On a cold night last October, two men stood shoulder to shoulder in front of a small crowd sitting silently in a sparsely furnished room in Flatlands, Brooklyn.
Marlowe Fletcher was the shorter of the two. He wore a leather jacket decorated with an eagle surrounded by the sentence “The nation which forgets its heroes will itself be forgotten.” A military cap covered his grey hair. The taller man, Oslen Hill, stood at Fletcher’s right. Hill’s dreadlocks hung over the collar of his black suit.
The two men barked a command as they saluted a coffin draped in the American flag. Then they looked at each other, and they hugged.
Fletcher and Hill did not know each other. The former was sixty years old, Jewish, divorced, and retired. He lived in Island Park, an 89 percent white village on New York’s Long Island. The latter was born on the island of Jamaica in 1963. In 2005 he left his home in Brooklyn, New York, where he grew up, and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, to work as an equipment repairman in a post office.
Fletcher was a strong supporter of President George W. Bush’s administration and of the United States’ military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hill had always felt inspired by the images of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X that hung on the wall at home. He had cheered Barack Obama’s election.
They were both veterans.
They both had experienced war.
Fletcher served in the United States Air Force in Vietnam. Hill enlisted at twenty-two and served as a paratrooper in the First Gulf War, in the 82nd Airborne Division.
They were both fathers.
They each had lost a son, fallen in war.
Army Private First Class Jacob Samuel Fletcher was born on November 25, 1974. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, he enlisted in the army. He was a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, based at Camp Ederle, in Italy. During the first week of the war, he parachuted into Baghdad, one of the first Americans to land in Iraq. On November 13, 2003, a roadside bomb destroyed the bus in which he was riding in the town of Samara, on the east bank of the Tigris River. He died twelve days shy of his twenty-ninth birthday.
Specialist Kevin Oslen Hill was born on June 14, 1986. In 2008, after his graduation from college, he announced to his family his decision to join the military. As a specialist of the 576th Engineer Company, based in Fort Carson, Colorado, he served in Iraq and then was deployed in Afghanistan. On October 4, 2009, Hill was on patrol at Contingency Outpost in Dehanna, near the southeastern Pakistan border, when his unit was attacked. Hill was shot in the head and killed. He was twenty-three.
On the night of October 16, 2009, in a cold room at the John J. McManus & Sons funeral home in Flatlands, family, friends, and fellow soldiers gathered for Kevin Hill’s funeral.
Marlowe Fletcher was there. Since Jacob’s death, he had attended the wakes, funerals, and memorial services of every fallen soldier from New York City and Long Island. “It’s our job to support the families,” he murmured. “It’s what we do.”
As Kevin’s life was celebrated, Fletcher stood toward the back of the room with a small group of other Gold Star fathers and mothers—parents who, like Marlowe Fletcher and Oslen Hill, have lost a son in war. At the end of the ceremony, servicemen and women paid their final respects at Kevin’s casket.
When it was Fletcher’s turn, he paused in front of the coffin. He turned to Oslen Hill, who sat bent over, his head between his knees. Fletcher reached for his hand and helped him to stand. Together, they gave their last tribute to Specialist Kevin Oslen Hill, as veterans do, as soldiers do.
Many veterans and many fathers have stood in front of many other coffins, feeling the same despair experienced by Marlowe Fletcher and Oslen Hill.
For a father to outlive a son is an unfair, almost unbearable burden. Yet, for a military father, the grief is compounded by additional emotions, some even harder to bear. Often, a son enlists to follow his father’s example. Morten G. Ender, director of the sociology program at the United States Military Academy at West Point, estimates that 10 to 15 percent of military personnel come from military families. “There is a long tradition of valuing military service,” Ender says. “A big value is placed in this legacy. You don’t want to be the first who breaks this long tradition.”
But today, a man’s role and his way to face emotions have been redefined. “There is a new generation of fathers that are now more involved with their sons,” says Ender. These parents, sometimes deprived of their past certainties, have to find their own, new paths to facing their loss.
For some such fathers there is, at least, the sense of pride in the sacrifices their sons have made, and the knowledge of their heirs’ heroism. For other fathers, however, there is just the profound pain that accompanies a sense of guilt—guilt for having laid down the footsteps in which their sons followed.
From the depths of grief, some military fathers pursue the path of patriotism. They crusade for the wars in which their sons served so that victory can redeem their sacrifice. Other fathers come to see war itself as senseless and dedicate themselves to saving other families from a similar fate.
In all cases, these middle-aged military men must somehow deal with their deep emotions. And that, unlike marching on the parade ground or fighting on a battlefield, is something they never trained to do.
On October 21, 2005, Derek Davey was working in his office at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals in Washington, D.C. As a director of the American Legion’s Appeals and Special Claims Unit, he had spent the day so far as he did every day, trying to solve veterans’ disability claims. He knew the veterans’ issues personally, having served as a marine from 1977 to 1985. He had moved to D.C. in 2004, promoted to a new office after seventeen years as a director of the Lewis County Veterans Service Agency in Lowville, New York, where his family still lived.
That morning, like every morning, Davey woke up thinking about his family. He did not like to be apart from them. He missed them. He thought about his wife, Lorene, and his daughters, Shiloh, Brittany, and Austin. He also thought about Seamus, his son and oldest child, who was even farther away. Since August 2005, Seamus had been deployed in Iraq, where he served as a marine with the 4th Force Reconnaissance Battalion, based in Reno, Nevada.
But there was work to do, and Derek Davey focused on it. Until the afternoon when his cell phone rang. It was his friend Jimmy Walker, a comrade from his hometown. Walker knew that a soldier from their area had been killed in Iraq. He asked Davey if he had more information.
The father froze for a moment, thinking about Seamus. If something had happened to his son, he told himself, he would have been the first to know. He took a breath. He told Walker that he had no idea, no way to find the information. The two friends spoke for a while, lightly. Then Davey hung up and tried to call home. Nobody answered. He tried to focus again on his work.
At the end of the day, Davey went back to his D.C. apartment. He felt lonely there, and he felt anxious. Again he called home, this time trying his wife’s cell phone. Nothing. Then someone rang his doorbell. He opened the door and looked at the two marines who stood there. They were in their dress blues—blue jackets with high collars, dark blue pants with a red stripe.
“I have been expecting you,” he whispered.
As Derek Davey collapsed on a couch, one of the two Casualty Assistance Calls Officers started his speech. Corporal Seamus MacLean Davey had been killed in the vicinity of Haqlaniyah, Iraq, during a reconnaissance mission. He and his comrade Derek Lee were looking for explosives in a house. When they found some automatic weapons under the blankets of a bed, insurgents started to shoot. Corporal Davey shot back, attracting enemy fire. Thanks to that intervention, Lee was able to save himself. Seamus Davey was killed. Three days later, October 24, would have been his twenty-sixth birthday.
Derek Davey stared at the officers. He asked if they were sure. Maybe there was a mistake.
“No, sir, no mistake,” the official replied.
After a sleepless night, Davey left Washington. He went back to his office once, to take away his belongings. He was certain that he wanted nothing more to do with the military, which had been a part of his entire life.
Davey’s father, James, who died in February 2009, at the age of eighty-seven, served in the Second World War, as did two uncles and two uncles-in-law. The family tradition started even earlier. “My maternal grandmother lost three brothers and numerous cousins during the First World War,” Davey says. “War has been with my family and my memories since a young age.” Nevertheless, Davey’s father refused to talk about his war experience while his sons were growing up.
Two of Davey’s nine siblings served in Vietnam. One brother didn’t pass his draft physical after a motorcycle accident. Because Derek was the first of the sons not subject to the draft, serving was his choice. He thought it was the right thing to do, and he wanted to fly. He attended the University of Colorado on a navy scholarship. In December 1978, while Davey was attending flight school in Pensacola, Florida, his roommate brought home a girl with whom he was taking a scuba class. She was Lorene Olson, a twenty-four-year-old nurse. “I stole her away,” says Davey. Three months later, they were married. Seamus was born in October 1979.
“Being the first child, you make mistakes,” Davey says. “My wife and I were young, and we were learning how to be parents.” Like his father before him, Derek did not speak with his son about his military life. But when Seamus was a child, they lived on the base at Cherry Point, in North Carolina. The five-year-old Seamus saw his father coming home from missions, landing his EA-6B Prowler as the base cheered. In his son’s eyes, Derek Davey was a hero.
After leaving the military, Davey’s life was less heroic. He opened a restaurant in Lowville, but it wasn’t successful. Hard economic times followed for his family. Seamus was a restless teenager, and he wanted all the things his friends had. Davey felt the frustration of not being able to offer them to him. “I wasn’t a good father to him, as I should have been during that time,” he says. “We weren’t friends.”
After high school, Seamus announced that he wanted to join the marine corps. “I secretly felt proud that he followed me,” says his father. The two men became closer; finally, they understood each other.
On December 6, 2009, Derek Davey sat in a café in New York City, looking at an album of photos of Seamus’ life. Looking at a photo of his son’s basic-training graduation ceremony, Davey remembered how he felt “stupidly happy.”
Just five days before, on December 1, President Barack Obama had announced the decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total of U.S. troops to 98,000 and the total of allied troops to 138,000. “I was very happy when Obama was elected, but now I’m becoming very pessimistic,” said Davey. “We are fighting two wars with the current economic situation. Does it make sense to send more troops, more lives?”
On this December day, Davey’s large face, partly covered by a red-brown mustache, was pale. Wrinkles surrounded his light blue eyes. Often, those eyes were full of tears. “I have probably not cried at least once each day for just a few days since October 21, 2005,” Davey said. “I wake up, I have a job, I breathe, but I don’t live fully. I have just marked the time since we lost him.”
After Seamus’ death, Davey decided to publicly express his opposition to the war. He became a member of Gold Star Families Speak Out, an anti–Iraq War group formed in 2005, with other relatives of fallen soldiers. He went to antiwar rallies in Syracuse, New York, and Washington, D.C. He also spoke about his experience to small groups in New York. “I wish I had done things differently. I’m upset that I didn’t participate in protests even before the war.”
Despite this commitment, Davey’s frustration grew. The antiwar movement seemed to him a mix of voices with different agendas. His story, his voice, did not make any difference. “You are talking with people already sympathetic with you,” he says. “I’m more frustrated than angry. Utterly, utterly sad and frustrated. Desperate. It’s a personal failure. I’m frustrated because the war began and continues and I wasn’t able to do anything. Yes, there’s nothing I can do.”
And then, there are the dreams. Davey has dreams about traveling again by car with his son. In 2003, father and son drove Seamus’ Toyota Camry from New York to San Diego. During the trip they talked about everything. Now, in his dreams, Davey turns the car toward Canada, to save his son from the new deployment to Iraq. But Seamus was a twenty-five-year-old marine, he tries to tell himself. “There was nothing I could have done to stop him.”
Davey thinks back over his life, back over his family’s history. “In this country we live a military false glory. I’m afraid about this culture of militarism,” he says.
“I was born ten years after World War Two, during Korea. My younger age was during Vietnam. Since Vietnam we fought for Panama, Libya, the Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan. But why? Why all this military stuff? We lied to each other in this country. I grew up believing that the U.S. only fights evil, but I’m not sure anymore where the evil is. My family and a lot of other families are part of this culture.”
Then he thinks about his own decisions. “Probably I’m blaming the military more than I should,” he says. “I could have chosen a different route. If I never joined the military, maybe my son would have never joined. I blame myself as much as I blame the country for what happened.”
At the café table, as he looked at the photo of Seamus at the basic-training graduation ceremony, he admitted, “I was happy and proud, but now I wish it never happened. I didn’t tell him not to go. I helped him. I helped him to get killed.” He stopped for a moment, lost in his thoughts. “If I had been at school, if I had been a professor, maybe my son would have been a professor, too.”
After leaving his D.C. job, Davey worked in his sister’s restaurant, then as a carpenter. Now he works as a salesman. He and his wife will retire soon. He tries to make plans. He is considering the Peace Corps. He tries to imagine a future. Sometimes, though, it is hard even to think that there can be a future.
“I lost Seamus three times: as my son, as my friend, and as my brother,” he says. “Because we marines tend to consider each other brothers. I feel three levels of pain. Fathers should not bury their children. Why am I alive and he is not?”
“There is a love between soldiers. It is something in between a brotherhood and a love between a man and a woman. You have to love someone you will be willing to give your life for.”
Ronald Griffin is a stocky, sixty-five-year-old man. He grew up in the Bronx, and in 1965 he was drafted. From February 1966 to February 1967 he was deployed in Vietnam with the army’s 578th Engineer Battalion.
Back from Vietnam, he settled in Emerson, New Jersey, where he worked in a factory and recently retired. He still lives there, with his wife, Robin, and their children, Blair and Ryan, both now in their twenties. A town of 7,100 people, Emerson today has a population that is 89 percent white and 46 percent registered Republican. Seated at a table in his family’s home, Griffin remembers his war. He also remembers his friend—his “brother”—Mike Kimball, from Massachusetts. In 1966, Griffin and Kimball were together in Qinian, South Vietnam.
One night, when they hadn’t received any letters from home—their only true solace—they were both cranky. And they both had been drinking. “He looked at me; I looked at him. And, without a word, we started to fight. For ten full minutes we tried to beat the hell out of each other.” They stopped only when they were exhausted. And then, together, they went to the mess. They prepared a pot of coffee and talked, for hours, about everything. “You are there, you feel trapped, frustrated, there was no other way to get the frustration out.”
Only with a brother was Griffin able to fight, and talk, and fully express himself. “You always hurt who you love,” he says today. Many years later, he experienced that feeling of military brotherhood again. It happened in July 2001, after his firstborn son, Kyle, enlisted, one year after graduating from Emerson High School.
For Ronald and Kyle Griffin, as for Derek and Seamus Davey, the process of mutual discovery was long. Kyle’s father considered him a difficult teenager, just as Seamus’ father had. Kyle loved to break the rules.
Once he started basic training, though, Kyle changed. “We understood each other,” says Ronald Griffin. Today, the walls of Griffin’s living room are decorated with photos and a portrait of his son. On the enclosed porch hang Kyle’s medals, his dog tags, and the flag that covered his casket during his funeral on June 7, 2003.
Kyle was an infantryman with the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Deployed in Iraq, he was assigned to F Company, 51st Infantry. He had been in Iraq for four months when a storm struck as he traveled from Mosul to Tikrit. The road was pocked with bomb craters. The rain was heavy. The truck in which he was riding overturned. Three soldiers died: Specialist Zachariah W. Long, Specialist Michael T. Gleason, and Specialist Kyle Andrew Griffin.
Nearly seven years later, Ronald Griffin still visits George Washington Memorial Park in Paramus, New Jersey, almost every day. He stands in front of the gravestone that reads “Kyle Andrew Griffin / September 11 1982–May 30 2003 / Bronze Star Medal.” Griffith has never blamed his son’s decision for his death. “The only person who has the right to put a value on Kyle’s life is Kyle,” he says. “My son was never a victim. He was a casualty.”
Ronald relives his own military life through Kyle’s. He remembers what it means to be under fire. The first time his base was attacked, he took his rifle and fired at the enemy. When everything was over, he sat down and tried to smoke. “But I could not put my cigarette in my mouth. My hand didn’t stop shaking.”
Still, he says, it’s part of the job, like the job he had in the mess, where he worked as the base cook. “You go in the ditch, you go out on patrol, you go out and fight. Then you go back and cook something.”
The fear and the frustration are parts of everyday life. “You have to accept the fact that you can die, and you can’t be worried. You have to accept it.”
Griffin is sure that his son thought the same. Before Kyle left for Iraq, his worried mother asked him, “Kyle, are you afraid?” Ronald Griffin is proud as he remembers his son’s reply: “Mom, I’m not afraid, because this is what I do. If I were a doctor, I would have to operate, and I could not be afraid. I’ve been trained; I have the best equipment and the best preparation. If I die, I die. I don’t have any problems. You do.”
“I understood it,” Griffin says. “It’s the acceptance of the reality of the situation. I understood completely. You are always afraid of the fire, but you can’t let the fear prevent you.”
During a phone call in March 2003, a few days before the official beginning of the Iraq War, Griffin felt that his son had become a man, a soldier, and his equal. Kyle already had been in Iraq for a month. The American ultimatum to Saddam Hussein was close to expiring. The veteran wanted to give some advice to his son. “When the bullets start to fly, just let your training take over,” Ronald began. “Dad, I know,” replied an annoyed Kyle. The father started again, sure that his twenty-year-old son needed his advice. “I’m serious,” Ronald said. Again, Kyle interrupted him harshly. “Dad, I know.” Ronald started to get angry. “Listen to me. Let your training do that. . . .” “Dad, I already know ‘that.’” The father was hit by the reality. His son already had experienced combat. Kyle could not speak about what he had seen and what he had done. But Ronald Griffin knew.
The military had served as a seminal experience for Ronald Griffin, but before Kyle’s enlistment it no longer was part of his life. After his son’s death, the Vietnam veteran decided to fight again, for the soldiers. He began obsessively to follow the news, to read everything he could about politics and war. He wrote to newspapers and television stations to support the troops. One of his letters was published in the Wall Street Journal. He wanted to remind everyone who these soldiers are: “People in the military are very special. They understand they can die but still want to do their job. They want to be challenged, to prove to themselves they are men. They do it for themselves and for their buddies next to them.”
From the beginning, Griffin supported both wars, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. “By criticizing the war you are saying that they are making a mistake,” he said. “My son did not die for a mistake.”
Griffin visited the White House and twice met President George W. Bush. He went to Iraq to meet Kyle’s comrades. There, he felt as if he were one of them. He drank with them, and he gave them advice. “They say things to me; I’m taking Kyle’s place.”
He attends soldiers’ funerals to support their families. It’s his own way to make sense of Kyle’s death. “I wish I never had this sorrow, but I never wanted to miss the experience,” he says. “I can’t be angry because Kyle died doing what he loved.”
In the summer of 2008, Ronald Griffin became one of the charter members of Military Families United. The organization’s goals are to represent soldiers’ families to “communicate the truth about our brave men and women in uniform and their mission to protect our freedom that cost many of them their lives.” At the end of 2009, he became a member of New Jersey governor-elect Chris Christie’s transition committee, as an adviser for military and veterans’ affairs.
“It is for Kyle; it is for myself; it is for my country. I’m never gonna change the way others think, but I wanna be sure that everyone knows all the information. Not half.”
Griffin criticizes the idea of pulling troops out of the theaters of war. “People are tired of war? Tired of what? What have you done? Nothing.” He says that people have to understand that there is always a price to pay. “We are a country that maybe has forgotten how to win. We are no longer willing to pay the price that is necessary to be victorious, and there is nothing wrong in being victorious. We don’t know how to do the sacrifice that leads to the victory.”
For Griffin, the idea of continuing to fight the war and his personal remembrance of his son are inextricably connected. “Once you have a child you never give up,” he says, explaining why he feels the necessity of witnessing his son’s life. “If it’s a right-chosen war, and one person dies, there’s never a number that’s too much. If it was worth one life, you finish the job. You just can’t give up. It’s impossible to give up.”
Ronald Griffin lives in his son’s name because, he says, “If you love someone you never stop.”
After his son Kevin’s death, Oslen Hill returned to his life in Raleigh, North Carolina. His wife, Mahalia, and their seventeen-year-old daughter, Shantel, visited him at Christmas. The Hills’ oldest daughter, Chinyere, stayed in New York, where she worked. After the holidays, Mahalia and Shantel left, leaving Oslen alone once again.
Hill feels well, he says. His life is moving on. He goes to work at the post office every day, from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. At least three days a week, he has lunch at a nearby restaurant called Ale House. He speaks with his favorite waitress, Danielle, and he orders. But he leaves his plate untouched. In three months he has lost about ten pounds. The forty-six-year-old man still wears his dreadlocks, but his face is now marked by its first wrinkles. He has deep shadows under his eyes.
Sleeping is not easy. In Hill’s house, the television—near the wall with Kevin’s photo and a letter of condolence signed by President Barack Obama—is always turned on, even when Hill is outside. “I don’t want to think,” he says.
Since Kevin’s funeral, Oslen Hill hasn’t met with Marlowe Fletcher again. That night, Hill’s fellow veteran, also a father, was there to give the support he gives to all the fallen soldiers’ families who live in New York City and on Long Island. Sometimes Fletcher and the families meet again; sometimes they don’t. Hill remembers well another conversation he had at the funeral. He spoke with Lisa Whiteside, a professor from Monroe College, from which Kevin graduated. Whiteside had spoken with Kevin about his decision to enlist in the military. Hill remembers what Whiteside told him of Kevin’s words. “He [Kevin] said that it was because me and my father were in the military,” says Hill. “I cried. I couldn’t stop crying. I realized that I had a part in his being in the military. This is one of the things that gives you a guilty feeling.”
After Kevin’s death, Hill started to reconsider his relationship with his son. “One of the decisions I kind of regret is when I moved here. During his last year of college, I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t help him with
Kevin graduated in June of 2008, with a B.A. in criminal justice. He enlisted the following September. Hill was prouder of his son’s academic success than of his being in the military. “My thing was education; everyone in my family has a degree.” Oslen Hill had broken the family tradition. When he was twenty-two and Mahalia was eighteen, she got pregnant. Oslen decided to enlist in the military. He became a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division.
Kevin was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina; his parents lived on the base at Fort Bragg. The child spent his first years in a military environment. “I guess he was being indoctrinated, but I didn’t know at the time,” says his father.
Oslen Hill was deployed in Kuwait and then in Iraq during the First Gulf War. He was twenty-five years old, and he questioned every order. “War is stress. Everybody who actually witnessed combat doesn’t talk about it.”
He remembers his own war and thinks about Kevin’s. “Since Kevin died,” he says, “I tried to figure out in my mind how was that moment, how scared he was. Because I know, when you are out there under fire and your heart beats in your brain, it’s crazy.”
According to the Department of Defense, Specialist Kevin Oslen Hill died at Contingency Outpost Dehanna, in Afghanistan, when enemy forces attacked his unit. Officials from the army informed the family that he was shot in the head while on patrol on a road near the Pakistan border.
In the months that followed, Oslen Hill waited for the official, more exhaustive version the army had promised him. But when an envelope arrived, Hill at first did not have the strength to open it. When he finally did, he saw just another death certificate: Kevin’s name, race, and dates of birth and death. No answers. He also saw a letter from the Department of the Army, expressing condolences and giving a telephone number at the Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center. “Please know that we are here to support you,” wrote Deborah S. Skillman, Colonel, U.S. Army, Chief, Case Management Branch. Hill never called.
Hill does not receive a lot of mail. Just before Christmas 2009, he found a couple of magazines from TAPS—the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors—in his mailbox. “Helping each other Heal,” read the cover of one of them, which also showed the photo of a woman and child hugging in front of a line of gravestones. Hill never opened it.
He does not look for other families of fallen soldiers, but he says he would like to meet them. His car, a Volkswagen Passat, has a license plate with a Gold Star, the symbol of a fallen soldier. When Hill drives, he keeps an eye out for cars with similar plates. “But I had no luck yet,” he says.
To avoid being alone, Hill often goes out at night. When he is at home, he watches sports or comedies on television. He feels pain when he hears the news, especially news related to war.
“I have never felt anger, I just feel sorrow,” he says. “And, strangely enough, I understand the people that are fighting [in Afghanistan]. I see the people there crying because their sons were killed by bombs. I can feel what they feel. I can’t hate a people; it doesn’t make sense.”
Hill had spent Christmas 2008 with his family in their apartment in East New York, Brooklyn. Kevin was there, on leave from basic training at Fort Carson, Colorado. He would be deployed to Iraq in February 2009.
On Christmas Eve, the family ate a simple dinner together. In the morning, they opened their presents. Kevin got a chain and a watch. In the afternoon, Kevin and his sisters went to the movies as they used to do whenever they had the opportunity.
On Christmas Eve 2009, when Oslen Hill came home from work in Raleigh, Mahalia and Shantel were waiting for him. They sat together for a while. Every now and then, they mentioned Kevin. The two women cried a bit. The television was still on.
Hill did not cry. “I can’t let it go like they do; I have to be their support.” He feels he must be the strong one, the man. “I have to protect them; I think that I can deal with this a lot better than they do.”
Mahalia and Shantel went to sleep in the bedroom while Oslen lay on the couch in the living room. He could not sleep. He stayed awake, all night, alone with his thoughts.
In the months that follow a soldier’s death, many families find themselves alone. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs and nonprofit organizations such as TAPS have programs to help the families of fallen soldiers. But often, especially for the fathers, even to accept that they need help is hard.
Betsy Beard, the editor of TAPS Magazine, receives many letters from mothers and wives. They express their feelings in writing. Men, in contrast, often build memorials or plant trees or gardens. “It is part of our culture,” Beard says. “We still train boys that they need to act instead of feeling, that ‘boys don’t cry.’”
Also, there are fewer groups devoted to men than to women. The best-established organization for survivors of fallen soldiers is American Gold Star Mothers, which was created in 1928. Today it has chapters or contacts in all fifty states and Puerto Rico. In 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the last Sunday in September as Gold Star Mothers Day. There is no Gold Star Fathers Day. It is only in the last three years that online communities for men such as Gold Star Dads, Gold Star Fathers, and Fathers of the Fallen have been set up.
“I saw a major gap in the grieving process for fathers,” says Stephen Ray Blackwell. This fifty-seven-year-old man from Paris, Tennessee, started his Gold Star Fathers website in the months following the death of his son Specialist Justin Ray Blackwell in Baghdad on August 5, 2007. “There were Gold Star Mothers, Wives. As if men don’t grieve. Sometimes fathers grieve even more than mothers.”
“Fathers are sometimes left out of the process,” says Wes Emch, from Kent, Ohio, founder and charter member of the online group Fathers of the Fallen, and father of Navy Corpsman Lucas “Luke” Wesley Albert Emch, who was killed by a bomb near Ramadi, Iraq, on March 2, 2007. “We are not the primary focus of a lot of attention. There are Gold Star Mothers and Gold Star Families, and fathers are included in these groups. But men sometimes can relate better to other men.”
Emch created his website in 2008; today it has seventy-five members. Next July, twenty-five of them plan to meet in Branson, Missouri. The plan is to have dinner, take a motorbike ride, and “get a little drunk, probably,” says Emch. And the fathers want to speak. Without politicians, celebrities, or people who say they understand what the fathers are going through. They feel fully understood only among other fathers.
In the middle of Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, New York, a corridor of graves is reserved for recipients of the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross, the two highest military decorations in the United States. These are the heroes of New York, from wars past and wars recent.
Marlowe Fletcher visits the heroes every week. He likes to stop in front of the grave of Michael Valente, an Italian-born private who killed and captured many enemy soldiers to save his comrades in Ronssoy, France during the First World War. He survived and came home to Farmingdale, where he died at age eighty. He is buried with his wife, Margherita.
Valente is one of twenty Medal of Honor recipients in Long Island National Cemetery. Today, more than 300,000 people are buried here, and look-alike white gravestones cover almost all of the cemetery’s 364.7 acres. Now there is only room for soldiers who die on active duty or for “eligible family members.”
The central drive leads to section R, the most colorful in the cemetery. Almost every gravestone has something in front of it: a flower, a U.S. flag, a letter. Often, there are families. These are the graves of the soldiers who died most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On a warm Sunday in November, the cemetery hosted a small ceremony for Veterans Day. Pumpkins stood in front of many gravestones. Thanksgiving was coming. It was Jacob Fletcher’s favorite holiday.
Marlowe Fletcher no longer enjoys celebrating Thanksgiving, or even speaking about it. He does not share his own emotions, but he questions the people he meets among the graves. On this November Sunday, he chatted with Laura Spencer, a woman with a round and open face. She had just arrived from Carmichael, California, to place a cake made of flowers and a “Happy Birthday” balloon at the grave of her son, Specialist Raymond Nigel Spencer Jr. On November 9, 2009, he would have been twenty-six. He was killed on June 21, 2007, in Baghdad.
The soldier in the grave in front of Spencer’s, Private First Class Le Ron Adrian Wilson, was killed a month later. He was eighteen. As Fletcher walked near the grave, he heard Wilson’s seven-year-old brother Nicholas ask his mom, Simona Francis, if he could leave a toy soldier there, as a gift. Fletcher clasped Simona’s hand. They exchanged some words. Then Fletcher walked away.
He stood for a moment, alone, in front of a grave under a tree. Jacob loved the fall. Once, while he was deployed in Iraq, he asked his family to send him a box of autumn leaves, so he could feel the taste of home. On this fall day, leaves lay all around the gravestone that read “Jacob Samuel Fletcher / Specialist U.S. Army Airborne / Nov 25 1974–Nov 14 2003 / Courage and Compassion.”
There was an empty space between Jacob’s gravestone and one nearby. Marlowe Fletcher pointed at it.
“Do you see there?” he said. “It’s my future.”
Alessia Pirolo is a freelance journalist and recent graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.