Op-Ed: A watch, a valentine and a bundle of clothes: Mementos saved by the families of fallen soldiers
Between 2014 and 2017, Inbal Abergil photographed the private keepsakes and personal shrines maintained by 18 families who lost a child, parent, sibling or spouse in an American war, from World War II to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. They told her about the arrival of the casualty officers, how they pieced together what had happened, and how they memorialize the dead.
Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Birdwell
Killed in action Aug. 27, 2012, Afghanistan. From a conversation with Pam Birdwell, his mother.
This is Chris’ favorite ornament. Every year he’d come and say, “Where’s my ornament?” A little boy on skis and he’s hit a tree and that’s exactly how Chris broke his leg. He was going so fast, and his leg was out and that’s what went into the tree and just snapped his bone, so then he had to have these metal bars.… I just haven’t taken [the tree] down. It’s not in our way, and I like having it up to honor Chris, and it just makes me smile when I see it.
That’s his uniform. Our casualty assistance officer had it cleaned for us, and he had all of the medals updated. I just didn’t want to put it away and hang it in a closet. I wanted just to keep it out. I’m trying to think who might have his cap. I think our niece might have his cap. I could hang that, then, on top, but for now...
Pv2 Isaac T. Cortes
Killed in action Nov. 27, 2007, Iraq. From a conversation with Emily Toro, his mother.
I remember right before he was going to get deployed, I had this horrible dream. And in the dream he was killed. I saw it. I saw he was in the Humvee. There was some other guy, and I saw he died with someone else.
This was, I think, maybe, I don’t know, a couple of weeks [before he left], or maybe less than that, I can’t remember. I used to remember things, but losing Isaac is like...
But from that day that I had the dream, I was preparing myself for what was to come because something told me he was going to die. He was not going to come back home. He was only in Iraq eight weeks. That’s it, eight weeks.
When I go to the storage [room], I get overwhelmed. I see a box that says “Isaac’s stuff”; I have a lot of “Isaac’s stuff” boxes. Even the little things.
See, for my ex-husband, for him, Isaac is dead, let him be. And I can’t. I have to remember Isaac. I keep the memory alive. He said to me, “Mommy, I’m going to be famous. Everybody’s going to know me.”
“Isaac, please, you’re so cocky.”
He said, “You watch.”
Then you think about it now. Him dying — look what I have done: His name is on a post office. He has his street. His name is on a race car. His name is in Chicago. His name is in a wall in California. His name is in the Rayburn Building of Washington, D.C. So, technically, he’s everywhere. It’s like, OK, this is what he meant.
This is his pillow. It’s his two shirts. The two shirts and the pillow came back, so I kept this. And that’s how I sleep with them; I pretend that it’s him. It’s not him, but I pretend.
Sgt. Donna R. Johnson 514th Military Police Company
Killed in action Oct. 1, 2012, Afghanistan. From a conversation with Tracy Dice-Johnson, her wife.
Fast-forward to September 2011, and we’re gonna try to get married on our anniversary of Oct. 10. Then we found out she was up for deployment again for Afghanistan, and so we went to Washington, D.C. It was really like a 24-hour elopement. She started doing her pre-deployment training like about two weeks later. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” had been repealed, but none of the laws had really changed.
She was supposed to call between 9:00 and 10:30 at the latest. I woke up and it was 10:30. I was like, something’s not right. So I got on the internet, and the first page I went to, in red letters, it was like, three U.S. casualties, Khowst, Afghanistan. So I knew that was her unit, and I knew it potentially was her.
Her sister called me and told me that the people with uniforms [were there] and told her Donna had been killed. I asked her to have them wait there for me. And I grabbed our marriage certificate and went over there. I had to go to track them down and force them to give me a notification.They should’ve respected me enough to notify me. If it wasn’t for her mom treating me as her spouse, then I would’ve been shut out completely. I wasn’t considered her next of kin.
Hospital Corpsman William F. Ortega, Marine Expeditionary Force
Killed in action June 18, 2010, Afghanistan. From a conversation with William and Maria Ortega, his parents, and Edna Ortega, his sister, as translated by Edna.
On his last visit at home, the time that he was here, he would just, like, start bear-hugging everybody; he’d grab you and squeeze you. And then my mom was like, “What is wrong?” He’s like, “Mom, just let me feel you. Let me hug you — that’s it.”
Before he left the house, he told my parents, “Just know that if I have to give my life for a fellow Marine, I’m gonna do it.” Those were his last words.
[The car] stopped and did a U-turn, and then they came back and they parked in front of our house. [My mom says] she instantly knew, because my brother spent a year preparing her. He was like, “Mom, if this ever happens, don’t ask any questions; just know that I’m gone.”
[My dad says] when he gets ready for work every morning, he comes through the living room — he just looks around. He says he don’t like going to that area because he starts thinking, “Where are you?” He says, “I told you to not try to be a hero because the heroes end up in the cemetery.”
Sgt. Kyle B. Osborn, sniper
Killed in action Sept. 13, 2012, Afghanistan. From a conversation with Maggie Osborn, his wife.
I got his dog tags and his wedding ring and a picture that he had in his pocket at the time. And then his cap card (which his his ID card), with a hole punched through it, so that it can’t be used again.
Kyle wanted a closed casket. Unfortunately, also in his last request was he wanted to be buried with his wedding ring on. I decided that even though he didn’t want me to see him, that since I was the one who put the wedding ring on the first time, I should be the one to put it on the last time too. So that’s what I did, and I had to see his body; it was — it sucked.
My first reaction unfortunately is that I laughed. Just because of the way they do them up, put makeup on him. It looked like him but wasn’t. They’d dressed him in full dress blues, which was the first time I’d seen him in dress blues because he refused to buy them.
He loved the Army. Obviously, he loved it enough that he was willing to give his life for it.
Pfc. Stephen William Pickett
Killed in action Dec. 14, 1967, Vietnam. From a conversation with Victoria Miano, his sister.
The funeral was just a couple of days before Christmas — I think we buried him on Dec. 23. So Christmas was just like — Christmas just went. Until I was in my 20s, until I was in my own place, and then it was like, “Oh, we can celebrate Christmas again.”
We didn’t talk about it. You didn’t walk around going, “My brother was killed in Vietnam.” It was almost like your brother was a baby killer and stuff like that. Because people hated the Vietnam War. Not everybody, but that was pretty much the essence of it.
This was the newspaper article [announcing his death]. He actually was a paperboy, so this was the newspaper that he used to deliver.
One of my greatest blessings is to have his letters. Usually on the Vietnam Veterans Recognition Day [March 29], I read his letters. Just to keep his memory alive.
Staff Sgt. Justin R. Whiting, Special Forces medical sergeant
Killed in action Jan. 19, 2008, Iraq. From a conversation with Estelline Miller, his mother.
My doorbell rang. I opened it and I knew. I could tell that one was a chaplain. I saw his cross on his uniform, and the other man had such a baby face. He looked so young.
I stood inside the door and the young man said, “Are you Estelline Miller?” And I guess I just looked at him because he asked me again. The chaplain said to me, “Ms. Miller, you need to let us in.”
They kept saying to me, “Ms. Miller, we need you to sit down.” I kept screaming at them, “Which one of my boys is dead?”
And the young man, he stood over me, and I finally sat down. He stood over me, trying to read this piece of paper, and his hands were shaking. That’s when he said Justin’s name.
He wasn’t someone that took a lot of things with him because he had to carry it wherever he went. I know he didn’t have a lot. It was mostly his clothing. He had a watch that I had given him several years before for Christmas. It was a dress watch. And why he had that in Iraq I have no idea. I had given him a kind of hardbound notebook because he liked to write things down. I’d given it to him six years before. Why did he have that? I don’t know.
Did I tell you he had gotten out of the Army? He had done his first enlistment. He said, “Mom, I’m going to get out.” He was only off for just a few months, and his team told him that they were headed back to Iraq. He basically said, “I don’t want them to go without me.”
Inbal Abergil is a visual artist and an assistant professor of photography at Pace University in New York. The images and interviews, excerpted and adapted, are from “N.O.K.: Next of Kin” (Daylight Books), which will be published on Veterans Day. Artist talk: American Jewish University, Los Angeles, Dec. 17.
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