Elaina Morton is not listed as one of the 2,000 Americans now confirmed killed in Iraq since the start of the war, but she might as well be. In US military parlance the 23-year-old lab technician from Kansas would have been referred to as a "surviving spouse". But three months after her husband, Staff Sergeant Benjamin Morton, was killed by insurgents in Mosul, Elaina picked up a gun and shot herself.
The fact that the military did not issue a press release to announce the death of the former college student who loved her cat, Stinky, and enjoyed hiking, photography and camping, does not make her any less a casualty of the war. Hers is thought to be the first confirmed case of a war widow committing suicide, and as the US toll in Iraq yesterday hit the grim 2,000 landmark her death is proof of the immeasurable emotional toll that the conflict has put on families of servicemen and women.
George Bush yesterday spoke to wives of servicemen at Bollings air force base in Washington, as part of a strategy to confront the death toll head on by portraying the sacrifice in the Iraq war as the best way to keep terrorists from striking the US again. But for many bereaved families the bigger picture the president highlighted has been consumed by the day-to-day struggle of coping with their grief.
Deedy Salie knows the feelings of isolation and desperation that Elaina Morton must have gone through before she took her life. Deedy's husband, David, was killed on Valentine's Day last year when his Humvee was blown up by an improvised explosive device in the restive city of Baquba, north-east of Baghdad. "I was an army wife for nine years, and the army way is 'suck it up and drive on'," she says. But no matter how hard she tried she couldn't just suck it up, and she couldn't just drive on. The pressures put on a family by a very public death, she says, are extreme.
"I don't want to say that any death is normal, but my husband's death was all over the television and in the papers," she says. "People recognized my children in the store. It has been a rollercoaster. One day we all seem OK, but the next one of us just bottoms out. Everybody keeps saying it is going to get easier, but when that happens I'll call and let you know, because it is actually getting harder and harder."
Deedy says her daughter, Chyna, 12, was so angry with her father for going to Iraq and getting killed that she has only just begun to grieve. Lucas, six, had nightmares about insurgents hiding in the flowerbeds. She doesn't know what Hunter, three, is thinking. When the family was living near the army base, support groups were available. But Deedy, like Elaina Morton and countless other bereaved spouses, moved away to be closer to friends and family. And that was the last she heard from the army.
"I don't expect the army to coddle me for the rest of my life, but at the same time we should not be thrown to the wind," she says. "There should be somebody who calls, a professional who can pick up on things. I keep thinking about that poor girl who killed herself. Who is to say that if a grief counselor had been calling her just once a month they wouldn't have picked up on those subtle little hints?"
Deedy sought out grief counseling for herself and her family but, still a proud army wife, it took her months to do so. "I don't want this to be about being for or against the war," she tells the Guardian. "My husband still has lots of friends and colleagues over there. But I don't want what happened to that girl to happen to anyone else."
Inge Colton is another widow who wishes she could escape Iraq, but every day when she turns on the television, listens to the radio, picks up a newspaper, it is right there in her face. "It is not like he died of cancer or something, I see it every day and I am confronted with it every day."
Her husband, Chief Warrant Officer Lawrence Colton, was killed on Easter Day last year when his Apache helicopter was shot down by a surface-to-air missile while responding to a distress call from a fuel convoy under attack. Inge had heard from a friend that an Apache from Fort Hood, Texas, had been downed in Baghdad, and when she opened the door of their home to find the uniformed men on the doorstep she knew instantly why they were there. "But I still closed the door on them; I did not want to hear what they were going to tell me. When they knocked again I just said, 'Can you give me a second?'"
For Inge, 41, life will never be the same. "Our country wants you to move on, but that is impossible because I live with it every day of my life. I get up in the morning and I put on makeup and make myself presentable, and people think I am getting back to normal. But it's a different kind of normal. I still cry every day."
According to Karen Spears Zacharias, who has set up a grassroots network linked to the website heromama.org for widows and the 1,200 children who have lost parents in Iraq, there is better support from the military than there was during the Vietnam era, when her father was killed. But too many widows unable or unwilling to ask for help are falling through the cracks. "What 23-year-old girl is going to feel comfortable walking into a veterans center or military hospital for counseling? That's like telling someone who lives 10 miles outside of town and who doesn't own a car that there's milk at the store - if they just go get it.
"People have said that suicide was Elaina's choice and we should respect that. But I don't buy that. When you're 23 years old and commit suicide it is not about choice but about being in an unhealthy place. We have a responsibility to go beyond just saying that we will be there for them and really be there for them."
She adds: "No one wants to talk about suicide because there is a feeling that we failed that person. But we need to talk about it, we can't wait to have 10 more widows kill themselves before we address it. Because right now it doesn't feel like we are anywhere near the end of this war."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005