Old Enough Now to Ask How Dad Died at War
By LISA W. FODERARO
LANCASTER, N.Y. — CamerynLee was only 3 years old when her father, Lance Cpl. Eric J. Orlowski, a Marine Corps reservist, was killed in an accidental shooting during the first days of the Iraq war. Now 8, she is suddenly hungry for information about the man she remembers only in sketchy vignettes: Did he like chicken wings as much as she does? How about hockey? Was he funny?
“When it happened, I don’t think she fully understood,” said her mother, Nicole Kross, 29. “At that age she really didn’t ask too many questions. It’s all coming out more now.”
In a grim marker of the longevity of the war, children who were infants or toddlers when they lost a parent in action are growing up. In the process, they are coming to grips with death in new, more mature and at times more painful ways — pondering a parent they barely knew, asking pointed questions about the circumstances of the death and experiencing a kind of delayed grief.
Families and bereavement counselors say that media coverage of the war, dedication ceremonies and even school events — in which most classmates have both parents in attendance — can all heighten yearning for the missing parent. For young children, the flood of prickly feelings and questions often arises just as the surviving parent is moving beyond his or her own intense grief, sometimes with a new spouse or partner in the picture.
“As 3-year-olds, they have a pragmatic, concrete concept,” said Joanne M. Steen, co-author of “Military Widow: A Survival Guide.” “They’ll say matter-of-factly, ‘My daddy died.’ But at significant points in their lives, they go back and revisit this, and it’s really hard on the surviving spouse. They end up telling the story over and over again of how Daddy died at each stage.”
Nevertheless, many parents work hard to keep the memory of the dead parent alive for their children. CamerynLee and her mother, sitting in their sunny kitchen in this middle-class town outside Buffalo recently, looked at pictures of Lance Corporal Orlowski, along with letters of condolence from President Bush and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Outside, the Marine Corps flag was flying near a Halloween scarecrow.
Ms. Kross also showed her daughter a letter that her father wrote from Kuwait City, which began, “What’s up ladies?” He ended it by telling CamerynLee to be a “good girl for Mommy” and urging Nicole, a former Air Force reservist, to “take care of yourself.”
It was the first time that Ms. Kross had shown the letter to CamerynLee, a sprite of a girl with a gentle voice and large blue eyes. “I think about him every day,” CamerynLee said as she studied the letter. “I remember cooking with him. He was helping me flip the sausages. I remember him carrying me. I wish he was still alive.”
In some cases, involving children who were very young or not even born when their mothers or fathers died, the surviving parents attempt to create memories.
Brandy Williams, of Waipahu, Hawaii, had a 3-year-old daughter at home and another on the way when her husband, Sgt. Eugene Williams of Highland, N.Y., was killed by a car bomb in March 2003.
Mrs. Williams has three videos of her husband, who was usually the one behind the camera, and the girls, Mya, now 8, and Monica, 4, have watched them over and over. In one, the couple is coming home from the hospital with Mya after her birth. “Monica thinks it’s her, and it’s so hard because she doesn’t understand,” Mrs. Williams said.
There is also a table in the living room displaying his Army beret and pictures of him, smiling.
“My worst fear is that they’ll forget about him,” Mrs. Williams said.
Like CamerynLee, Mya clings to fleeting images of her father: frolicking with him on a playground at Fort Stewart in Georgia, being given toys. At first, Mya’s understanding of her father’s death was appropriately simplistic, filtered through a child’s universe.
“When I told her that Daddy’s in the sky with the angels, she said, ‘Like the Care Bears?’ ” recalled Mrs. Williams, referring to the popular line of rainbow-climbing bears. “So for a while we would say, ‘Daddy’s in heaven with the Care Bears.’ ”
But after attending a grief camp run by a nonprofit organization, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, 6-year-old Mya asked her mother exactly how her father had died. They were sitting in the car in a supermarket parking lot, and Mrs. Williams told her as calmly as she could about the checkpoint and the bad person who pulled up in a car and the bomb that exploded.
“I’m looking at her through the rearview mirror, and I saw her eyes get really big and it was heart-wrenching,” Mrs. Williams recalled. “At the grief camp, she heard about I.E.D.’s and roadside bombs and hearing how her daddy died was hard for her to take. The rest of the day she was withdrawn and quiet and said she didn’t want to hear anything else. I started freaking out: did I do the right thing?”
TAPS, a Washington-based organization that helps military families cope with grief and trauma, estimates that at least 2,000 children under age 18 have lost a parent in the war in Iraq. It is unclear, however, how many of those children were toddlers or infants when the death occurred.
Grief counselors and sociologists who study military families say that children, and the surviving spouses, need a strong network of support after a member of the military dies, especially since many abruptly leave the cocoonlike environment of a military base.
“This goes back to the old axiom that if you don’t take care of the mother, she can’t take care of the child,” said James A. Martin, a retired Army colonel and associate professor in the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research at Bryn Mawr College.
“In that kind of trauma, it’s really what the extended family and community and organizations can do to reach out and provide comfort to assist the primary caregiver,” he said. “The younger the children, the more likely that kind of support is needed.”
The burst of initial support is not always sustained, however. Brandy Sacco, a 26-year-old nursing student, lost her husband, Sgt. Dominic J. Sacco of Albany, two years ago when insurgents fired on his tank. Mrs. Sacco was left with two young children: Anthony, then 3 months, and 4-year-old Elyssa Armstrong. (Elyssa is Mrs. Sacco’s daughter from a previous relationship, but Sergeant Sacco, his wife said, cared for her as if she were his own child.)
“I had people come visit me the first month,” said Mrs. Sacco, who lives in Topeka, Kan. “They brought me food, and then everybody was gone. I was like, O.K., what do I do now?”
For Elyssa, who is now 6, the anguish of losing her stepfather in the war resurfaced last summer when a new softball complex was dedicated in his memory at nearby Fort Riley. Sergeant Sacco’s parents flew in for the event, and Elyssa’s mother spoke through tears at the ceremony.
“That opened up a lot of things for Elyssa,” Mrs. Sacco said. “She cried the week before and the week after. She listens to sad songs more these past couple of months, and she’s only 6.”
Like Mrs. Williams in Hawaii, Mrs. Sacco has one child who can remember a father and one who cannot, a source of considerable sorrow.
“Anthony was Nick’s only biological child, and I wish he had more time with his father so he would actually remember his face,” Mrs. Sacco said. “At the same time, Elyssa can help me talk about him. She points things out: ‘That’s when your daddy and me and Mommy went to Universal Studios.’ ”
Elyssa has not been excessive with questions about her stepfather’s likes and dislikes. But she is clearly struggling. Despite having had grief counseling, she has fallen behind in school and sometimes acts younger than her years.
“She still has her bad days where out of the blue she’ll cry,” Mrs. Sacco said. “I tell her, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s fine. It hurts.”
In Rochester, John and Cathy Pernaselli, the parents of Petty Officer First Class Michael J. Pernaselli, are raising his daughters, Nicole, 6, and Dominique, 7. Petty Officer Pernaselli was killed in the Persian Gulf in April 2004 during his first tour. He had divorced his wife and secured custody of the two girls.
When Officer Pernaselli died, his daughters, then 3 and 4, had trouble grasping it. “They couldn’t understand why — what had happened,” Mr. Pernaselli said. “They had just talked to him two days before.”
They now see a counselor every week and take comfort in keeping his memory close. Both have pillows on their beds imprinted with his picture and talk to him in their prayers. Both wear gold pendants engraved with his likeness (as Mrs. Pernaselli does). They celebrate his birthday every year. But emotions are raw.
“They’ll say, ‘Why did it have to be my dad?’ ” said Mr. Pernaselli, 55, who works at a Wegmans supermarket. “They’ll hug the pillow and eventually work themselves out of it.”
While fielding questions and providing reassurance can be tiring, it at least plugs a parent or guardian directly into the child’s psyche. In that sense, a child’s volubility can be strangely comforting to some parents. Mrs. Williams now worries about Mya’s recent silence, fearing that her daughter is avoiding discussion of her father as a way to protect both herself and her mother.
After Mya’s second visit to the TAPS grief camp this summer, Mrs. Williams prepared herself for a new round of inquiry about her husband and his death. “I asked her if she had any more questions, and she said, ‘No, I don’t,’ ” Mrs. Williams recalled.
“When she asks me and I start talking about it, my voice gets cracky and tears roll down my face,” she said. “I don’t know if it will ever get better. I see Mya hurting more now because she’s understanding more. In school, when we have family events, that’s the toughest for her. She sees the mommy and the daddy, and it’s just me.”
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