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In Marines’ Deaths, a Friendship Is Born

Times Staff Writer

Elena Zurheide was sitting on her in-laws’ couch, cradling her infant son, when an achingly familiar story on the television news grabbed her attention. Another local Marine had been killed in Iraq -- meaning another young widow, another fatherless newborn. And another wake.

In an instant she made a decision. She would attend the wake for Cpl. Jeffrey Lawrence, who, like Zurheide’s husband, had been on his second tour of duty.

She did not know his widow, Celeste, but felt an immediate bond because of their shared tragedy: Each woman had been days away from giving birth to her first child when her husband was killed in Fallouja.

“I didn’t want her to go through this alone,” said Zurheide, whose husband had been stationed at Camp Pendleton, of that day in 2004. “I knew the pain and suffering she was feeling. It just seemed so right that I go.”

With her infant son, Robbie, in her arms and accompanied by an aunt for moral support, she went across town to the tiny chapel.

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After waiting for the right moment, she approached Celeste Lawrence, who was sitting apart, looking dazed. Zurheide reached out to hug her, then slipped a small piece of paper into her hand.

Dressed in black, her eyes puffy from crying, still weak from giving birth, Lawrence was startled and said nothing.

“Call me,” Zurheide whispered in her ear. “Any time.”

Lawrence, holding her baby girl in her arms, was taken aback. The chapel was crowded with people mumbling vague offers of help and sympathy. And then came this note from a stranger.

“I was sitting there and she came up and gave me a hug and said her husband had been killed in Iraq too,” Lawrence recalled.

“I just wanted to be left alone. I felt I was the only one who had ever lost a husband like this.”

Zurheide knew better. “We were just alike.”

*

Celeste Lawrence had known she would be alone when their baby was born. Jeffrey, her high school sweetheart, quarterback of the football team and her husband of 16 months, had left for Iraq when she was five months pregnant.

“We were still in the honeymoon phase when you’re talking about your lives together,” she said.

On July 8, 2004, she was two days overdue to give birth. In the oppressive humidity and heat of a North Carolina summer, she had never been so uncomfortable and yet so happy, in anticipation of the baby and her husband’s return in the fall.

Then came the knock on the door of her Camp Lejeune apartment. A Marine, a chaplain and a Navy corpsman told Lawrence that her husband had been killed when his vehicle hit a hidden roadside bomb.

The words jolted her.

“I thought I’d have the baby right there,” she said. “I didn’t cry, I couldn’t cry. It was like I couldn’t breathe.”

Cadence Freedom Lawrence was born two days later. At first gaze, Celeste recognized those eyes, that serious face. Jeffrey’s face.

The new mother had decided on the middle name Freedom in honor of the Operation Iraqi Freedom mission that had sent her baby’s father to war. She learned to breast-feed while making funeral arrangements and fielding phone calls that brought both condolences and congratulations.

“The only time I had to cry was when the baby was asleep,” she said.

*

Lawrence, 23, and Zurheide, 22, are among nearly 1,000 wives of U.S. service personnel killed in Iraq since the war began three years ago, depriving more than 700 children of a parent.

No military base has lost more personnel in Iraq than Camp Pendleton, where Lance Cpl. Robert Zurheide was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division. Lawrence was part of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune.

The Marine Corps prides itself on “taking care of its own” and surrounding grieving families with support, including a casualty assistance officer to help with the complexities of death benefits and medical and dental insurance. A surviving spouse is permitted to live in military housing for one year after the death. The military picks up the tab for moving costs.

Generally, surviving spouses are entitled to a $100,000 death benefit. Also, they are eligible for up to $400,000 in life insurance if the service member had paid monthly premiums.

Still, it’s all so much to deal with.

One afternoon about a week after her husband’s funeral, after Lawrence had put the baby down for a nap and had a break in the tasks of mothering, grief overwhelmed her. She rummaged in her purse and found the slip of paper that the well-meaning widow had pressed into her hand.

She made the call.

The two women talked for hours. Their lives were so similar -- the good times and the bad.

Each had grown up in Tucson and married her high school sweetheart. Elena and Robert Zurheide had eloped to bypass parental opposition. Celeste and Jeffrey Lawrence had had a small wedding.

Zurheide had been living at Camp Pendleton when her husband was killed April 12, 2004. A mortar fired by a Marine had fallen short and landed in the courtyard of an abandoned schoolhouse where Marines were hunkered down during a battle.

When she was notified, Zurheide began cursing and ordered the Marine, the chaplain and the corpsman to leave. On May 1, she gave birth.

Each woman had moved back to Tucson to be close to family and friends -- and to their husbands’ graves. But the friends they had left as post-high school brides now seemed immature, unable to relate to their tragedy.

“Celeste and I had to grow up -- like this,” said Zurheide, snapping her fingers. “These girls may have children, but it’s not the same. They still haven’t had to grow up.”

Zurheide and Lawrence have bought homes and sport utility vehicles. Zurheide drives a new Dodge Durango; Lawrence, a Cadillac Escalade. Zurheide lives outside town on a four-acre spread where she keeps horses, goats and dogs. Lawrence bought a tidy four-bedroom home in a new subdivision.

Recently, each became more conscious of her appearance. Both lost weight. Zurheide got braces; Lawrence had breast augmentation.

“I wanted to do something that made me feel young again,” Lawrence said. She is seeing someone.

When the two are together, much of their conversation is the usual chitchat of young mothers -- naps, feeding, teething, etc. But on a cold, windy day recently, the exchange turned to the raw facts that had brought them into each other’s life:

“Have you seen your husband’s autopsy report?” Lawrence asked. “They won’t show me mine.”

“Yes,” Zurheide said, her voice suddenly hard and angry. “They told me to make sure someone was with me when I read it. I read it alone.”

Lawrence is not sure she wants to see the report. “My husband was sitting over the gas tank, so there really isn’t much left of him,” she said.

Zurheide remains angry that it took weeks for the Marine Corps to officially confirm that her husband had been killed by friendly fire.

Still, she remains supportive of the U.S. mission in Iraq. “We’ve got to finish things,” she said. “I don’t want Robbie to have to go over there someday and finish it.”

Lawrence is more ambivalent about the war.

“My husband died a hero, I know that,” she said softly. “But President Bush mentioned bringing the troops home soon, but it’s two years later, and they’re still there. I just don’t know.”

In late August 2004, about a month after meeting, the women decided they deserved a break and traveled to San Diego for a Toby Keith concert.

When the country-western star sang his trademark “American Soldier,” it was as if he was singing directly to them:

When liberty’s in jeopardy,

I will always do what’s right.

I’m out here on the front lines,

Sleep in peace tonight.

Lawrence said later, “It made me feel alive again.”

The two mothers and their toddlers have spent birthdays and holidays together. They talk by phone and go shopping. They went recently to a roadhouse to enjoy some music.

They don’t need to be in constant contact; just knowing the other is there is enough.

“We’re sisters now,” Lawrence said.


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