American families shattered by the war face an enduring sense of absence and the endless quest to understand their parents’ legacies
As her family would learn, the 23-year-old was fatally wounded in a frantic race to help others flee the kill zone, and her remains were crudely buried outside of an Iraqi hospital. U.S. personnel were dispatched later to recover the captives and remains, including Piestewa’s body.
Anguish washed over the Hopi tribal community in Arizona, of which she was a member.
But days later, an unusual spring snowfall swept across the Painted Desert mesas, aligning with the tribe’s belief that spirits return home as moisture. Whiterock, then just 4 years old, has come to her resting place here countless times since, seeking what for most young boys navigating life’s journey is a rite too often taken for granted: alone time with mom.
He stood by a flagpole — it flies the Stars and Stripes above another banner, black and white, honoring those taken captive during combat or who otherwise vanished while away at war — where he has told Piestewa about his accomplishments, his struggles and his frustrations, all of them, he says, knotted up in her death.
Now 24, Whiterock is older than his mother when she was taken from him. But “she listens,” he says, and just then the stiff badland wind whips by, thrashing the two flags.
The eight-year Iraq War, which formally ended in 2011, resulted in the deaths of nearly 4,500 U.S. troops. More than 3,000 children lost one of their parents as a result, according to an estimate by Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit that provides support to military families suffering such a loss.
That estimate is almost certainly an undercount. It does not include subsequent deaths from toxic exposure or suicides that may have been tied to service there, said Bonnie Carroll, the group’s founder and president.
The war in Iraq, where around 2,500 U.S. troops remain deployed today, left a generation of military children to navigate their path to adulthood without the benefit of a parent who could teach them how to talk to their crush, cheer them on from the bleachers or fill them with bravery to stand up to bullies.
Today, those boys and girls are mostly grown. Some have children of their own, and yet they seldom dwell on the divisive invasion that precipitated their parents’ deaths. Rather, it is the sense of absence that endures, fueling for many an unending quest to understand the legacies of those they loved or, in some cases, never truly knew at all.
‘She went out the right way’
Before she was a soldier, Piestewa was a soldier’s wife. She lived at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, with a job at the local Carl’s Jr., but split from her husband between the time of Brandon’s birth and the arrival of her daughter, Carla.
The Army offered opportunity beyond that which Tuba City, a village of mobile homes and small houses carved into the edge of the Hopi Nation, could afford. Piestewa’s close friend and roommate, Jessica Lynch, were inseparable. (Lynch’s own story would emerge as a flash point in the conflict. U.S. military officials lied about her actions before she was taken captive, Lynch later told Congress, in what became a trail of falsehoods and embellishments made throughout the war by members of the George W. Bush administration.)
On the day in February 2003 when his mother’s unit left Fort Bliss in Texas, Whiterock briefly absconded with her unloaded M16 service rifle to play soldier in the base gym, according to an account in Lynch’s book “I’m a Soldier, Too.” Piestewa put him on her lap, Lynch wrote, and told her son, “Baby, I’ll be back. I’ll be back real soon, and we’ll be a family, together.”
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On March 23, Lynch’s truck broke down near Nasiriyah, one of Iraq’s larger cities before the invasion and the scene of savage fighting early in the war as the first waves of U.S. troops who crossed into the country from neighboring Kuwait met resistance. She was stranded and afraid of what could happen if Iraqi soldiers found her before the Americans did.
A Humvee neared her position and pulled over. Piestewa was behind the wheel and, according to Lynch’s book, yelled to her, “Get in.”
They drove right into the ambush. A rocket-propelled grenade smashed into their Humvee, which careened into another U.S. vehicle. The two women were seriously injured and taken captive. A hospital director later told The Washington Post that “Miss Lori” died of a head wound suffered in the crash.
Eleven U.S. soldiers in the convoy died and seven were taken prisoner. Piestewa became the first American woman killed in the Iraq War, and the first Native American woman killed in combat on foreign soil, according to the U.S. Army.
The Hopi people strive for harmony, Whiterock explains, adding that, because Piestewa’s final moments were not a violent struggle for survival, there is some comfort, however small, knowing that she died trying to help her friends escape.
“She didn’t cause harm to anyone else,” he says. Piestewa “went out the right way. “She met the creator in a way that passed on good energy.”
One of Whiterock’s struggles, he says, stemmed from something so simple. His name comes from his father, but everyone seemed to know Brandon as Piestewa’s son, and that notoriety made him feel alone. “I wanted to have my own name, for myself,” he says.
Another challenge was a speech impediment that often left him unable to find the right words to express his emotions. It was deeply frustrating, he says. His teachers were unable to break through, and he would bang his head on his desk at school in what he described as a pattern of outbursts.
Sports, he recalls, proved to be the “only way I could take out the pain, the confusion, the anger.”
His mother was an athlete. Whiterock immersed himself in basketball, baseball and football, stacking practices throughout the day in search of belonging — and distraction. His family experienced other deaths while he was in high school, he says, around the time he discovered, while conducting research for a college admissions essay, the details of his mother’s last moments alive. It was “not the way I wanted to find out.”
College, an unrealized dream for Piestewa, would prove another salvation. Whiterock works at his alma mater, Northern Arizona University, as a program coordinator helping military veterans navigate the complexities that can accompany a transition away from the typical soldier’s strict, regimented lifestyle. “It was her legacy to give back,” he says, adding, “I wanted to follow her footsteps, in my own way.”
Victor W. Jeffries was often away from his home and his family — a normal, if lamentable, aspect of the sacrifice he made when enlisting in the Navy Reserve. Yet somehow, his daughter recalls, he made just about every school recital, every game.
His kids, Keshia and Chantel, say they understood his commitment to service while they were growing up in Hawaii, watching as their father transitioned, what seemed like seamlessly, from teacher and coach to a United States sailor responsible for the upkeep of transport boats used by Navy SEALs. He nurtured his daughters to be independent, deep thinkers with a devotion to education, his eldest daughter, Keshia Jeffries-Cobb says.
The 9/11 attacks made his Navy mobilizations more frequent, and his time at home more cherished. When in 2007 their dad was deployed to Kuwait, where he worked in support of those inside of Iraq, the sisters were “typical moody teenage girls,” Jeffries-Cobb says, who needled him when he was away from home.
Jeffries emailed his wife and called his daughters frequently, and “there was never a time he didn’t show up,” Jeffries-Cobb, now 33, recalls from her home in Killeen, Tex. “I appreciated how overly involved he is.” She caught herself referring to her father in present tense and, after a pause, adds “He was.”
On Christmas Eve, Jeffries was on a volunteer assignment to interview U.S. troops as part of the military’s public relations work, traveling in a truck that collided with another vehicle and flipped. His back was crushed, and he suffered other severe injuries that left him on life support.
Jeffries’s family traveled to Kuwait to see him, taking the same roads he did and meeting his colleagues to piece together what happened. They all flew then to Germany for better surgical care, but his injuries were too extensive. He died Dec. 30.
At first, the sisters were adamant about returning to school, she said, but that quickly changed. Everyone there knew Coach Jeffries. When his death was announced over the intercom, Jeffries-Cobb wilted at the unanticipated gesture, sobbing into her gray hoodie.
Jeffries-Cobb moved to Colorado, where during her early 20s her sorrow unspooled through the cold and loneliness. Her sister, Chantel, soon followed and both enrolled in college, but their paths diverged from there.
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Chantel flourished and eventually moved to New York City. Jeffries-Cobb, daughter of an educator, flunked out her first year. She overworked herself in retail jobs and found ephemeral distractions in parties and doomed relationships. At one point, she says, she lived out of her Volkswagen Jetta.
“Grief is a circle. You’re constantly going through those stages,” Jeffries-Cobb says. “It’s about learning how to adjust to manage them. And sometimes people don’t adjust. Sometimes people are just hurt for the rest of their life.”
What finally helped, she says, was moving home to Hawaii and breaking the pact she’d made with her sister. They decided, years prior, they would not replicate the hardships of military family life and vowed never to marry a service member. A Tinder date with a soldier undid her promise, she says.
Jeffries-Cobb was married within the year, and raising their three children realigned her priorities in life, she says. Next, she returned to school to pick up where she had left off in pursuit of a degree in engineering.
The kids, she says, know about their grandfather, even though they never met him. Still, there is a void, she says, that even her 4-year-old daughter, Aidan, can feel when asking about the man she calls Babu.
“You mourn the things that you could have had,” she said.
‘I’m my own person. I’m not him’
Erik Suarez del Solar’s only memory of his father is so faint it’s almost a distant dream: A slim, dark-eyed man, not quite old enough to buy a beer, tucking him into a car seat somewhere on the West Coast.
The elder Suarez was born in Tijuana, but he yearned for a life across the border after a boyhood encounter with a military recruiter ignited an ambition to become a U.S. Marine.
He joined the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, the first unit to cross into Iraq during the invasion. Those Marines tore through ambushes and firefights on the Americans’ race to topple Saddam Hussein and his regime in Baghdad. Suarez, though, was dead in a week, having stepped on an explosive that caused him to bleed out, his son says.
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The Marine was an American only in death, earning a Purple Heart, reserved for military personnel wounded in combat, and U.S. citizenship posthumously.
Mourning, the family traveled from Mexico to Southern California, where, at 16 months, the younger Suarez was still learning to walk.
It took little time before he began to understand the gravity of his father’s death. Everyone in Suarez’s life, it seemed, pulled him aside to tell him how he was just like the dad he never fully met. His appearance. His habits. Even his love of wrestling.
But that’s the problem.
“I hate when my family compares me to him all the time. Like, ‘You’re the spitting image of your dad,’” he says. “I’m my own person. I’m not him.”
Of course, they were correct to some extent. Suarez’s father enlisted because he felt a moral obligation to serve his adopted country, his son says, viscerally attracted to a tough, dangerous job like the one he was assigned. His boy is cutting a similar path, slinging pizzas near Riverside, Calif., and studying fire technology and health science, determined to become a firefighter.
But that alone is not enough, he adds. Suarez wants to honor his father by earning a better job, better money, a better education.
And a bigger family.
At 21, he’s already surpassed his father one respect: age. Yet their time together, measured in mere months, is a complicated tangle of grief and mercy.
“If I lost him when I was older, I would have lost something dear to me,” he says, adding that his experience is “a different kind of pain.”
The hurt, he explains, manifests whenever he contemplates what never was. No dad to teach him the responsibilities of becoming a man. The apathetic stepfather who abandoned him and his mom. The family struggled, Suarez says, because it was never truly whole again.
“It would have been way better if he were around,” Suarez says of his father. “Things would not have been as hard as they were.”
‘I’ve already lived half of my life without him’
When Maileigh King was 5 and first met her therapist, nothing was off limits. Sometimes they talk about the number of hot dogs in her lunchbox. Sometimes it was about her father, Adam King, who served two tours in Iraq. His death arrived before she fully understood where that even was — and what that even meant.
“The way it was introduced was,” Maileigh’s mother, Kira, recalls, “sometimes people are sick, and when they’re really sick, they die.”
As she grew up, Maileigh King wondered what may have happened. Her dad was a soldier, so maybe he went someplace dangerous and contracted a fatal illness. It was only years later, when she was 12, that she learned the truth.
“When I found out it was suicide,” she says, “it was almost like learning he died all over again.”
Adam King struggled with what he saw and experienced on his first combat tour as an infantryman, Kira King said, and he had a difficult time being withdrawn from the fighting when he returned as an Army paralegal.
His combat tours may well have fed his mental illness, his former wife says. But he also had issues with drinking that he struggled to overcome. They divorced in July 2012, but she says he was looking forward to a post-military job he had lined up. He took his life a week after leaving the Army.
Maileigh King, now 15, sees how her classmates’ fathers help them perfect their softball pitches or escort them to daddy-daughter dances. Her mother has filled some of those roles, she says, but the loss is more pronounced as she gets older and approaches her high school graduation.
“Most of your life, you have your parents there,” she explains. “I’ve already lived half of my life without him. And I haven’t finished 10th grade.”
Answers remain difficult to come by. King left notes for his family before he ended his life, Kira King said, but there were few hints in them about why he did so. He said he loved everyone, and that it was no one’s fault.
One of the letters went to his daughter. Kira King hasn’t read it since. It belongs to Maileigh now.
In Arizona, Whiterock says he’s found something resembling peace.
He has channeled his family’s belief that Piestewa’s life is a force that unifies. It has accompanied him all over Flagstaff, he says, from his weightlifting team, the Power Sloths, to his job at the college, where veterans can benefit from resources he helped establish.
Importantly, Whiterock says, these students now have a space to hang out and connect with one another. This is vital, he explains, for those having hung up the uniform.
In a way, Whiterock says, it’s been a blend of his mother’s accomplishments and unmet potential that have guided his long-term ambition to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
As the war’s anniversary arrives, her legacy has been on his mind.
Now the old man in the family, he says there is one more thing he can do to keep the bond strong. Soon he intends to fill out the paperwork that will make him, officially, become what he already feels in his heart.
Razzan Nakhlawi contributed research.
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