It was a rare quiet day in the newsroom when only the sound of the police scanner crackled through the air.
The silence was shattered in a moment when the assistant editor announced to the newsroom that a local woman had been killed while serving with the U.S. Navy Seabees in Iraq.
The reaction was predictable. Reporters picked up their phones and went to work telling the story of a Centralia grocery store employee who had lost her life in combat, leaving behind her teenage son and more beloved friends than most are blessed to have.
I was just a teenage intern at The Chronicle, the sister newspaper of the Nisqually Valley News, and I was given the relatively simple task of putting together a story on the Seabees, a subset of the Navy that works as a construction battalion.
Regina Clark was killed in an Al-Qaeda attack in 2005.
It wasn’t until the day after the news broke that I realized her teenage son was a former classmate of my best friend who had frequently been an opponent and teammate in our occasional pickup basketball games at a Centralia park.
In a way, America’s pursuit of alleged terrorists across the globe had hit home for the first time, though it wouldn't be the last.
In the years following Sept. 11, 2001, there had been an almost celebratory atmosphere in the U.S. when armed forces descended on first Afghanistan and later Iraq. There was a sense of vengeance for the lives lost in the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
That started to change around 2005 — the same year Clark died — as the loss of American lives in foreign countries began to climb and the reasoning behind our occupation of Iraq became more murky.
All these years later, we continue to see deaths mount, as evidenced by this week's news of the killing of a soldier stationed at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Afghanistan.
I’ll leave the debate over whether the losses are worth it to those who have actually served our country and their families, but I think we can all agree that we must absolutely remember their lives in as many ways as possible.
There isn’t a work day that goes by that I don’t think of Sgt. Justin D. Norton, not because I knew him, but because his image is emblazoned on a train trestle support just north of Rainier on a stretch of State Route 507 that is named in his honor.
Now, that highway has another daily reminder of the toll on our country following the terrorist attacks of 2001.
A bridge over the Skookumchuck River just north of Centralia has now been named for Regina Clark. It might seem like hollow recognition to some, but to those who knew and loved Clark, it’s important and meaningful.
It’s possible — even likely — the bridge will outlast us all, and that means future generations will learn of her sacrifice.
They’ll learn how, by all rights, she should have never died. That’s because she was in a non-combat role providing food to soldiers, but she volunteered to become one of the “Lionesses,” a group of female soldiers tasked with searching Iraqi women, something male soldiers were not allowed to do.
“It was a planned attack and the Lionesses were their target. Al Qaeda took credit for the bombing,” said retired Capt. Michael Blount, her commanding officer. “She was a Seabee warrior. She was brave. She was courageous.”
I imagine it’s also a comforting sight for her son, Kerry Clark, who later joined me working at The Chronicle as an intern before overcoming addiction and the loss of his mother to become a successful educator.
His memories of her are always close at hand.
“That is my life,” he told me in 2014, “constantly marked by the revolutions of the calendar and coming and passing of days that remind me of her sacrifice and remind me of the challenges I’ve faced and the challenges I’m yet to face on my quest for success.”
When I think of Norton, Clark and others who died while fighting for our country, I’ll remember how their willingness to go to war provided people like myself — civilians who have sacrificed virtually nothing for this country — opportunities to pursue careers outside the military.
The least I can do is remember their sacrifices at every possible turn, whether it’s on a highway, over a bridge or another rare quiet moment in the newsroom when time arises to write a simple remembrance.
Eric Schwartz is the regional executive editor for Lafromboise Communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.