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.

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - Faye Fiore re­port­ing from sil­ver spring, md.

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.’


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.

Carolyn Cole

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.

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