A disheveled and seemingly shrunken Maj. (retired) Henry “Hank” Black of the U.S. Marine Corps — my father-in-law — stepped out of his red Jeep Patriot and walked across my lawn in Fayetteville, North Carolina. It was Oct. 5, 2017.
I met him outside the front door. His eyes were glazed as he leaned in, giving me a silent, somber hug. His arms were weak around my shoulders, and he quickly retreated. His voice was thin as he asked, “Are you ready to pick up the kids?”
A day earlier, Hank’s son — and my husband — Bryan, 35, a Green Beret medical sergeant, had been killed in action in Niger. His team had been ambushed outside the village of Tongo Tongo in an attack that left four Americans dead and several wounded.
My family had been notified late that night. Now Hank and I were left with the monstrous task of telling my kids, his grandkids, that their father would never come home.
Hank stood beside me that day, stoic and resolute. He became the strength I needed when all of mine had vaporized. That was the first of many days in which I came to lean on the man who had raised my incredible husband, the father of our two sons.
In Bryan’s absence, this Marine did not miss a beat. He set aside his own grief to walk beside my children and hold their small hands, softly guiding their broken hearts forward into a life without their father.
It was a cool night in the late fall of 2004 when I first laid eyes on Maj. Black.
I ascended the stairs, nerves wound tightly in my stomach, wondering what awaited me at the top. Lifting my head, I saw a tall figure of a man in his mid-50s come into view, fit and well-kept with his wavy salt-and-pepper hair high and tight.
The retired officer fit all the stereotypes I had in my head of a tough Marine — until his mouth widened into a large goofy grin. He extended his hand as I stepped onto the landing. “Hello, my soon-to-be-daughter-in-law’” he said jovially as light danced around in his eyes. “It’s very nice to meet you.”