On Saturday night at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, I saw a movie called Grace is Gone, starring John Cusack. It is about a man named Stanley Philipps, played by a paunchy and bespectacled Cusack, whose wife, Grace, has gone off to fight in Iraq. We don't know for how long she has been gone, but her absence has taken its toll on Stanley, manager of a place called Home Store, and their two daughters, 12-year-old Heidi (Shelan O'Keefe) and 8-year-old Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk). Heidi watches news accounts of soldiers being killed in Iraq, which Stanley forbids. A former soldier himself kicked out of the Army for having faked his way through an eye test, Stanley barks orders at his children, because he does not know how to speak with them.
One morning, after the girls have gone off to school, Stanley receives two visitors: an Army captain and a chaplain, who arrive bearing the horrific inevitable. Grace has been killed. Stanley, of course, is devastated; he spends the rest of the day sinking into his easy chair, till finally his girls arrive home. He says nothing to them about their mother's death. Instead, he hurries them out the door to the distraction of an afternoon spent at Dave & Buster's; then he hustles them from their Minnesota home to a Florida theme park, never uttering a word about what has happpened. He does not know how to tell them their mother is dead. And he does not want to tell them he has lost his faith, his belief in doing one's duty. Without faith, he says toward the movie's end, "all is lost."
After the screening, at 1 a.m. Sunday morning, I ran into Cusack on the street; we talked for a long while about the movie, which he also produced and which was bought yesterday for $4-plus million by Harvey Weinstein. We talked about how Grace is Gone was not at all political, but emotional -- a gently told, wrenchingly sad tale that transcends divisions of right and left, red and blue. "It's about loss," Cusack said. He then mentioned how that very morning he was on CNN talking about the movie. Only, his appearance had been delayed: He heard in the earpiece he was wearing an anchor saying there was breaking news, that more than 20 U.S. soldiers had been killed in Iraq on Saturday. And then Cusack was up. "The timing," he said Saturday night, "could not have been more heartbreaking."
Thirty minutes later, I got back to my hotel room, where I found in my e-mail inbox a letter sent Saturday night from Mariah Preston Coward. Mariah is the sister of Specialist Aaron L. Preston, who was killed on Christmas in Baghdad when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle. The timing could not have been more heartbreaking. But, sometimes, you are reminded there are no such things as coincidences.
Mariah and I have corresponded often in recent days. She has much she wants to say about her brother, who graduated from W.T. White High School in 1995 -- much that has been left out of media reports about her brother, stories about his life and his death. Below, I am including the entirety of what Mariah wants to say about Aaron, with more photos sent to Unfair Park for publication. She also sent two links: to a memorial Web site created by Mariah's husband, Noel; and to a MySpace page she created "so that I can contact the men that my brother was working with and friends with that are still in Iraq," she writes.
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She also sends word that National Public Radio's Corey Flintoff was at Camp Liberty and rode with Preston and his men. Two stories about Preston aired on NPR: The first described their difficult mission in Iraq; the second ran after Preston and two others were killed on Christmas.
"The memorial Web site was a gift to me and a labor of love," Mariah writes. Here is her letter to Unfair Park and to our Friends. --Robert Wilonsky
I have been very upset at the media lately. After the media found out about my brother's death, I begged several to use the e-mails and letter he sent me describing his situation (too few soldiers, no days off and no sleep, not to mention his encounters with the people) so that others would understand what all of the soldiers are doing, how much we truly owe them and how difficult it is on them. All refused; all they wanted was on-air interviews (Channel 11 in particular didn't take "no" for an answer very well) where I was told that it was "OK to cry" and that there would be no shame in it for me.
The media has made it all too easy for people to look at the war like some soap opera. The faces shown of the dead soldiers who gave their lives for our freedom only appear like players on some stage that most people can't connect with. I actually heard a gentleman make a comment the other night at a sports bar when a picture of a fallen soldier apeared on the screen. He said, "It's just another dead soldier,' and I can not tell you how hurt and disgusted I felt after hearing that. With one thoughless comment some stranger made it feel like my brother's death was in vain. And this man didn't even know the person whose pictures was shown.
How would I describe my brother? I have no clue as to how to tell you what a wonderful individual and man he was. Being five years older than he, I have watched him grow and mature, and all I can say is that he turned out to be the wonderful man that I thought that he was destined to be.
He was the typical boy-next-door with a twist: He was selfless. If you needed something and he had it, it was yours. He expected nothing in return and went about his way just glad that he could be of service.
He was the type of friend that everyone wishes that they had and was loved by all that knew him. He was easygoing with a smart and sarcastic sense of humor (though not mean) that would always make you laugh. His laughter was contageous, and you couldn't help but laugh with him. Once again, he was always happy to help -- even if that meant putting himself out or making extra work for himself. Just so long as he could help a buddy out.
He was a wonderful uncle. He would sit for hours holding my daughter Amanda when she had colic. He would just sit and hold her and rub her back.The fact that she would cry and cry didn't faze him in the least, and most of the time, in just a few moments, she would stop crying. The same was true last November, when he came home for two weeks. My small son had colic, and after holding him for a few moments, my son was quite.. Aaron had such a gentle nature about him, and he was so loving. He would have made a wonderful father.
He was a wonderful brother! Even when in Iraq and having to face his own mortality every time he left the wire to go on patrol, I could still e-mail him with my problems, and he would take the time to read them carefully and comment with his opinion. His opinions were honest and fair, yet they were never rude or unkind (even when I was in the wrong).
I have heard time and time again from men that Aaron worked with that he was one of the most selfless people that they knew. When others were worn out, Aaron would take a shift of theirs so that they could rest, even when it ment he didn't get time off. He was a great friend and took the time to listen to anyone that needed an ear. He had a way of making everyone feel special for their own talents, and he was a born leader. He was meticulous in his job and extremely smart. Aaron would offer suggestions on missions that others had not thought of, and it turned out that they were always key to the mission's success. I could go on and on and on quoting from the memorial speeches written by some of my brother's commanding officers, but these are just some thoughts that come to mind
And what I think is most important is that Aaron truly believed in his heart that if we were not over there fighting that they would be over here fighting us on our soil and possibly killing thousands of innocent Americans.
One particular e-mail from Aaron made a real impression on me. I sent him a picture of his 12 month-old-nephew with a face full of cake and smile that could light a city, along with several pictures of him with my daughter and son from Aaron's previous leave. When Aaron recieved the pictures he wrote me and thanked me over and over for the pictures. He said that the picture in which his nephew was smiling was wonderful and that the boy's smile could melt a block of ice. Aaron also said that no matter how bad his days were, he could look at the pictures and they always made him feel better and let him know that the world was OK. He commented that he didn't see smiles anymore in Iraq and that the only time he saw a smile was on small children who knew that you were going into a trap and that you wouldn't return. For that, they smiled at him.
My brother's job was to find, secure and destroy or dismantle IEDs to make the roads of Baghdad safe for all travelers. He was truly proud of his job, and I am proud of him as well.
Lastly, my brother Aaron was my best friend. With everything that my little family has been through over the years, Aaron was always there for me. ometimes just knowing that he was there made me feel better. Aaron was my last full-blood family that I had left. Our mom died in 1989 at the age of 40, and we just buried our grandmother last November at the age of 96. Aaron was all that I had left.
Don't get me wrong. I am wonderfully blessed with a great husband and children. But the family that I loved and grew up with is all gone now.
Aaron was not only a great brother, but he was a great man and my best friend, and I am going to miss him. There is so much more that I could tell you, but I would have to write for days to get it all in.
When we were little I would try and protect Aaron, since I was the oldest. Little did I know that Aaron would grow up and return the favor by protecting my right to be free. Aaron is my family, brother and best friend. Most of all, he is my hero!
Mariah Preston Coward sister of Spc. Aaron L. Preston