Mother seeks her own peace
She lost her son in Iraq nearly six years ago. As his brigade pulls out, she faces a new round of grief. It’s been a long journey.
The week that Army Spc. Thomas K. Doerflinger was killed in Iraq at age 20, a friend in the neighborhood brought his parents a felt banner with a gold star. Tradition holds that a grieving mother hangs it in her window until the war is over. As it turned out, the war outlasted the banner.
Years passed; the red border faded. Repairmen who came to their door on leafy Collingwood Terrace would innocently inquire, then stammer their condolences. The Doerflingers didn’t feel right displaying a kind of grief that was never going to go away, so after a while they put the banner in the hutch.
Endings can be complicated for families of the fallen.
When President Obama announced the conclusion of combat operations in Iraq this month, Lee Ann Doerflinger didn’t feel any closer to that magical “closure” everyone talks about. In some ways, she felt worse.
It didn’t help when, channel surfing, she caught footage of the Stryker brigade pulling out of Iraq for the last time. It was the end of a mission Thomas helped launch — he drove a Stryker armored personnel carrier with a dashboard like a rocket ship’s. For years she had prayed for the safety of the brigade; now they were out of harm’s way and here she was sobbing on the couch — “oddly bereft” was how she put it. Another earthly part of Thomas shutting down. No more pretending he wasn’t really dead, just deployed.
“Maybe someone can understand this even if I can’t. It’s as if that last piece of Thomas now goes too,” she wrote on her blog, “We Remember,” a chronicle of losing a child to war. “His part of this conflict is over.”
It isn’t that they haven’t all moved on. A friend of Lee Ann’s remarked the other
‘Maybe someone can understand this even if I can’t. It’s as if that last piece of Thomas now goes too.’
— LEE ANN DOERFLINGER,
writing on her blog about the end of combat operations in Iraq
day that losing Thomas isn’t the only thing she talks about anymore. At 55, she has three other children, a baby granddaughter and Richard, her husband of 33 years, who anguished in his own way. She isn’t sure she ever saw him cry.
By the Pentagon’s count, 4,412 service members have died in Iraq. Thomas was No. 1,258 or 1,259; Lee Ann was never sure.
The five years and 10 months since he died have been a long slog forward and back. You expect birthdays to be hard. You don’t expect to get ambushed while housecleaning by a 4-yearold phone bill with his cell number on it. One day you’re undone by a storage closet full of his clothes. The next day you’re sitting peacefully on your sister’s sun porch watching the cats play.
“I was almost 50 when Thomas was killed. You sit down and calculate your life expectancy at that point and say, how long do I have to live with this grief? But I think Thomas would have asked me to take what came and see what happens,” Lee Ann says from her dining room table, where they can all sit again. They couldn’t at first. It was just too hard. Thomas had always occupied the chair to her left.
His mother wouldn’t sign the enlistment papers — if anything happened to him, she’d never forgive herself. So Thomas waited until he turned 18 on July 6, 2002, and signed them himself. His grades were terrible, even if he did earn an International Baccalaureate degree from Springbrook High. He hated homework. College would be a waste.
The whole family watched him graduate seven months later from basic training at Ft. Benning, Ga. Lee Ann was surprised at how proud she was. He wound up at Ft. Lewis in Washington state, home to the Stryker brigade. Saddam Hussein had been captured, a good sign. How long could the war last? She said goodbye to him in a Taco Bell parking lot across from the base. He got in a cab and did not look back.
“He was a Stryker driver who didn’t like to drive,” Lee Ann would later write. He was assigned to Mosul in northern Iraq. His vehicle was damaged in combat, so he volunteered for other positions. On Nov. 11, 2004, he was rear air guard, the soldier who sticks up out of the hatch. They were finishing up for the day when a sniper shot him in the head.
She has told the story so many times now she gets through it pretty well. It was Veterans Day. Lee Ann turned on National Public Radio at 1p.m. Firefights in Mosul. Surely if it were bad she already would have heard. She curled up on the couch with an actionpacked science-fiction novel — time travel, soldiers in battle. Out the window, two uniforms were coming up her walk. Was it her eyes or the book? They knocked. It occurred to her that her life was over.
“I sent Matthew downstairs. I didn’t want him to see me when I heard the news,” she says. Matthew is the youngest of her children. He was in seventh grade when his only brother was Previous Column One articles are available online. killed. Now he’s 18, with the outlines of a beard, in the kitchen perusing the contents of the fridge. He hears his mother’s voice break, comes into the dining room and pats her shoulder.
The ripple effect of war is vast. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, estimates that for every active-duty service member killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, six family members are “significantly impacted.” At last count, the Doerflingers belong to a club of 10,392 parents.
“They live with this every day. It’s not like you can say your grieving is over now, or because the war is over you shouldn’t be grieving anymore,” said Michelle Joyner, spokeswoman for the National Military Family Assn. in Virginia.
People started showing up at the two-story house the Doerflingers moved to when Thomas was in fourth grade. There weren’t enough chairs. Thomas’ sisters — Anna, older, and Maria, younger — took it hard.
Lee Ann and Richard picked out a plot and a headstone for their boy, according to instructions Thomas delivered in the hallway one day while holding a basket of laundry. If anything happened, and of course it wouldn’t, he didn’t want to be buried in uniform at Arlington. He wanted to be buried in civilian clothes in the local Catholic cemetery. The Army, he told his father, had him for five years. But “eternity is mine.”
Support groups stress that military families will need assistance long after the last brigade pulls out of Iraq. The combat might be officially over, but 50,000U.S. troops are still there, in side arms and body armor, to provide support and training. Another 100,000 are in Afghanistan. American forces have been at war longer than at any other single time in history.
But the public is fickle in its concern, distracted by foreclosures, unemployment, Lindsay Lohan’s latest lockup. Another widow receives the folded flag. The kitchen overflows with food. The phone won’t stop ringing. The nation tunes in and out.
The Doerflingers walked like robots through that first year after Thomas was killed, doing what was essential, nothing more. They leaned on faith and the people around them. A parish nun made sure Lee Ann ate. The PTA cleaned the house and planted her garden bulbs.
Sokhannath Ieng, the scheduler at G Street Fabrics, where Lee Ann fills in, called one day and said it was time to come back to work. She had lost 11relatives in Cambodia’s killing fields; Lee Ann went.
The couple grieved in different ways. Richard, 57, dove into his work as associate director of antiabortion activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Lee Ann blogged, calling herself “a middle-aged housewife who decided one day to write all of this down.”
June 26, 2006: “It did seem at first that his death would be the end of laughter for us, but that has turned out to not be true at all.”
Jan. 29, 2007: “No one told me that one of the hardest parts of being a mother would be having to comfort my fourteen-year-old son because his brother died two years ago on a dusty street half a world away.”
July 6, 2008: “I woke up early this morning, remembering the day that Thomas was born. He got me up early that day too.”
Months passed, and the moments when she felt better started coming closer together. Around the fouryear mark, they adopted a puppy, took the first family Christmas photo without Thomas, and put away the banner with the gold star.
Lee Ann watched a lot of television. She stumbled on an episode of “Clean House,” about a guy who couldn’t get rid of his dead mother’s stuff. She thought of the portable closet of Thomas’ clothes in the basement. Time to let it go.
Anna got married. This spring, baby Leah was born. The 11th of every month stopped feeling like an anniversary. On Thomas’ birthday, Lee Annwas too busy to get to Mass. She blogged: “[I] felt a bit guilty about that. I suppose it’s in the natural course of events that our lives sort of close over the hole left by this loss.” That night, Richard and Lee Ann enjoyed a chocolate cake in their son’s honor.
Friends ask how she’s doing: “I’m still standing.”
She wants to go to Mosul. People walk the beaches of Normandy and the streets of Hanoi. She wonders if Iraq will ever be safe enough.
“I want to see the buildings he saw, feel the climate he felt. I was in the place where he was born. I want to be in the place where he died,” she says over a second cup of coffee in the dining room. A pile of junk mail is stacked high on Thomas’ chair, where, even now, no one ever sits.
MORE THAN A NUMBER: Spc. Thomas Doerflinger, left, was killed by a sniper in Mosul in 2004. The Pentagon estimates 4,412 troops have died in Iraq.