On the day her son Patrick McCaffrey died on a blacktop farm road in northern Iraq, Nadia McCaffrey’s war began.
Her first act was to invite the press to the Sacramento Airport when her 34-year-old son’s flag draped-coffin was brought home at the end of June 2004.
“Patrick was not a private person. All his life he loved people,” Nadia McCaffrey explained. “Why should I hide him when he comes home? He would not have wanted that.”
At a time when the Pentagon was attempting to keep photographs of the returning coffins out of the American press, the Sacramento Airport scene attracted international attention.
From the first interviews with newspaper obituary writers, Nadia was outspoken about her own opposition to the war as well as her son’s growing reservations at the time he was killed.
“Patrick was overwhelmed by the hatred there for Americans and Europeans,” Nadia told a reporter for The Times. “He was so ashamed by the prisoner abuse scandal. He even sent me an e-mail to tell me that not all the soldiers were like that. He said we had no business in Iraq and should not be there. Even so, he wanted to be a good soldier.”
Since her son’s June death in an ambush outside the big American military base at Balad, Nadia McCaffrey has appeared at dozens of peace rallies, anti-war vigils and ceremonies for other soldiers killed in action. Along with a handful of other parents whose sons and daughters have died in Iraq, McCaffrey dedicated herself to the anti-war movement.
In late December, she went to the Middle East, traveling to Jordan with a humanitarian aid delegation sponsored by the San Francisco organization, Global Exchange.
The group distributed $600,000 in humanitarian aid for victims of American military actions in Fallouja. But plans to travel inside Iraq, where Nadia hoped to visit the site of her son’s death, were scrapped because of security concerns, not just for the Americans but also for the Iraqis who had volunteered to take them inside.
In Jordan, Nadia met with five Iraqi mothers who had lost children in the fighting.
“My dream,” she said, “was to be able to find at least one Iraqi mother, who like me suffered a loss, and be able to have an exchange without hatred or anger about the way we feel. Talk about what to do to start working for peace. And do it mother to mother, with no governments.”
Before leaving Jordan, Nadia had already decided to return in 2005 to set up a non-profit safe house for women and children. And she still wants to see the farm road where her son fell.
Born in France just after World War II to a Serbian father and French mother, Nadia has long been a pacifist.
“I grew up in the aftermath of war,” she told an audience at a Unitarian church in Davis in December. “I remember Dien Bien Phu (the 1954 French colonial defeat in the Indochina War). Then we had Algeria.”
At the Davis church, homemade cookies were spread out on card tables and a youth chorale sang carols. Yellow helium balloons drew attention to a donation box for the upcoming Middle East trip, and to a signboard displaying a picture of Patrick in dress uniform, his face a study in seriousness.
“The basic meaning of the mission is peace,” McCaffrey told the small audience in a speech that was part plaintive mother’s grief and sharply worded call to action. “It’s a first step, and I hope that other people will follow.”
Patrick, she said, loved children and worried most about the Iraqi orphans who were starved for food and love. Then she held up a picture of a little Iraqi girl holding a sunflower as big as her head. She said that the girl had given Patrick the flower the day before he was killed.
“I am going to Iraq because someone has to do this,” she said, her dark eyes flashing.
Now 59, she is an impressive figure who speaks with a slight French accent.
A man in the audience stood slowly and asked: What about your safety?
“I am not afraid,” Nadia said in a strong, clear voice. “I am not afraid of dying.”
Despite her long-held opposition to war, when Patrick came home after signing with the National Guard just a month past 9/11, explaining that he had to “do something,” she accepted her son’s decision. But as Patrick increasingly expressed his doubts about the American mission and what it was accomplishing, her concern grew, then erupted into full-blown anger when the news of his death arrived.
So she channels her anger and grief by connecting with people and helping them deal with the sorrow of loss.
In many ways Nadia is uniquely qualified for this role.
Building on her own history of near-death experience, Nadia has worked for years as a hospice caregiver, comforting the dying. Ten years ago she set up a non-profit organization called Angelstaff (www.angelstaff.org) to provide caregiver assistance and emotional support for people who were dying. She communicates by e-mail with an international network of people who are involved in hospice care. Now this group calls and e-mails to give her emotional support.
Don Murdoch thinks people naturally gravitate to Nadia because she is so focused and has no “phoniness or agendas.” “People are drawn to her, her ring of truth. She believes what she’s doing,” said Murdoch, who met Nadia seven years ago when he began doing hospice care.
Nadia’s first brush with death came when she was seven years old in provincial France when she was bitten by a poisonous snake. She says that in the ten days she lay partially conscious she had a vision of a woman that introduced herself as “Je suis ta petite maman du ciel,” or “I am your little heavenly mother.” The vision asked Nadia to share her message of love with the world.
Her most recent near-death experience came in August, two months after her son’s death. Suddenly stricken by fever, she was rushed to the emergency room. Doctors told her both lungs had collapsed.
After this attack, Nadia said she asked herself why she was still alive while her son was dead.
“When I thought of this, and Patrick, I would have taken his place with joy, but that’s not the way the plan was,” Nadia said. “I think there are no coincidences, no accidents; things happen because we are meant to do certain things. It’s totally up to us to fulfill what we have been left to do.”