Published on Monday, April 14, 2003 by the New York Times
For War Opponents, Complications in the Pain of Losing a Loved One
by Monica Davey
The night before her son left for Kuwait, Ruth Aitken argued with him on the telephone for nearly three hours. From her living room in State College, Pa., she told him that a war with Iraq made no sense, that it was really a scuffle over oil. Her son, an Army captain based at Fort Stewart, Ga., countered that America needed to be protected from terrorists. "Mother," he finally told her, "it's my job."
The argument — a "major confrontation" in Ms. Aitken's memory — was by no means their first debate over the war, but it was their last. Capt. Tristan N. Aitken, 31, died on April 4 as American soldiers fought for control of the Baghdad airport.
"He was doing his job," Ms. Aitken said. "He had no choice, and I'm proud of who he was. But it makes me mad that this whole war was sold to the American public and to the soldiers as something it wasn't. Our forces have been convinced that Iraqis were responsible for Sept. 11, and that's not true. I told Tristan that he should go to Saudi Arabia for that. All he would come back to was, `Mom, I have to do my job.' "
"It makes me more upset," Ms. Aitken, a job placement consultant, said. "We shouldn't be there. We shouldn't have been there."
Since she learned of her son's death, she has careered from one emotion to the next. She spoke of him with pride and sadness, weeping as she read his last letter, in which he described six days of sleep in the stiff front seat of his Humvee, then laughing as she remembered the time her son, at 11, had shot arrows at trees from their front porch.
"This is a proud mom," she said. "I love my kids a lot. And I raised my children to think for themselves." Ms. Aitken's daughter, Terryl, was in R.O.T.C. in college, and will begin a residency in optometry at the United States Military Academy at West Point in June.
Many more families of the service members who have died in Iraq have said they support the war. In interviews, some said they took comfort, however small, in knowing that lives had been lost for such a crucial cause. "That's what makes me so proud," Rhonda James-Brown, of Natchez, Miss., said after her son, Cpl. Henry L. Brown, 22, of the Army, was killed. "He went so we could be free and he could free his fellow man."
But for others, there was no comfort. In Baltimore, Michael Waters-Bey held up a photograph of his son, Staff Sgt. Kendall D. Waters-Bey of the Marine Corps, for news cameras, and said, "President Bush, you took my only son away from me."
In Escondido, Calif., another father, Fernando Suárez del Solar, told reporters that his son, Lance Cpl. Jesus A. Suárez del Solar of the Marine Corps, had died for "Bush's oil."
Lillian Lake, 70, has been more soft-spoken about her dissent. After her son, Chief Warrant Officer Eric A. Smith, died in a helicopter crash, she met some of his friends and fellow service members at a memorial. Her feelings about the war stirred mild tension, she said.
"They felt his death was an honor," Ms. Lake, of Lake Placid, Fla., said. "I didn't see it that way, and they were upset about that. To me, as a mother, you know, it is not an honor. But they think it's an honor, and I respect that. Eric would love that."
Ms. Lake said she told her son that her religious beliefs, as a Jehovah's Witness, taught her that war and killing were wrong.
"This is not what God created man to do," she said she told him.
At first, he argued with her, she said, countering, "So it's O.K. for me to go and perhaps die for you to have a country with freedoms like religion."
Eventually, she and her son came to an understanding, Ms. Lake said. Going to war was his choice. Not believing in killing was hers.
"You have to understand, I am not disrespecting the country either," she said. "I'm not angry. I can't be angry. But I'm not happy that I can't hold him again."
Rita Russell said her feelings about the war in Iraq in no way diminished her pride in her nephew, who died in an accident there. "We're proud of him," Ms. Russell said of Lance Cpl. William W. White, 24, of Brooklyn. "I support his efforts. I have to support the troops. But I don't understand."
She said she hoped that the chemical and biological weapons that administration officials said Saddam Hussein had are found in Iraq. It would help her make sense of the fight and of her family's loss, she said.
"If my nephew had died in Afghanistan, I would have understood his death and accepted it more," Ms. Russell said. "I'm not for war, but the Bible does say that there's a time for war and a time for peace. I just don't know what this war is for."
Dorothy Halvorsen said she had sometimes thought about joining the antiwar protests in her hometown, Bennington, Vt. She also thought of her son, Chief Warrant Officer Erik A. Halvorsen of the Army, a quiet man who loved his career.
"I was really torn," Ms. Halvorsen said. "I wanted badly to be part of the peace protests, but I also felt ambivalence because I had a son who was fighting. I needed to support him. I guess I felt like I was being pulled in two directions."
Ms. Halvorsen never joined a march. And as days went by in the war and service members were wounded and killed, Ms. Halvorsen decided to write a letter to her local newspaper. She wrote that she had not wanted a war but that now that it was here, she wanted people to support the troops.
She wrote about her son and about the desert's hardships: the lack of water, the packaged meals and the sand-filled air.
"They need to know we care," her letter said. It was in her car ready to be dropped off when she learned of her son's death.
Broader philosophical concerns have given way to grief.
"I think we killed a lot of innocent people over there, and I know that is war," Ms. Halvorsen said. "I can only say that he was a responsible guy who did what his country wanted. I'm proud of my son for being the responsible person that he was."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company