"Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers,
And that cannot stop their tears."
Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
The Cry of the Children
Outside of their travel trailer, a television crew was setting up a camera and lights. Chelle and Taylor Pokorney had been living in a place called Trailer Park Village in Quantico, Virginia. Seven months after her husband, 1st Lt. Fred Pokorney, Jr., had been killed in Iraq, Chelle was still emotionally raw, and uncertain of what to do next. She told the visitor sitting at her table that leaving the Washington, D.C. area was like leaving her husband, who had been buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Too many issues were still unresolved for Chelle Pokorney to move to whatever it was that came next for her and three year old Taylor.
"I'm waiting for the report from the Marines on the investigation of the A-10," she said. "The whole friendly fire thing. People say, 'is it gonna help if you know every detail?' Well, yeah, that was my husband. I wanna know every detail up to the time it happened, and what he said, and who he was with because that's what you hold onto. I never got to say goodbye."
Chelle's husband, who saved the life of Lt. Ben Reid, and called in critical air strikes while under attack, was originally recommended for a Bronze Star. However, officers later upgraded commendation to the Silver Star. Waiting for word on his medal has left Chelle Pokorney feeling more pain was inevitable. After Lt. Pokorney died in Al Nasiriyah, all of his mail came home to Chelle in one shipment. It arrived on the same day as his memorial service. None of the letters she had written or photos of Taylor had ever found their way to her husband. A simple thing like the absence of a house keys from his personal belongings can leave her aching.
"I keep waiting for closure, you know, keep waiting for closure," she repeated. "I never got the house keys back. Nobody can understand that. It's just that it doesn't mean anything to them, but that was your husband who didn't come home, and that was the key to open the door. And it was home. Nobody can understand that pain. They just think you're silly because you hold on, and you're crazy."
On the settee in the trailer, Chelle had placed a framed photo of her husband, who is wearing camouflage, and casting his resolute eyes in the direction of the camera. It is the first thing the visitor sees when stepping up into the living space. Taylor Pokorney looked at the photo many times a day.
"See," she said. "There's my daddy. He's looking right at me from heaven."
Chelle rubbed her daughter's back. None of the adults in the room spoke. Chelle and Taylor had just returned from a trip to New York City. By telling her story of the financial confusion and the challenges of grief, Chelle believed she had the ability to help other families deal with the complications of their loss. As a guest of the Fallen Heroes Foundation, Chelle had hoped to use her time during an appearance on The Today Show to talk about what military families were facing with combat fatalities. Instead, interviewer Matt Lauer spent most of the air time quizzing Gen. Tommy Franks, who sat next to Chelle, about the U.S. military's tactics in Iraq.
By now, it ought to have been getting easier, she figured. But it wasn't.
"Right now," she explained in 2003, "I want to tell my story because there's huge financial changes. There's a lot of need. I find out every day there's something new. It's been seven months and I still don't have the answers to what we get and what we don't get. Taylor still doesn't have dental insurance. Wow, daddy gave his life, and I still have to fight with them [the military] to get it. [health insurance] Why, I ask? There is supposed to be somebody to help me but they don't get what help is, so they don't make it happen. I wanna help those other families so they don't have to go through what I've had to go through for seven months."
Chelle walked over to the counter and ran water to pour into the coffee machine. She had trouble talking without crying. She said that after Fred died, the first casualty assistance officer the Marines sent to her home was drunk. After telling her she ought to be stronger because she was a Marine's wife, and more grateful because her husband got to be buried in Arlington, Chelle said she ordered the officer out of her home. There were two others assigned to her and Taylor. Insensitivity was something Chelle Pokorney never expected from the Marines or the American public.
"I was real positive from the beginning that this is what Fred did, this is what he gave his life for; he was a Marine, and that is the reality, and people say that, and that's probably the worst thing you could say to a military family; that you knew what you signed up for because nobody wants this to happen, and that's such a terrible thing to say. Including one of the media guys I was on with who said, "You knew the reality of this. What were you thinking?' How heartless. How heartless. How heartless can you be? But you never want a little girl to lose her daddy. It's the reality, yes. But god, when it happens don't stop and tell a family you signed up for this, you knew what you were getting into, because it's horrible."
"We're all set."
The television producer leaned his head into the open door of Chelle and Taylor's trailer. A camera sat on a tripod next to a picnic table. Chelle stepped out into the October light, running a single finger across the wetness beneath each of her eyes. The Virginia air was cool, and stirring, lifting the leaves cluttered along the edge of the blacktop. Taylor followed after her mother, stopping to check on her German shepherd, waiting inside his cage for a walk. Her face is the face of her father, rendered in the feminine. The cheeks are full, and her eyes have already become serious with independence.
"How's she doing?" Chelle was asked.
"Oh, she's doin'. She's coming back. She's got his light, and his stamina, and she misses him."
"And she knows what happened?"
"We were talking about it last night. She said, 'Why did those bad people kill my daddy?"
Taylor caught up with her mother and pulled at her sleeve. "I wanna go find some nuts," she said.
"Well, go find some for me, buddy," Chelle said. "So we can feed the squirrels."
Taylor ran to the edge of the pavement and began digging among the fallen leaves, searching for acorns. Her mother, too tired to constantly hold off the tears, was talking about an encounter with another military family.
"We saw another little boy," Chelle Pokorney said, "And she said, 'Why did his daddy have to go too?' And she said, 'Is his daddy in his heart like my daddy is in mine?' She knows. We miss him. We have to talk about him to keep him alive because he'll never be able to hold us again, and I wish....."
She turned her head, looking away, looking for something.
"He was a wonderful father," Chelle said, finally. "Just wonderful. And a wonderful husband."
Staying near the Marine base at Quantico, Virigina had been both agonizing and healing for Chelle Pokorney. There are great memories lingering there; her husband in his dress blues leaning down to embrace her for a dance, a first camping trip for Taylor, cookouts and conversations with friends who had chosen a life of military service. If Fred were to be posthumously awarded the Silver Star, Chelle hoped that it might be presented to Taylor on the base at Quantico. But she was on the move now, no longer confident that everyone in the military was possessed of honor and responsibility like her husband. Chelle had already sold their modest house in the neighborhood outside Camp Lejuene in Jacksonville, North Carolina, because she felt no longer a part of the Marine family.
"I thought I could stay in the military town I was in," she explained. "And I'd have some more support, and people would never forget, and I thought, wow, this is my family. But a few months later, after everybody came home, the reality is that Taylor and I were alone. A few people trickled by. But they mostly weren't there, and the days that they weren't there were so empty. People come up to me and say, 'We thought you moved,' and I just sit there and say, wow, you never called. You never came over, so how can you say that? Those are just such empty promises and words. How can you say that? You don't know how that affects us. So we left."
Chelle sat down with the interviewer. Another camera was pointed at her face. This was not the role she wanted to play. All she wanted was her husband, her daughter, and a quiet family life of holidays, vacations, and the contentment of knowing her husband was fulfilled by his service to his country. Instead, she has been consumed with a sense of obligation to speak the truth, honorably, as her husband would, about her loss, and what all the families of those lost in combat are confronting. In a way that she was unable to ignore, Chelle Pokorney had become a symbol. She reminded families, who had soldiers or Marines still in Iraq, that their loved one might not come home, either. No one wanted that reminder. People stayed away from the Pokorney house.
"When you lose your Marine, and you lose your husband, and your best friend, and your daddy," Chelle said, "You hold onto what people say to you, and when they let you down, it's the most horrifying thing. It's worse than just reliving his death over and over again."
Chelle Pokorney's support for the president and the war in Iraq had not yet wavered. She loved the president, and trusted his judgment, just as her husband had. In her opinion, George W. Bush has the most difficult job in the world, and he would not put American troops in danger unless he felt it were necessary to protect the country. The angry polarization of Americans, sharply divided over the war, had not affected Chelle's beliefs in the months after he husband became one of the war's first casualties. Although she admitted to not being political, she was worrying for the soldiers and their families when she heard people criticizing the American presence in Iraq. She told herself that debate was precisely what Fred died for, so that people can have free and open discussions, say and do what they want, whether they are in the U.S. or Iraq. That's what she knows. That her country is beautiful, still, no matter what the political climate might be. And her husband loved it, and would die for America a second time, if only he were given a chance.
"I'm going to visit him every Memorial Day." Chelle was sobbing, the unabashed tears of a deep, deep sorrow, an agony she was uncertain would ever let her be. "It's the least I can do for his little girl; take her to Arlington to see him. Because he was so proud on Memorial Day when he was with those veterans. He was just so proud to be a part of that, and that tradition, and thank them for what they did. And he did. Fred never forgot. He never forgot."
Taylor Pokorney reached up and took the hand of her new friend and led him in the direction of the playground while her mother was being interviewed. After filling her knit cap with acorns, she had lost interest in looking for more. She clambered over the plastic playscape, constantly talking about the make-believe situations she was creating. Although the sky was clear, she told her friend the rain was going to begin falling and he needed to climb up the slide for protection. When she jumped on a spring-mounted rocking horse, Taylor asked to be pushed. As the toy animal swung slowly back and forth, she grew quiet, and quit leaning her slight weight into the pitch and roll of the little horse.
"Stop. Stop," she said.
Instead of getting down, Taylor kept her grip on the red handles near the horse's neck. She looked up to the unfamiliar face.
"All my friends are sad," she said.
He did not know what to say. Her short, brown hair began swaying again as Taylor worked the horse back into motion. She had not expected a response. It was just something that had registered with a child, and she had given voice to what she knew. By the time they returned to the trailer, the television taping was concluding. Taylor urged her mother to let her dog out of the cage.
"Can we take him for a walk?" Taylor pleaded.
Chelle opened the gate, and clipped the leash to the dog's collar. Taylor had named her pet "Stich," after the movie Lilo and Stich, which had been her favorite movie she had seen with her daddy. The dog pulled hard at his restraints and Chelle hesitated to hand the leash to her daughter.
"By myself. By myself," Taylor insisted. "Sit Stich. Sit. Come here. Let's take a walk."
While the dog began pulling the little girl, the camera crew followed, and Chelle tried to articulate where she was in terms of healing. She understood grief. She was a nurse. All of the signs were there. It was a process. But it seemed like it was taking too long. She needed to go on. New York had opened doors. She had been offered a position as the honorary co-chair of the Intrepid Foundation. The job meant resources to help other military families deal with their casualties, the absurd bureaucracies, uncertain benefits, loss of health care, and the complications of moving on to another life. But she wanted to go home to Washington first. Be with her parents and her brother. Process things some more. Feel the broken places inside of her start to mend before she went back into the world.
"A part of me thinks people just want to avoid me," she said. "It's too real for them. And hey, who wants to be around somebody who cries all the time? Or somebody who reminds them of what could happen to them? I'm thinking that's okay for me. I can deal with that. But what about Taylor?"
It is difficult for Chelle Pokorney to think that her husband gave his life in service to his country and his daughter's future has become more uncertain. When a Marine dies in combat, he stops getting paid the next day. The death benefit he signed up for is usually enough money to help his survivors make a transition to a future without him. But it is not always sufficient. Chelle expected to return to work as an RN, but was unsure about earning enough to comfortably get Taylor from age 3 to 18. College, without her father's income and commitment, seemed an improbability. Why didn't the government have any mechanisms to help military families deal with these issues? Who takes care of the families of servicemen and women who have died in combat? Are they really just tossed aside?
Taylor, frustrated with her mother's distractions, and the intrusive television gear, interrupted the conversation to talk about Stitch.
"He doesn't like the camera," she explained. "He likes walking. Let's walk him. Come on, mom. Stich, heel. Heel, Stich."
When her husband was alive, Chelle Pokorney worried about very little. Sure, there were the usual financial challenges of any military family. But she was confident they could handle those. Fred's presence, their love, gave her confidence everything was fine, and getting better. He always assured her that if anything ever happened to him, the Marines cared for their own, and their families. She would be okay. The military was her family. That's the code of conduct Fred Pokorney would have lived up to if one of his own men had been killed in battle, and Fred had come home. But that's not what happened for Fred's wife.
"That's the first thing my mom said to me when this happened," Chelle said. "She said, 'You are going to be alone because Fred's gone, and no one is going to be there for you.' She was right because I thought, at first, when everybody was there, and it was all hot and heavy, and they said, we're your family, we're gonna take care of you. And it wasn't true."
After Stitch was put back into his cage, Chelle showed the television crew an album of photos. Her life with Fred and Taylor was shining across the pages. As each page was turned for the camera, Taylor pointed.
"Oh look, I'm eating cake. Oh, daddy loves me. Oh, I've got a bottle 'cause I'm a baby. See, my Daddy's got something in his hand."
Chelle's eyes were wet again. She was doing this to keep alive her husband's memory, assure that he was not forgotten. He always seemed to do what was right. Fred Pokorney served when called. He made no judgment about why he was sent to Iraq. If there were deceptions or dishonorable men involved in that decision, there was nothing a Marine lieutenant might have done to change things. His only option was to do his job. And he did. Those were the principles in which he believed; fought and died for, and his wife hopes they are what will guide Fred Pokorney's daughter.
"She said the other night, 'Mommy, I don't know if I wanna be a first lady or first president.' Whatever. You choose. I'll be stressed. But I can't stop you. It's just like your daddy, doing what he loved."
A few days later, Chelle Pokorney cranked the handle on the travel trailer and lowered it onto the ball hitch of her Ford truck. Her brother, who had also been "emotionally devastated" by Fred's death, was joining Chelle and Taylor on a cross country run back to Washington State. They planned to stop in Texas to visit relatives, and take Taylor to the Grand Canyon. In Nevada, they expected to see Wade and Suzy Lieseke, her in laws and Fred's adoptive parents, before turning north, toward home, and Washington.
There was something out there in America for Chelle and Taylor. Chelle didn't know what it was. There had to be people who cared, and would help, maybe a new job, a different future than the one she had dreamed with Fred. Whatever it was, Chelle was determined to find it. She would just keep going until she did. And for Taylor's sake she would never, ever give up.
Fred would not forgive her for that.
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