Semper fi

Times Staff Writer

When my mother, Avis, is buried Saturday on a bluff overlooking Anacortes, Wash., there will be an empty space in our family of mourners. I will be absent. I will be here in Iraq alongside the U.S. Marines.

In death my mother will sacrifice for war. That’s nothing new. She did again and again during her long life. That was her destiny, her burden. She bore it well. Yes, she held her beautiful head in her hands and cried when the men in her life went off to war -- to World War II, to Korea, to Vietnam, to the Gulf War, to Rwanda, to Somalia and, lastly, to Iraq. But behind her tears was a great well of resolve. For more than half a century, she wiped her eyes dry and handed out support and forbearance like a one-woman USO crusade.

Marines have words for this, words like “duty,” “honor,” “fidelity.” One last time, these words describe my mom.


But it’s not just the loss of this heel-kicking, big-smiling, warmhearted woman that’s on my mind. I say farewell mindful that she was one of millions of Americans -- moms, dads, wives, husbands, lovers and children -- who have shouldered the obligations of war’s lonely home front, today as much as ever.

No medals are awarded for this duty. Its veterans receive no national day of recognition. Yet they warrant tribute, my mom and all the others of you who held -- and hold -- our families together through painful cycles of far-off conflict.

It should be a tribute that echoes the melancholy prologue of a military citation: “To our mothers and families, in grateful acknowledgment of your service....” As happened, I learned that my mom took her last breath on the first day of summer, at the same hour I was attending a memorial tribute for Staff Sgt. Marvin L. Best, 33, who was killed in the line of duty with the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment. As taps sounded across the sand-blown desert here, my thoughts had traveled to Best’s home in Benton, Wash., where I imagined the great sadness descending on his family.

Later, I watched a Marine remove family pictures from Best’s duty log, pictures that would be packaged with his other belongings and dispatched for that final trip home.

What gave Best his strength? His hope? I’m certain that it sprang foremost from whatever faces greeted him in those pictures, just as pictures of our families sustain so many here.

Now this trail of long-distance sadness has circled back. But it’s not just death upon which I dwell. I think about the little wounds and everyday losses of war. The missed and forever gone birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, backyard barbecues, summer outings, Christmases.


It’s not just the 138,000 American men and women in uniform and the other thousands of civilians on duty here who must suck it up and carry on.

So too must their families back home, as my mother did for all those years.

It’s tough duty. And from this distant vantage, it is as essential as water in the heat of day.

Speaking of his wife back home raising their two children in Indianapolis, Marine Staff Sgt. Glenn W. Miller reflected: “She’s mom, dad, coach, teacher, doctor. She has to be strong. She does it all.” My mom watched three brothers ship out to World War II. None survived. As a child, I remember reading tissue-paper airmail letters that explained the deaths to her family. Her first husband, my father, never overcame the injuries of fighting in WWII and in Korea. He died while I was a Marine in Vietnam -- a war to which my mom tearfully saw me off 38 years ago. Her second husband, my stepfather, was also shaped forever by service in World War II.

I am a newspaper correspondent now, and there have been other conflicts to draw me to battlefields. This time, as always, she and I tried to soften the ordeal by planning our family reunion before I departed. But she was frail and added a caveat: “If I make it that long.” She didn’t. And now I fight back waves of grief. My surviving family began funeral plans not knowing whether I would be able to attend. I could try, yes. But transportation from forward bases is uncertain, often filled with delays. Instead, I decided to write this eulogy from afar.

There is another reason. You see, my mom, who died at 83, was a keen consumer of news, particularly in the places I traveled. News reports helped her make sense of the heavy feelings in her heart. The newspaper gave her a connection, and that connection provided a thread of hope. Now, in just days, the U.S. military faces a potentially historic and dicey turn as sovereignty is handed back to Iraq. There are other moms and families following the thread of events with the urgent, unblinking interest that she always did. For now, I have a small window on this story and a chance to tell it -- so I’ll try.

I think my mom would understand. She always did.