After the military ceremony, after the body comes home quietly, unseen by most of the world, after the remains forever join the earth — that’s when the suffering surfaces in ways too cruel for most of us to imagine.
I wrote in my last entry about the wretched July days of 2005 when the Army National Guard brigade I was embedded with lost eight men within a week. In al, 11 died in 11 days. Before that ugly summer finally turned cooler, more young Georgia men gave their lives in Iraq.
I covered so many of those memorials. Editors encouraged new ways to tell tales of grief. They worried the stories were all starting to sound the same. Stale.
The public salutes its heroes, then promptly goes back to leading their own lives leaving mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters to carry their pain in solitude. At a kitchen table at sunrise. On a long drive down a snaking country road, tall pines whispering in the night. At picnics. At shopping malls. In offices. The loss is always there.
So are lingering questions. How did he die? Did he suffer? Was it quick? Who was with him when he took his final breath? And the more difficult questions: Why?
Over the years, I have become acquainted with soldier families who suffered this acute loss. From mothers who cannot accept their only child will never return home to fathers who are adamant that their son’s death was not in vain. I spent hours with them, getting to know the intricacies of lives that are twisted and mangled forever.
I spoke with Jeff Brunson yesterday. He is the father of one of the four soldiers who died when I first arrived at Camp Striker on that blazing July day in 2005. I’ve written several times about Jeff for the newspaper –I followed him when he went to see Gus’s portrait at the Museum of Patriotism. Jeff looked into his son’s piercing blue eyes and wiped tears that fell from his own. I stood with Jeff in a Snellville drizzle and watched how among anti-war protesters, he stood proud and self-assured that his son did the right thing for his country.
I am not sure why, but Jeff and I keep in touch. He is a humble man of modest means. He volunteers at the botanical gardens in Athens and sells produce to make a living. He told me he sold 250 watermelons and 100 cantaloupes on July 4.
I visited Jeff once at his house in Bogart. We sat outside, drank sweet tea and talked about everything but Gus. But I could tell his son was there, in every word, every thought. When I got up to leave, he grabbed my arm and asked me what I knew.
In that awkward moment, I did not know what to say. I did not know if he knew details, though I suspected he did. He told me the military advised him not to open the coffin.
Jeff’s son’s battalion is now in Afghanistan. I wonder if Gus would still be a citizen soldier had he survived Iraq. But mostly, I wonder how Jeff Brunson musters the strength to carry on. And whether that awful weight of sadness will ever be lifted. Whether he will ever smile again the way he did in a treasured photo he showed me of father and son. Together.