'Voices of the Fallen': Reporting the Story

Catharine Skipp, Miami Bureau
Even after 27 years, it is always difficult to call a stranger to ask about their dead child or spouse. I don't know if it's harder for me now having an 18-year-old son at home but it pretty much sucks. I pray that I'll get an answering machine because getting a mother or wife on a cold call, even when some time has passed, feels like you've just punched them in the stomach. At least with a voice mail, they have some time to collect themselves before calling back, if they wish.

More often than not, the mothers cry, sometimes fathers, too. Yeah, not professional at all but I do too but usually not until I've hung up. Almost always though, we laugh as well. One mother and I laughed about her son complaining that someone ate his Golden Grahams cereal he was in the middle of during a mortar attack—milk and all. I ended up calling a grief counselor a couple of weeks ago. Saying "I'm so sorry for your loss" or some variation sounds so phony and insincere to me but I feel like you have to say something to acknowledge their sorrow. She gave me some guidance and afterwards I felt more like maybe I wasn't exacerbating their grief, at least.

I have worked on a few other projects that involved calling the families of military dead but never this many—139. Logistically, this one was made more difficult by having to mine lists of war dead and try not to duplicate any other reporters' calls. Even when I did, the families were understanding and kind.

e were asking these families to go pull out the storage boxes and go through them to help us for a story. Many times I felt like I was tearing off skin from a wound that had just started to heal. Sad mothers would call on Monday mornings after spending their weekend sorting and reading letters. It has been extremely humbling when a family has the faith to entrust me with their most sacred memories.

The number of families willing to send us their letters and e-mails surprised me. Only two people hung up on me and one of them called me later and sent letters. Two mothers had died within weeks or months of their sons. One fiancée found out about another girlfriend through the postings on a memorial site. (The fiancée offered to sell us her story of "their amazing love".) I met some wonderful parents through the calls—Tracy Miller who teaches a college course on the history of the 60s and now struggles through the Vietnam War section. Dr. Fran DiDomenicis who is so grateful for the project. And the Cliftons who are publishing a book of their son's e-mails, letters, stories and text messages unfiltered.

So much of our job is talking to people on one of the worst day of their lives and walking away unscathed. Some stories are always going to stick on you for a while so I was prepared for my tears and feeling their heartache—my son has gotten lots of hugs and kisses the past month. I wasn't at all prepared for the dreams of dead soldiers and nightmares of battles that have begun to haunt my sleep after seeing their war through their words.

Eve Conant, Washington Bureau
I don't look at lists of Iraq casualties like I used to. Before this project, when coming across the seemingly endless lists of those killed in Iraq, I would see only a sea of names, ranks, and vague, almost sanitized explanations of how these men and women were killed. Working on this project has almost turned my mind into a magnifying glass. After more than two straight months of calling mothers, wives, husbands and fathers of the fallen I can't now look at a list and not understand the magnitude of the suffering behind the black and white type. Even if the shorthand says something vague like, "killed while conducting combat operations" I know that there is so much more to the story. I know that I will probably find the phone number of that soldier or guardsman's mother or father. I know that I will start out by explaining that I'm from NEWSWEEK, and asking if they have a few moments to talk. I know that there will, in most cases, be tears and broken voices, moments where the voice on the other line tells me, "I'm sorry, I'll be fine in just a moment." Little do they know that my own eyes are welling up and I'm doing my best to stay professional and not let it show. Grief is contagious. I think at some level we all understand the depth of their loss, and part of our sorrow at hearing it is a momentary sense of having lost one of your own; I can't help imagining the loss of my own son when I speak to these parents. We humans are hardwired for empathy and reporter deadlines and fluorescent office lighting and our other phone lines ringing doesn't change any of that.

At one point I thought it was easier to call families who had lost loved ones more than two years ago, but after more calls I realized it made little difference. The pain is there and it's deep and it will never go away. There's no exit strategy from this grief. I particularly remember one mom—and the moms were the hardest for me to speak with—being a new mother myself. One of them is Shellie Starr, mother of Marine Cpl. Jeffrey B. Starr, who was killed on May 30, 2005. When I first spoke with Shellie and Brian, Jeff's parents, both were calm and composed as they told me about Jeff's time in Iraq and even about his death. Somehow, however, we got on the subject of Jeff when he was in sixth grade, when he was having a tough time at school and Shellie decided to dedicate a year to home schooling him. That memory is what made her break into sobs, surprising even herself. It was a time when mother and child had grown particularly close.

Andrew Murr, Los Angeles Bureau
A few weeks after the war started in 2003, I signed up to receive the Defense Department's e-mail notices of U.S. combat deaths. I had been reporting and writing short obituaries for the magazine, and I had an idea it might be helpful to get timely word of the passing of each soldier, sailor, Marine and airman killed in Iraq. Later, when my obituary duties ended, I decided against unsubscribing. The war and the deaths hadn't ended, and I knew the frequent reminders of the war's toll would help me keep my eye on an uncomfortable truth that much of the country then seemed anxious to forget. Today I have more than 3,000 of them saved in an Outlook folder marked "War Casualties," starting with the March 26, 2003 announcement of the death of Marine Pfc. Angel Rosa of South Portland, Maine.

Now I have a second Outlook folder, "Voices," containing e-mails from the families of the service people I contacted for this project. My job was to get in touch with families of service members who were killed in the last part of 2006. Their grief was still very fresh, and I'm frankly amazed so many folks took the calls at all. Army and Marine families greeted my calls with every possible reaction. There were long, tearful recollections and quick, sometimes embarrassed, "No thanks." Some were suspicious about NEWSWEEK's motives: Would we use the letters to push a political slant against the war? Almost every family voiced support for the war, though one former southern sheriff who'd lost a son cursed the war and the Bush administration for fully 20 minutes to me. Many were sorry they couldn't help, explaining that their loved one called since cell phones and satellite phones connected families so simply.

But many families had letters and shared them. They are an impressive lot. From e-mails dashed off after all-night patrols to longer letters to wives and loved ones, they paint pictures of the war that for immediacy and life sometimes rank with the best combat reporting. Taken together, these men and women could be described as optimistic realists. They sent home word that all was not well, but few complained and virtually all seemed convinced that they were serving in a good and worthy fight and would prevail.

The juxtaposition of family and war was heartbreaking. Major David G. Taylor Jr. flew home to the U.S. in July 2006, to be present at his son's birth. On the plane back to Iraq, he started a journal to his newborn son that he kept up until his death in October; his wife, Michelle, was kind enough to share much of it with us. Taylor told his son about his pleasure at going on patrol in Southern Baghdad with his new unit, and related darker stories about IEDs and suicide bombers. When Mrs. Taylor shipped David a picture book of their infant son, Maj. Taylor wrote, "There's nothing gentle or tender about what we do here. (That's why the book is such as nice breeze of fresh air.) Rockets hit not far away 20 minutes ago, for example."

Back home, the families' willingness to interrupt their grief to help us was amazing. Some folks ran to the Kinko's, others reduced letters they could have faxed to digital PDFs. Some typed up the handwritten letters, afraid we wouldn't decipher their loved one's scrawl. Jerry and Connie Paulsen of Deer Island, Ore., had promised to drive to town to fax me a letter that Jerry's brother Sgt. Ronald Lee Paulsen wrote them from Iraq shortly before he was killed. Then Connie e-mailed me, saying "we have a foot of snow in the driveway and don't know if we can get down the mountain...." So she and Jerry took digital photos of Ron's letter and e-mailed them, along with a photo of the 53-year-old Guardsman in his vehicle in Iraq. 

For some, the task of revisiting the letters and e-mails was too painful. One young widow explained apologetically that "I was really eager to look over all the e-mails ... but with (his) death only being 3 months ago, it was really hard for me ... it was just too soon." She wasn't alone. One mom noted in passing that she wanted to save a voice mail message from her son but couldn't bring herself to listen to it once her son had been killed.

But if there were tears, the families gave a predominant sense of strength. Most were buoyed by the conviction that their son or husband died for a worthy cause. Others drew comfort and strength from their faith in God—or the faith that their dead loved one had had. And clearly the military families drew strength from one another. Look at the Web-based memorials for fallen soldiers, and one sees a network of shared grief. A mother who lost her son writes to console the wife of another.

The following NEWSWEEK staffers contributed reporting to this project:
Dan Ephron
Eve Conant
Jonathan Mummolo
Daren Briscoe
Andy Murr
Catharine Skipp
Gretel Kovach
Sarah Childress
Jac Chebatoris
Jamie Reno
Samantha Hening
Ty Brickhouse