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Trial by fire

Imagine that a hundred houses in your neighborhood caught fire and burned to the ground, destroying most of the possessions of the families who lived in them. Furniture, clothing, bicycles, wedding albums, crayon drawings, all gone.

That’s what happened in my neighborhood in Germany ten days ago. Fire destroyed a moving company warehouse outside Stuttgart and with it the belongings of 97 families transitioning in or out of the community.

Their houses were not destroyed, because these families don’t have houses. These were families of military members and Department of Defense civilians. Their homes are where Uncle Sam sends them.

These moms and dads, sons and daughters pack up their lives and make a home wherever they go: Curtains from the exchange, paintings made by the kids in grade school, a bedroom suite that’s been around since newlywed days. Even the plain white walls of military quarters take on the character of the occupants when their lives are unpacked and settled there.

As military families we regularly watch strangers wrap up, crate up and drive away with the worldly goods that decorate our lives, creating the atmosphere we call home. We wave goodbye, and we know the odds when the truck pulls away. We might never see any of it again.

“It’s just stuff,” we say to ourselves and our friends. We learn to hold it loosely. What else can we do?

We know what can happen, but more often than not most of our stuff shows up again – perhaps a bit more travel-worn – ready to be reassembled into the home we love. And we rejoice in spite of the dents and scratches.

For these families, the unthinkable happened. Fifty thousand square feet of personal possessions went up in flames.

“No it’s not ‘just stuff’” wrote Diana, a Marine wife, after hearing the news. “A baby box is not ‘just stuff.’”

She’s right. Stuff is what is available at the local department store: a sofa, a blender, towels, silverware, underwear.

Treasures are irreplaceable. Made by a daughter, given by a grandmother, discovered at a flea market, treasures don’t have a price tag. They hold memories too priceless for the “replacement value” provisions of an insurance policy.

My friend Patty just moved here with her husband. Their home was packed up and stored in that warehouse, waiting for their move-in date. I saw her at the PX the other day. She was making a price list for the claim she and her husband will need to file to be reimbursed for their losses.

Her outlook was positive. She smiled and said there are worse things. No lives were lost. She talked about meeting other families who had lost their possessions to the fire and expressed sympathy for the families with young children. Her children are grown.

Then she sighed and said, “Even if it’s charred, I would like to have one baby picture.”
Our community has mobilized to help those who have lost everything on the cusp of the holiday season.

The Stuttgart USO and Army Community Services are coordinating donations. The spouses club and the chapel community are also stepping up to help. Fellow military families here and at other installations began offering clothing, furniture and funds as word spread of the calamity.

Memories are indestructible, even if scrapbooks are not. No one can replace everything that was lost. We can only hope and pray that the generosity of friends and strangers will write a new chapter of memories for these families to keep.

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