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Home » Archives » December 2004 » Deaths in combat ricochet here at home

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12/01/2004: "Deaths in combat ricochet here at home"

In a Marine bar near Camp Lejeune, a blond woman handed a beer to the man drinking black coffee. She liked his Irish accent, which he admitted was phony, and his smile, which was genuine. It was the same big grin that blazed out of so many childhood photographs in which the crew-cut youth dressed like the Marine he since had become.

The love affair of Deborah and Donald May began in September 1999 as a happy collision of two hearts. It ended March 25, 2003, during the first days of the Iraq (news - web sites) war, when the tank commanded by Staff Sgt. May, 31, plunged into the Euphrates River and sank to the bottom. He and his three tankmates drowned, trapped inside.

In less than four years together, the Mays had married, moved to the Marine base at Twentynine Palms, Calif., had two sons and were raising Deborah's daughter from her first marriage. Their talk, their letters, were filled with life and love.

Today, however, Deborah belongs to a fast-growing sorority of American war widows. As if by ricochet, each American service man and woman killed in combat leaves behind a trail of secondary casualties: spouses, children, parents. Through Nov. 20, 45% of the 1,374 U.S. service personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (news - web sites) since September 2001 were married, the Defense Department says.

Considered survivors, the widows and widowers of war dead are among the conflict's walking wounded. Amid heavy fighting in recent weeks, the toll is rising.

The Pentagon (news - web sites) attempts to ease the trauma of death by notifying survivors with specially trained casualty officers. That is a far cry from the impersonal telegrams delivered to families until early in the Vietnam War. The Department of Veterans Affairs (news - web sites) supports military widows with financial and medical benefits that can last a lifetime.

But the death of a loved oneis only the first in a series of blunt rearrangements for the surviving spouse. Civilian wives and children methodically are separated from the tightly structured military hierarchy. Base housing, neighbors, nearby schools and the fabled band of brothers all disappear. In the ensuing void, grief and trauma loom large, say several war widows, casualty officers and grief counselors who spoke to USA TODAY.

Bonnie Carroll, founder of the non-profit support group TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and herself a military widow, explains: "The Defense Department's mission is war fighting. Once the paperwork is done and the late family member is out-processed, they no longer are part of the war machine."

TAPS and the VA help widows deal with their loss by counseling "four tasks" of mourning. Mere mileposts in recoveries that might unfold forever, the four tasks are:

Accept the reality of the loss.

Work through the grief.

Adjust to the environment in which the deceased is missing.

Form a new identity.

Psychologists William Worden and Therese Rando developed the task-based approach to surmounting grief because they say the bereaved must be active, rather than passive, participants in the loss.

When Deborah May, 40, overcame her numb disbelief at Don's death, she, like many widows, realized that the struggle had just begun. "I had made Don my world," she says. "His world was the Marines. When he was gone, my world was gone."

Task 1: Accept the reality

After returning home from a checkup with her doctor on March 27, 2003, Deborah, seven months pregnant, learned via the Internet that a U.S. tank was missing.

She and a neighbor, Rachel Phillips, whose husband, Randy, also served in the Marines' First Tank Battalion, tried to calculate the odds that one of their husbands was in the lost tank. That is when Lt. Michael Jackson, 25, drove up.

Newly commissioned as a Marine, Jackson had insisted on taking the casualty officer's call when he learned that the missing tank belonged to his own battalion.

"When we came to the neighborhood, everybody stopped and watched us get out," says Jackson, who was accompanied by another Marine and a chaplain. "They knew what we were there for. They watched what house we went into.

"You feel like you're the angel of death. Nobody wants to see you," Jackson says. "It's a lonely thing to do. ... You're about to change somebody's life forever."

Phillips went to the door. The broken doorbell hardly made a sound. But in looking through the peephole, she gasped loud enough for Jackson to hear. May collapsed.

"She was screaming and falling against the wall," Phillips says.

The realization that death stands at the doorstep is perceived in slow motion: freeze-frame moments that last a lifetime, several widows say. "Everything about that moment is captured in a snapshot: It's the weather, the temperature, the smell, everything about that point in time," TAPS founder Carroll says.

May, hysterical and in danger of going into labor, hardly realized Jackson told her only that Don and his three men were missing. She hardly took note at all. She was taken to a hospital and sedated.

When the officer returned two days later to notify her that the men's bodies had been recovered, he carefully rehearsed his lines. Nevertheless, he says, "I just threw that out of the window at the last moment. You sound like you're not human when you say it: 'I'm sorry to inform you, on behalf of the United States Marine Corps, your husband was killed in Iraq.' "

Instead, Jackson said, "I'm very sorry, Mrs. May, but Don died in Iraq." He spoke very slowly.

Phillips moved in for more than a month to help care for the new widow and her children, Mariah, 8, and Jack, 3. They slept crossways on the Mays' bed because Deborah no longer could bear to sleep in her old place and feel Don missing.

Five weeks later, when another U.S. tank plunged into a canal off the Euphrates River and killed an Army soldier, May says, "I thought I was dreaming."

She began to refocus when she gave birth to son Will on May 1, 2003. Jackson was in the delivery room with her. He held her hand, cut the umbilical cord and was made godfather. For every question she had, he sought an answer.

Task 2: Work through grief

In July 2003, the Marines gave Deborah a mud-caked camera retrieved from Don's tank. Cracked and waterlogged, it held a roll of decomposing film. A handful of stark images were salvaged. Once again, she saw Don, looking out from a hand-dug bunker in Kuwait just before the war began.

When the time came to engage the enemy, Don and his men had served with distinction. Sweeping into Iraq, Don's tank foiled an ambush, destroyed five enemy tanks and two armored personnel carriers, and killed several enemy soldiers, according to the First Tank Battalion's war history, interviews and posthumous commendations.

But the wife and husband's struggle at being separated is apparent from the letters that trickled home even after Don's death. On March 7, for example, he had written from the Kuwaiti desert: "I believe this is my last tour. I don't want to ship over again if it is going to separate me from my family."

By the time Deborah received the letter, Don was dead.

That is why Deborah viewed the broken camera and its contents - more than the war medals and ribbons Don was awarded posthumously - as "the best gift" imaginable. "I was thrilled to have another piece of him," she says.

Recognizing that her children required her love and attention, May says, she went on to negotiate with herself over how helpless she would allow herself to feel.

"I could spend the rest of my life crying," she says. "I had to say to myself: How much time would have been enough? It never would have been enough. But what if I only knew him for five minutes? I knew I had to be happy with five minutes. So I had to be happy with - what was it? - 1,300 days."

Task 3: Adjust

On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2003, May appeared on Good Morning America with several other war widows.

One was Shauna O'Day, whose husband, Marine Lance Cpl. Patrick O'Day, 20, drowned with Don. Another was Brandy Williams, whose husband, Army Sgt. Eugene Williams, 24, was killed by an Iraqi suicide bomber. The women struck up instant friendships.

O'Day, 20, of Cameron Park, Calif. - who gave birth to her husband's daughter, Kylee Marie Patrick O'Day, two months before the TV appearance - was furthest along in her recovery. She says: "I had to start focusing on my life, my daughter's life. I don't want to live the rest of my life alone."

She became engaged to her late husband's best friend, Marine Pfc. Ray Brown, who now serves in Iraq. And she is pregnant again.

Williams, 27, who has two daughters - one born after the death of her husband, Eugene - moved in with her parents and works part-time. "I kind of feel like the worst has passed, and I'm trying to move forward. I'm trying to be strong for my girls," she says.

For May, getting on with her life was more difficult. She describes a widow's lot as living "in a world where we're torn between the past and moving forward."

The VA supports military widows with lifetime financial and medical benefits. Usually, within 48 hours, a $12,000 death "gratuity" is paid. Most dependents receive a $250,000 life insurance policy. A monthly widow's pension of $967 is provided, plus $241 for each dependent child up to age 18, combined with Social Security (news - web sites) payments. And the VA pays up to $35,460 in educational assistance.

In addition, since August 2003, the VA has offered grief counseling at 206 medical centers nationwide.

May, who is used to pinching the pennies of an enlisted man's paycheck, says, "Don makes more money now than he ever made when he was alive." She adds, "That's not a consolation to me."

TAPS founder Carroll says, "It is very psychologically difficult to take money after a sudden traumatic death because it feels like you're getting paid for the death."

Task 4: Form new identity

Just after New Year's, May and her three children said goodbye to Twentynine Palms. But not before Jackson helped her sort through Don's belongings. They argued good-naturedly over each canteen, loose shoe and even unexploded ordnance that Don had squirreled away in the garage.

Leaving meant giving up a safety net. But the military asks survivors to relinquish base housing within six months, and May had stayed three months longer.

"Everybody put their arms around me in a big circle. Who wants to leave that?" she asks. By moving to Jacksonville, her family would live within a four-hour drive of Don's mother, Brenda, and his grandparents. And she would be close enough to Camp Lejeune to shop on the base and receive military medical care for the children.

Yet the transition to the East Coast meant arriving alone and anonymous. There would be no more Rachel, no more Lt. Jackson.

Phillips, now in Phoenix, frets: "Two, three, four years from now, she's still going to need people. You can't leave them. You can't have a funeral and say, 'That's it.' "

Widows and widowers confront many questions: Do I take off the ring? How long should I wear black? Each question triggers personal doubts and pain.

May still wears a wedding ring. Don's voice remains on her answering machine. Her son, Jack, has a Marine's horseshoe haircut and Don's smile. In the new house, she filled a glass cabinet with Don's medals and ribbons, his boots, hat and photographs.

May laughs when she thinks of how Don's mother memorialized Don Sr., a former Marine, after his death, though they were divorced.

"His uniforms are hanging in her closet," she says. "Now I'm her."

In August, May discovered an Internet community of people like her: The Young Widows Bulletin Board (, a virtual hitching post for grieving souls.

She encountered several war widows and made new friends, among them Sara Clark, 32, a Swedish immigrant whose husband, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Michael Clark, a bomb-disposal expert, was killed in July. He had been called to inspect an explosives-rigged vehicle in Fallujah when it was detonated by somebody in the crowd.

May and Clark have not met but bonded via daily e-mail and phone calls in a way that grief counselors view with hope. TAPS' Carroll uses the term "companioning" to describe "what we as peers do for our fellow surviving families."

"Military loss unites people on several converging planes," Carroll says. "It's not only loss but sacrifice for the country and patriotism. Most of the families I've worked with have a fiercely patriotic spirit; the belief that the life and the mission had tremendous meaning; that it was not a life given in vain."

May, having seen her emotional recovery trail behind friends Williams and O'Day, now sees incremental progress in herself in comparison with Clark.

Clark, who has two daughters - Victoria, 6, and Emelie, 3 - views May as "fabulous" for managing to be not only a grieving widow, but also a loving mother and friend.

"She's an inspiration to me," Clark says, "because I'm only three months into this. I think if I can only be half as strong as her."

Lt. Jackson recently visited May and her children in Jacksonville. He says being a casualty officer deepened him. "Here I am, young and stupid. Send me to Iraq. I'm a big, bad Marine," he says. "And here I have to see the other side of war first. As a man it matures you, as a Marine it matures you. I don't want to say I'm a sadder person, but it does open your eyes to more pain in the world than I was previously aware of."

May thinks she will be all right, eventually. "I know I had Don's love," she says. "It's not there now. But it's in a clear box. It's all wrapped up. I can see it. The trouble is, sometimes I try to go back and open it. And I can't."

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