The Lives Left Behind

Before he went off to Afghanistan in late 2001, Phil Svitak, a sergeant from Fort Campbell, Ky., had a talk with his wife about what would happen if he were killed. An officer in dress greens would deliver the news in person, he said; there would be a chaplain, and because Svitak belonged to an elite unit, the "Night Stalkers," which provides air support to Special Ops forces, she could specify a friend to accompany them. I have a better idea, his wife, Laura, replied: just get yourself home alive. On a March morning last year, she was driving to work when the radio reported that a Chinook helicopter had crash-landed in Afghanistan while searching for a downed flier, and instantly her eyes filled with tears. All day long and into the evening, she kept to her routine, while the Army's elaborate bureaucracy for processing combat deaths clanked into motion half a world away. Her two young sons were asleep and she was in the bedroom when the doorbell rang at a quarter past 10. She hurried downstairs and saw at the door the solemn officer in a crisp uniform, the friend, the chaplain, all exactly as they had discussed. It was about the last time anything in her life had gone according to plan.

Svitak died under fire in the front lines of the war on terror, in a place where, until a few years ago, the American Army seemed unlikely ever to set foot. But in the two years since 9/11 the front lines have spread over much of the globe, and the casualties have ranged from seasoned combat troops to rear-echelon reservists, U.N. relief workers, students traveling abroad and children on buses. Americans have died in friendly-fire accidents in Afghanistan and from a grenade attack in Kuwait in which a G.I. has been charged with murder; they have been ambushed on the streets of Baghdad and while hiking in the Philippines, and they have been shredded in terror bombings in Bali, Riyadh and Jerusalem. Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal reporter, was beheaded in Pakistan by Islamic extremists; journalists Michael Kelly and David Bloom died while covering the fighting in Iraq. Among them, they have left behind thousands of grieving spouses, children and parents, whose very existence raises the question of what society owes to the victims of this shadowy and protracted war--and about the wisdom guiding the course of the struggle.

No one, least of all a military parent or wife, wants to believe that a loved one died in vain, and to a man and woman, survivors take a somber pride in their sacrifice. "We've come across a few who are diametrically opposed to the president's war, but even they have this feeling of, 'This is America and we're proud of what our daughter did for her country'," says Brian Bauman, head of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a privately funded organization of military families. The experience of losing a child or spouse hasn't changed many people's opinion about the war, but it has made some more outspoken about their feelings. One is John Adams, whose son, Lt. Thomas Adams, was the first Navy officer to die in the war in Iraq. Last week, for the first time in public, he expressed his doubts about the war to NEWSWEEK. "I'm not at all happy with what our leaders are doing over there," said Adams, a La Mesa, Calif., architect. "There has to be a paradigm shift among our leaders, or else it's going to be a real mess."

As a symbol of the cause in which Phil and so many others died, Laura Svitak has hung prints of the World Trade Center before and after the attack, "the event that changed our lives." She moved with her sons, Ethan, 6, and Nolan, 3, to Littleton, Colo., from Fort Campbell, where the clatter of helicopters overhead had become unbearable. For her boys' education, she stashed away as much as she could afford of Phil's standard military $250,000 life-insurance benefit. The pictures of the Twin Towers are also a reminder that if Phil had been killed aboard a hijacked airliner instead of a Chinook, she would have been eligible for $1 million or more from the federal fund set up specifically for 9/11 victims. "I do feel somewhat forgotten," she says, without rancor. "People donate money to help victims, and I'm one of those victims."

Many lives were changed by the attacks of 9/11, often in the same way, with a snatch of overheard news, a doorbell in the night. Mayra Orozco, whose husband, Osbaldo, was a lieutenant in the 22d Infantry, was chatting with her mother on her cell phone when suddenly the line went quiet. "She starts saying, 'Oh my God, there's a white government car outside the house'." She lived the next several days in a fog, which began lifting only the day of the funeral, when his brother showed her a collage of photographs of the handsome, charismatic high-school football star. "I looked at the pictures of me and him together and thought, 'Wow, this is it.' And then they lowered his casket into the ground."

Tekla Addison was watching CNN when news came of an ambush in Iraq; a few minutes later the unit was identified as the 507th Maintenance--her husband's unit. The chest pains she'd felt since the start of the war suddenly intensified, and she headed for the emergency room, where a couple of soft-spoken young men soon arrived with a message that had to be delivered in person. Jamaal Addison--a long-lost high-school boyfriend who had tracked her down on the Internet for a whirlwind courtship and proposal--was missing in action. Tekla held onto that word "missing," although every military wife knows it's usually a euphemism for "we're still looking for the body." A few days later she had a dream: Jamaal was standing over her, saying, " 'I couldn't leave without saying goodbye.' I kissed him, and he said not to worry, that he'd take care of me. The next morning, I found out he was dead."

For Jennifer McCollum, the call came in January 2002, while she was on a field visit for her job with a San Diego hospital; someone needed to talk to her at her office, right away. She hurried to her car and turned on the radio in time to hear that a KC-130 tanker had crashed in Pakistan. Her husband, Dan, was a KC-130 pilot. That night McCollum, 15 weeks pregnant, lay awake, obsessed with the thought that the shock had somehow harmed her baby; at 4 a.m. she drove to the hospital so a nurse could listen for the pitter-patter heartbeat in her belly. Now the baby who was conceived just 10 weeks before Dan's deployment is 15 months old, and the first thing he sees when he wakes up is a large picture of his father above his crib. "He said 'Daddy' before he said 'Mommy,' Jennifer says. "I guess it's because I was pointing at the picture and saying 'Daddy,' but there was nobody here pointing at me and saying, 'Mommy'."

Some other things that Dan Jr. can see around the house are the yellow stickies his father would leave with love notes for Jennifer; she has kept them just as they were, applying Scotch tape when the glue loosened. But soon they will come down; McCollum is leaving the house and moving to Florida. The mortgage, $1,775 a month, was just covered by Dan's housing allowance, which ended six months after his death; now Jennifer gets by on monthly benefits of $1,400.

By some standards, the families of active-duty military personnel are treated respectably, if not lavishly. They receive a $6,000 "death gratuity," a tax-free life-insurance benefit (generally $250,000) and a monthly stipend that starts at $948 and, depending on rank and length of service, can run to several hundred dollars more, plus approximately $217 for each dependent child. The child-support supplement is paid only until the age of 18, and the rest of the benefits are cut by a third when the spouse reaches 62, and the whole thing is accompanied by so much paperwork that some survivors either get less than they're entitled to, or panic and think they're getting nothing. "A lot of survivors are confused about what they should do and what they should get," says Joyce Raezer, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association.

While the survivors of active-duty personnel tend to be discreet about financial matters, others feel freer to vent their criticisms. Grace Lawson's husband, Clifford Lawson Jr., a retired Army veteran with 20 years of service, was one of six Americans killed in a car-bomb attack in Saudi Arabia, where he was helping to train the Saudi National Guard. Lawson's 13-year-old son, Jason, who learned of his father's death when he was called out of class to the principal's office, has been too distraught to return to school. Lawson says her husband's military pension stopped when he was killed--a possibility, Pentagon spokesmen concede, depending on which of a dizzying array of options he chose when he retired. But what irritates her most is the refusal of the Saudi government to acknowledge her husband's death by sending "even a card," although what she really wants from them is, in fact, financial help.

Like many survivors of the post-9/11 war, she is measuring her pittance against the legendary sums they believe were awarded to "those people up in New York." The 9/11 payments, whose purpose was to protect airlines and insurance companies from sinking under a jumbo-jetload of lawsuits, have inadvertently set a new standard for government beneficence. "Whatever we do for American citizens generally, we should do at least that well for [families] of American servicemen," says James P. Sterba, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame and editor of "Terrorism and International Justice." As a practical matter, it will be hard to recruit people to the military if they don't think their families will be taken care of; philosophically, civilians and military personnel alike are affected by American policy, he says, and therefore "we have a collective responsibility for all of them."

And it's a large burden, although perhaps we can make a start just by keeping the families in our thoughts and prayers as we go down the uncertain road ahead of us. If we don't have $1 million for each of them, we can at least bear in mind Jennifer McCollum's hard-won wisdom on the fate of war widows: "A lot of people say, we won't forget, we won't forget. Then six months later, they do."