Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Memorial Day 2018 Part Two

I looked back over what I wrote yesterday and I must say that is not a model of entirely coherent speech.  But I said at the beginning, twelve years ago, that I was not going to edit once I pushed the publish button (except for egregious spelling errors):  I write this from the heart and my heart sometimes has to grope around for the right words.  Word order is a secondary task.

Our second stop on Memorial Day was on Ft. Lewis.  Last year we got our Gold Star Family ID cards that let us go on post without an escort  or (further) paperwork but we had never actually used them.  This time we drove right up to the main gate, showed our cards and were waved right on in.  It was the least stressful entrance process that I've ever gone through at a military installation and I really appreciate that.  When we lived in Maryland, I would go to Ft. Meade from time to time and going through the gate always left me shaky and a little tearful.  The day I couldn't figure out how to raise the hood of my car was painful.  Anyway, the experience at Ft. Lewis was light years better.

Thanks to Google maps, we drove right to the Memorial Park, which is a beautiful square block filled with memorials from the various Stryker Brigades.  I think the one from Thomas's unit was the first created:  we saw it in 2005 before it was moved to the park.  We parked across the street and walked up to the stone.  And OK, here is where I get hazy.  There were a couple of guys standing around (later I found out they were not in Bravo Company and weren't part of the group I had kind of arranged to meet).  There was a bunch of Army people in dress uniforms at one of the other memorials, obviously preparing for a ceremony.  Richard and I basically stood and waited to be approached.  And, in due time, Timothy arrived and walked up to greet us.  One or two other guys showed up.  We stood and they chatted about the deployment, about Thomas, about other guys they had lost.  We speculated about the ceremony that was obviously going to be held (I realized later that I knew at least one of the families that attended).  The men we were not meeting cracked open a couple of beers in memory of their friends and kept talking.  Eventually it was time to go so we said goodbye and got in our car to head home.

We had left our flag flying at home the day before, contrary to etiquette which demands that you take in the flag in darkness (if the flag is lit up you can leave it out).  We just hoped our solar lights had stayed bright through the night.

Thomas's name is third down on the far left.  He was the first Deuce Four man lost.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Memorial Day 2018, Part 1

It's been over a year since I wrote in this blog, a sign of healing, moving forward maybe, or maybe just an exercise in denial.  I still miss Thomas, and I think about him daily, but life has settled down greatly since those early days.   I forget sometimes how very much it hurt when they told me he had been killed.  The ambush moments nearly disappear and I do not seek them out.  Nonetheless, they still find me occasionally, and one of them got me on Memorial Day.  Well yeah, you might say, Memorial Day is bound to be a vulnerable day and I should have been a little more prepared but here it is:

Since moving to Washington state, very few people (comparatively) are aware of our Gold Star Family status.  We've been to several events with the American Gold Star Mothers chapter here but for the most part we've stayed quiet.  This year I suggested to my husband that we go to Dupont so I could run with the original chapter of Wear Blue:Run to Remember and then we could go to Ft. Lewis and visit the Stryker Brigade memorial there, possibly seeing a couple of the guys who  had served with Thomas.  This would let us honor and remember Thomas within a community, but quietly, which is what I think he would have preferred.

So, that is what we did.  I emailed Wear Blue to let them know we were coming, made a hotel reservation near Gunpowder Park where they meet up on Saturday mornings, and let a couple of Deuce Four guys know when we would be on Ft. Lewis (or JBLM as it is now known, old habits die hard!).   The morning of Memorial Day we caught a bus provided by Wear Blue to the park, about an hour before the run was scheduled to start.

Oh my gosh.  There were hundreds of people, there was food, there was a banner with the names of those KIA in OEF/OIF, there was music.  It was huge but I knew that a couple of other Gold Star moms were going to be there too.  Somehow, we spotted each other (and no, I don't really remember how we did that because we weren't dressed in our customary white and I didn't know the first mom I talked to at all before that day).  I am so glad that I got to meet them!  I also got to greet Lisa Hallett, who I had met several times on the Blue Mile of the Marine Corps Marathon in DC (Thomas's big sister Anna ran for Wear Blue in the MCM in 2016 as a Gold Star Athlete).

Around 9 the official event started.  We had a couple of short speeches, a prayer, and a gigantic Circle of Remembrance, and then the run began.  We went in waves, running through the park and the surrounding neighborhood with the help of the Dupont Police Department (and maybe the fire department too?  I was pretty dazed by then).  I followed in the footsteps of many, many people, remembering not only Thomas but the young men and women whose families I've gotten to know over the years since 2004.  I remembered those families too, the moms and dads and siblings, and the wives and children of the fallen.  I remembered those still fighting and prayed for them to come home safely.

It was a three mile run, not timed, just steps to dedicate, steps with purpose.  I chatted a little with others but mostly just ran in my own zone until I turned a corner and realized that they had put up  placards with pictures of the fallen that I was used to seeing on the Blue Mile of the MCM.  They were in chronological order because some of those names I knew of course and I counted down, past Chase Whitham whose mom had been the first Stryker family member to contact me, and then I saw Thomas's face.  This was my ambush moment and I just sobbed, all of that grief still there.  An arm went around my shoulders and I was surrounded by a little family concerned to make sure I was all right.  They kindly stayed with me until I calmed down and was able to smile again, and we took a couple of pictures because in this era of cell phone cameras, that's what we do.  I bless them every time I think about that moment.

Eventually I finished the run, met my husband, had a little lunch and then walked back to the hotel.  I showered and we headed off to Ft. Lewis to the memorial park.

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day 2017

It is Mother's Day!  I've heard from my kids, people have posted pictures, we've prayed for our moms, living and dead.  My gift for the day is some quiet time while Richard goes into Mt. Vernon to shop for groceries.  The idea was that I would sew in peace.  When he left, the sky was grey and it did not look good for outdoor activities, but now the sun has come out (this happens a lot) and I feel like I'm wasting a beautiful day!

Before I got to that point I did spend some time in my sewing room.  I finished a quilting project for a Deuce Four soldier's baby son just last week and had to clean up the debris--spare fabric, trimmings that I keep thinking I'll find some use for, the pattern I misread--in order to have space to cut anything else out.  You can see where this is going.  One of the things I wanted to do in that quilt was add a little bit of Thomas, so I had cut a little bit from his desert BDU shirt? jacket?  and added

some chips of that fabric in the corners of a block.  So I've had a couple of uniforms and his combat boots sitting in that room for several months while I figured out what I was doing.  They've all been in a heap on the floor and I have ideas for using more of the fabric, but it just needed to be straightened up to fit in the room better.  The desert piece I'd already cut and handled.  The jungle piece:  I suddenly realized that the sleeves are rolled up.  The things he took to Iraq were meticulously folded when they came to us--this must have been in the stuff he left in storage when they left Ft. Lewis. 

Rolled sleeves. I'm pretty sure Thomas was the last one to wear this uniform, and clearly he had not had time to get it laundered before they left.  I looked at the boots, looked at the uniforms, and decided that the sewing part could wait for another day.  There's no smell of young man that I can tell, nothing to bury my nose in (and after twelve and a half years, no surprise) but I folded it all back up relatively neatly and put it down.  Another day.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

New Home, New Start

We finally sold our home in Silver Spring, Maryland at the end of August.  It was not without hiccups but we prevailed in the end.  The next biggest challenge turned out to be buying a new home in the Skagit Valley, near my sister in Washington state.   Houses in Mt. Vernon, our intended destination, proved elusive.  If I expressed an interest in one, it sold that day.  If we attempted to put a contract on one, someone else had a more attractive offer.  Many sellers did not want to bother with a contingency offer (which, considering our experience, was wise).  In the end, my nephew Brian found online a house in LaConner, a small, historic town on a saltwater channel.  Generally, houses in La Conner would be too expensive but this one was the right size and the right price, tucked away on a side street without a majestic view but definitely more scenic than our previous residence.  So here we are

If there is a downside to living in La Conner, it's that it is a tiny town in the middle of large fields devoted to agriculture of one sort or another:  crops, livestock, dairy cattle.  The town itself is  laid out along the channel and over a rocky hill that is essentially across the street from the water.  We are behind the hill.  It makes being a runner difficult because it is all pretty small or too well-traveled by logging trucks.  I've been driving to the southern end of the trail along Padilla Bay, the other end being near my sister's home in Bayview, and running along this stretch.  It's safer to be off the road and the ground is level.  And, Thomas walked there with us twelve years ago, just before he left for Iraq.  In fact, he ate lunch with the family, including cousins, in downtown La Conner on that weekend, in the La Conner tavern, a place we pass nearly every day while walking Kolbe.  I nod to the memories and go on.  It was a good time. 

This is a picture of the Padilla Bay trail this past Monday.  I was surrounded by birds, herons that led me along the trail in both directions, and an eagle that swooped by, maybe twenty feet away.  Memories kept me company.  Though this looks lonely, I was not alone by any means.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

July 6, 2016, another birthday in heaven

We are trying to sell our house.  It's been a more difficult process than we anticipated with two contracts falling through (one after we'd spent about a thousand dollars and several weeks complying with their wishes following inspection.  Oy!) but we think we may be winding to an actual close.  It seems odd to be leaving the house where Thomas from nine years of age to 18 and where he returned to visit during his time in the Army, but I am comforted by a dream a friend had a year or so ago, with Thomas, silent as always, leaning on the tree in the front yard and nodding approvingly as we carry things out of the house to a truck.

Today would have been Thomas's 32nd birthday.  Had he lived, maybe he would have finished college, been married, even had a child by now.  It is more than useless to speculate and I almost never let my mind go down these paths.  This is not what happened.  He's gone.  What did happen instead? Truthfully, I have been blessed by the events in this alternate universe.  I have made friends for life among the mothers and among the men, no longer so young, who served with Thomas.  I have found some purpose in nudging things toward the better for veterans, and for the bereaved.  It doesn't make up for his loss, but it helps me make sense of his loss.  I've learned to just be grateful for these friendships and for this different purpose in my life, despite the reason they came to me.

It's not a betrayal to be selling this house, but a moving forward.  My husband and I are planning to move to Washington state where I grew up and where Thomas lived the last year and a half of his life.  It is some comfort to me that he spent time wandering the waterfront in Olympia, a place I spent a lot of my childhood because my maternal grandmother lived there, along with, at various times, my aunts and uncles and my cousins.  Members of my mother's family were among the earliest settlers in Olympia--I am so glad my son got to spend time there.

This is a little disjointed--as I said, it's been a long day--but I wanted to observe Thomas's birthday. We got to the cemetery to place flowers and a couple of flags, but it was incredibly hot and we did not linger.  He's been on my mind all day, from my 2.26 miles in the humidity this morning to this very moment . . .

This afternoon at Gate of Heaven cemetery.

This morning, following my run.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

Beginning again

So, it has now been eleven years since Thomas was killed in Mosul, Iraq.  On the 11th anniversary, 11/11, the weather was perfect, as it had been here that day.  This is what we did:

Anna and I aimed to run 11 kilometers in honor of 11 years.  In the last year, a local meet-up of Wear Blue: Run to Remember has gotten very active in Columbia, Maryland.  They usually meet at Centennial Lake, a man-made lake in Centennial Park (go figure), because it is about 2 and a half miles around the lake on a paved path that is well-maintained.  These meet-ups usually happen on Saturday mornings but the leader, Chris, proposed a Veterans Day meetup in addition.  Much conversation ensued and we all settled on 7 a.m., with Grandpa Richard designated as child-minder and dog-walker, while Anna and worked our way around the lake three times.  Leah's other grandpa, Bob (an ultra-marathoner and a veteran) came to run too, and Jessica, one of the chairs of the Montgomery County Veterans Collaborative brought her baby in a stroller, and a number of the Wear Blue regulars came as well.  We held our Circle of Remembrance, and we all remembered Thomas (Army Specialist Thomas Doerflinger echoed around the circle) and then we ran in the gorgeous, breezy morning, realizing we had all done a very Thomas thing.  No one thought to set their various GPS devices or pedometers to metric measurements as opposed to miles.  So, in the end, we kind of guessed our way to the 11 kilometers and probably overshot a little.  It was wonderful.  Matthew is the best runner of us all, but he's been climbing rocks in Kentucky for the last few months so had to do his purposeful miles on his own.

Anna had to leave for work so we headed directly home from the run.  Maria arrived mid-morning and we set off for Columbia again to have lunch together!  (Food featured heavily in this day.)

Maria had to head back to southern Maryland late in the afternoon, but we did stop at the cemetery for a few minutes before she left.  Peaceful.

We had pizza and beer (and wine) and toasted Thomas with friends in the evening.  It was a nice evening, surrounded by friends and family as we observed this anniversary.

Beginning again though:  Today I realized that it has been 11 years since the day after the funeral.  This is really the day when we paused and began to think about how the future would look.  There was nothing left to plan, just the aftermath of a death.  Over the next few months we would have to replace the refrigerator and redo the bathroom (both taxed past their limits by intensive use during November), figure out how to claim Thomas's bank account, sort through some of his belongings and just close the door on others for a while, try to connect with his friends and continue to watch the accomplishments and trials of Deuce Four.  We had to figure out how to live with knowing we weren't going to see him again.  Still working on that.

So here we are.  The weather today has been beautiful, a little breezy again, a little cooler than it's been for a while.  Despite the autumnal feel to the air, it also feels hopeful.  Yesterday was grim and grey with rain and fog but overnight it cleared out, making way for blue sky and sunlight.  Kind of a metaphor really . . .
This picture is obviously not everyone who was with us that morning but it's who we caught before they left the parking lot, all sweaty!

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Monday, July 06, 2015

Veterans Day 2014

I left this as a draft until today but I think I want to share it even though it's over seven months old.  Lee Ann, 7-6-15

Ten years.  It seems surreal.  The last few days have just been just:  outside of time.  I don't know how to describe this.  We've been doing things we don't normally do in anticipation of this date, not just because of Thomas but because it is Veterans Day.  And Remembrance Day.  We are caught forever in that split personality of honoring the living while remembering our own fallen soldier.  Today the weather has been unusually warm and sunny for November.  As I type, the Concert for Valor is unfolding on the National Mall under cloudy but not rainy skies.  My kids are down there in the VIP area, courtesy of TAPS.  I'm watching HBO.  For the last couple of days I have been wearing my Gold Star banner pin, something I don't do often and worry about when I do.  This weekend I put it on and just let it be, mostly just not giving it another thought.  No one said anything--not sure if that makes me happy or sad.

On Saturday night, my husband and I, along with four other Gold Star Mothers and spouses went to a dinner held by the American Veterans Center, honoring veterans from World War II to the War on Terror.  It was an incredibly touching evening. 

Thomas's Birthday, 2015

Just a little musing today.  It's been a long time since I wrote anything but thoughts have continued to perk.  I just haven't had the energy to do anything about them.

Thomas would have turned 31 today.  We got to spend his last birthday on earth, his 20th, with him thanks to the 3 weeks of leave he had the summer before they left for Iraq.  I remember the day he was born, eight days after his due date, nearly a pound heavier than his sister had been.  I remember spending that 4th of July in Sears looking for an iron--I go through irons at an ungodly rate, maybe because I sew with a lot of cotton and always want them as hot as possible--and feeling enormous.  Three years later we were back in the same Sears, looking for Thomas who had latched on to a stuffed Thumper and hidden in a clothing rack.  We ended up owning Thumper.   I'm not sure where Thumper is now but he remained a favored stuffed animal for all of Thomas's little-kidhood and maybe a bit beyond . . .  This year, we ended up in the same Sears yet again, this time looking for gasoline additives for our newly-acquired secondhand lawnmower (my husband goes through lawnmowers at the same pace I go through irons).

Now, here's the thing:  Thomas hated mowing the lawn and may have only done it once or twice in his life.  He hated the lawnmower because it was so loud.  So how did he end up in the Army in a job that seems to have been noise personified?

We don't have a cake today, at least not yet.  Maybe I should go get a cupcake or something to mark the day.  Richard and I went to Mass this morning with my friend Debbie, and we went to the cemetery yesterday.  I will post a picture from yesterday but also from Memorial Day when we took our granddaughter Leah, Thomas's niece, to visit the grave.

I am done with my term as president of the Maryland Chapter of the American Gold Star Mothers, as of June 30th.  However, I am still in charge of this year's fundraiser, the annual Crab Feast!  How did losing my child lead to organizing an event featuring a creature I cannot eat??  Luckily, the menu is significantly larger than that.  Anyone interested in eating crabs on September 20th should contact me at

And now my pictures.  I'll try to do more writing--it's not just my blog that I've neglected recently!