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Major Roy James Blakeley (December 10, 1928 - July 22, 1965) - USAF (KIA)

When I was young my dad would say
Come on son let's go out and play

No matter how hard I try
No matter how many tears I cry
No matter how many years go by
I still can't say goodbye

- "I Still Can't Say Goodbye," Performer: Chet Atkins

MP3 audio file/lyrics http://www.royblakeley.name/larry_blakeley/songs/still_cant_say_goodbye.htm

For a larger image click on the photograph.

They have met on the Internet and on cross-country road trips. But mostly they find one another at the funerals.

As the number of American troops killed in Iraq has risen above 1,300, mothers of the dead have built a grim community of their own, mostly invisible to outsiders and separated by geography, but bound together by death. Some have met in pews, recognizing one another from newspaper photographs or with the simplest introduction: I lost my son, too.

"My closest friends now are three other mothers I have met who lost their sons," said Cindy Sheehan of Vacaville, Calif., whose son, Specialist Casey Sheehan, died in an ambush on April 4. "I feel closer to them, even the ones who live far away, than I do to the people I have known for years. I feel closer to them than to the people who knew Casey. Us moms are really the only ones who know what we're going through."

In this network linked by sorrow and empathy, however, one issue divides them: the wisdom of the war.

Relatives who believe the war in Iraq was necessary tend to gravitate toward one another, talking little of politics and more of pride, sacrifice and loneliness. And those like Ms. Sheehan, who questioned the need to invade Iraq, find one another too, wrestling with their doubts about the war and the meaning of their losses.

People on each side say they respect those on the other. Still, flashes of tension have crept up at small gatherings and group interviews, and even after condolence sessions with President Bush.

This fall, on a conference call of mothers who shared their experiences for a book project ("A Mother's Tears: Mothers Remember Their Sons Lost in Iraq," by Elliot Michael Gold) several hung up in anger after disagreeing about whether the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had made the war in Iraq necessary.

And this summer, one mother, Nancy Walker of Lancaster, Calif., said she found herself awkwardly starting to describe why she believed the war was wrong at her first dinner meeting with a couple in Iowa, whose marine son had died the same day as her own and whom she had driven many miles to see. Clearly, she said, the couple did not agree with her.

"I think what I told her was, 'Let's not go there with the politics,' " said Nelson Carman, the father from Jefferson, Iowa, a farming town of 4,500, who met with Ms. Walker that day. "I do believe firmly in this war. Those terrorists are going to bring the war to us. They hate you. They hate me. They hate our life. They hate what we stand for.

"To bring politics into our son's sacrifice is just something that is not conceivable to me," Mr. Carman said, adding that he felt a special sorrow for those families who felt as Ms. Walker did. Coping with the death of a child, he said, was challenge enough. "If you have another set of issues, especially political, that you're dealing with, that's just another hurdle you have to get over."

Similar webs of shared mourning have grown out of other wars and disasters. Many families of those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks came together for comfort and support. But their unity fractured over questions of the nation's domestic security and intelligence needs, and who should be president.

During the Vietnam War, in which 58,000 American service members died, veterans themselves became sharply polarized, and the divisions surfaced even in the past presidential campaign. Still, the families of the dead came to lean on one another.

Ann Herd, national president of the American Gold Star Mothers, a group for mothers of slain soldiers that dates from the 1920's, said she recalled that at least by the end of the Vietnam War, "I think many of us were angry: we had the sense that they just didn't try to let those boys win." Ms. Herd's son died in Vietnam in 1970.

Once again, with the war in Iraq, the question at the heart of the divisions between families - mothers especially, but also fathers, siblings and spouses - is fundamental: Was their loss for a noble cause or might it have been in vain? For some, even posing the question diminishes and disrespects their soldier's service to the country. For others, it is a terrifying question to ponder, but one they say they cannot shake.

Karen Hilsendager, of Philomath, Ore., said she found herself struggling with her doubts about the war and what they meant for the death of her son, Specialist Eric S. McKinley, who was killed in June. Ms. Hilsendager said she was irked by a comment people often made about her son. "They tell me: 'Thank you so much for his service. He's a hero,' " she said. "And I want to say back, 'He's not a hero, he's a victim.' "

At another Oregon soldier's funeral this summer, Ms. Hilsendager met a mother whose son had also died - and who also opposed the war. The two women live two hours apart, but they have since shared phone calls, lunch and e-mail exchanges.

Ms. Hilsendager said they had leaned on each other, exchanging stories of their sons' quirks and wondering what their sons would think of their friendship. "And we talk about how mad we are about Bush, and why we're there," she said, "We really have a common thing."

Ms. Hilsendager said her feelings against the war were no blemish on her son, his service or his memory. "My son was following orders, and I'm proud of him for doing that," she said. "But I am not proud of the administration that sent them. They did it wrong. They should not have gone over there yet. I'm not saying never, but not this way."

Not far away, in Independence, Ore., Clay Kesterson and his wife, M. J., say they stand firmly and proudly behind the war that killed Warrant Officer Erik C. Kesterson, Mr. Kesterson's son and Ms. Kesterson's stepson.

Since his death in a Black Hawk helicopter crash in November 2003, the Kestersons said they had grown close to numerous other families of Oregon soldiers who died. They have been to some 20 funerals. They even camped in a tent on the lawn of one family in Klamath Falls who had just lost a son.

"When you lose somebody in these circumstances, others who have been through it immediately know what the feelings are, and what the pride is, and what the emptiness is," Ms. Kesterson said. "We understand and we want to let the other families know that we're in support. Every single soldier with a uniform on was doing something for his country."

The Kestersons said they had thrown their grief into efforts to raise money for a memorial for the soldiers from Oregon. They spend nearly every weekend now speaking to veterans' groups and seeking contributions. Last week, as part of an effort they dubbed Operation Cookie Drop, they carried cookies to soldiers at Fort Lewis, Wash., who were wounded in Iraq.

"We've got to do something," said Mr. Kesterson, 64, who volunteered and fought in Vietnam. "The alternative is to crawl into a hole."

Ms. Kesterson said she felt compassion for those who did not agree with the war and said she thought their struggle must be even harder. "It is a relief that we not only understood the mission but that we understood the uniform," she said. " 'Freedom isn't free' means that our country was founded on heroes like ours. We'd love to turn back the clock, but you can't have it both ways. It's why Erik put on the uniform. He was totally willing to take the risk.

"Our son would be disappointed if we didn't honor the decision of President Bush," she said. "Out of respect for Erik, we can't possibly think otherwise. It would be dishonoring him."

But even within the Kestersons' extended family, there are divisions. Dolores Kesterson, Erik's mother and Mr. Kesterson's former wife, who lives in Santa Clara, Calif., said she was plagued by her doubts about the war and what it meant about her only child's death.

"I feel it was a waste, like Vietnam," she said. "All these deaths are as big a waste as Vietnam."

In a way, she said, she wishes someone who lives in Iraq could change her mind for her. "Can't I see the light or something and look at it differently?" she said on a recent afternoon. "I wish I could. But then I watch and it gets worse over there."

Dolores Kesterson said she had grown close to two other mothers who are as troubled by the war as she is. She exchanges e-mail and talks with them on the phone, she said, but she cannot bring herself go to all the soldiers' funerals, as some people do. It would be too crushing, she said.

But the funerals keep coming, 21 months after the first ones, and some mothers say they feel compelled now to keep watch for any other soldier who dies from their town or county or state and to attend as many funerals as possible, even those miles away, just as other grieving mothers did for them.

Many said seeking out other families was not an option, but a necessity. Their new bonds became their only solace over months, they said. These were the only people who could really understand the dizzying memory of those first uniforms at the front door, the tears that might come at any time, the sons who reappeared in dreams, the emptiness of the holidays.

Karen Fisher, the widow of Sgt. Paul Fisher, who died when his Chinook helicopter was attacked more than a year ago, said she tried formal support groups in her area, but little she heard seemed to apply. The group for relatives of those who had died of cancer or disease did not fit, nor did the one for those of murder victims. Some of the widows of Sept. 11 began including Ms. Fisher, who lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in their e-mail messages, sending her words of wisdom and guidance.

Ms. Fisher said she had grown closest to other wives of Iowa soldiers, particularly one woman whose husband died in the same incident as her own. Most of their talk, she said, is about small things, not war or politics, just making their way through the days.

"We call each other if one of us is going on a vacation or buying something new," she said. "That's the kind of thing that happens in this: you're afraid to sell anything or to buy anything new because what will people say? Or I call if I had a good day, because part of me isn't sure if that's right. Sometimes you feel guilty even for having a good day.

"I guess I call," she said, "to see if she's doing what I'm doing." Rarely, if ever, Ms. Fisher said, do she and her friend talk about the necessity of the war and the political forces behind it.

"That is not a road I want to go down," she said.

- "G.I. Families United in Grief, but Split by the War," Monica Davey, New York Times Online http://www.nytimes.com/, January 2, 2005 http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/02/national/02moms.html?hp&ex=1104728400&en=b4e232a34355b7c0&ei=5094&partner=homepage