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For families of the fallen, fighting’s not over

Hundreds of American families are still fighting the war in Afghanistan. But they’re fighting it at home.

Fighting to remember, fighting to forget. Fighting to understand how to move forward in a world without their war hero.

When an American parent dies in war, the grieving at home is a far more complex process than the flag-draped caskets and graveside salutes that the rest of the United States sees.

Children spend their lives with the ghost of that parent alongside them. They will win basketball games, bury guinea pigs, break up with girlfriends, learn to drive, go to prom and graduate without that parent there.

The Washington Post recently profiled the children of 14 of these families — one for every year of the longest war in U.S. history, a conflict that claimed the lives of 2,351 service members. The impact on their children is stark, a human toll that is rarely mentioned in the budget, policy and political debates on going to war.

But as all the reporters who worked on this project found, the mothers — and, in some cases, fathers — left behind are also navigating a strange world fraught with challenge.

They struggle with keeping memories alive, making sure their children don’t forget. Their homes have walls of honor, with medals encased in glass, and military portraits, coming-home snapshots and always that last goodbye photo. But they also try to be careful not to make the death a gaping hole in every milestone.

“How do we weave who that person was into the fabric of the people we become,” is a question most of the surviving family members who come to TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, ask, said Bonnie Carroll, a military widow and founder and president of the national support group based in Arlington. “It is focusing on the living legacy.”

A military death is also a public death. The families are in the paper, the funeral processions are on Main Street in small home towns and there is always a photo of that folded flag into a tight triangle.

The military community is well versed in the ritual of loss. And a war-zone death is not really comparable to a random car crash or a sudden heart attack, said Stephen Cozza, who is conducting a major study on the uniqueness of military family bereavement.

“Combat death is a little different,” said Cozza, who is following hundreds of families through the grieving process, from the psychological to the physiological parts. “There is a certain awareness of the risk associated with that.”

In other words, these families always know that every goodbye may be the last, so they can give those moments the weight they deserve.

It doesn’t make losing a spouse or parent easier, just different.

“What we have found is that a lot of the family members will talk about the pride that they have, the sense that there is some meaning to the death,” said Cozza, a retired army colonel who is associate director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress and director of the Child and Family program. “To die in a meaningless way, an accident, a terrorist act or in an unjust way, like a homicide at the hands of someone else, there is a feeling that something has been stolen from them.”

In combat deaths, “there is a great pain, but there is a meaning.”

Moving forward can be very hard. Unless there are deeper roots in the armed services, many survivors eventually move off the base and away from the military support structure, starting over again in home towns.

And that’s the bifurcated part of military grieving that Carroll often talks about. There is that public part of the death, the military honors, the flags. But then there is the part of grieving the person they knew at home and out of uniform.

And every step forward is a step away from the past, and that can be saddled with guilt and doubt.

“There’s a conflict,” Cozza said. “'How do I continue to honor that person, but at the same time, move on with my life?’”

That dynamic extends to dating and remarrying.

I saw that in all my interactions with families of the fallen. One widow wasn’t returning my calls and kept ducking our interview times. She finally explained that her boyfriend was around.

“He’s really good with everything. It’s just that, sometimes it’s a bit much,” she explained. Imagine trying to step into the shoes of someone who isn’t just gone but considered a war hero.

I accidentally contacted one widower while he was on his honeymoon in Hawaii. “I’m really sorry, I just don’t think it’s the right time,” he explained, conflicted about starting his life with his new love while being asked to honor the life of his first love.

I asked one teen, Andrew Gutierrez, who lost his father on Christmas Day in 2009, about his upcoming high school graduation without his dad there. The 17-year-old mentioned his mother’s boyfriend.

“I’m sad my dad won’t see it,” he said. “But Joe’s going to be there.”

Of course. And that’s a blessing, too.

© 2015, The Washington Post