The Human Cost

The Human Cost

By: Jonathan Jacobson

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, May 27, 2008)

Author’s Note:

Prior to writing this story, I had almost never spent more than a week putting together a single journalistic piece. With the help of Professor Harrington, I learned just how crucial researching, compiling, drafting and editing are in putting together a serious work of journalism. The personal element in each of the story’s mini-vignettes made that work incredibly challenging for me, but also very gratifying. The story came in second place in the Brody Creative Feature Article Writing Awards in 2008.

– Jonathan Jacobson

Connie Bickers gave me simple directions to her house in St. Joseph, but the country roads in central Illinois all look the same and in the pitch black of a winter evening I get lost. I find her house when I see a memorial road sign labeled “Cory Hubbell Way.” The sign was dedicated last October by Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn in honor of Bickers’ son, who died while serving in Kuwait in 2003. He is the reason I’m here.

“Can I show you Cory’s room?” Connie asks, leading me into a space filled floor to ceiling with memorabilia from her son’s life. Awards and recognitions, his Army boots and his uniforms, an old football he tossed around in the desert signed by members of his unit, memorial quilts knitted by military mothers to honor his service, and Connie’s collection of at least 30 angels that she began assembling after Cory’s death at 20 years old.

“He was my angel,” she says, fighting back tears.

Getting to know them

They come in pairs. Always two of them to soften the blow. Sometimes they arrive early in the morning, waiting in the driveway for the first light to come on in the house.

Two young soldiers, hair cropped tight against their skin. They have appeared at nearly 4,000 homes across America in this way to tell families that a son or daughter will not be returning home from the Iraq war.

So many dead, many of them about my age, 22. Yet I know not a single one of them, not a single family member who has lost a child. I have not even known a friend who lost a friend.

In one of America’s most controversial wars, I have been a spectator. There is a picture of me in a suburban Chicago newspaper from my sophomore year of high school. I stand self-righteously behind a bed-sheet banner that reads “No War.” I was 16 in 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq, barely tall enough to be seen over our high school lobby declaration.

What did I really know?

So a few months ago, I vowed to change that. I drew a circle around Champaign-Urbana and collected the names of the soldiers who had died within about a 70-mile radius. I found about 10. I set out to visit their homes and their families, their friends and their neighbors.

I wanted to see and feel the way this war has changed the people it has left behind. For me and for so many others like me who have lived the war through newspaper headlines and television clips, I set out to understand the human cost of war.

Some people I called asked that I never call them again. Others had moved out of the area since their soldiers’ death, and I was unable to reach them. Ultimately, I found five families who agreed to sit down and talk about life after death. In living rooms, in restaurants, in cemeteries and at memorial sites, I met the people whose lives were forever altered by the day those two soldiers appeared at their door.

Tears still come

Time has not healed Connie Bickers’ wounds.

“It’s like every year it’s just a little bit worse,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s that reality is setting in because you know they’re not coming home. … It will be five years this year, and I’m starting to face reality that it’s never going to happen.”

Connie is a small woman with short, wheat-colored hair. Walking through her home, she tries to read a framed letter her son wrote her from Kuwait. But her voice won’t push through the tears and she leans back against a wall to support herself.

She cries nearly every day, she says. Every day for five years, nearly 2,000 days of tears. She says that, for her, it’s best not to pay attention to the war.

“I don’t watch TV, I don’t watch the news, I don’t read the newspapers for that reason,” she says. “Because every time I think about it, you just think about how another family feels the same pain that we are.”

A humble stone memorial in the front yard sits in the chilly evening, guarded by an American flag whipping in the wind. Connie walks to it and lights a cigarette, hugging her arms against her body to keep warm. She gestures toward the dirt surrounding the memorial and takes a last drag.

“In the spring, there’ll be red, white and purple petunias,” she says.

‘We don’t know why’

Good luck finding Sandy and Kevin Cawvey’s home in Mahomet, where all roads signs read “County Road” and come complete with some barely legible numbers that allegedly distinguish one from another. Farm equipment rests on the lawns of homes and decaying hay accumulates in front of one farmhouse.

Sitting in their comfortable living room with a view of the snow thawing in the 5-acre backyard, Sandy and Kevin talk about a promise their daughter, Jessica – then a 20-year-old Army National Guard soldier – made when she came home on leave from Iraq in June of 2004. She pinkie-swore to her 5-year-old daughter, Sierra, that she would not die.

“Mommy, pinkie swear you won’t die,” little Sierra said. Jessica looked desperately at her mom as if to say, “Don’t make me do this.”

“Just pinkie swear you won’t die,” Sandy told Jessica.

On the couch tonight, Sandy pauses. “After it did happen that she did die, I could kind of see why she wouldn’t want to do it.”

Alhough her grandparents had been heavily involved in raising Sierra – Jessica was 15 when her daughter was born – they took over as full-time parents that day. Sierra has sandy blond hair pulled tight to her head. She is thin and short for her age – the smallest on her entire basketball team – but her energy is palpable.

“We probably give her more than we gave our kids,” says Kevin.

“We love her more,” Sandy says, laughing.

Unlike Connie Bickers – and, in fact, unlike all the other families I meet – the Cawveys don’t cry in front of me. But their poise is hard-earned. After hearing about her daughter’s death, Sandy says, “I cried for a million years, right Sierra?”

“You didn’t cry for a million years,” Sierra says, smiling at the loving game they have made from the tragedy. “You cried for a billion years.”

Jessica was killed when a bomb exploded beneath her truck on Oct. 6, 2004. Her father, who drives a truck for Aramark Uniforms, took three weeks off after her death. But when he returned to work, he found that when he was behind the wheel, he pictured Jessica driving her truck through the desert.

“I think of her often,” he says. “Driving trucks myself, a lot of times just driving down the road, I’m thinking what it must have been like for her when it hit.”

He speaks slowly and carefully. It seems to hurt him physically when he talks about his daughter, and he falls quiet. Sandy carries the conversation, stepping into Kevin’s occasional silences with other stories about her daughter. She says attending church has been difficult for them since Jessica died.

“We kind of felt like God could have protected her and instead he didn’t,” Sandy says. “And we don’t know why. We just don’t know why he took our baby.”

The Cawveys are frustrated with the way the war has been run, and they believe the U.S. soldiers in Iraq should come home. Sandy doesn’t need encouragement to share her opinion.

“I don’t know if I ever was angry,” she says. “I’m not angry at the Iraqi people. … Somebody’s babies from over there are getting killed. Their regular people are getting killed every day. I want all the people to come home right now. Absolutely.”

For some reason, this response surprises me. I expect to hear more “gung-ho”-style rhetoric about finishing what we started from someone who has lost so much to the cause. I expect to hear that these people want their daughter’s death avenged by more death and a U.S. victory. But the only thing Kevin and Sandy want is for the war to end.

Eventually, the Cawveys take me to a small room filled with Jessica’s mementos – old photos, awards and a portrait an Iraqi drew of her – as well as a grand piano. With Sierra playing staccato notes in the background, Sandy points out her favorite photos. Many were taken in the old house closer to the town where they lived until two years ago. One is the last picture Jessica took with her daughter, on an airport tarmac at 5 a.m. in July 2004, the day she left for Iraq.

“This is her last kiss that she gave her,” Sandy says, pointing to the photo of Jessica kissing Sierra in the dark of the early morning. Some of the childhood pictures of Jessica look so incredibly similar to Sierra that I have to hold back from asking which one is which.

“Sierra has the personality that Jessica developed,” Sandy says. “Sierra is just like her mother was when she died.”

‘A dead spot in your heart’

Both before and after her 25-year-old son was killed in Iraq, Ava Tomson made quilts. She worked with a group called Marine Comfort Quilts, which sends 30-patch blankets to the surviving family members of Marines killed in the war. She expanded the group’s operation to include other military branches like the Army, of which her son Lucas Starcevich – Ava’s first husband’s surname – was a member.

All the newspaper obituaries point this out, so I’m familiar with Ava’s hobbies long before I show up at her doorstep on a drizzly Monday evening. Her home is in Tolono, which she says is so small as to make inexcusable my cartographic shortcomings.

“If I decide to ride a bicycle,” she says, “I can be across town in no time.”

Ava has short brown hair, with highlights barely visible in the dimly lit interior of her orderly home. Light gray eyes lie behind glasses that hang in the middle of her nose, late-shift librarian-style. Her son died April 16, 2007. It’s been barely a year.

“There is a, I don’t know how to phrase it, there’s a dead spot in your heart,” she says, tears streaking her cheeks. “Like a big hole’s been cut in it.”

Ava is unashamed of her tears and doesn’t try to hide them.

She takes me to her sewing operation, in a corner of the basement, next to an armoire that contains pictures, awards and other memorabilia from Lucas’ life. Multicolored spools send thin strands of string through a state-of-the-art sewing machine connected to a computer. Ava has put together many quilts here in honor of America’s soldiers, but she takes out the one that hurt the most, the quilt that her group presented to her in Lucas’ memory.

“I can remember I had actually physically handled hundreds of those,” she says. “It’s one quilt you treasure but you never want to receive.” She struggles to finish these words.

When I ask to see some of Lucas’ old letters, she takes me into her bedroom and we sit cross-legged on her floor, speaking quietly as if there were someone in the house to overhear our private conversation. There is not. Ava’s husband, Rick, drives a truck five days a week up north, and her sons are out for the evening.

Amid the quiet, she says one of the things she misses most about her son is his smell. She is a bit embarrassed, although I tell her not to be. She then confides that she keeps some of his stuffed animals in a plastic bag to preserve his fragrance. She also hasn’t washed some of the dirty clothes that came home after he died.

“They weren’t stinky, but it was kind of a blessing because some of them still smell like him,” she says. “And I guess it’s a strange thing. You get to missing him terribly, and I just go down and I pull out that hat that he wore a lot or something and I can smell him and still feel close to him.”

Then we sit in silence, hovering over the paper trail of Ava’s son, crowded in the empty house.

‘A job to do’

Ed and Susan Miller’s house in Oakwood is hard to miss. A fading American flag is painted on the barn next to it. They greet me at the door, and I immediately see on their refrigerator a picture of their nephew, Matthew Dillon, clad in full Marine regalia.

They introduce me to Susan’s father, Norman Ponder, a thin man now grieving both for his grandson, who died in Iraq on Dec. 11, 2006, and his wife, who died a few weeks ago. Matt’s immediate family used to live in central Illinois but moved to South Carolina about 20 years ago. The two families maintain close contact, speaking via telephone nearly every day.

The loss still feels very new in this home. It is on the refrigerator and in the family pictures, and it is in Norman’s face.

“Hardly a day passes that you don’t think about him,” Norman says slowly, his words slurring together as if his lips were fighting to remain closed. “I walk down at the mall and, quite frequently, I see the Marines down there. It’s just something that every time you see them on television, pictures of the boys over there, it’s just a constant reminder that, uh …”

His voice fades, his eyes begin to water. Norman stands, pushing his chair back from the table, and walks out of the dining room without another word. In the living room, he grips the wall for support.

I am embarrassed to intrude on his private moment, the fragility of this family’s psyche even years after Matt’s death.

When Norman leaves, Susan, her hands steepled over the wood table, and Ed hardly flinch. Susan looks away from her father, as if she’s worried he will see her, and Ed quickly fills the gap in conversation. The Millers talk about Matt and his brother as children, their love of hunting and fishing. Ed is an outdoorsman and when the kids came over, they didn’t sit around watching television.

“I took the boys fishing down here in a local pond, and we had a little boat out there,” Ed says. “Next thing I knew I had a hook in my back and I go, ‘We’re done, pull it out and let’s go.'” He and Susan laugh, but Ed’s standard reticent expression soon returns.

When conversation turns to the war, it’s clear that Ed holds stronger beliefs than his wife. Neither believes the U.S. should withdraw its troops from Iraq now. But Ed believes the war was a mistake from the beginning.

“I had no idea why we went to Iraq,” he says, a hint of irritation in his voice. “I don’t think they should have ever went there.”

Susan, who attends church weekly without Ed, is more reserved in her judgment: “I think most people that are God-fearing people just hope and pray that they’ve done the right thing and pray that the war ends.”

Both believe that Matt’s choice to join the war was his own; no one forced it upon him.

“He had, in his heart, a job to do, and he did his job,” Susan says.

‘You’re never ready’

Mark and Candy Spencer live in Sullivan, in a house surrounded by a beautiful green army of pine trees. They only recently moved out here, running from the memories that lived in their old house in neighboring Gays. Their son, Cole, died April 28, 2007 – only a few days after Ava’s son, Lucas – when a bomb exploded beneath his Humvee near an al-Qaeda training facility.

Mark is a tall, muscular man – he was in the Air Force for five years – with blond, thinning hair and a yellow goatee. He speaks through his bassy, country-twang voice in short sentences. On the day of Cole’s funeral, he says, two factories in Sullivan stayed closed so the workers could attend.

“All the workers were out in the road,” he says. “It really made you feel good about your country.”

But the loss of his 21-year-old son was hard to grasp.

“If you lose somebody that quick, you just can’t believe it,” he says. “When it happens to you, you’re never ready. Even today, you don’t really accept it because life is so valuable and so precious.”

They had to leave the house where Cole grew up.

“I was just sitting on the bed crying, just looking at his room,” Candy says, her head resting in her hands. “Every day until we moved. So it made it very rough to be in the house.”

The Spencers, the Cawveys and the Bickerses have all moved out of their old family homes. Connie Bickers doesn’t think that’s coincidence. “Memories,” she said, and that was that.

The Spencers take me to the cemetery where Cole is buried a few miles from their home. On the drive, Mark talks about fishing and deer hunting with Cole and their other son, Brian, who is 17. He points out the window to the places they liked to hunt and mentions the bucks he and Cole shot the year before he left for the Army.

At Cole’s grave, wind blows strong across the wide-open cemetery. Connie cleans off some dirt and leaves by the headstone. She and her husband talk about Brian, who rarely speaks about Cole. They say Brian feels some bitterness toward Muslims in the wake of his brother’s death. They don’t disagree.

“I will say I’m very anti any of them living over here in the United States,” Candy says.

“I don’t know what their motivations are,” Mark adds, “but they’re not American motivations.”

Mark says it’s time to go, and we pile into the car, heading back to their home.

Much more than spectators

On my way back home from each family’s house, I rode in complete silence, winding my way through their beliefs and their pain. They have so much in common – they are among the thousands of families in America who have shouldered the ultimate cost of Iraq – but their responses to the war have been very different. Connie Bickers tunes Iraq out; the Cawveys believe it’s time to remove the troops; the Spencers want to keep fighting until the mission’s accomplished; the Millers think the war was a mistake from the beginning.

Yet all their responses to this loss have been painfully similar. No relief, not really. I could never have learned that from behind my “No War” bed-sheet banner.

There was a war. There is a war. Ask Connie, Sandy and Kevin, Ava, Ed and Susan and Norman, and Mark and Candy. Unlike me and most of you, they are not spectators to Iraq.

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