Reporting from Silver Spring, Md. — The week that Army Spc. Thomas K. Doerflinger was killed in Iraq at age 20, a friend in the neighborhood brought his parents a felt banner with a gold star. Tradition holds that a grieving mother hangs it in her window until the war is over. As it turned out, the war outlasted the banner.
Years passed; the red border faded. Repairmen who came to their door on leafy Collingwood Terrace would innocently inquire, then stammer their condolences. The Doerflingers didn't feel right displaying a kind of grief that was never going to go away, so after a while they put the banner in the hutch.
Endings can be complicated for families of the fallen.
When President Obama announced the conclusion of combat operations in Iraq this month, Lee Ann Doerflinger didn't feel any closer to that magical "closure" everyone talks about. In some ways, she felt worse.
It didn't help when, channel surfing, she caught footage of the Stryker brigade pulling out of Iraq for the last time. It was the end of a mission Thomas helped launch — he drove a Stryker armored personnel carrier with a dashboard like a rocket ship's. For years she had prayed for the safety of the brigade; now they were out of harm's way and here she was sobbing on the couch — "oddly bereft" was how she put it. Another earthly part of Thomas shutting down. No more pretending he wasn't really dead, just deployed.
"Maybe someone can understand this even if I can't. It's as if that last piece of Thomas now goes too," she wrote on her blog, "We Remember," a chronicle of losing a child to war. "His part of this conflict is over."
It isn't that they haven't all moved on. A friend of Lee Ann's remarked the other day that losing Thomas isn't the only thing she talks about anymore. At 55, she has three other children, a baby granddaughter and Richard, her husband of 33 years, who anguished in his own way. She isn't sure she ever saw him cry.
By the Pentagon's count, 4,412 service members have died in Iraq. Thomas was No. 1,258 or 1,259; Lee Ann was never sure.
The five years and 10 months since he died have been a long slog forward and back. You expect birthdays to be hard. You don't expect to get ambushed while housecleaning by a 4-year-old phone bill with his cell number on it. One day you're undone by a storage closet full of his clothes. The next day you're sitting peacefully on your sister's sun porch watching the cats play.
"I was almost 50 when Thomas was killed. You sit down and calculate your life expectancy at that point and say, how long do I have to live with this grief? But I think Thomas would have asked me to take what came and see what happens," Lee Ann says from her dining room table, where they can all sit again. They couldn't at first. It was just too hard. Thomas had always occupied the chair to her left.
His mother wouldn't sign the enlistment papers -- if anything happened to him, she'd never forgive herself. So Thomas waited until he turned 18 on July 6, 2002, and signed them himself. His grades were terrible, even if he did earn an International Baccalaureate degree from Springbrook High. He hated homework. College would be a waste.
The whole family watched him graduate seven months later from basic training at Ft. Benning, Ga. Lee Ann was surprised at how proud she was. He wound up at Ft. Lewis in Washington state, home to the Stryker brigade. Saddam Hussein had been captured, a good sign. How long could the war last? She said goodbye to him in a Taco Bell parking lot across from the base. He got in a cab and did not look back.
"He was a Stryker driver who didn't like to drive," Lee Ann would later write. He was assigned to Mosul in northern Iraq. His vehicle was damaged in combat, so he volunteered for other positions. On Nov. 11, 2004, he was rear air guard, the soldier who sticks up out of the hatch. They were finishing up for the day when a sniper shot him in the head.
She has told the story so many times now she gets through it pretty well. It was Veterans Day. Lee Ann turned on National Public Radio at 1 p.m. Firefights in Mosul. Surely if it were bad she already would have heard. She curled up on the couch with an action-packed science-fiction novel -- time travel, soldiers in battle. Out the window, two uniforms were coming up her walk. Was it her eyes or the book? They knocked. It occurred to her that her life was over.
"I sent Matthew downstairs. I didn't want him to see me when I heard the news," she says. Matthew is the youngest of her children. He was in seventh grade when his only brother was killed. Now he's 18, with the outlines of a beard, in the kitchen perusing the contents of the fridge. He hears his mother's voice break, comes into the dining room and pats her shoulder.