The woman stammered. She obviously knew she was still on the air and had to maintain her composure. But it was clear to anyone's ear that she was having a difficult time. Her voice clouded with emotion as she struggled to tell the talk show host and his audience of her story, as a mom whose son was in Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. She hadn't heard from him in weeks. She had just written him an email -- "Son, I haven't heard from you in a long time. Are you okay?" And amazingly, she was able to get through that recounting without crying.
I had a harder time. And hey, I have no horse in this race. I AM a mom, however, so in one respect, I have thousands of horses and other beloveds in it. Four thousand of them returning to me in long neatly-wrapped, patriotically-covered boxes (because, as we all know but still aren't allowed to see) the wrapping paper on these boxes is always an American flag. We do know that the wrapping paper eventually gets folded up in the finest military precision and handed to the grieving survivor -- usually a widow or a mother -- as a consolation prize. A party favor to take away from the big event. A lovely parting gift. I'm sure the frantic mom on the radio was terrified at the prospect of being one of those graveside mourners. Wowee -- she'd have a front-row seat, too. My heart could only sob for her in her nightmarish uncertainty.
But you won't see much of this examined in the media, even while talking heads are talking about it on the Iraq War anniversary. The war coverage, and its true cost, have been thoughtfully sanitized for your protection. And it's still going on that way, even while public opposition to the war has grown substantially. I can remember seeing exactly ONE such funeral. It was early-on. Maybe somebody at the TV station or the parent network hadn't gotten the memo yet.
The woman there was photographed from the side -- in a medium shot. Although we were never offered a scene-setting wide shot, we could assume she was seated at a graveside service. Front row center. A serviceman in crisply perfect dress uniform with decorated chest and spotless white gloves bent down and handed her a folded flag. The camera closed in for a tight shot as she accepted it tenderly and then slowly collapsed over it. Even though she'd bent all the way forward at the waist to cradle it in her lap, you could still see her face in profile. It was swolen and red, the nose enlarged, the eyes bulging with overflowing tears. You could tell from the way her upper body heaved that she was fighting for air between sobs. Her son Branden Oberleitner was being laid to rest before her eyes, just a few feet away. He was 20, from Worthington, Ohio, a PFC with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. He'd been killed in grenade fire in Fallujah, June 5th, 2003. As his mother ached and we watched her heart break on camera on the evening news, the general sentiment about the war throughout the country was still in resounding support. A relative few of us grieved that day with Branden's mother, sharing her anguish, thinking about the sacrifice that never should have been. Five years later, he"s on page 5.
We're weary as a nation now. It's been five full years of this stupid, wasteful, ill-conceived, poorly-managed, deception-clad war, and we can count almost four-thousand Branden Oberleitners. At least, we think so. We're still never allowed to see that part of it. The best we get are newsreels of John McCain on a sunny tour of Iraq, confusing which enemy segment is where, and unable to revisit that nice open-air market this time (too dangerous, he was told). There's scarcely even any coverage of the continuing death toll in the media anymore. That doesn't mean it doesn't still happen. Some of us are hoping the escalation, the so-called surge, in Iraq is working to validate their longterm faith-based beliefs that things are better over there now because of what we did. Besides, our president says it's even sort of romantic -- fighting over there. He also once said that the moment the Iraqi people wanted us to leave, that's what we'd do. At this war anniversary, majorities of Iraqis tell pollsters that is what they want. General William Odom says funding for the occupation should be stopped (and Bush and Cheney impeached). And a former Iraqi government figure told a British newspaper earlier this week that live overall was better under Saddam Hussein.
Yesterday we marked the four-thousandth American casualty from this war we were lied into waging. Ask Dick Cheney about the consistently large numbers of us who want America out of there and now believe the war wasn't worth it, and his generous, considerate response is "so?" Who cares, I guess, how many more Branden Oberleitners there will be? I never knew Branden Oberleitner, but I feel almost as though I did. Even if Cheney doesn't care so much, I mourn Branden's loss as a mom, and pray for continued comfort for his mother. And I resolve not to stay silent about the war or my adamant, ongoing opposition to it.
If you REALLY care about our troops, whether you want them out of that dead-end hell hole over there or not, then support them. As we limp into Year Six, listen to their families. Listen to those mothers' voices on the air - who want nothing more than to hear from their precious son or daughter - missing and/or incommunicado on the front lines. That's the only clear picture anyone among the rest of us will get, to illuminate even a small part of their sacrifice. And honor those who do want this ended, and all our loved ones back in our arms here at home.