Special thanks today to Marlene Phillips who wrote the post called Families Of Fallen Soldiers Sound Off On McCain-Palin on The Huffington Post today. Also, special thanks to my friends Jeff, Tracy, Sue, Gilda and Jane who offered their insight to what it feels like to be a Gold Star Family member, someone whose loved one died while in service to the country and our thoughts about the Republican ticket for this presidential campaign. I appreciate that Marlene let me add my $.02, as well. And finally, here's to Ken, Seth, Alex, Evan, Nick, Jesse and nearly 5000 US troops who have died in Iraq & Afghanistan. We will not let them be forgotten; I hope you will help us in that effort.
After reading my last blog post, Jeff from Arizona asked if I would be interested in interviewing Gold Star Families from across the country, that is, families who have lost sons and daughters fighting in Iraq. My sincere thanks to all those who volunteered to be interviewed. These people have a lot to say. They hope America will hear them.
Jane wasn't raised in a political household in Southern California; she describes it simply as a "military family." She lost her 24-year-old son Evan in July, 2003, when he was killed in action on the perimeter of an oil field. She described Evan as "a beautiful man with a wonderful sense of humor who had a passion for music," and recalled "his way of focusing on an individual, of making them feel as though his world revolved around them. This is the thing everyone will remember about him, the fact that he made such an indelible impression on everyone who met him." Evan, she said, "was everyone's best friend. Many of the people who have spoken of him, whether from school, sports or the Army have referred to Evan as their best friend. He was a gifted musician, a gifted student, he adored his little brother, and loved his wife and family deeply." Jane is following the current presidential race closely, and for her it's not just politics as usual. It's personal. She will vote Democratic although she expressed qualms about the Obama/Biden ticket, citing Biden's support of the war in Iraq. But those qualms are minor compared to how she feels about the Republican ticket.
"John McCain and Sarah Palin are scary people," Sue said emphatically. "I believe they will make sure our Constitution is lost forever." The thought of seeing another Republican in the White House terrifies her and makes her angry. "When is America going to wake up to the fact that our economy has been shattered by the cost of the occupation of Iraq? We are allowing our young men and women to be killed off in an illegal war, we've given up our privacy and other basic freedoms and our planet will not be inhabitable by future generations. In 8 short years the Republican party has completed the destruction of our democracy."
Tracy is an academic adviser for a state university in Maryland. When asked to describe her son Nick, she replied, "Nick was incredibly charismatic. He always had friends around him, partly because he was always looking out for the underdog." Nick wanted to be a Marine "from the time he was in middle school" and he died as a Marine in the battle of Fallujah. "A sniper," she said, "he was shot in the head and killed by a sniper." After the death of her son, Tracy decided to run for office, partly "as a way to make the world a better place, as Nick was trying to do." She's always voted ("those who don't vote have no right to complain"), and while not always voting Democratic, this year she supports the Democratic presidential candidate "fervently." Like Jane, Tracy sees the link between our economic troubles and the war in Iraq: "We have spent so much money we don't have on this war that we have completely ruined the US economy as well as that of most of the rest of the world." Tracy described why she supports Barack Obama, saying, " he's very quick and intelligent. He has a good grasp of the issues and an ability to find the nugget of truth. I think some of his ideas may seem pie-in-the sky, but I think if we aim very high we will reach farther than if we just aim for what we know we can accomplish." In contrast, she considers John McCain "bumbling and incompetent" and when asked if she had serious concerns about any of the four candidates acting as Commander in Chief, she replied succinctly, "You bet: Palin first. McCain second."
A business owner in New York, Sue recalls her son Seth as "a kind, warm-hearted individual. His love was his family, his mustang and people." What made her laugh the most was "how rough and tumble he could be, but always done with a smirk on his face: he was mischievous." But the one thing everyone will remember about Seth, Sue said, "is simple: he never left you without saying 'I Love You.' Those were his last words, on the last call home." Seth was killed in Iraq in 2004, on what Sue referred to as "a suicide mission, " and she remembers what he told her before returning to Iraq for the last time. "Seth said, 'Mom, we will never win this war. The people do not want us there.'" While admitting she hasn't always voted, like Tracy and Jane, Sue says she's following this presidential campaign very closely. She spoke approvingly of Obama ("I like his war stance, and his philosophy on economics.") but had nothing good to say about the Republican ticket, especially John McCain. "He's Bush again," Sue said with disgust, adding, "what has McCain done so far for the veterans except take benefits away from them:?" Sue called Palin "a joke that I hope the American people will not fall into, especially the women who originally supported Clinton. That would be a mistake; she is not Hillary." She thinks Palin was picked because McCain "needed a women to do all the dirty work for him," adding, "she's a little lady that knows nothing but thinks she knows everything." Come November, Sue will be voting for Obama.
A commercial airline pilot, Jeff spent 21 years as a fighter pilot with the United States Air Force, and his family has a rich military history: "I had nine aunts and uncles; all but three served in WWII. My aunt and my grandmother were 'Rose the Riveters,' building B-17s at the Boeing facility in Wichita Kansas." His son loved to cook, "Jesse started cooking at age nine!" Jeff recalled, and he wanted to follow in his father's military footsteps, joining the junior ROTC in middle school. Although diagnosed with leukemia, Jesse still "dreamed of becoming a soldier," and was serving in Balad, Iraq, as a driver with the Army Reserve when he suffered a relapse. He died in Arizona in 2007. Already active politically, the loss of his son strengthened Jeff's resolve to "work for candidates that are best for the community and country." Jeff is a strong backer of Barack Obama, calling him "inspiring. Obama seems to represent the values that will help bring out the best of the county." But Jeff reserves his strongest words for Sarah Palin, and they were not complimentary. "Palin is very inexperienced. Examining her resume you will find a blank slate. No job experience at all." And the decorated fighter pilot added, "The thought that she could very easily be the one who will send our sons and daughters to fight more failing military-backed foreign relations, it chills me. Considering her complete lack of experience, that would be worse than having a bartender run my airline."
Karen also comes from a military family; she was a "Military brat" and now describes herself as "a proud Gold Star Mom." Her son, Ken, was a 4th generation Army officer, and he was Karen's only child. Having raised him by herself from the time he was 10 months old, Karen movingly called Ken "my grounding, my north star." Karen recalled her son's "great sense of humor. He lit up a room whenever he entered; people always knew they were in for adventure when he was around." She said Ken loved music, "any kind of music, as long as it was loud - metal, country, opera, classical, rock and roll. He often played music full blast from his Abrams tank as they patrolled the streets of Iraq. His guys told me it was like being in a movie." The two were very close, said Karen: "I made sure Ken knew how much he was loved and he made me feel the same." Ken was 26 when he died in 2004. "We were told Ken was killed by small arms fire," Karen said. "But 15 months after Ken was killed, the Army came to my house to tell me that Ken had not died the way they told me. In fact, he was killed by the accidental discharge of the unmanned M240 machine gun on his tank when it brushed against a tree branch as the tank was maneuvering the streets to return to their camp." This year Karen is more than just interested in the presidential campaign, saying honestly, "I am obsessed with it. The results of the 2000 election put into place policies that would cost me the life of my son."
Karen is unequivocal on the importance of this campaign, stating, "This election is life and death to me." Like Jane, Karen voiced some concerns about Barack Obama, saying he's "too close to the center" for her, but added, "I think he will collaborate more than others and certainly give the world a better face of America." When asked her opinion of John McCain, Karen checked off the reasons she disliked him: "3rd Bush term, intolerant, hawk, disrespectful of Vets, particularly this current generation of Veterans. In many ways he will be more destructive than Bush." And Sarah Palin? "Pistol packing, moose hunting, anti-choice, anti-women's issues, anti-environment, disrespectful, mean, power abusing, fundamentalist religious fanatic. She is Cheney and Bush in a dress. Need I continue?" Like the others interviewed, Karen described the idea of Palin as Commander in Chief as "frightening. It frightens me both for our country and our military. Her shoot from the hip attitude, lack of any depth of foreign policy experience or even curiosity ,and her heavy reliance on wisdom from God, rather than experts and empirical evidence, scares me." Karen has always voted, and so did her son, adding: "Because Ken felt voting was a responsibility and a privilege, he even voted from Iraq." And with so much on the line she's not just voting for Obama, she said, she's working to get him elected.
Gilda is a school teacher in Maryland. Like Karen, Gilda lost her only child in Iraq, in an explosion in Al Anbar province. Alex was 28, recently married, and on his second deployment; Gilda said when looking at photos of that second deployment she could clearly see "the sheer sense of responsibility that weighed on my son. He would not have gone if he'd had a choice but he knew he had a job to do and he was not going to shirk his responsibility." She recalls how much Alex loved to play the guitar, and how "he would gather his friends here at the house for jam sessions, and everyone would end up at our table for dinner afterward. Our house was often filled with the laughter and music of these childhood friends of my son." With heartbreaking candor, Gilda continues, "His father and I have not begun to cope with this void in our lives. It's been impossible to come anywhere close to accepting that he lies across the river buried in Arlington cemetery, and for reasons that we have not come to grips with." Gilda has channeled her grief and anger into this presidential campaign, with her major issues being, "the war in Iraq and benefits for Iraq Vets, and bringing our country back on the right course." Originally a Hillary Clinton supporter, she says Barack Obama "inspires me, his words make me think that in all this darkness we have lived, that in all this suffering we have experienced, there is a hope for the future of this country of ours." Obama, she continues, "would be able to lead the country out of the disaster of the last 8 years, the so-called 'Bush Doctrine,'" and Gilda's a strong supporter of his running mate, saying "Joe Biden could very well serve as President if need be. He strikes me as sincere and genuine, a man who has experienced tremendous personal loss who does not use it to make points, a man who has the empathy, intelligence and experience to fill in as President." With an obvious reference to Sarah Palin, Gilda added: "THAT is how a vp candidate has to be regarded." She calls the Palin selection "the most appalling, disingenuous political event I have ever witnessed in my life," adding, "I am in tremendous fear of someone as unreflective and plainly incompetent as Sarah Palin becoming our Commander in Chief."
But she had even harsher words for Palin's running mate. "What sort of character can a man possess who is willing to back pedal on so many important issues simply to fit the Republican party line and gain the office of president? Then there is the other nagging problem that this man is not fit to be president; a man with a fuse that can be blown with so little provocation has no business in the position of 'leader of the free world.' A man who would banter about bombing another country cannot ever be allowed in this position of such power. A man whose judgment in picking a vice presidential candidate solely for her ability to draw votes to his sagging popularity shows his incompetence as a leader, let alone anyone with military experience. It will be a dark day for our country if McCain is elected." Gilda lashed out at McCain's treatment of veterans: "McCain clearly is not a man of his word. Here is a veteran, a POW, who has voted against veterans benefits, cynically explaining that if you give them too many benefits they're going to leave the military. It is no mystery why so many military contributions go to Obama." Like the other families interviewed, Gilda's choice for president is influenced by her own loss. "For my family, this election has tremendous meaning. We lost our son, in essence, because the candidate that was chosen for us by the Supreme Court in 2000 was an incompetent."
Gilda added one last comment. "The American people are again faced with another opportunity to make their voices heard," she said. "Let us hope they reflect on whom they choose to lead the world."