Returning home to a tragedy

Times Staff Writer

Army Sgt. Anita Shaw spent endless hours worrying about her teenage son while she served in Iraq.

She worried about his learning to drive without her, then maybe having a car accident. She worried about his not seeing a doctor if he needed to, or forgetting to go to the dentist. She worried about his having trouble in school.

But even in her darkest moments, she never worried about him being slain.


Her son, Jamiel Shaw Jr., 17, was killed last Sunday when two men in a car pulled up next to him, asked if he belonged to a gang, then shot him when he didn’t answer. He was three houses from home in the Mid-City area of Los Angeles.

Police said Jamiel was not affiliated with a gang. He was a high school football star who hoped to earn a college scholarship and become a sports agent, family members said.

Shaw learned of her son’s death when her commander called her into his office to break the news.

“Your son Jamal has been killed,” he said, mispronouncing the boy’s name.

Shaw said that allowed her room for denial.

“He said his name wrong,” she said. “I thought maybe it wasn’t him.”

On the 14-hour flight back to Los Angeles via Kuwait and Atlanta, she told herself the horrible news wasn’t true, that she simply was on her way “home to see my baby.” And she thought about her son.

When Jamiel was born, his mother was determined to do things right.

“It was my first-born,” she said. “I wanted to do it all.”

Shaw insisted on a natural birth, breast-fed her son and used cloth diapers. When Jamiel started eating solid foods, she cooked fresh peas and carrots and mashed them up so he wouldn’t be exposed to processed food.

When Jamiel was 5, Shaw, who had served in the California Army National Guard for about 10 years, enlisted in the Army full time. She had been looking for work without success.

“I couldn’t get a job,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a welfare mama, getting $400 a month and $200 in food stamps. It was a conscious choice I made. I knew joining the military [that] there would be sacrifices.”

At first, Jamiel stayed with his mother at Ft. Hood in Texas. It was a good place for families. The base would be shut down for family days and carnivals, she said, adding, “It was nice, spending time with your family.”

But after second grade, Jamiel asked to live with his father in California.

Shaw agreed, and she began taking long weekends to see Jamiel and his younger brother, Thomas, now 9. She spent her leave time at their L.A. home and felt that she was doing what was best for her boys.

In the years before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she said, “People weren’t getting deployed,” she said. “I was like, OK I don’t have anything to worry about.”

Then came the wars. Shaw was sent to northern Iraq in September 2004. Jamiel, then 14, didn’t want her to go. He was angry and distant when she left, she said.

But Shaw believed she would be safe. As a unit supply sergeant, she said, her primary job was to “take care of the commander’s pocketbook.” Shaw said she felt lucky to have a supervisor who never asked her to travel off the base on convoys, something Jamiel feared.

Over the phone, he repeatedly warned her: “Don’t do anything crazy. Try not to go on any convoys. Protect yourself.”

In 2005, when her first deployment ended, Shaw was shipped to Vilseck, Germany. Jamiel told his mother he was afraid of flying, so he didn’t visit her there.

But she was pleased that he seemed to be in the middle of a triumphant run at Los Angeles High School, where he played football, competed in track and had many friends.

In August, Shaw was sent back to Iraq. Before leaving, she spent a month in Los Angeles with her sons, taking care of routine things: making dentist appointments, driving them to school, picking them up, scheduling annual portraits at Sears, attending track meets.

The day she left, she rushed to Thomas’ elementary school in the early morning to make sure he had the right supplies. When she came back, Jamiel was leaving for school and she was late for her flight.

“He kissed me goodbye and hugged me,” she said.

The last time Shaw spoke to her son was just before Valentine’s Day. She asked how he was spending his monthly allowance and told him to make sure to buy a Valentine’s Day gift for Thomas.

“I was so busy, I didn’t get to send him anything,” she said. “I told him, you’re too old for mommy to send you anything for Valentine’s Day, but Thomas is not. He’s probably gonna need Valentine’s Day cards to pass out at school; make sure you get him those.”

Shaw, a tall, imposing woman with shoulder-length black hair and soft, brown eyes, smiled broadly as she talked about Jamiel, about how he loved to ride the ponies at Griffith Park when he was a boy and how, as he grew older, all the girls loved him.

But when she talked about the men who killed Jamiel, the smile vanished.

“I’m angry. I’m mad,” she said. “At Jamiel’s school, they were talking about how another child not too long ago lost his life. How many kids have to lose their life?”

Shaw wondered aloud if there is a difference between the war she’s fighting in the Middle East and the one Americans face at home.

“The only thing is we don’t have sand and dirt flying all around,” she said. “But we have the bullets.”

She paused, then continued: “I don’t know if I can say this with me being in the military, but we need to be cleaning up the streets of the United States instead of cleaning up Iraq.”

Shaw checked herself. “I better stop,” she said.