Longform

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.

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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."

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman