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October 20, 2005

'Do You Think He's Dead, Mom?'


by Dr. Teresa Whitehurst

The call came late at night. My youngest child called from college, her trademark perky voice suddenly tense, halting.

"I haven't heard from D. since last Tuesday. When I talked to him, he said he couldn't say much over the phone anymore, or on e-mail. He sounded strange, like something was wrong, but he wouldn't tell me what was up. I thought maybe he was just depressed – he's depressed all the time now, and isn't allowed to tell me where he's being sent or how he's being used – but he hasn't answered any of my e-mails, which he always does. So I wondered if you could – do you think he's dead, Mom?"

The phone went silent. I visualized her, sitting on her dorm bed, trying not to cry. She's a girl who doesn't like to cry. She's always been that way. Even in preschool, for some reason she just didn't like to "give in" to tears. So I knew that she was really hurting.

I heard a sniffle on the other end of the phone, and then she said quickly, "A lot of soldiers got killed this last week in Iraq. I know you've found some Web site where you can find out what their names are. I was wondering, could you check for me?"

"Sure, I'll do it right away. I'll call you back, Honey."

I went to the DoD Web site, the one that publishes the list of all the American kids killed for George W. Bush's "noble cause."

As I was looking at the Web page, I remembered the last time I saw that boy, a charming kid whose family had endured much tragedy and poverty, yet managed to raise a polite, kind child. I remember him hugging my daughter good-bye before being shipped off to the killing streets of Iraq. He was tall and muscular, with dark brown skin and gleaming white teeth. He always called me "ma'am," and would do anything for us.

The .pdf file was just a bunch of numbers. Sorry, but it's true. Politicians love numbers; they can argue that there aren't enough dead kids to worry about, or that there are too many. Pollsters and strategists will dicker about how many military casualties the American public "will tolerate."

But anyone who's felt that fear about someone they love in Iraq knows that numbers aren't want you're looking for. What you want is names. There is one person in all of Iraq, and that's the face that's smiling back at you in an old photo, there in your mind's eye. A face that suddenly, in brief lightning flashes of a terror Mr. and Mrs. Bush know nothing about, is being zipped into a shiny black body bag.

But that's when you have to gather your wits together. You've got to steel yourself for what you might see. You need a cup of coffee, then check those names. Check for one name. THE name.

Then I found the page that lists the names of the soldiers killed this week – yesterday included – but it's a nerve-wracking experience because you have to click onto each link titled only, "DoD Identifies Army Casualty."

Holding my breath, I clicked on the first noble-cause casualty. No, that lad, at 22, was a year older than the boy I was looking for, and he was killed in Afghanistan, not Iraq. But I imagine how it feels to those who love him to read the feel-good message atop his name:

"The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom."

I clicked onto the next one. No, this youth was in the Marines, not the Army. The noble-cause mantra above his name reads:

"The Department of Defense announced today the death of a Marine who was supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom."

And so it went. Many clicks and much anger and sorrow at all the wasted young lives later, I called my daughter to tell her the good news: I hadn't seen the name of her friend yet.

What I didn't add was the bad news: that, until Americans stop supporting "the war president," I will have to use the word "yet."


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Dr. Teresa Whitehurst is a clinical psychologist, author of Jesus on Parenting(2004) and coauthor of The Nonviolent Christian Parent (2004). She offers parenting workshops, holds discussion groups on Nonviolent Christianity, and writes the column, "Democracy, Faith and Values: Because You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Just One." Visit her website.

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