Thanks to our friends at Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), we’d like to share a story with you about a little girl and a general who just so happened to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Major General Martin Dempsey struggled with how to deal with the battle buddies of the fallen.
“To see the love that these soldiers had for each other made me take my responsibilities that much more seriously.”
But he wasn’t sure what to say that would help at those moments. “I had nothing,” he said. “I mean, I’d say, ‘hang in there’ or ‘we’re really sorry about what happened’ . . . I felt so superficial.”
Then a phrase echoed in his head.
“Make it matter.”
Dempsey had laminated cards made for every soldier who had been killed to that point. The cards were carried by all the general officers in theater as a constant physical reminder of the human cost of the war. When the number of casualties made impractical to carry the cards at all times, he stored them in a mahogany box he had engraved with “Make it Matter,” and would rotate the cards he carried in his pocket with the ones in the box.
And from that point forward, when he would address the soldiers in units that had experienced losses, he’d simply say, “Make it matter.”
“They knew exactly what I meant,” Gen. Dempsey said.
Erin Yaggy lost her husband, Marine Corps Major David Yaggy, a veteran of three combat deployments. He was killed as he was instructing his student in a Navy T-34C trainer. Their airplane went down in the hills of Alabama. Erin and David’s daughter Lizzy was just 18 months old.
Fast forward two and a half years to the TAPS’ Good Grief Camp, when four-year old Lizzy asked the speaker, Gen. Dempsey, if her daddy was an angel.
“I was stunned,” Gen. Dempsey recalled. “How do you answer that question?”
Fearing that he could well break down if he tried to talk he decided to attempt something else.
“I knew I could sing through emotion instead of trying to speak,” he said.
So he answered that, of course, her father was an angel — like the fathers of everyone there — and that the entire group should sing together because singing is joyful and the fact that their fathers were angels should bring them great joy.
He launched into the Irish classic, “The Unicorn Song,” teaching the proper hand gestures required during the chorus. Soon the entire room was singing.
At the following year’s Good Grief Camp, Lizzy introduced the general as the keynote speaker. The third year Lizzy introduced the general he’d taken over as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Before they got on stage together, she gave him a little box with an angel-shaped medallion in it, saying, “You’re my guardian angel.”
General Dempsey only had two things on his desk in the Pentagon: his “Make it Matter” box and the guardian angel medallion Lizzy gave him.
When it came time for the general’s retirement ceremony, officials were coordinating all the moving parts, including President Obama’s attendance. They were surprised to learn who the outgoing chairman wanted to introduce him. The general was insistent.
On the day, a little girl on the dais confidently strode by the dignitaries and political appointees and the President of the United States and stood on the box positioned behind the podium just for her.
And without any hesitation, Lizzy Yaggy delivered her remarks to the thousands in attendance, and finished with, “Please welcome my friend, General Dempsey . . .”