Many families of U.S. service members killed in Iraq say the pain of having lost a loved one does not grow easier to deal with as time passes. Some say it only worsens. More and more, the families of men and women killed in Iraq are speaking publicly against the war.
Jane Bright of West Hills, Calif., lost her son, Sergeant Evan Ashcraft, a year ago on July 24, 2003, and she says that even after a year, dealing with the loss has not grown easier.
“There is no amount of time that could go by and I wouldn’t feel the pain of losing my son,” she said. “I live with this every day, I wake up and know my wonderful, loving son is not coming back.
“My grief is not something I could just ‘get over’,” Bright continued. “I get so mad when people tell me to ‘get over it.’ How dare they tell me that?” she exclaimed. “I lost a son it’s my right to publicly mourn, and everyone needs to see it.”
Philadelphia resident Celeste Zappala’s son, Sergeant Sherwood Baker, age 30, died in Iraq on April 27, 2004, leaving behind a wife, Debra, and a son, J.D.
Like all the parents interviewed for this story each of whom has spoken out publicly against the war since, and in some cases prior to, the death of a son Zappala said “moving on” seems impossible. “The pain of my son’s death does not get any better it just gets worse as time goes on,” she said. “Every day brings a new agony. The rest of our friends and relatives are trying to move on, and I just can’t get to that point.”
Factors such as concern that their loved ones died for no tangible purpose, as well as the mystery surrounding the circumstances of some of the deaths, weave a common theme among family members taking a stand against the U.S.’s continuing operations in Iraq.
“It was just so unnecessary, and that hurts me,” Zappala said. “He died doing his assigned job, but he never had any idea of how to really do it. He just did his duty because they told him it was what he had to do. The government has completely failed to prepare our troops, or give them the proper equipment or ensure their safety.
“They still haven’t told me how he really died,” she added.
Bill Mitchell of Atascadero, Calif., lost his son, 25 year-old Staff Sergeant Michael W. Mitchell, on April 4, 2004 when fighting broke out in Sadr City. Michael was scheduled to return home in five days.
Mitchell says he experienced early, short-lived success with the coping process. “Right after my son died it was the anger that really kept me going,” Mitchell said. “But the anger wore off and I had to say to myself, ‘My son is still dead no matter what I do. I have to move on with my life and get over this.’ You know what? I really haven’t moved on that much. Now I have bad days and good days, instead of all bad days. But the pain still keeps coming up and it’s even worse now after I have a day where I thought I almost forgot about it.”
The seemingly constant stream of bad news coming out of Iraq keeps Mitchell’s grief fresh. “I have a new pain every time some other family loses a child, and I feel their pain mixed with mine. Ah! It gets so agonizing, it’s just so bad and just seems like there is no relief.”
Cindy Sheehan lost her son, Specialist Casey Austin Sheehan, 24, the same spring day Michael Mitchell died. Their bodies returned home on the same flight to Dover Air Force Base. The Sheehans live in Vacaville, Calif.
“Casey was [killed in action] after he had been over there for two short weeks,” Sheehan said. “He had no idea how soon he would be coming home. He was killed instantly and he didn’t suffer, but we are suffering enough for everybody.
“It’s been three months and I don’t really know how I’m feeling. I have panic attacks every day,” Sheehan continued. “I returned to work and I have to act like everything is all right, that I’m doing okay. It’s very exhausting and stressful, the daily mourning of your children. Then when you have to pretend all day that you’re fine, that’s really hard. I have two or three panic attacks a day, I cry every day, I just break down all the time.
“I miss my son so much, I just keep crying, I don’t know if I’ll ever stop,” Sheehan said. “I think it doesn’t get any better it gets worse. The reality sets in that you’re never gonna see him, and it just keeps getting worse. I still feel like he could walk in the door at any time. It’s just hard to accept the fact that he’s never coming home. I mean, he’s already come home, but he’ll never really come back to us the way we want him to.”
Sue Niederer’s son, Lieutenant Seth Dvorin, died on February 7, 2004. He was 24 years old. Niederer reported that familiar kind of difficulty recovering from her loss. Seth had married his wife, Kelly Harris, just prior to leaving for Iraq last summer.
“Time isn’t making this go away or making it easier to cope with,” she said. “Months have gone by. You tell me if I sound like I am getting over his death. I don’t think so! Not as long as our government sends our children to be sacrificed.”
Niederer, who lives in Pennington, N.J., is insistent that Seth’s death served no purpose. “I’ll say it again. As many times as I have to just so people understand. My son died for absolutely nothing! Absolutely nothing! Am I still angry? You bet I am! Am I still hurting worse than ever? You better believe it!”
Unprepared for the Mission
Celeste Zappala blames her own lack of healing on her assessment that the military failed to adequately prepare her son Sherwood’s unit for the policing role it was ordered to carry out.
“How can you get over your son’s death when you know he died because he didn’t have the proper training?” Zappala asked. “He was never trained for the job of an MP; he was not a policeman. How can I accept his death when it was so unnecessary and such a waste of a good life? He is gone now,” she said vehemently, “because they neglected his needs.”
Sue Niederer also believes her son Seth’s unit was unprepared for the mission it was assigned. “My son died because he didn’t have the right equipment for himself or his men,” she said. “When he was home on leave he was on the phone to his commander at Fort Drum. He was demanding [global positioning system technology] and computers to protect the safety of his men. Did he get them? You figure it out!”
Neiderer said Seth, a platoon leader, died from an improvised explosive device while at the front of his unit trying to keep his men safe. Seth was the first to die in his platoon of just eighteen. Two others have died since, and three have been severely wounded. “His camaraderie made him go back to Iraq and ended up getting him killed. And the men he was trying desperately to keep safe are dead and his courage couldn’t even stop it.”
The Pentagon has acknowledged that many units now serving in Iraq are under-equipped, but says it is producing and shipping safety-related materials at the fastest pace possible. Such assurances are little consolation to the families of men and women who have already died overseas, in some cases because the military failed to issue them appropriate equipment.
Speaking Out, Making a Difference
Jane Bright defiantly insists on her prerogative to speak out against the war as a way of dealing with her pain. “Bush wants us to just move on like nothing happened,” Bright said. “No,” she replied defiantly. “I won’t be quiet until everyone knows how bad it hurts. I won’t be able to ‘get over it’ as long as more of our children are dying in Iraq.”
Sue Niederer expressed concern that the complicity of other soldiers’ families is prolonging the healing process for those whose loved ones have already died. “How can the people stand for this to happen?” she asked. “Do they want their child to die like mine? What is it going to take to stop this? I can’t start healing and getting over my pain as long as there are more of our loved ones dying. It makes my son’s death pointless.”
Celeste Zappala said the killing “must be stopped, before we lose our entire future.” She added, “What about all the others who have died since then and will keep on dying? I want to see it stop for all the families and the soldiers most of all.
“How sad,” Zappala continued. “How sad that we are still letting this go on. Our voices must make an impression on the people. They have to hear us because we are the ones suffering the most.”
Niederer’s defiance is palpable. “Face me, President Bush,” she taunted as if the president might be listening in. “You are a coward! Come on, look me in the eye and tell me my son’s death was worth it! Tell me this war was right and necessary and I’ll deck you! You send our children to die and then have the nerve to say they made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. You don’t even have the courage to face me or any of the other families! How cowardly! How cowardly!”
Each of the families echoed very similar sentiments and heart-rending grief. They have chosen to speak out because they want the public to know about and intimately understand their pain. They believe that only by having a story to connect with the grief will it hammer home the ongoing loss of life. Only by knowing about the families’ pain, they suggest, can people really know the true cost of the war.
While more and more families grieve, units of National Guard, Reserves, and active duty are being called up and notified of the dates they will be sent off to Iraq. The military has even told some troops they are expected to ship out next February or later, confirming most analysts’ predictions that the Pentagon and Bush administration have plans to keep troops deployed well into 2006.
Compounding families’ losses is their suspicion that their fellow Americans would prefer to ignore the costs of war, if the alternative means facing even part of the pain others cannot avoid. “Is anyone really paying attention?” Cindy Sheehan asked during the interview. “Is this really making a difference? I just don’t see it having much impact watching all the people keep going on like nothing is happening. Is this really going to make a difference?”