The casualties were clustered around VeteransDay a year ago. In a span of four days, fouryoung Maryland soldiers were killed in separateattacks in Iraq. Three were shot in thehead, one in the throat. They died instantly.
Almost as quickly, military messengers bearing thenews knocked on doors in Silver Spring, Port Depositand Towson. It made the front pages for a while.Thenthe Ravens played. There was Christmas and NewYear's, spring and the Orioles. Life returned to normal.
But not for the mothers of Army Spc. Thomas K. Doerflinger,Marine Lance Cpl. David M. Branning, MarineCpl. Dale A. Burger Jr. and Marine Cpl. Nicholas L.Ziolkowski. Their lives adjusted to accommodate a blackhole.
Now as they struggle with the raw reality of this firstanniversary, they say there are no good days. Not likebefore.
"There are bad days, and there are days that aren'tbad," said Lee Ann Doerflinger of Silver Spring, whose20-year-old son was the first of the four killed during aweek of fighting that proved unusually brutal.
These four mothers have each chosen a different pathto deal with their grief: One formed a support group forother Maryland families who have lost soldiers, oneturned to working full-time to stop the war and bringU.S. soldiers home, one finds comfort spending time at Arlington National Cemetery at the graves of her husband and son, and the last is running for public office in hopes of making a difference.
"There's no manual for this," Doerflinger said. "You just keep moving and make it up as you go along."
"My son was killed today in Iraq." - Lee Ann Doerflinger
At lunchtime on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2004, Doerflinger nestled into a flood of sunshine near her living room's bay window and listened to National Public Radio dispatches from Iraq. Insurgents had chased thousands of Iraqi police from their stations in Mosul, where her son's brigade was located.
She was still sitting by the window when the first car pulled up at 2:45 p.m. Two men in military uniforms climbed out and began the slow procession toward the door. The rest of the day is remembered in snippets that filter through the fog.
"I can't come in to work," Doerflinger recalls saying in a phone call to G Street Fabrics in Rockville, where she cuts cloth part-time.
"You have the flu?" her colleague and friend Julie Werner asked.
"My son was killed today in Iraq," she said.
Six weeks later, she returned to work. She had been a runner, but she stopped. In the summer, she began jogging again regularly and training for a biathlon.
But even as she tried to wrench her life back to normal, reminders of her son were everywhere.
In Shoppers Food Warehouse, she spotted his favorite food, Jamaican Beef Turnovers, and began crying in the frozen food section. On Friday, she witnessed a bad car accident and began crying at the thought of death.
The last photo she took of her son was with his older sister, Anna, outside the Taco Bell near his base in Fort Lewis, Wash. He died a month later.
Today, Doerflinger can't bear to eat at a Taco Bell. And across the street from the Gate of Heaven Cemetery, where Thomas is buried, sits a Taco Bell. "He would find humor in that," she said.
At a private reception held this spring by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for the families of Maryland's killed soldiers, Doerflinger and Martina Burger - two military mothers who decline to protest the war - met and bonded. Doerflinger decided then to form a support group.
About two months ago, she sent letters to the families of Maryland's soldiers killed in Iraq. Only mothers have responded.
One, who had moved to West Virginia, phoned just out of curiosity. The woman said she didn't have much to say. Then she and Doerflinger - strangers except in their grief - talked and cried for 90 minutes.
"I thought if you've had this happen to you and you can use it to help others get through it, that is a good thing," Doerflinger said. "Who else is going to understand what it's like seeing those people in uniform coming up your driveway?"
Her 5-mile biathlon was yesterday in Washington. She and her co-worker Werner, who is legally blind, ran and kayaked to raise money for the physical rehabilitation of injured servicemen and women.
"All I know is it feels better to be moving than to not be moving," she said.
"We can talk about him endlessly." - Tia Steele
Five days before David Branning, 21, died Nov. 12 last year, he called his stepmother, Tia Steele, from Iraq. He was near the firestorms in Fallujah, and his voice sounded different to her - subdued or anxious.
Before he hung up, Steele, who helped raise him after his mother died when he was 11, said, "Be safe. Pay attention."
They said goodbye, but then there was a pause and she could hear him holding the receiver. He didn't hang up for several seconds. Then, click. "I knew he was standing there with his buddies," she said. "So what is he going to say - I'm scared?"
On the night the war began, Steele, a pacifist, was on York Road in Towson standing alongside peace activists who held signs protesting the war. She said her stepson knew of her protests and had told her, "Go for it."
She did. And still is. After his death, Steele quit her job at Towson's Genesis Healthcare Corp. and went to work full-time for Baltimore's branch of the American Friends Service Committee, campaigning against the war.
During holidays and birthdays, Steele and Branning's father, Daniel, who lives in Arizona, and David's sister, Annie, of Ohio, close ranks. Last Thanksgiving, they set a place at the table for David and talked about him as though he were there. They'll do the same this year.
"When the three of us are together, it is the easiest time for us because we can talk about him endlessly," Steele said. "But he was the one in the group who always made us laugh." This weekend, she'll be in Ohio again with her stepson's family.
These days, she helps coordinate the AFS "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit - thousands of military boots lined up like gravestones with rifles and dog tags bearing the names, ages, ranks and home states of service members killed in Iraq. She also helps direct the committee's effort to block the easy access public schools give to military recruiters.
"David did not die in vain if what I do can keep one other family from suffering what we have," she said.
On her desk at work is her answer to people who question her for taking such a strong stand against a war her stepson sacrificed his life for. It's a New Yorker magazine cartoon. Two people are in an elevator, the passenger and the operator.
"Neither up nor down," the passenger says. "I'm good here."
"It's a war based on lies," Steele said. "I keep imagining how things would be if none of the families of the fallen spoke up against the war."
"I thought I would be a lot tougher." - Martina Burger
Martina Burger's 21-year-old son, Dale, was a gung-ho Marine dedicated to the military mission in Iraq. He was shot dead Nov. 14 after volunteering to help retrieve two downed Marines in a building in Fallujah.
Burger returned to her job waiting tables in Havre de Grace six months later. When her first customer offered condolences, she retreated to the kitchen and cried. She didn't return for two months. She doesn't work today.
"Honestly, I thought I would be a lot tougher. I thought I would handle it better, but then you think - I will never see my baby again," she said.
Dale Burger's father, Dale Sr., a Vietnam combat veteran, had died six months previously and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His son was interred one row ahead and four plots over. It's a place Martina goes these days to find some semblance of peace.
"I went to a grief counselor twice, but all I did was sit there and cry," she said. "I think the cemetery for me is better than the counseling."
When Steele phoned Burger to invite her to participate in the "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit, Burger had already decided that her son's name would not be attached to any war protests.
"It's a memorial," Steele told Burger.
"But are the people who go to it against the war?" Burger asked.
A pair of boots representing Dale Jr. is included in the exhibit. The tag reads: "Name withheld by family request."
Burger occasionally takes letters and photos and old writings of Dale Jr.'s to Arlington, and then she sits for hours on the plush cemetery lawn. She talks to her dead Marines and reads to them and dwells in the silence. This is where her husband finally found peace, too, she believes.
Dale Sr. returned from Vietnam an emotionally scarred man. He would wake sweating and screaming in the middle of the night. Later, as his health deteriorated, Dale Jr. became the shoulder he leaned on.
Remembering her husband's pain, Burger tries to reconcile the death of her son.
"The lucky ones are the ones who die in war," she said, softly. "The ones who come back go through hell."
Burger celebrated the 230th birthday of the Marine Corps at a military ball in Atlantic City on Friday. Tomorrow, she will head back to Arlington National Cemetery.
"I don't think I will ever find comfort." - Tracy Miller
Tracy Miller's son, Nicholas Ziolkowski, loved autumn. "I love the colors of October. I love the smell of October. Halloween is my favorite holiday," he told her. "October is just me." Every fall, they would roast pumpkin seeds together.
Weeks before he was killed, Miller roasted, packaged and shipped pumpkin seeds to her son in Iraq. After his death Nov. 14 at the age of 22, the package was returned unopened. In her grief, she ate the seeds, as mother and son used to.
"To an extent, I don't think I will ever find comfort," she said from her townhouse near Towson University.
An academic adviser and American studies teacher at Towson, Miller, a pacifist, no longer emphasizes the Vietnam War in her "America in the '60s" course. It's too painful.
This year, she helped establish a scholarship in Ziolkowski's name at Towson. It will go annually to a student who has served in the military, the reserves or the Peace Corps or in some other way worked for world peace.
Another scholarship in her son's name was established at his former prep school, North Baltimore's Boys' Latin. It went to two freshmen last year judged for their leadership and character, not just for their academics.
Ziolkowski wasn't into books. He envisioned himself a Marine and quickly rose to the military's elite - the scout sniper team. Before he left for Iraq, he told his mother, "Know that if anything happens, this is what I wanted."
Miller is keeping his spirit alive another way, by running for the Maryland House of Delegates. "I want the passion that Nick had for life and for the Marines to imbue everything I do," she said. "I go through every day thinking what would he approve of, and I think he would approve of this. I'm trying to make a difference in his honor."
On Veterans Day, Miller spoke about the value of history to a gathering in Middle River of about 40 Maryland Vietnam veterans and their families. "No matter how much we wish things could be different, we can't change the past," she told them. From the Vietnam War, she said, "we learned one important thing - not to blame the soldiers."
In defense of a mission that he saw as noble, Ziolkowski once asked his mother about Iraq: "How would you like to live under communism?"
Recalling this, Miller paused and thought about it again, as she had when her son first asked it. No mother can defend Saddam Hussein's brutal reign, not even the pacifist mother of a dead Marine.
"I'm glad they can vote now," she said. "But was it worth Nick?"
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