Day has new meaning for fallen soldiers' kin


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 veteran."

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 grave.

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 said.

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.

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