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“Your Compassion Is Salve to the Wound”: Gold Star Mom Rivka Bent Reflects on the Meaning of Memorial Day and 10 Years Without Her Son

“Your Compassion Is Salve to the Wound”: Gold Star Mom Rivka Bent Reflects on the Meaning of Memorial Day and 10 Years Without Her Son

By Rivka Bent
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It has been 10 years since the loss of my son, Lance Corporal Cole Bent, United States Marine.

Writing that sentence, seeing it, and hearing it is much different than comprehending it.

A decade! A gosh darn decade of the world going on. Moving forward. Upward and onward. Ten years of missing.

I wonder sometimes, since I only had my son for just 22 years of life, if I continue to live and surpass that number, will I miss him less? What a ridiculous thought. But then again, I am a grieving mom who must live in the ridiculous as a means of survival.

For instance, I’m quite mad at Cole these days. He hasn’t called me in a long time. Furthermore, he didn’t even send me a Mother’s Day card. Ridiculous, I know! Survival, I know. Cole, I wish I could continue to know.

I am much more adept at carrying the weight of this loss than I was several years ago when I first shared my story through this forum of Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper. My soul muscles are more exercised these days. After ten years of carrying this load, I don’t crumble at the mention of Cole’s name—usually.

Just this past January, I received a letter from an entity I haven’t seen come through my mailbox in a very long time. I opened the metal box and quizzically pulled out a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Though it was addressed to my full legal name, the letter began with “To Whom It May Concern.” Apparently, that is me. It went on to inform me that President Biden signed into law the Sergeant First Class (SFC) Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act. That is a mouthful, but it is the full name of the law that was signed in 2022 by our current President.

I’ll spare you the details and break it down to the most basic of terms with a snapshot from the letter: “You may be eligible for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefits…if the Veteran…had an undiagnosed illness, or medically unexplained chronic multisymptom illness, and such illness caused or contributed to the Veteran’s death.” The information goes on to identify the area of Afghanistan where my son served as a member of Operation Enduring Freedom, and also identified his direct issue at the top of the qualifying conditions list: “brain cancer.”

The part that is hard to swallow since first reading this letter a few months ago is this: “...caused or contributed to the Veteran’s death.” Even after a decade of daily working out my soul muscles, these little words gut-punched me so fast, they took me down immediately. No down for the count, no stagger—just a swift wipe out. How could my son be gone? And yes VA, I am the one To Whom It Concerns.

May is a dark spot on the calendar—well, my calendar that is. First there’s Mother’s Day, a holiday celebrated by most and endured by others. May 17th is the worst day of my life; it’s the day Cole slipped away from this world and entered his heavenly realm. Closing out the month is its final weekend, with the federal holiday of remembrance, Memorial Day, honoring and mourning those military personnel who have died while serving.

This is no party, my friends. No barbeque. No sale on merchandise. The last Monday in May is an annual gut-punch for everyone who’s lost someone who’s served our country—even if we gain incremental endurance year after year of facing that sad fact.

It is my hope, now that I am a decade-long survivor, that this sliver of insight broadens empathy’s reach.

This Memorial Day, I am asking for understanding because finally I am strong enough to do so. As we who suffer loss endure the chore of placing the flag at the tombstone or flowers at the footbed of a marker, please allow us the solemnity of honoring the fallen. As we feign strength while listening to the Memorial Day Roll Call, extend to us the helping hand of courage by pausing alongside the awfulness of the names list reading. Teach, if you would, those within your sphere the importance to pause on this day, to give honor to those who willingly stepped into active service to our country and died for it, believing in freedom for all.

Memorial Day is not Veteran’s Day, and it’s important to know the difference. Your informed compassion is salve to the wound. It helps revert the burdensome sorrow into unhinged glorious awe. It helps build up those in active service and those retired, because you are respecting their dutiful sacrifice through honoring the fallen amongst their ranks. In effect, you help us continue to live.

LCpl Cole Bent, To Whom It May Concern:

Your duty, your honorable service, your sacrifice is not in vain. It is remembered today, every day, and most especially this Memorial Day 2023—a decade of grieving because you are worthy to grieve.

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