'Life is divided for us now': Gold Star Mothers Day

Nancy Pfander and Kyle Powell (Courtesy of Nancy Pfander)

Nancy stared at her son’s legs. She should have been tending to dinner. Instead, she was trying to think of ways to smash one of his legs. Maybe the left one, since Kyle was right-side dominant? For days, she’d been wrestling with this idea, even going into the front closet one night to examine a baseball bat leaning against the wall. If she ruined just one of her son’s legs, Kyle would be furious with her, maybe wouldn’t talk to her for years. But, she believed he would forgive her eventually. If she ruined just one of his legs, he couldn’t be deployed to Iraq for his third tour.

Nancy couldn’t bring herself to do it.

Kyle left for Fallujah on a cool night in August 2006. She looked into his blue eyes, his cropped military haircut unable to disguise how young he looked at that moment. It was only a few years ago that she was dropping Kyle off at Eagle Scouts, hearing him joke with his friends in the backseat. As a kindergartner, he would come home and give his mother updates on Desert Storm. Nancy still isn’t sure where he had heard news about the war at such a young age.

But now she just didn’t want to forget his face. “Be safe. See you later,” she said. “Goodbye” felt too ominous.

Kyle left, and Nancy didn’t sleep. She lay awake, knowing that Kyle’s day was starting as hers ended. She tried not to watch the news. She tried to ignore the reactions of friends when she told them Kyle was in Fallujah. “Oh, no,” they’d say, almost hissing as they gritted their teeth. “It’s pretty dangerous in that part of Iraq.” As a retired Army nurse, she was well aware of the dangers in any war zone, let alone the ones where her son was stationed. And she knew well that Kyle was working with reconnaissance units, the units that did “the worst jobs in the worst places.”

She didn’t think much about the doorbell when it rang on a Saturday night, after dark. They were used to having visitors stop by for a chat and a cup of tea after work, but she when she looked out the window, she saw two Marines in formal blue dress uniforms, standing at attention at the door.

Kyle and another Marine had been clearing the road for bombs in front of a convoy when one went off and killed them both in Fallujah on Nov. 4, 2006, the casualty-notification officer told her.

That night, Nancy sat alone in the basement. She found a DVD that Kyle had made after his second tour of duty in Baghdad. All night, she sat with the remote control in hand, playing and replaying the home video of his time in Baghdad. Smiling young Marines came up on the screen, giving peace signs and wrestling with each other.

Kyle Powell (Courtesy of Nancy Pfander)

How will anything in life ever be right again? she kept thinking.

Kyle’s body arrived, after dark, several days later on Nov. 10, 2006, escorted on a military plane to Dover, Del., and then on a commercial airline to the Colorado Springs International Airport. Nancy felt frozen as she watched her son’s casket come out of the plane’s underbelly. Some Gold Star families insist on seeing the bodies of their loved ones, but Nancy was told by her assigned grief officer that Kyle’s body was severely disfigured. She decided not to see his body, leaving her last image of Kyle as happy, healthy, alive.

Hundreds of people filled Kyle’s funeral ceremony in Colorado Springs as Iraq war protesters lined the nearby streets of the funeral home. The 21-gun salute reverberated through the cold afternoon, as the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of men and women on motorcycles that shields the mourning military families from war protesters, created a wall. The protesters could not see the funeral attendees, and those attending could not see the protesters. Nancy didn’t know the demonstrators were there until someone told her years later.

Sunday, Sept. 24, marks Gold Star Mothers Day, a relatively little-known occasion always observed on the last Sunday in September. The day, which was designated in 1936, is intended to recognize and honor those who have lost a child while serving in the military.

The name Gold Star Mothers refers to the gold stars that families displayed in windows to honor a relative who died in uniform. Grace Darling Seibold founded the American Gold Star Mothers after her son, George, was killed in the First World War, realizing that she was in desperate need of support from other mothers experiencing the same devastating loss. There are chapters in almost every state, all with their own presidents and members.

As of Sept. 22, 2017, there have been 4,411 total military deaths (including both combat and nonhostile) as a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to the U.S. Department of Defense casualty website. There have been another 2,346 deaths as a result of Operation Enduring Freedom, based primarily in Afghanistan.

For Nancy, the days tumbled into weeks and months and years after Kyle’s death. Time, impossible time. The “new normal” brought unexpected grief within her grief, and new interactions that she couldn’t have imagined in her former life — broaching her son’s death in conversations with acquaintances or even strangers, who had no idea what to say in response. She’d find herself apologizing for the awkwardness, excusing herself for making her grief uncomfortable to others.

Nancy Pfander and Kyle Powell (Courtesy of Nancy Pfander)

Nancy and the family planned to spread Kyle’s ashes on his birthday, Dec. 14, a month and a half after his death. It felt too soon, though.

The walnut urn with the Marine Corps emblem sat on the mantel in the family room for more than two years. By mid-January of 2009, though, Nancy was ready. The family trekked up one of Kyle’s favorite hiking trails in Colorado and spread his ashes at the top of the mountain.

In 2007, Nancy called Carla Sizer, a mother in Colorado Springs who had lost her 19-year-old son in Iraq only two months before they had met. Carla had seen Kyle’s obituary in the local newspaper. A few days after the initial call, Nancy visited Carla at her home. It didn’t take long into their first meeting for Nancy to feel like she’d known Carla for years.

Carla showed Nancy a collection of memorabilia from her son, Dane. There was the Purple Heart, the flag, the photos, and the military gear. Nancy understood the need to make a sort of shrine for her lost child. Carla listened as Nancy told her about Kyle and his war games at a young age. Carla laughed and told Nancy about Dane’s love of music. He’d play the air drums everywhere he went. It was the first time that Nancy had spoken with someone outside her family who seemed to understand.

Both women knew the support of the other was life-saving. With the closest chapter of the American Gold Star Mothers in Cheyenne, Wyoming, much too far away for moms from their area to participate, they decided that they needed to create a Gold Star Mothers chapter for women in the nearby neighborhoods.

Nancy and Carla were among five Gold Star moms who signed a new charter as the Pikes Peak Gold Star Mothers. They hoped there wouldn’t be any more members — still, the Colorado chapter tripled in size in its first three years of existence.

In April 2009, Nancy was elected president of the Pikes Peak Gold Star Mothers. She saw herself as no more than a facilitator, finding viable meeting points and starting conversations for the rest of the mothers, and ensuring every mother had a chance to talk about her son in each meeting.  The women often talked and joked about being “FINE” — F***ed up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional.

Nancy stepped down from acting president of the Pikes Peak Chapter in 2011. “We like to switch it up every few years.” Still, she is a staple in the group, all while her sorrow has morphed in new and unsuspecting ways throughout the years. The 10-year anniversary of Kyle’s death hit her particularly hard, she said. “There was something about 10 years that made me realize this was just forever.”

But she said she has tried to experience joy and pleasure these days that she hadn’t allowed for herself for a long time after Kyle’s death. Now she attempts to “thrive without guilt, rather than just survive.”

Nancy now acts as a guide for other Gold Star moms, new ones, ravaged in their grief, the ones trying to make sense of the new path they have been thrown onto. She wants to be a person who “gets it” for them.

“Life is divided for us now,” said Nancy. “It’s ‘before’ and ‘since then.’ We will never be the same people again.”

The women come from all sorts of different backgrounds, and there’s “always a wide range of feelings and emotions to keep in tune with,” said Nancy. “Some are gung ho about the military and some blame the military for their child’s death. You just have to be sensitive to everything that might come up.”

Despite the differences of opinions, the women are connected by something much stronger, said Nancy. “We just value different things,” said Nancy. “And let’s just say our tolerance for stupid stuff is really low. Sometimes we’ll talk about someone complaining about something silly, and we all just want to say, ‘Look, my kid’s dead.’”

This weekend, Colorado Gold Star parents will gather in Durango, Colo., for their annual retreat during Gold Star Mothers Day. Blue Star Parents, or parents who have children as active military, fundraise throughout the year to keep the weekend completely free of charge for Gold Star parents. There are dinners, workshops, art therapy, and discussion groups — it’s like a family reunion, said Nancy. And there is the “Hall of Heroes,” a room filled with photographs of every fallen soldier from the area who has died between 2000 and 2016. “It’s just a time to gather and talk and share our experiences and struggles and get some support in a safe place.”

Janna Schaefer of Durango, Colo., along with Linda Matthews, are the cofounders of the Colorado Gold Star Parents Weekend, having planned the annual event for the last 10 years.

Schaefer, whose husband died in 1993 of cancer related to his service from Desert Storm, said “helping them has helped me keep my husband’s memory alive, as well.”

“These parents are always just so grateful for the weekend,” said Schaefer. “They want to know their child is remembered. Every year, I usually hear someone say, ‘Thank you for keeping the memory of my child alive.’”

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