The Casualties At Home

On this Memorial Day, with the current number of U.S. casualties in Iraq totaling 2466 and in Afghanistan totaling 296, the New York Times reports on a different number. “An estimated 1,600 children have lost a parent, almost all of them fathers, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.� Some 150 or so of these children have gathered together this weekend in Arlington, VA to attend a grief camp run by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). In so doing, they tell their stories:

After Loss of a Parent to War, a Shared Grieving

By Lizette Alvarez

ARLINGTON, Va., May 28 — Jacob Hobbs, 10, did not mince words about the death of his father. “He was in a Humvee, driving at night on patrol, and a homemade bomb blew up on him so bad it killed his brain,” Jacob said of his father, Staff Sgt. Brian Hobbs, 31, of the Army. “But he wasn’t scratched up that much. And that’s how he died.”

Sitting across from Jacob in a circle at a grief camp over Memorial Day weekend, Taylor Downing, a 10-year-old with wavy red hair and a mouthful of braces, offered up her own detailed description. “My dad died four days after my birthday, on Oct. 28, 2004,” Taylor said quietly of Specialist Stephen Paul Downing II. “He got shot by a sniper. It came in through here,” she added, pointing to the front of her head, “and went out there,” shifting her finger to the back of her head. “Before he left,” Taylor said, “he sat me on his knee and he told me why he had to go: because people in Iraq didn’t have what we did. They didn’t have enough money. They couldn’t go to school. And they didn’t have homes.”

An estimated 1,600 children have lost a parent, almost all of them fathers, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over the Memorial Day weekend, nearly 150 of these children gathered at a hotel here in this Washington suburb for a yearly grief camp run by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit group founded in 1994 that helps military families and friends cope with death and talk about their loss.

Burying a parent is never easy for a child, but losing a father in a violent way, in a far-off war, is fraught with a complexity all its own. The children receive hugs from strangers who thank them for their father’s courage; they fight to hold back tears in front of whole communities gathered to commemorate their fathers; they sometimes cringe when they hear loud noises, fret over knocks at the door and appear well-versed in the treachery of bombs.

And often the children say goodbye not just to their fathers but to their schools and homes, since families who live on a military base must move into the civilian world after a service member dies.

At the camp, their drawings of their fathers are never mundane, they are mythic: a father as hero, in uniform, with medals trailing across his chest and an American flag floating high above. “Before my dad left, he said he wasn’t afraid to die,” Jacob said of Sergeant Hobbs, who was killed in a bomb blast in Afghanistan on Oct. 14, 2004. His father was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, Jacob explained. “He saved his commander from an exploding tank,” he said.

Many of these children are old enough to remember their fathers, but now the images are slipping away in fragments. One memory few will ever forget is the moment they learned that their fathers would not come home. Paul R. Syverson IV, a 10-year-old with a blond crew cut and his father’s face, saw a soldier at the door. “My mom saw him and started crying,” said Paul, trying hard to stifle tears as he recounted how he was sent next door to play.

His father, Maj. Paul R. Syverson III, 32, a Green Beret, had been killed by a mortar round inside Camp Balad, Iraq — or as Paul put it, “He was eating breakfast, and he was shot by Iraqis.” Later, “I cried,” he said. “I played with my soldiers. And then I went to the basement because my dad was a collector of ‘Star Wars’ stuff. I took those out, and I played with them.”

Brooke Nyren, 9, whose father, Staff Sgt. Nathaniel J. Nyren, died in a vehicle accident in Iraq on Dec. 28, 2004, told her story in a writing assignment at the camp. When two Army men showed up at the door, “I was really scared,” Brooke wrote. “The two Army men asked my mom, please can you put your daughter in a different room. So I went in my room. The only thing I was doing was praying.”

“My hart was broken,” she wrote. more…

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2 responses

  1. Which is more noble? To place a magnetic ribbon on your vehicle to claim support of our troops and go about our daily life? Or the patriotism to question the reasons and orders received by our troops because they cannot lawfully do so themselves?

    Defering the issue will cause more lives lost. Doing so by asking for a December exir strategy politicizes it by waiting until after the November elections. It’s shameful and our troops, veterans and their families deserve more frank and honest answers.

  2. Kiersten… unfortunately these figures are only for OIF, not OEF, which is almost 300 more losses.

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