoman of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. The Washington-based organization supports families of fallen soldiers.

Carroll is a major in the Air Force Reserve who was trained as part of a critical-incident team. Her husband was killed in a military aircraft crash in 1992, and she remembers how strange it felt to be on the receiving end of support.

"The people coming to comfort you, you feel like you should be comforting them," she said. "I would say to myself, `I know I've had this training. I know I should be able to figure this out and cope,' but grief and traumatic loss are just debilitating personally."

Duerksen, 48, came to APG from Fort Hood about a year ago with his wife, Michelle, and Amy, the younger of their two adopted daughters.

Amy had just graduated from high school and was intrigued by the chance to explore the Northeast, her father said. She had been researching college scholarships but enlisted in the Army soon after arriving in Maryland.

Doug Duerksen, who had been a chaplain for 14 years, talked to his daughter about the commitment required.

"I just wanted her to be aware that that's the kind of sacrifice she had to be prepared to make when she enlisted," the chaplain said.

They went to the recruiting center the next day.

Before Amy left for boot camp last year, the family toured a Norman Rockwell museum in Vermont. She saw Rockwell's Four Freedoms illustrations, based on a Franklin D. Roosevelt speech about freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear. Amy purchased postcards of the images and had them framed, Duerksen said.

"She knew that's what she was going to Iraq to do," he said. "For being young, she definitely knew what she wanted to be about."

Amy was assigned to the 4th Combat Support Battalion at Fort Hood. Her experiences inspired her sister, April, now 20, to enter the military last September. April is training at Fort Sam Houston to be an Army mental health specialist, her father said.

The sisters visited Maryland in early November, able to speak more knowledgeably with their father about military life. He counseled them the way he would any soldier going into battle.

He told them to "consider yourself already dead," not to harbor thoughts of coming back or of personal goals that might interfere with giving their lives for the mission. And he told them to make peace with God.

Amy flew out to the Middle East in early December and was deployed to Iraq on Christmas Day. On March 1, she was promoted to private first class. On March 8, she was shot in the chest.

The Duerksens found out about Amy's injury quickly thanks to a fellow clergyman, who also called with updates during surgery to remove her right lung. However, Amy's condition worsened before she could be airlifted to Germany, and she died during surgery.

Upon learning of her death on March 11, the couple wrote in an e-mail to family and friends about their sadness "from a human perspective, that we can no longer delight in Amy's presence." But, the message reads, they rejoiced in knowing she was with God.

"Amy died doing what she wanted to do and fulfilling what she believed in," the family wrote. "She was serving her country and defending the freedom of others. This noble and honorable American tradition can never be diminished."

Though quite familiar with the notification protocol, the Duerksens still dreaded the sight of officers at their door. When a friend from the casualty assistance office came to officially deliver the news, Michelle Duerksen began to weep.

"It was like I had just heard it," she said, seated on a sofa in the family's Aberdeen residence, with scrapbooks and other mementos of Amy's life close by.

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