So I had thought I wasn’t going to say much more tonight about things — though I am waiting to hear back from a friend about stepping out for a quick chat and a drink — but in waiting I stumbled across this story, one of a flood on Iraq given the five years since the invasion. Not an obscure story, really — it’s on the front page of the New York Times — but it focuses on something that had been fairly obscure to me, namely the nature of death benefits and how they have been distributed among survivors of the dead American military members in Iraq.
The parents of Sgt. Eli Parker of the Marines, killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, used the $500,000 to finance their retirement, remodel their house near Syracuse and travel to Washington for the Marine Corps Marathon. After Sgt. Dominic J. Sacco of the Army was killed three years ago by an insurgent attack on his tank, his widow, Brandy, fielded requests for cash from family members she had not talked to for years — as well as from her husband’s ex-wife and a woman in prison who claimed that Sergeant Sacco had fathered her son.
Kayla Avery, whose husband was killed seven months after their West Point wedding, invested most of the payout, but not before buying new bedroom furniture, a Louis Vuitton wallet and a purple Coach bag to match her funeral clothes.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is my husband’s last Christmas gift to me,’ ” said Ms. Avery, 25, a graduate student in psychology who lives in Tennessee, near Fort Campbell, where her husband, First Lt. Garrison C. Avery, was an Army platoon leader.
Three understandable situations each — the second is the most obviously troubling, but was outside of the control of the widow. The other two are similar to each other in how the money was used, a balance of personal betterment, material goods and some forethought (Avery herself credits a financial adviser for helping her with her money — and having been through grad school I can agree it’s good to have a cushion, for sure).
There’s not much I can add to the story itself — I think overall it does a very deft job of noting how the collision of high emotion, potential inexperience and the quantifying of a life via an amount of money results in a spread of possible results that vary situation to situation, person to person. (The contrasting stories of the widow feeling resentful over her husband’s family getting most of the money versus — in a separate situation — the mother who thinks that the widow received attention equally due to herself and her family shows just how tricky this all is, and how the idea of a perfect resolution is chimeric, the potential of insult added to injury taken to a depressing but unsurprising extreme.)
But it does make me think a bit about my own background — my dad’s service being in the sub fleet, there was really no risk run during Vietnam, the most above-board conflict that occurred during his service which he would have faced a direct combat role, as opposed to a higher-serving position in command, which is what he eventually did in his final Navy tour of duty overseeing an intelligence installation at Point Loma during the Gulf War. The idea of my dad possibly never coming back from his job honestly never occurred to me, I’m sure — whatever nuclear war concerns I had in the eighties, and I did have them, they had the perverse virtue of being all-encompassing. I wouldn’t have to worry about being left behind, in that nobody would be around.
Perhaps unduly flippant, given the subject matter. But experience and expectation forms mindsets, and had my dad passed in the line of duty, how would the family have handled things? Of course I’m relieved that the question is entirely academic, but much like the fright that my sister’s disastrous plunge at Honolulu’s airport when she was a baby caused all of us, it puts the what-if question to the fore. As with that situation, I am happy to count my blessings and good fortune.
But to turn from my personal lens — this story serves as a reminder of something that is, theoretically, apolitical. Regardless of what one feels regarding the validity of the original Iraq invasion or the act of still being there, the idea of doing something for the survivors is beyond reproach, a natural extension of the presumed commitment in military service and the honoring of responsibilities and promises kept on the part of the government. That the amount granted has been increased, and retroactively applied to October 2001, is good — but ultimately there are institutional considerations at work which belong to no party, and which are never going to be ‘solved’ in a way that provides a happy answer to all parties involved.
Still, I also think this — these are situations where, for all the pain and sorrow and more involved, there is an end to the story in some respects, a finality on the part of the dead serviceman or servicewoman. But there are many, many more injured or affected than dead, and their struggles, from the minimal to the harrowing, up to and including suicide, cannot be ignored either. In many ways, they have not been all this time, but in others, I think that they have not been fully understood or appreciated. Ultimately, especially with reference to those whose struggles may solely be psychological, the responsibility is one that should be shouldered by a government and administration dedicated to their care, as appropriate, as needed. If someone supported the war, they should be willing to support the committing of resources via the VA or whatever means seems best to assist as a veteran needs or desires it. If someone opposed it, they should do similar. And this commitment can and will run for decades.
To step back, though — this is not a presumption that everyone who served has been scarred or feels traumatized. Such a conclusion denies agency on the part of those who have served and have their own thoughts, which can and do run the gamut, from BlackFive to the Winter Soldiers and back again.
But for the dead, whose thoughts are now forever stilled, there are the survivors, the disbursements, the decisions. Money can make people do strange things to our eyes, perhaps — but would we have done any better?