Down Range, the words refer to those military men and women serving in a geographic area of conflict, a combat zone. I have asked three amazing women to write the Down Range columns the summer QOV newsletters. I hope that these columns will inform, educate, and personalize the experiences of military families. ~ Karen Fredrickson
This month’s article was written Kathy Godwin, Gold Star mom of Cpl. Todd Godwin. You can contact Kathy at email@example.com
July and all of its festivities are here. Many are celebrating our nation's independence, summer vacations are being enjoyed, and fun filled summer activities are on the minds of many. We truly do live in a great nation which is cause for celebration. We have been given the freedom to choose our path in life. If you are reading this column, more than likely, there is no need to remind you of the sacrifices people have paid throughout the years for us to have these freedoms. Not only do you remember, but you are trying to give back in some way to those who have sacrificed for us and our country.
As I begin writing this column, Memorial Day is upon us. Although the original purpose of Memorial Day has diminished over the years, initially it was established as a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service. But for those who have lost a loved one in military service, every day is a day of remembering. The sacrifices the members of our military have paid for freedom is never far from the minds of the loved ones of a service member who fell during active duty - nor is it far from the minds of those who served with them. I write this column as a Memorial to those who have given their all, and for their loved ones who must find a way to go on without them.
I am in a position in which I never thought I would find myself. I am the mother of a Fallen Marine. Like some of you reading this, I grew up in the era of the Vietnam War. I had a brother, brother-in- law, and other acquaintances go to Vietnam. It was common to see images on TV of flag draped coffins being carried out of airplanes. I thought then to myself that it must be one of the saddest things in the whole world. I could not imagine the horrors of losing a child at war. Nor could I imagine leaving your loved ones and the comfort of familiar surroundings behind to go to war and not return home. I found myself thinking at that time, I sure hope there is no war going on when I have children! But that time seemed so distant, so far away, that I tried to quickly dismiss it. But, before I knew it, I too was a mother.
People said we had the two million dollar family - two boys and two girls – the two boys came first and then the two girls. As we home schooled when they were in elementary school, the boys were inseparable. Aaron, the oldest, was a protective and helpful big brother. He and Todd, our second child, shared many interests together. Todd was funny and good natured with big brown eyes. I was thrilled when our two sweet, beautiful daughters, Sarah and Anna, came along. They all got along and played well together. Our family felt complete. I thought I was a most fortunate and blessed mother with four wonderful and healthy children. When we were raising our kids, the thought of one of them joining the military was something that did not occur to me. We had always stressed the importance of education and I assumed they would go off to college one day and then settle down in a career. All of that changed when Todd came to us his junior year of high school and said he wanted to join the military. Assuming being in the military was a dangerous career choice, I spent the next year trying to persuade him otherwise, to no avail. He finally stated dogmatically that it was what he was supposed to do with his life. I realized there was nothing I could do. It became apparent that I needed to relinquish some of my maternal instincts which do everything in their power to protect their child. Todd and his father visited recruiters and it was settled, he wanted to be a United States Marine. It did not appear any war was on the horizon as it was early 2001. Then came high school graduation and in July, Todd went off to Parris Island for Boot Camp.
Several weeks later, the horrific events of 9/11 came to pass. I could no longer console myself with the thought that our country was at peace. About 3 weeks after 9/11, Todd graduated from USMC Boot Camp. Our country had not seen such an outpouring of patriotism, many said, since WWII. We watched the graduation ceremonies with great pride but also with the knowledge that most of these young men and women would someday, perhaps soon, be sent into harm’s way. With heaviness of heart, I couldn't help but wonder which of these young Marines would be called upon to pay the ultimate sacrifice. Watching the 1,000+ new Marines doing their drills to perfection was an impressive sight. We all looked admirably upon our new Marines in their perfectly tailored uniforms. I recalled, just a few months earlier, sitting grudgingly at a Marine Recruiters gathering for families that Todd had insisted we go to. “We need to go and support our son,” my husband Bill had encouraged me. Now I was hooked, the mom who didn't want her son to join any military group, had officially become a “Marine Mom,” complete with Marine bumper stickers, an American flag flying from my car, and yellow ribbons adorning my porch. I had a new found affinity for the USMC website.
Somehow, Todd managed trips home frequently, sometimes surprising us. He would show me his jungle rot feet and tell us tales that were especially unnerving for a mother. For 3 years I agonized over my son's safety, fearing that if Al Qaeda did not kill him, one of the various training missions the Marines put him through would. Everyone, including Todd, assured me “he would be fine.” In June 2004, his Battalion deployed to Iraq. This would be the second time he had been there. I felt very uneasy. The morning Todd left home, we all gathered in the kitchen to say our goodbyes. Our happy go lucky child was now a young man, going off to war. Knowing how much he hated for me to cry every time we said goodbye, I insisted it was ok for me to cry this time. His dad went alone with him to his car. I watched at the window as he backed his car out of the driveway. That is the last time I ever saw my son. The image of him driving away, with his eyes fixed firmly ahead, is forever burned in my brain. A week or two after arriving in Iraq, Todd was able to set up communication with me on a regular basis by email. Every morning, I would awaken to find a reassuring email from him. “Send me Gatorade powder,” (which I had a hard time locating) seemed to be his biggest concern. Of course, he didn't mention that he and the scout sniper platoon, which he was part of, was headed to Fallujah to scout for insurgents who were planting the IED's (roadside bombs).
Then one morning, after only 3 and a half weeks from the time he deployed, I checked my email first thing in the morning, as usual, but I did not hear from him. “He's probably just busy on a mission or something,” I told myself and sent him a quick email asking him to please send me a short email, just to say he is ok. I tried to resume my day and went to work. It was difficult. The night before, I had a dream that I saw him in a Humvee with a few other Marines and I sensed he was in great danger. I awoke with a terrible sense of foreboding.
July 20th, 2004, was a perfect summer day, sunny, but not too hot. Everyone was going about business as usual. However, I could not shake the uncomfortable feeling I had about not hearing from my son. About 12:30 I was hoping to run home to check my email again when I got a call on my cell phone from my supervisor. All he said was that I needed to go home as I had an emergency. A sense of panic and fear filled my mind as I finished the short drive home. I thought about my dream. I ran into the house, oblivious to the government vehicle in front of my house. I made it as far as the dining room and then I saw my 19 year old daughter Sarah standing there silently with her head down. Beside her were 3 solemn Marines in their dress blues. I knew there was only one reason they would be there. Immediately, I knew Todd had been killed. At that moment, I knew life would change forever. After they picked me up off the floor and tried to assist me, one of them eventually told us the awful truth - “we regret to inform you that your son has been killed.” I could hear Sarah and Anna's screams as the realization of the devastating truth hit them. Instantly, my priorities changed. Things that seemed important to me only hours before suddenly seemed so trivial. I only wanted my son. My daughters and I tried to console each other, but there were no words of consolation, just an expressed outpouring of our love for one another. I thought of my husband Bill who had called and was on the phone with my daughter getting the unbelievable and shocking news. I could not bear the thought of seeing his broken heart. It would be too much. But, there was no stopping it. It seemed like a hundred thoughts went through my mind in the next few minutes. This can't be true! How could this happen, he only arrived there a few weeks ago? Are they lying to me? Did he suffer? I knew I needed answers to these questions but was afraid to ask. Through my hysterics, I finally told them I was ready and needed to know how he died. He had been hit by an IED. No one else in the Humvee had been injured, thankfully. It seemed to head straight for Todd. Little could I know when I was sitting at his boot camp graduation, that my Marine, my son, would be the first from his Battalion to be killed at war. I remembered him as a little boy with soft red curls and big brown eyes, always smiling and happy. How could this precious child of mine have been killed by a bomb? It was unthinkable. Bill had to call our son Aaron, who now lived in another state, and tell him his only brother and best friend was gone. The nightmare that I had the night before had come true. But, this was far far worse than any nightmare. It was a living nightmare.
How life can change in an instant! The day before, I had finally found and shipped Todd his Gatorade powder and a few other items he requested. A few weeks later, they were returned to me. I knew I could never again look at summer in the same way. July was when I had stood at the airport, sadly watching my young, naïve, 18 yr old son fly off to Parris Island in 2001. He was so excited. Three years later, his precious body was returned to us at that same airport. This time, he was honored as a hero. Yes, I was certain my feelings I had as a young girl were true – this was surely the saddest thing in the whole world. Not only was he gone from us, but, being returned to us mummy wrapped, we would not even be given an opportunity to look on his face again. On July 29th, we sat at his graveside as our son's body was about to be lowered into the ground. This time it was our son, our Marine, with the flag-draped coffin. This time, I was the mother being handed this flag - the flag representing the freedoms that he had given his life for. I wondered how such unbearable sorrow and extreme pride could be felt at the same time. I knew that not only would summers be faced with a sense of dread, but life itself was about to become a challenge.
For some time, each minute was spent with trying to figure out how to cope with the intense emotional pain. At the time, I couldn't imagine ever living again without unbearable anguish. I seemed unable to get off the couch. Nothing interested me. I knew there were things I was supposed to be doing but couldn't remember what they were. I cried out to God for help and answers. It seemed as if He was silent and angry with me. I lost the ability to function. I forgot how to cook or do every day activities. The thought of returning to work seemed absurd. All my brain power was expended on trying to come to terms with what had happened. I could not bear the thought that Todd would never walk through the door again. Our family seemed to “fall apart.” Todd was the peacemaking, happy jokester who kept us all laughing. His presence always brightened our home. I watched in helpless desperation as Bill and our children grieved. It seemed we would never be able to stop crying. I could hear Sarah moaning in her room. Todd had always been there for her. He was so special to her, I wondered how she would survive. Anna, just 15 at the time, was begging me not to let this ruin my life. She appeared lost. After the funeral, Aaron and his newly pregnant wife went back home to Philadelphia. I wondered how he was doing. It was as though we were all in separate lifeboats in a tremendous storm - each trying to survive - but not knowing how to help the other. How will we ever be happy and laugh again? How will we get through each day? There seemed to be nothing but questions and the horrible realization that our precious son and brother was gone. In his place was the constant companion of unrelenting pain and a sadness that I had never known before. I felt stunned, dazed, and confused.
There is so much that I could say about the grieving process but time here does not permit. I realize this is my story and not everyone grieves the same way. However, across our nation, this same story, with different names, faces, and some variations to the specifics, are being lived out each day. This is the sort of life that is handed to the families of the Fallen and others who have lost precious loved ones. Somehow, we are to pick up the pieces of our shattered lives and try to figure out how to live again. It is important also to mention that not only have our lives gone through drastic and unwelcome changes, but so have the lives of most of those who have served in combat and their families. These men and women usually come home changed, some mentally and many physically. They too have suffered a loss of the life that was once familiar. There is no debating that the sacrifices have been great for many.
As we, the bereaved, try to reenter what I would sometimes refer to as “the land of the living,” we are faced with many obstacles. We have become a different person. The enjoyment of life and ability to think straight seems to have vanished forever. Our thoughts seem consumed with what has happened to our loved one. We try to once again handle responsibilities and we attempt to have 'normal' conversations. People often inquire how we're doing. We struggle to find an appropriate response. The typical “I'm fine,” just doesn't cut it anymore. What we really feel like saying is, “I feel like I was hit by a semi truck, how do you think I'm doing?!” But often, the poor inquiring person has a genuine concern for us and doesn't need our wrath poured out on them. I often whimsically thought that I should pin a sign on me that said, “My son was just killed in war so don't ask me how I'm doing unless you really want to know.” I thought that might prevent store clerks and others who weren't truly interested from casually asking, “How are you doing today?”I have often heard bereaved parents say that they wish they could think up an inoffensive response to that question. Many of us felt by saying the usual and expected, “I'm fine,” was not only lying, but it was also showing a kind of disrespect to the one whom they had recently lost. Perhaps an “I'm thinking of you” or “I'm praying for you” might let the bereaved person know you care and they won't feel compelled to answer questions. Grieving is an isolating feeling as we see others go about their seemingly normal, happy lives. It is a comfort to know that others genuinely care about our loss.
Generally, there seems to be an expectation in our society that we mourn the loss of a child and then we are somehow better, over it, no longer suffering. Now, 6 years later, I better understand that I will always miss my son, no matter how much time goes by. The pain may not be as intense, but, I will always long to hear his voice, see his smiling face, and hug him again. Each day can be a struggle as we deal with these agonizing feelings of longing. However, responsibilities beckon us and we have to attempt to resume living. We try to perform work duties, which can be a real challenge as we try to focus. Usually, people don't know what to say to us. They are afraid if they “bring it up” they will upset us. But, we are already upset. Many different things can bring on unwelcomed tears. Everyone who has suffered such a traumatic loss struggles to find their way through the grieving process. Some people may fill their days and time with many activities, as a way to cope. Others, finding it difficult to be around people, may retreat in silent withdrawal for some time. Some people have a need to talk, seemingly endlessly, about what has happened. Others may prefer more privacy in their grieving and ponder things privately. Some people say they feel numb, and others may be acutely aware of every heart-broken moment. Concentration and sleep problems, forgetfulness, loss of interest in everyday life, angry outbursts, frequent crying, and despair, among other things, are commonplace. Others may insist they “are fine.” This may be a defense to hide their true feelings from themselves or others.
You may have a friend or loved one who is suffering the loss of a loved one. Perhaps you wonder what you can do for them. First of all, know that being their friend at such a time may require a lot of patience on your part. I recall going through a period of time when I just didn't answer my phone or return calls. My thinking was that I was so miserable that I couldn't imagine why anyone would want to talk to me. Often, we forget how to communicate effectively to say what we really mean. More than once, I have said things that came out all wrong and I would see the bewildered or hurt looks on other people's faces. Know that your friend is not the same person as they were before. They may decline invitations. Please understand it is nothing personal. Grieving takes a tremendous amount of energy and the thought of doing another activity, even a pleasant one, may seem like too much for them. But, please don't give up on them! They need time, and sometimes it may take a long time. Some bereaved may have little or no interest in talking about every day kinds of things. As difficult as it might be, putting your own needs on hold for a while to share a problem or concern may be necessary. I have heard some bereaved say that this is no time to talk to them about problems you, as their friend, may be having with your own child. Their feeling is that they would give anything to have their child back to give them problems! Also, most bereaved say they love to hear and talk about their loved one and share recollections. Usually, pictures are deeply appreciated, so let them know you have a photo of their loved one and see if they would like a copy. They will never be able to take pictures of them again, so receiving a picture they haven't seen yet is new for them. I realize all of these things may be asking a lot of someone, but if you truly want to be a friend, you will invest your time and energies into your friend in need. You may even find that you have grown as a person by going through this with them.
If tragically, you are one of the bereaved reading this, you may find your experience different from mine in many ways. But, there is still that bond of understanding. Our eyes have been opened to a side of life that may be previously unknown. It is somewhat like being forced to walk through a door to a very frightening place where no one wants to be. Someone we love has been ripped from our lives and our hearts have been broken like never before. In grieving, it may feel as though your life is over. It took me a long time to figure out that life isn't over. It is just different. We have a “new normal,” which is uninvited, unwelcome, and unwanted. You probably feel exhausted. It can be a long journey finding our way back to some sort of meaningful life. But, it is possible. Many have found ways to turn their tragedy into good for others in some way. Eventually, I found God to be my friend who was always there for me in my time of need. I have assurance that my son lives on and I will see him again in Heaven. I know he is happy and safe where no one can harm him again. The day I see him again, I believe God will make all things clear to me regarding why this had to happen. In the meantime, I am trying to live my life in a way that, if he is watching, he would say he is proud of me. I know I will have days in which I fail; after all, this isn't an easy road. However, I can get up the next day and try again. Todd went to Iraq, somehow knowing he would not be coming back home to those he loved, but he went anyway, as many many others have done. If he was brave enough to give his life, I can, with God's help, be strong enough to live mine.
Kathy Godwin Gold Star mom of Cpl. Todd Godwin firstname.lastname@example.org