The story of Lavender’s death is told early on in the novel, and it transitions the story from a description of the physical things the soldiers carried in Viet Nam, to the emotional baggage they all quickly acquired and carried for the rest of their lives.
Basically, none of the soldiers were doing what they should have been when Ted Lavender was killed, presumably by a Viet Cong sniper. The men were all standing around the enemy tunnel that Lee Strunk had just finished crawling through to check for safety. Strunk had emerged dirty but alive, and the men were laughing, celebrating his survival of the ordeal. O'Brien writes, “Lieutenant Cross nodded and closed his eyes while the others clapped Strunk on the back and made jokes about rising from the dead.” No one was standing guard. They were not keeping low or quiet. In fact, Lieutenant Cross was the least aware of them all, preoccupied with his continual thoughts of Martha, the girl back home who didn’t seem to care about him nearly as much as he did her, which caused him to obsess over her picture and vague letters. He seemed unaware of the commotion his men were making as Strunk moaned like a ghost come from the grave and the men laughed. Lavender, it seems, had moved away from the men to go to the bathroom, and on his way back, right in front of Kiowa, his lower face exploded from a single shot to the head. He fell instantly dead under the weight of the extra things he carried in his pack.
Lieutenant Cross inwardly blamed himself. After the chopper carried Ted Lavender’s body away, he burned Martha’s picture and letters, vowing to tighten up his leadership of his troops. “He would not tolerate laxity. He would show strength, distancing himself.” And they would all add one more burden to the things they carried.