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Out of the Woods / The pain of loss in war is endless

Published 11:59 am, Friday, May 24, 2013
  • Four-year-old Sophia Phillips is presented an American flag by Brigadier Gen. James Pasquarette during a burial service for her father, Staff Sgt. Francis G. Phillips, at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, May 20. The Meridian, N.Y. soldier was killed in Afghanistan when the vehicle he was riding in was struck by an improvised explosive device. Photo: Win McNamee, Getty Images / 2013 Getty Images
    Four-year-old Sophia Phillips is presented an American flag by Brigadier Gen. James Pasquarette during a burial service for her father, Staff Sgt. Francis G. Phillips, at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, May 20. The Meridian, N.Y. soldier was killed in Afghanistan when the vehicle he was riding in was struck by an improvised explosive device. Photo: Win McNamee, Getty Images

 

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Memorial Day is upon us Monday -- a time to take stock of the men and women who fought and died in all of our wars, especially the disastrous invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's now been a decade since the United States invaded Iraq on a pretence, and more than a year since the last company of U.S. troops left Iraq. But only about 40 percent of American soldiers who fought there believe the reasons for going to war justified the loss in blood and money, according to the latest Pew Research poll.

Almost 4,500 U.S. troops were killed and more than 32,000 wounded in Iraq, including thousands with critical brain and spinal injuries. Estimates of the number of Iraqi civilian fatalities are staggering, ranging from 100,000 to 600,000. The monetary cost could exceed $3 trillion. While the war in Iraq has officially ended, the sacrifice for veterans continues as they return in the civilian world to an environment that is isolating and impersonal.

In addition, according to the latest military figures, 3,315 American men and women have been killed in the war in Afghanistan.

So many died, it seems to me, for so little. This may seem harsh to families who lost so many young soldiers abroad. But it is the truth -- and most Americans know it in their hearts. Even the Veterans Administration is failing to do its job, making soldiers wait six months to more than a year for treatment. That is a genuine scandal. President Obama should be held accountable.

Yes, we all went along with the "support the troops" motto in order to be patriotic, but that did not mean many of us agreed with the purpose of the wars. I don't think so.

While I have not personally lost anyone in the military in either of these wars, I recall knowing a soldier who did not come home because he was killed in action.

His name was Bob Milward. And he was a pilot in World War II. He was tall, always with a warm smile, and ready to play catch with me when he could find the time. He was almost like having an older brother. He lived in an apartment with his mother down the hall in an apartment building in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, N.Y. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1942.

He was several years older than me, but that did not make any difference in those days.

He was just a good guy willing to spend some time with a teenage kid who was his neighbor. I can still see him in his spiffy uniform, beaming with pride and optimism about helping to win World War II, His cause was clearly just and right. It was that simple.

One day, when I was waiting at the elevator, I saw his mother looking terribly sad. She looked at me and said quietly, "Woody, Bob is not coming back." Then she broke into tears. I held her gently for a moment or two and gave her a hug.

I was speechless. It was the first time in my life that I experienced, indirectly, the loss of someone I knew who went to war. I felt stunned. The full impact of his not ever coming home was hard for me to take in.

When he signed up, I knew in the back of my mind that he might be killed, but as a young teenager, I never believed it would happen to him. He was too nice a guy. I suddenly felt lonely without him. It was as if he had instantly disappeared.

I had never witnessed firsthand the profound grief and palpable sense of loss that I saw his mother go through. It came as a shock that anyone so young and exuding such hope and optimism would never come back. I also felt a little guilty, I guess, because those few years that separated us in age were the reason that he could join the military and I could not. I simply was not old enough.

On this Memorial Day, it is surely appropriate to honor those who have served and those who have fallen. But we should also honor those families who have endured permanent loss.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at woodyklein12@gmail.com.