Now that we're in the early parts of 100 Year's War on Terrorism, Memorial Day observances are much more emotional for many Americans because, well, there's real death and dying "over there." It is difficult to keep that in mind while going about our day to day, but today's NY Times has a particularly effective story about the children of fallen U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I think what can easily be forgotten in the way this war is presented in our connection to the outside world (i.e., TV) is that family lives are being torn apart by this ill-defined war. What I found effective about the Times article was the way in which it completely eschewed politics and "taking sides on the war" in favor of spotlighting the reaction of the children to the death of their parent (in the article, it was only fathers who had died).
The papers will often put pictures of Iraqi children to illustrate what's it's like to live in a country in the chaos of war, like this one…
And while pictures like these are powerful reminders of the toll war takes on everyday lives, it could be that tragedy has to hit close to home to be felt in a more palpable way.
I don't know about you, but for me Memorial Day has been about the start of summer. Remembering fallen soldiers who served in wars wasn't in the "long weekend" plans in my family. Perhaps it's because I didn't grow up in a military family (although, my step-dad did serve in Vietnam), perhaps it's because I grew up in the Cold War era of "Mutual Assured Destruction" where we could all be wiped out in a nuclear flash, or perhaps it's because this current war is paraded in front of us when it's a convenient prop for the Bush administration that my connection to this day is somewhat…disconnected.
Until I read the Times article, that is…
Here's a sample what I'm talking about:
The violence of their fathers' deaths, and its public nature, can be especially troublesome for children. "'It's a traumatic grief that is highly publicized," said Linda Goldman, a grief specialist. "Dad was murdered in a public way. This heightens the sense of trauma because it never goes away."
The children's mothers say the deaths have had expected repercussions, like plummeting grades and mood swings. But they have also seen unexpected reactions. Madison Swisher, 8, who sleeps in her father's T-shirt, is afraid of loud noises; her dad died in Iraq from an improvised bomb. She and her younger brother talk a lot about bombs in general. They call the Iraqis the "bad guys" and are afraid the bad guys will arrive any minute.
Several mothers said they worried that their children's hero worship, a healthy balm in the beginning, could turn problematic if they tried to follow in their fathers' footsteps.
Teenagers, in particular, have trouble adjusting. Scott Rentschler, 14, was living on a military base in Germany when his father, Staff Sgt. George Rentschler, was killed in Iraq in 2004 by a rocket-propelled grenade. His life, Scott said, "is a roller coaster." Scott's grandmother, Lillian Rentschler, said that moving off a military base was difficult for him, and that society and schools make few allowances for children in their second year of grief.
"People think he should be all fixed up," Ms. Rentschler said.
…Parents and mentors say they try to help the children stay connected to their fathers and grieve in intimate ways, far from the public eye. They post photographs all over the house, make teddy bears out of their dads' shirts and encourage them to write letters.
Eddie Murphy, 10, whose father, Maj. Edward Murphy, 36, died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in April 2005, did just that one day at grief camp. "Summer is coming up," he wrote to his father. "It won't be the same without you…"