July 26 2006
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US marines are seen under the Tar Tar bridge damaged by their troops during the war which ousted leader Saddam Hussein, on the outskirts of the Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah, 50km west from Baghdad, in 2004. Fresh American troops are to be brought into Baghdad, US officers said, even as Iraq's embattled government insisted it remains on course to gradually take full control of the country's security.(AFP/File/Mauricio Lima)
US marines are seen under the Tar Tar bridge(AFP/File/Mauricio Lima)

Today, a friend called to inform me about the death of a youngster in my former community who was killed in Iraq. I was immediately saddened.

The small community is classically parochial, meaning that they have small town interests at heart. The town is basically a farming community of about five thousand, constantly wrestling with encroaching development while attempting to maintain the ambiance of the community. They want and need the additional revenues that growth brings, but fret over "at what price." When I was there, people would often say to me, "This seems like the 50s" and I would jokingly say, "It isn't."

But, just as this story is not about me, it is not about the town. It is about grieving the loss of a promising youngster, and the struggle with what it all means. And, to that question, there really are no answers and innumerable questions. The town will be somewhat changed forever. Already they are.

An SAO (survivor assistance officer) will be assigned to the family. His job will be to assist the family in any way possible: paperwork, benefits, burial, etc. He will be in the little town for weeks and will be a constant reminder of the tragedy.

Then, the body will come home. And, then, based on the severity of wounds, there will be viewings of the body with the young troop most likely in uniform.

There will be wakes and the community will respond to grief with the funeral, concluding with the military's final goodbye of the firing of volleys and the playing of taps. For most present, the whole process will be overwhelming. The war in Iraq has come home to this little pocket of patriotism.

The death of one soldier has played out in homes all across America hundreds of times. The individual grief is multiplied by fathers, mothers, other family members, and the community. It becomes part of the psyche and it is extremely personal.


Map of Iraq detailing the violence in the country and in the capital on July 23.(AFP/Graphic)
Map showing wave of sectarian violence in Iraq(AFP/Graphic)

Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while and leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same again. Flavia

Over the years, I've learned a few lessons about grief. A combat death does something to loved ones left behind.

Loved ones want to know how the person died. Did they suffer? What did they say about them?

I remember the family of a young Lieutenant in Vietnam who had only been with us a short time. He was tall, handsome, and Catholic; he was a great guy. He was "green as grass" and reluctant to do anything less he mess up. I remember him as incredibly introspective which was the worst thing to be in Vietnam.

After awhile, most GIs learn, just do it; don't think, in other words, no cogitating your naval; it will drive you crazy. He played the guitar and would play a song sometimes before our worship service. Someone told me he really wasn't a good guitarist, but I thought he was splendid.

His platoon got in this awful firefight and he was killed. I sent his folks the standard letter with a brief comment that he sometimes played the guitar for me. They wrote back with questions. I wrote with some answers. Other members of the family wrote. I answered. More questions came and finally the grief and futility and waste of a loved one came through and I no longer knew what to say. I stopped writing, but have felt badly about my lack of courage ever since.

What we still have when it is all said and done is the death of a wonderful youngster from a small town in Northern California (and in towns across America) whose promise is gone forever. And, to this grief, there is no real answer.

The politicians and maybe professional soldiers may clothe it in rhetoric of freedom and the fight against terrorism. We want his death to be for something. He died for freedom. I hope and pray so.

Grief is a title wave that overtakes you, smashes down upon you with unimaginable force, sweeps you up into its darkness, where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces only to be thrown out on an unknown beach, bruised, reshaped.

Grief makes what others think of you moot. It shears away the masks of normal life and forces brutal honesty out of your mouth before propriety can stop you. It shoves away friends and scares away so called friends, and rewrites your address book for you.

Stephanie Ericsson, Compassion Through The Darkness

These articles were originally written in February 2004. As of July 23, 2006, 2,567 US military have died, so the death of the soldier in Iraq is still affecting communities and families across America.

Related Article:

Lt. James Cathey

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