By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Yet when a little girl with long, brown hair and freckles asks about her dad, Andrews, a father of five, nods. "I saw your daddy every day," he says. "We worked together." The girl's father was in Andrews' company. He was killed last May along with six other soldiers when their Bradley ran over an explosive device in Baghdad.
Later, when the kids are sitting around the campfire toasting marshmallows, Andrews says he did his best to clarify why their fathers left. "I try to explain, 'He didn't want to leave his family, but he's got this other family, and he's got to go with those guys to protect everyone's family,'" he says. Earlier in the day, he picked up a little girl and she put her hands on his face. "You're like my daddy right now," she told him.
"It breaks your heart," Andrews says. "I wish I could do more for them."
As long as soldiers have gone into battle, they've left families behind to make sense of their lives and deaths. Operation Iraqi Freedom is the first drawn-out American conflict dependent on an all-volunteer force, yet much like Vietnam, it has been controversial and divisive, even among the military rank-and-file.
The Gold Star Center discourages political discussions out of respect for members' differing opinions. "The political part of this war is a small part of most people's grief," Busch says. "In this ugly political season, taking care of military families is one thing every American can agree on."
Yet no matter their stance on Iraq, soldiers and bereaved family members must inevitably face the swirl of societal discord and high emotions that surround the conflict. Some ignore the news and condemn what they perceive to be the media's flagrant negative spin, while others blame the government for their losses.
Stacey, who dislikes politics, says she knows widows who oppose the war—one called the death compensation "blood money" and gave most of it away, while others say the payment is still insultingly low—but she doesn't share their bitterness. "It would be silly if I didn't support the war," she says. "My husband would have died for nothing."
Finá Alexander sees it differently. "I think all the troops need to come home," she says. "I blame Bush because he's the one who sent them over there. My husband thought the war was unnecessary, but George loved the military, and he was going to do his job the best he could."
Another widow recalls talking to her husband on the phone on Election Day 2004. He thought that if Bush lost, they might avoid the invasion of Fallujah. Days later, he was killed in the Sunni city.
Sergeant Andrews takes a less political and more global view of the war. "I wasn't just there for Americans. I was there for Iraqis and the guys I lost the last time," he says. "That's what drove me to get back in my truck and go out on patrol every day. You're fighting for the same thing they're fighting for: to structure a city and establish a secure environment."
Stacey Markham recently spent her third wedding anniversary at DFW National Cemetery. It was a rainy morning, and heavy clouds hung low over the gray headstones. She placed bouquets of purple daisies on Jonathan's grave and propped up a black and white photograph from their wedding. In the picture he stands tall in his uniform, a proud smile on his lips, while Stacey beams for the camera in her classic white gown.
Daniel, almost 2, toddled up to the headstone. "Blow a kiss, Daniel," Stacey said. "Blow Daddy a kiss."
The blond little boy brought a chubby fist to his mouth and tossed the imaginary kiss toward his father's grave. Then he walked around to the back of the marker. Holding a red lollipop in one hand, he leaned forward and kissed the headstone.
Stacey had been nauseated all day. "People look at me and say, 'You're doing great,'" she said. "But inside, I'm ready to break." The Sunday before, her pastor spoke about the importance of "one man and one woman for life."
I'm 22 and I already met the one man? she thought. She left church and drove home, yelling at Jonathan's dog tags hanging from the rearview mirror. "Why did you leave me?" she cried. "Why?" She spent the rest of the day weeping in bed. In the past year she learned that trying to suppress the sadness only leads to angry outbursts, often at her son.
"I have moments every day," she said. "I'll go to the park and see a father playing with his son, and that can break me. Or I'll go to Wal-Mart and pass a man wearing Jonathan's cologne."
The rain was coming down harder now, in spurts and sheets. Looking out at the rows of headstones stretching toward the slate gray horizon, her eyes filled with tears.
"I'm still in love with a man who's 6 feet under ground."
To contact the Gold Star Support Center, visit http://www.goldstarfamilysupport.org/