Mothers united in grief

But some families of soldiers killed in Iraq are split on war


Dolores Kesterson with the ashes of her son, Erik, in her Santa Clara, Calif., home on Dec. 29. As the number of American troops killed in Iraq has risen above 1,300, mothers of the dead have built a grim community of their own.

PETER DASILVA/The New York Times
Published: Sunday, January 2, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 1, 2005 at 10:35 p.m.
They have met on the Internet and on cross-country road trips. But mostly they find one another at the funerals.
As the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq has risen above 1,300, mothers of the dead have built a grim community of their own, mostly invisible to outsiders and separated by geography, but bound together by death. Some have met in pews, recognizing each other from newspaper photographs or with the simplest introduction: I lost my son, too.
"My closest friends now are three other mothers I have met who lost their sons," said Cindy Sheehan of Vacaville, Calif., whose son, Spc. Casey Sheehan, died in an ambush on April 4. "I feel closer to them, even the ones who live far away, than I do to the people I have known for years. I feel closer to them than to the people who knew Casey. Us moms are really the only ones who know what we're going through."
In this network linked by sorrow and empathy, however, one issue divides them: the wisdom of the war.
Relatives who believe the war in Iraq was necessary tend to gravitate toward one another, talking little of politics and more of pride, sacrifice and loneliness. And those like Cindy Sheehan, who questioned the need to invade Iraq, find one another too, wrestling with their doubts about the war and the meaning of their losses.
People on each side say they respect those on the other. Still, flashes of tension have crept up at small gatherings and group interviews, and even after condolence sessions with President Bush.
This fall, on a conference call of mothers who shared their experiences for a book project ("A Mother's Tears: Mothers Remember Their Sons Lost in Iraq," by Elliot Michael Gold) several hung up in anger after disagreeing about whether the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had made the war in Iraq necessary.
And this summer, one mother, Nancy Walker of Lancaster, Calif., said she found herself awkwardly starting to describe why she believed the war was wrong at her first dinner meeting with a couple in Iowa, whose Marine son had died the same day as her own and whom she had driven many miles to see. Clearly, she said, the couple did not agree.
"I think what I told her was, 'Let's not go there with the politics,' " said Nelson Carman, the father from Jefferson, Iowa, a farming town of 4,500, who met with Walker that day. "I do believe firmly in this war. Those terrorists are going to bring the war to us. They hate you. They hate me. They hate our life. They hate what we stand for.
"To bring politics into our son's sacrifice is just something that is not conceivable to me," Carman said, adding that he felt a special sorrow for those families who felt as Walker did. Coping with death of a child, he said, was challenge enough. "If you have another set of issues, especially political, that you're dealing with, that's just another hurdle you have to get over," he said.
Once again, with the war in Iraq, the question at the heart of the divisions between families is fundamental: Was their loss for a noble cause, or might it have been in vain? For some, even posing the question diminishes and disrespects their soldier's service to the country. For others, it is a terrifying question to ponder, but one they say they cannot shake.
Karen Hilsendager, of Philomath, Ore., said she found herself struggling with her doubts about the war and what they meant for the death of her son, Spc. Eric S. McKinley, who was killed in June. Hilsendager said she was irked by a comment people often made about her son. "They tell me: 'Thank you so much for his service. He's a hero,' " she said. "And I want to say back, 'He's not a hero, he's a victim.' "
At another Oregon soldier's funeral this summer, Hilsendager met a mother whose son had also died - and who also opposed the war. The two women live two hours apart, but they have since shared phone calls, lunch, and e-mail exchanges.
Hilsendager said they had leaned on each other, exchanging stories of their sons' quirks and wondering what their sons would think of their friendship. "And we talk about how mad we are about Bush, and why we're there," she said, "We really have a common thing."
Hilsendager said her feelings against the war were no blemish on her son, his service or his memory. "My son was following orders, and I'm proud of him for doing that," she said. "But I am not proud of the administration that sent them. They did it wrong. They should not have gone over there yet. I'm not saying never, but not this way."
Not far away, in Independence, Ore., M.J. and Clay Kesterson say they stand firmly and proudly behind the war that killed Warrant Officer Erik C. Kesterson, Clay Kesterson's son and M.J. Kesterson's stepson.
Since his death in a Black Hawk helicopter crash in November 2003, the Kestersons said they had grown close to numerous other families of Oregon soldiers who died. They have been to some 20 funerals.
"When you lose somebody in these circumstances, others who have been through it immediately know what the feelings are, and what the pride is, and what the emptiness is," M.J. Kesterson said. "We understand and we want to let the other families know that we're in support. Every single soldier with a uniform on was doing something for his country."
Many said seeking out other families was not an option, but a necessity. Their new bonds became their only solace over months, they said. These were the only people who could really understand the dizzying memory of those first uniforms at the front door, the tears that might come at any time, the sons who reappeared in dreams, the emptiness of the holidays.
Karen Fisher, the widow of Sgt. Paul Fisher, who died when his Chinook helicopter was attacked more than a year ago, said she tried formal support groups in her area, but little she heard seemed to apply. The group for relatives of those who had died of cancer or disease did not fit, nor did the one for those of murder victims. Some of the widows of Sept. 11 began including Fisher, who lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in their e-mail messages, sending her words of wisdom and guidance.
Fisher said she had grown closest to other wives of Iowa soldiers, particularly one woman whose husband died in the same incident as her own. Most of their talk, she said, is about small things, not war or politics, just making their way through the days.
"We call each other if one of us is going on a vacation or buying something new," she said.
"That's the kind of thing that happens in this: You're afraid to sell anything or to buy anything new because what will people say? Or I call if I had a good day because part of me isn't sure if that's right. Sometimes you feel guilty even for having a good day.
"I guess I call," she said, "to see if she's doing what I'm doing." Rarely, if ever, Fisher said, do she and her friend talk about the necessity of the war and the political forces behind it.
"That is not a road I want to go down," she said.

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