Families of Slain Soldiers Bond Together to Bind Their Wounds
"Stacey, what do you see?" Sergeant Jonathan Markham asked his wife.
He stopped the white Volvo. It was a sunny December day in 2006, and they'd been driving through Burleson as he prepared to finish his second Iraq tour after two weeks of leave. Stacey looked out the window at the clear sky and leafless trees. A petite brunette with dimpled cheeks and a soft girlish voice, she said nothing. Her eyes welled with tears.
The couple called them her premonitions. In the two years since Jonathan had strewn rose petals on her snow-covered doorstep and given her a ring engraved with the words, "True love waits," he had come to accept the images that occasionally popped into his wife's mind.
At first he teased her and said she was nuts. But then, before she became pregnant and they moved in together, she described to him the apartment where she would give birth to their son, and she turned out to be right. Devout Christians, they put stock in the visions and considered them to be God-given. Yet she refused to tell him about one image—a casket draped with an American flag. She'd first pictured it before they'd even begun dating. She and her father were eating at an IHOP in 2003 when suddenly she saw it. She felt in her heart, she told her father, that she would marry a military man and have his child and that he would go to war and never return. Her father gave her a "you sure no one slipped anything in your drink?" look, and they never spoke of it again.
On that December day in the Volvo, their son's car seat behind them, Stacey turned and looked into her husband's green eyes.
"Stacey, what do you see?"
All she could do was sob.
"Don't cry," he said. "If something happens to me and I don't come back, I want you to pay for my sister's college. I want you to remarry and buy a house. And I want the president at my funeral."
"Stop," Stacey said, bawling. "Don't talk like that."
But he continued. If he died, he said, he wanted a closed-casket funeral.
Six months later, just after she graduated from college, Stacey became a 21-year-old widow. She could read her husband's e-mails, touch his uniform and run her fingers over his photographs. But she would never see his lifeless body. Part of her wanted to glimpse him one last time, but in the end she was glad she honored his wishes. As the Army explained as discreetly as possible, Sergeant Jonathan A. Markham, born March 2, 1985, raised in Arlington and killed by a roadside bomb in Abu Sayda, Iraq, on Memorial Day 2007, had not returned "intact." He was missing portions of his brain, his eyes, his nose and his left arm. And she was glad that she never saw that.
The Gold Star Family Support Center is housed in a simple, one-story building on Battalion Avenue at Fort Hood, the largest military base in the United States and the one that has lost the largest number of soldiers in Operation Iraqi Freedom. On a breezy April afternoon, uniformed men march next to tanks and helicopters on the field across the street while inside the center, young Army widows sit on plush couches and talk about what brought them to the nonprofit that's dedicated to helping bereaved family members negotiate the overwhelming terrain of their grief.
The Gold Star Center, with only six staffers and as many volunteers, has in just more than four years managed to become a national model for the care of grieving military families. Staffers maintain a database of some 600 family members around the country, among them widows, parents and children who have lost soldiers based at Fort Hood. The workers call the relatives to listen and give words of encouragement at times when their grief is most likely to leap up and suck them down, like on anniversaries and holidays. The center offers support groups and organizes camps and social events as opportunities for families to grieve together and to just kick back and have fun.
Debbie Busch, founder of the center, started the group in 2003 after a woman she knew lost her husband. A 40-something Army wife and mother of three whose husband is a sergeant major serving in Afghanistan and whose son is deployed in Iraq, Busch noticed during the first year of the war that Army widows were not receiving adequate support.
"No one deals with death well; let's face it," she says. "They do the hometown church thing, where they bring the food and comfort for a few days and then go back to living their life, but the person is left grieving by themselves. And it's even worse here, because widows remind people of their worst fears."
Widows often find themselves cut off from social networks such as the Family Readiness Group, unit-by-unit organizations that provide Army wives with community and, when their husbands are at war, information about the soldiers' whereabouts. Many widows say they're shunned by other Army wives, as if losing a husband were a contagious disease. Some even report that other wives act threatened by them, worried the single women will seduce their husbands.
On this day in April, Busch and her staff are busy with multiple projects. There's the Mother's Day camp coming up in May, the constant fund-raising (the center is funded not by the government but by the group's nonprofit, HUGSS—Helping to Unite Gold Star Survivors) and regular training for casualty assistance officers, who are charged with notifying family members of soldiers' deaths and helping them to sort through complex Army paperwork and benefits.
When the war began, assistance officers received just four hours of training, and Busch often heard stories of botched death notifications and bungled paperwork. She sprung into action, brainstorming and speaking with officers and Army higher-ups. Now, largely because of the Gold Star Center's efforts, assistance officers receive 40 hours of training, including testimonials from the widows and other family members. The training has been implemented to some degree at bases across the country. Group members were also active in the lobbying that in 2005 led Congress to raise the Army's "death tax"—the amount a widowed family receives—from $12,000 to $100,000, as well as increasing the life insurance payout from $250,000 to $400,000.
As the war marches into its sixth year, the Gold Star Center's work is growing. Its leaders aim to create satellite centers in communities across the country, beginning with the Dallas-Fort Worth area. A Dallas map in the middle of the center's Fort Hood office is marked with dozens of thumbtacks to represent the surviving family members of soldiers who have died.
Busch spent several months searching for a place to hold Dallas support group meetings and settled on Maplewood Baptist Church in North Richland Hills. In April, she had her sights set on the upcoming Mother's Day camp. Featuring fishing, water sports and s'mores around the campfire, the weekend would also include grief counseling. For Busch, who has no formal psychology training and doesn't purport to be a counselor (the center refers people for formal treatment), it's vital to address not just a lone widow's pain, but that of the entire family.
Roughly half the men who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have children, compared with just a third of the mostly drafted force that fought in Vietnam. Today's military comprises large numbers of career soldiers who chose the service as a way of life and a means of supporting their families. So for Busch, the key to preventing massive social breakdown as the wars claim more lives is by taking care of all those affected, including children.
"When you're a grieving mother, it's like looking through a frosted window," she says. "The frost is the grief. Sometimes you're aware of the child's needs, and sometimes the grief is in the way. The camp is about helping families learn to grieve together."
DeAnna Shields is a 34-year-old mother of three who lost her husband, Army Sergeant Jonathan B. Shields, in November 2004 during the invasion of Fallujah, Iraq. She crosses her legs as she sits on the center's couch, reaches for a box of tissues and talks about the disbelieving numbness that enveloped her after his death. She felt alone and separate from her children, avoiding conversation because she wasn't sure what to tell them.
"You want to hold your kids and say, 'It's gonna be OK,' but you know you're lying," she explains. Then she'd assuage her guilt by taking the kids to the mall and buying them anything they wanted; she ended up spending $2,000. The people close to Shields worried, wondering when she would accept that her husband wasn't coming back.
"Family and friends would say they hated to come to my house because I talked like he was gonna come home any minute," she says. "I came to [the group] in January 2007, and that's when I finally started grieving. The best thing was knowing that it wasn't just my story. Before, the only people I could identify with were people on the news who I'd never meet."
After Jonathan completed two weeks' leave and returned to finish his tour in December 2006, Stacey fell into a deep depression. She busied herself with her psychology classes at Dallas Baptist University and with Daniel, who was becoming a precocious child with the same headstrong toughness that his father showed as a boy. Inside, though, she felt as if she were drowning. When she found herself considering shutting herself in the car with the engine running, she went to see a doctor and was briefly prescribed antidepressants.
She tried to think of her husband during happy times, but her mind would often return to the last night he was home. He hadn't slept at all, and at one point she awoke to see him standing by Daniel's crib, sobbing as he held his son. His brief e-mails from Iraq were infrequent. He told her that because he was involved in a joint mission with British forces, everything was classified and there was scant online access.
She began to feel more hopeful as spring approached. She graduated with her psychology degree on May 11, 2007, and looked forward to being a stay-at-home mom for a while. On the Sunday before Memorial Day, she got an upbeat e-mail from Jonathan titled "Love ya!"
"Well I'm not all for that sweet stuff. I don't even think I can word it the way that I want to word it. I love you and that's all you need to know. I love you because you are you. You learned not to care what people think about you. I love you because you are the mother of my one (and only) son. I love you because of all the BS you put up with me being in the Army.
"Not all wives can do it. Esp. single moms for the first year. You are one of the strongest, hardworking, most beautiful women I have ever met. Even though you were pregnant, you stuck through school because you wanted a better future for your family. I admire that! I miss you so much and I know you know that. I can't wait to come home and wrap my arms around you knowing that I'm safe. I can't wait to have that baby slobber all over me, and I'll even change a dirty diaper. I love you guys and can't wait to see you again. Bye babe! P.S. I took a pic for you and put it on myspace. I know you like the coveralls."
They talked on the phone that day too, since he and his guys had the day off and weren't doing any rounds. She put the phone up to Daniel's ear and Jonathan talked to him. When she got back on, Jonathan was upset. "Stacey," he said, his voice breaking, "Daniel doesn't even know who I am."
"Yes, he does," she replied. "You should see his eyes light up when you talk to him."
The next morning, Memorial Day, she stepped into the shower at her parents' house to get ready to run some errands. Over the running water she heard banging on the door. She rushed out in a towel and looked through the window to see two officers in uniform standing outside. He must be wounded, and he's at the hospital in Germany, she thought, her chest tightening. But if he were wounded, they would have called...Maybe they have the wrong address?
She opened the door.
"Are you Mrs. Markham?"
"On behalf of a grateful nation," one of the officers began, "We regret to inform you..."
Stacey fell on her knees. "No," she screamed. "I just talked to him yesterday. He wasn't even working yesterday."
The officers cried with her. The chaplain, a man close to her age, said he had a newborn at home. He played with Daniel while they all wept. Stacey's mother was in the room now, and the officers told them they didn't have details yet. All they knew was that Jonathan had been killed by a roadside bomb.
Later, his buddies would tell her that around midnight, they were called out to retrieve the bodies of some soldiers who died in a downed Kiowa helicopter. Jonathan, they told her, volunteered to go because some of the other guys were taking their time getting ready and "being wusses."
He was riding in a Bradley fighting vehicle's gunner position when the tank in front of his rolled over an explosive device and blew up. Jonathan and the others in his tank dragged their five comrades' bodies out of the fiery wreckage. Then they called back to post to say they wouldn't make it to the crash site. On their way back, they hit another explosive device.
"I think God knew he'd seen too much," Stacey would say later, her eyes welling up. "He'd just collected his brothers' bodies."
Stacey cried herself to sleep every night and went through the motions of planning the funeral. George Bush didn't attend the burial as Jonathan had requested—"He wanted the president to see the cost of war, to know that the men are not just numbers," she told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram after the funeral—but a four-star general came and spoke. The funeral seemed like a blur, as if she were in a waking dream.
She didn't leave the house for the next three months. Sometimes, she was so distraught that she couldn't bear to pick up her son. Her parents would cook for her and Daniel and take the boy, who was just learning to crawl, for walks.
Months later, the wife of a soldier in Jonathan's unit gave Stacey the logbook he'd kept in Iraq. Most of the pages were filled with to-do lists and notes. "Conduct ourselves as professionals at all times," he scrawled, along with, "IED training tips: Don't hover over potholes; stay away from the edge." In the back of the green book, past a photo of his wife and a list of Arabic keywords, he'd begun a diary. Reading it, Stacey got a glimpse of her husband's unedited life in Iraq—a far cry from his calm, cheery e-mails. On October 20, 2006, he wrote:
"Well today is my first day in country. This place is horrible. We are about 600 meters from the enemy. There is nothing but sand, dirt, and rocks. I woke up this morning and heard the 240 B [machine gun] rocking away. What a way to wake up! Our guys are hanging in there pretty damn well. Me, I'm about as scared as can be. I worry about going outside the gates. I'm more worried about what's going to happen to me or my 'brothers.' I'm scared that I'm not going to make it home to my wife and my boy. I miss them so much...
"This is mine and Hallgring's second deployment and I think we are more scared then the rest of them. I think that is because we know what to expect. One thing I do like is that I might get a lot of trigger time. I think that makes me crazy but I don't care. These motherfuckers are trying to kill us and I'll be damned if I go out without a fight. I'm going to try my hardest to go home to my family."
The next night, he scribbled a brief and desolate entry:
"I can't stand it here. These living conditions are unbelievable. I don't even know what I'm here for. What is the purpose of this war? I'm not fighting for my country. I'm fighting for the Iraqis. I left my family to come to this shithole—for what?"
Then, a week later, came this:
"Today has been one of the worst days of my life. First Sgt took a hit [from an IED] and lost his life. He has a wife and three kids. Our sector is bad. I'm so damn scared it's not even funny. I don't want to pop out of my hatch at all."
Around the time she was reeling from reading the journal, Stacey's casualty assistance officer recommended she get involved with the Gold Star Center. They were reaching out to Dallas-area families, he said, and it might be helpful. The first local meeting was held last November at the Army Reserve base in Grand Prairie. "I was the youngest one," Stacey recalls. "There were widows in their 40s, and the others were parents. I felt alone." But in December, the 50 or so grieving family members who met at Macaroni Grill included several widows close to her age. "I didn't realize there were so many young widows and mothers," she says. "About half of the North Texas widows are under 40." That dinner was a turning point.
"Before, I was grieving all alone," she says. "I've been able to meet others who are farther along than me, and they've actually begun to enjoy their lives again." One widow she met was 21 and lost her husband when she was four months pregnant. "It made me realize how lucky I am," Stacey says. "Jonathan had four weeks with Daniel—he cut the cord when he was born." In addition to attending the local support groups, in the past six months she has also driven to Killeen for dinners, media interviews and other Gold Star events. She looks forward to having not only local support groups in the Dallas area, but a local Gold Star Center, as well.
When the widows get together, they talk about their husbands and how they're coping without them. But they also talk about challenges with children, in-laws and money, as well as shopping, makeup and dating. Shields vented about how, shortly after her husband's death, her son came home from Sunday school and said they'd learned that anyone who kills another person is going to hell. He wondered: Is daddy in hell?
"I went to Ecclesiastes 3, you know, 'There's a time for war, a time for peace,'" Shields says, "so he could understand that we don't kill people because we hate. That it's a protection thing."
At some point, the widows say friends and family tire of hearing about what they're going through and grow impatient with their grief. Several have had church members or congregations impose time limits on their mourning. "It's biblical to grieve for 30 days," people told Stacey in the months after Jonathan's death. As the anniversary approaches on Memorial Day, she's beginning to hear it again. "It's been a year," they tell her. "When will you move on?" Fellow widows and other bereaved family members commiserate about such experiences and trade stories about the various phases of grief. Stacey, who majored in psychology, was surprised to find that she didn't go through the phases in order. Instead, anger, denial and depression seemed to come up interchangeably and with no apparent pattern. Others cycle through what they call periods of "acting out," using alcohol, tattoos or "shopping therapy." For some, talking about their husbands and feelings comes naturally, while others are more comfortable listening, especially at first.
Finá Alexander—whose husband, Staff Sergeant George Alexander Jr., became the Iraq war's 2,000th soldier to die after he suffered severe burns in a bomb blast in Samarra in 2005—has been resisting writing about her loss as recommended by the group. "I don't even know where to start," she says. "I look at the journal, and then I don't write anything." She initially associated support groups with "crazy people" and was convinced that she and her son would be fine as long as they got away from all of the military reminders in Killeen. Yet when they arrived in Dallas, they found themselves feeling isolated and misunderstood. She hesitated to attend the group when the center reached out to her but says meeting other widows and families has been comforting.
One thing many widows share is tension and conflict surrounding the money they receive from the government. One of the women says her in-laws questioned why she got the $100,000 payment, claiming it was their son's and should have gone to them. Others tell of suddenly being besieged by family and friends who want money. Shields recalls one woman pulling her aside and scolding her for buying a new car.
"If someone knows you're an Army widow, they think you're loaded," says Private Charlotte Spencer, a thin, big-eyed 22-year-old whose husband, Private Clarence Spencer of Fort Worth—an all-district football star at Dunbar High School—was killed last year in Bilad during his fourth Iraq tour.
Aside from money, one of the most common topics among the younger widows is dating. "These are young women, and they're going to want to date again," Busch says. "They're questioning—are people going to judge me? It's hard on them." Some people criticize the women for going out with other men too early, while others begin asking within months when they'll "get out there again." Shields recalls that someone in her husband's funeral procession shook her hand and said, "You're such a young widow. You should marry again." When she eventually did start seeing someone, a soldier bound for Afghanistan, he broke up with her. "He said [if something happened to him] he couldn't do that to me," she says. "I think it's really that he didn't want to be with me because he thought something would happen to him—like I'm smallpox."
Spencer says people have looked askance at her for dating, but she shrugs it off. "I'm like, 'Hey, I'm not gonna deprive myself for the rest of my life.'"
The Gold Star Center's camp is held at a cabin on Cedar Creek Lake outside Gun Barrel City, about an hour southeast of Dallas. While children who have lost relatives in the war play on the slide by the lake, a group of widows and parents sit on a wooden deck overlooking the water. Mother's Day, Father's Day and Memorial Day loom on the horizon, and the pain is intensifying, rising in waves. For Matthew and Pamela Brown, it's a particularly difficult time. Their 22-year-old son, Anthony David Ewing, was killed during his second tour in Iraq last year on May 28. In June, just weeks after the anniversary, their older son will deploy for his third tour as a combat medic with the 1st Cavalry Division.
"It's a very tense moment," Matthew says. "We don't want him to go again. We don't want to lose him too. We just pray he comes back."
"And comes back the same person," Pamela adds, her eyes tearing up. "A lot of his buddies—there's a hollowness in their faces." She didn't want either of her sons to join the Army, but since they were young boys playing videogames and blowing up anthills, they longed to follow in their grandfather and father's military footsteps. When Anthony was killed by a bomb on his way to a helicopter crash site, his older brother was back at Fort Hood. He blames himself for not being there to help Anthony, their parents say, and chose to do a third tour in part to honor the little brother he was unable to save. Like other soldiers, the Browns say, he's determined to go back out of a sense of honor and duty that may seem cliché to non-military people but to them is supremely meaningful.
As Pamela talks about Anthony, Jeré Beal, whose son was killed by insurgents, and Joy Priest, whose soldier daughter committed suicide in Taji, listen and nod. Finá Alexander sits beside Pamela and rubs her back.
"It's good to hear how y'all feel," Alexander says, "because now I understand how my mother-in-law feels." When her husband returned from Iraq with fatal burns, she and her mother-in-law visited him in a San Antonio hospital. The only way she could recognize him was by looking into his eyes.
"I feel for you," Pamela tells her. "Because your husband suffered..."
Alexander nods. "You see the soldiers who are missing arms, legs—I'm thankful because if George had to go around like that, his spirit would have been gone."
Alexander, Priest and Beal agree that the worst moment was telling the children who loved the soldiers that they were gone. For Alexander, it was explaining to her 8-year-old son that his father had died following surgery. For Priest, it was telling her granddaughter Skylar that her favorite aunt wasn't coming home. Beal nods, recalling her own experience.
"To tell a 6-year-old that her daddy won't ever be back—it's something you'll never get over," she says. "The bloodcurdling scream goes straight to your soul."
Inside the camp common room, a group of kids listen intently to Damion Andrews, a tall, handsome Army staff sergeant who has done two tours in Iraq and whose wife is a Gold Star Center staffer. Busch invited him to camp so the kids could learn more about their fathers, a goal she also pursues by encouraging each family to have its soldier's buddies write letters to the children about their dads. Andrews stands in the center of the room, patiently answering the children's questions. Most of them, like Finá Alexander's son J'Sai, want to know if he knew their fathers.
"I don't remember everyone's names because the Army is so big," Andrews explains. "But maybe if I saw his picture I'd recognize him."
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/
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.