They have never met but they have much in common. All three are Bel Air residents with family members who joined the Marines and went to wars, from Vietnam to Iraq. And all lost a 21-year-old son in combat.
Their paths didn't cross before now, but Virginia Schafer, Michael Adle and Martina Burger are connected by the deaths of their sons and their simultaneous efforts to work through their grief. They also share the desire to see that the memory of their fallen soldiers is honored and, to that end, are taking part in a Memorial Day service tomorrow in Bel Air.
"Memorial Day is the day millions of people gather to honor our fallen soldiers," said Adle, who is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the ceremony. "I think it's important to have people with firsthand experience be there."
As they try to cope with their loss, the parents have found comfort in reaching out to others experiencing pain, each in a different way: Schafer phones local parents of soldiers who have been killed, offering her support; Adle delivers speeches at schools and to civic organizations; and Burger volunteers at a veterans hospital.
"I know that nothing I do will bring my son back," Burger said. "But I can still do things to show I support those who do come back from war."
Other parents, in addition to Adle, may address the crowd at the ceremony, which is being organized by the American Legion Harford Post 39 in Bel Air and is set for 11 a.m. at the band shell in Shamrock Park.
Their stories seem to epitomize the spirit of the day, honoring the memory of brave soldiers cut down in combat while serving their country.
Schafer's son, Gary, was a member of the 3rd Marine Division and died Sept. 21, 1967, in Quang Tri Province in Vietnam during a fierce ground battle. Although almost four decades have passed, Virginia Schafer, 82, said the pain persists.
"It never gets better, it never feels like it will be OK," she said. "Because it won't."
In the spring of 1967, a week before her son was killed, Schafer visited him in Hawaii, where he was on leave. As they said their goodbyes, she recalled, Gary put his hands on her shoulders and said: "Mom, you shouldn't love me so much, a lot of people are getting killed over there."
He wrote letters to his mother weekly. She still has every letter he wrote.
"They are stashed away upstairs in the attic in a cedar box," she said. "I can't bear to even see them. Some of them are scribbled on pieces of paper he tore off rations containers."
The letters continued until two Marines showed up at her door.
"I just fell to pieces," she said. "I made them move their car into another driveway as if the car being gone would make it all go away."
She said she was angry at the world in general and God in particular and stopped going to her church.
"People told me when my son left to Vietnam to pray for him and God would look out for him," she said. "When he was killed, I was angry."
About three months later, she made her way back to church.
"The very verse I read and prayed every night for my son, was the verse they read the day I returned," she said. "They had no idea either, and I just thought that was so strange."
Schafer hasn't yet spoken about her son's death in front of a group, but she's found a more personal way of reaching out, calling the families of soldiers who have died.
"Because unless you have lost a child, you can't understand how it feels," she said. "I don't do things publicly, but I can do it privately."
Although each call dredges up the pain of her son's death, she feels she need to make the calls anyway.
"I cry for all our boys," she said. "It upsets me to even be at the memorial services, but I have to go and lay a wreath for my son. I have to honor him."
For Michael Adle, taking part in the Memorial Day ceremony provides a welcome opportunity to laud the good works his son had been doing in Iraq.
Patrick Adle, a member of the 6th Engineer Support Battalion, was killed June 29, 2004, in an explosion triggered by a roadside bomb in Iraq.
"Every day to me is Memorial Day," said Michael Adle. "It doesn't get any easier. I don't know yet what I am going to say at the service, but I am very proud that my son served his country."
When he heard his son had been killed, Adle was devastated, but also felt pride because his son believed in the cause.
"You have to have been there, or talked to the people to understand, but we are making a difference over there," said Michael Adle. "Patrick died defending freedom. It was what was right for him. I don't think he died in vain."
Even before her son was killed, Martina Burger, 48, had felt the pain of war. In 1969 at age 19, her husband, Dale Burger Sr., lost his arm in combat in Vietnam and spent the next three decades suffering from complications of the injury. He underwent multiple operations and was in and out of the Perry Point Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Cecil County before he died there May 23, 2004.
Shortly after his father's funeral, Dale Burger Jr. told his mother that if anything happened to him in Iraq, he wanted to be buried near his father. The day before the younger Burger was killed, he called his mother from a hospital where he had been healing from a shrapnel wound. He told her that he was fine and was returning to his squad. That was to be the last time she heard from him.
Burger, a member of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, was killed Nov. 14, 2004, in Fallujah after he entered a building to help injured Marines and was shot by a sniper.
"I couldn't believe he was gone," Martina Burger said. "It felt like my heart had been ripped out. But it was his calling in life, just like it was his father's calling. He was so proud of what he was doing. He told me men, women and children came to them and hugged them and thanked them for his help."
For more than a year after her son's death, Martina Burger said she withdrew and became depressed. It was her son's outlook that helped bring her back.
"He never would have wanted me to quit, and here I was being a quitter," she said.
Being familiar with the VA center, Burger decided that she could help other people there who had been injured or forgotten.
"There are so many people in the VA center that no one visits or cares about," she said. "So I want to go and take them cookies and baked goods and just talk to them and let them know that someone cares. It isn't nearly enough, but it's something I can do to show veterans my appreciation for their sacrifices."
A Memorial Day service last year served to strengthen her feelings about supporting the troops.
"One mother at the event was starting a rally against war, another was starting a support group," she said. "I just wanted to say, 'What good does it do to protest a war?' We need to support the men in Iraq and the ones who are back home healing from wounds."
In March, her son received a Silver Star posthumously and a building was named for him at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"It makes me feel good to know my son is being remembered," she said. "As long as that building is there, people will know who he was. A young man who gave his life so other people could have freedom."
Memorial Day ceremonies
American Legion Post 128, in conjunction with VFW Post 10028 and the Catholic War Veterans, will hold a ceremony at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Veteran's Park, Parke and Rogers streets. A luncheon will be served at the VFW Hall at 821 Old Philadelphia Road in Aberdeen.
American Legion Harford Post 39 in Bel Air will hold a ceremony at 11 a.m. tomorrow at the band shell in Shamrock Park, Hickory Avenue and Lee Way in Bel Air.
American Legion Post 17 will hold a ceremony at 9 a.m. tomorrow at the Edgewood Arsenal. Anyone interested in attending should meet at the Post 17 hall at 415 Edgewood Road. A bus will take participants to the site. People who would like to drive their own vehicle must bring photo ID to get into the arsenal. A luncheon will be served at the hall after the ceremony.
Havre de Grace
American Legion Post 47 will hold a ceremony at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Millard E. Tydings Park on Commerce Street in Havre de Grace. A luncheon will follow at the Post 47 hall at 501 St. John St.
All of the events and luncheons are free and open to the public.