In a small West Virginia town, just over the Maryland line, a little girl hasn't quite figured out where heaven is - the place where Daddy went.
In Baltimore, family members who publicly questioned the war continue to
feel the loss of a Marine who was a father, son and brother.
And in Centreville, as parents mourn a son too young to have a family of
his own, a father develops a new sense of patriotism.
This year, Memorial Day has special meaning for families across Maryland
and the country who lost loved ones in the war in Iraq. And a nation
unaccustomed in recent years to the realities of war - distanced by decades
from the hundreds of thousands who died in Vietnam, Korea and the World Wars I
and II - is honoring the new sacrifices of men and women in uniform.
"The sound that the flag makes when it stands at attention in the wind
never meant anything like it does now," said Phil Hall, whose 20-year-old son,
Marine Cpl. Jason David Mileo, was killed last month in Iraq. "There are so
many things that take on new meaning when you are dealing with the loss of a
The three Marylanders killed in Iraq - Mileo, Army Spc. George A. Mitchell
Jr. and Marine Staff Sgt. Kendall D. Waters-Bey - are among 196 coalition
soldiers (162 Americans) who lost their lives. While the number pales in
comparison with other wars, the loss for the families is no less painful.
Waters-Bey, 29, one of the nation's first casualties, was killed when his
helicopter crashed in Kuwait near the Iraqi border March 20, the second day of
combat. Mitchell, 35, the only Marylander killed by enemy fire, died April 7
when a mortar shell struck his post south of Baghdad. And Mileo, who watched
Saddam Hussein's statue being toppled in a dusty Baghdad square, was mistaken
for an Iraqi soldier and killed as the war was winding down April 14.
The emotional wounds of the families are still tender, the losses still
striking, the graves still fresh. To mark Memorial Day - a day that has come
to symbolize the start of summer for many people, instead of somber
remembrance - the soldiers' families will visit their resting places,
participate in parades and continue to mourn.
Last week, Brenda Mitchell took her two young children to visit her
husband's nearby grave in Keyser, W.Va. The family - who lived in the small
Allegany County town of Rawlings until recently - still has yellow ribbons
tied to a dozen oak trees around their white-frame home in Antioch, W.Va.
Those ribbons, which 3-year-old Bailey had planned to take down with her
father after he returned, are painful reminders that he is not coming home,
Brenda Mitchell said. But the things that remind her of George Mitchell are
everywhere, and most striking in every day activities.
"If I'm in the grocery store and I see the soap he likes, it makes me think
about the battles we had over what kind of soap to buy," Brenda Mitchell said.
Her children are too young to truly understand what's happened - their
other child, Joshua, turned 2 years old this month.
Bailey "knows Daddy is in heaven," Brenda Mitchell said. "But I think she
thinks heaven is right next to Baghdad."
In Lebanon, Pa., Mitchell's hometown, a memorial service on Wednesday night
marked not only Memorial Day, but also Mitchell's birthday - he would have
turned 36 on May 20.
Before a crowd of almost 100 at a local Catholic church, David Mitchell
called his older brother a hero, and recalled their childhood hijinks.
He said he takes solace in what he can - that his brother's body was
recovered and sent home. On Saturday, he took his brother's 10-year-old son,
Christopher, and other family members to pay respects at the West Virginia
He said he thinks Americans may understand the sacrifices of those honored
on Memorial Day more acutely this year because reporters in Iraq provided an
intimate portrait of the soldiers.
"I know in Lebanon, it hit home," he said.
For Michael Waters-Bey, Memorial Day came too soon. He said the loss of his
first-born child and only son "tore half my heart away."
But as he copes with his loss "day by day," the Baltimore father, like many
other Americans, continues to question the need for the war in which Kendall
Waters-Bey was one of the first killed. "They have not found any weapons of
mass destruction," he noted.
Still, he is proud of his son, whose grave he will visit today.
"I will honor my son, because I am his father," Waters-Bey said. "He
sacrificed himself for the job he was doing."
At their home in Centreville on the Eastern Shore, Phil Hall and his wife,
Leah, raise a flag to half-staff every day in honor of their oldest son. The
flagpole - installed by family friends after Mileo's death - is near the young
Marine's grave on their property.
Last week, the first Jason Mileo Memorial Scholarship was given to a
student by Chesapeake High School's drama club, which Mileo belonged to before
his graduation from the Pasadena school in 2000, Principal Harry Calender
Today, the Halls will participate in a Memorial Day parade in Centreville.
And they will hold a private memorial at home.
Phil Hall said the loss of his son makes him think more about what's
valuable in life - and feel more pride in America.
"I feel a sense of patriotism now with the loss of our son," he said. "He
put himself in harm's way. He did it for his family, he did it for his
5-year-old brother, he did it for people he never met. ... He did it because
he was an American."
Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
Memorial Day 2003