The possibility of losing her spouse - an Army Reservist deployed in Iraq since April - is an ongoing experience, the worst kind of fear, she says. The waiting is the hardest part.

But for Michael Earley of Wilmington, Ohio, the waiting is over.

His 21-year-old stepson Steven Conover died almost a month ago in a fiery crash aboard a Chinook helicopter struck down by a shoulder-fired missile outside Falluja.

Now, only the mourning is left for his family, and the cold realisation that they will never see their beloved child again.

Agony

With the war in Iraq still claiming the lives of American troops on a weekly basis, many families can do little but pray that their husbands, sons, wives and daughters make it home alive.

Others, meanwhile, are forced to suffer the kind of pain that never truly goes away.

Like most people who have lost a loved one to the war, Earley remembers vividly the moment his life changed forever.

“Sunday morning I was in the shower getting ready to go to church and I heard my wife scream and I knew,” he said. “I knew something was wrong.”

"I knew something was wrong... my heart was in my throat when we got the phone call..."

Michael Earley,
father of dead soldier

His wife, Lorraine, had seen a news report about the crash on television and the panic set in immediately. When they spoke to Conover on the phone just two days earlier, he told them he would be taking a Chinook helicopter flight to Baghdad on his way home for a 14-day leave.

What followed was an agonising 36-hour wait to learn whether their son had survived. The longer they waited, the better they felt, assuming they would have been informed quickly if Conover was among the 16 soldiers killed.

Just when they began to relax, a call came from their daughter, telling them that an Army official had come to the house.

“My heart was in my throat when we got the phone call, because we had started to calm down,” Earley said.

He was later told his stepson had died instantly.

Shared pain

Families all across America are dealing with similar grief.

There is Karen and Arland Panchot of Northome, Minnesota, whose son Dale, 26, was killed in mid-November in the city of Balad, 96km northeast of Baghdad.

Fort Wayne, Indiana residents John and Mona Peniston are mourning their son Brian who died in the Chinook helicopter crash on 2 November, while Joe and Pat Colgan of Kent, Washington lost their son Benjamin to a remote-triggered bomb in Baghdad on the same day.

Their pain is almost unspeakable; they say Panchot described the news of his son’s death as “total devastation”.

“Hearing the words ‘your son’s dead,’ you don’t get any feeling any worse than that"

Arland Panchot,
father of dead soldier

“Hearing the words ‘your son’s dead,’ you don’t get any feeling any worse than that,” he said.

The heartache fluctuates from day to day, but never really subsides, Peniston said.

“We’ll have our moments like everybody else may during the loss of a child, which no one should have to go through,” he said.

Worse still, Brian Peniston never got the chance to get married, something he was planning to do during his two weeks of leave, his father said. His fiance, who is not doing interviews, was described by Peniston as nearly inconsolable.

“She’s going through a pretty major depression,” he said. “She’s beside herself. She’s just kind of a lost soul right now.”

Questions

With grief, often comes anger, and certain families are clearly upset about losing their loved ones to a preemptive war viewed by some Americans as unnecessary.

Colgan said that while he strongly supports the troops in action, the US-led invasion of Iraq was built on “untruths”, something that exacerbated the pain of his son’s death.

“I just felt [the troops] were abused by the administration on this one,” he said. “They’re just too precious to lose unless it’s necessary.”

Rather than going into Iraq without strong international support, the American people would have been better served had the Bush administration waited for more allies and more justification, Colgan said.

We had such a chance after 9/11 to lead the world in the war on terrorism and to squander the opportunity to do it with all countries involved is such a tragedy"

Joe Colgan,
father of dead soldier

“We had such a chance after 9/11 to lead the world in the war on terrorism and to squander the opportunity to do it with all countries involved is such a tragedy,” he added.

That goes for Jack Smith as well, whose nephew, 33-year-old Ernest Bucklew, was killed in the same helicopter crash as Conover and Peniston, while coming home to bury his mother who had died of a heart aneurysm just two days before.

“I think a lot of it is oil,” Smith said when asked why he felt the US went to war with Iraq.

Smith said he supported the war in Afghanistan, a conflict provoked by the attacks of 11 September, 2001, but that the Iraqi people should have been the ones to decide if they wanted regime change in their own country.

“I always figure that the Arabs have millions of people,” he said. “If they’re going to change things over there, let them do it instead of the United States.”

But for all the families who may have opposed the war, there are just as many who supported the actions of the president. 

Support

Peniston said he believed the cause of the war was just and so did his son.

“Brian believed in it,” he said. “He wanted the children to have a life, not only in America, but over there as well.”

Panchot said he supported the war effort and even had a chance to tell that to President Bush recently when he visited the families of 26 soldiers killed in Iraq. He said he was impressed with Bush’s warmth and sincerity, but told him “that I’d sure like to meet you under different circumstances Mr President.”

If war is ultimately about sacrifice, parents and spouses have had to ask themselves whether this war was worth the cost of their dead family members, something Panchot said was difficult to do.

“You’re not going to feel that it’s ever worth it, but I’m not going to talk [the war] down,” he said.

Memories

Beneath the pain, sorrow and the many questions that remain to be dealt with, these families all said they have endured this time of hardship by focusing on all that was good about the loved ones they lost.

“You can think back and don’t remember anything that was bad,” Mr. Panchot said.

He said he remembered his son as a “fantastic” person who loved to hunt and fish and spent time with his family".

Colgan said he thought of his son Brian when he heard “any kind of fun or mischievous song that comes along”, adding that his son was a big fan of country and western music.

Michael Early remembered his stepson as a “fun-loving young man” who would often give other soldiers in his unit the presents of candy, beef jerky and fresh socks that were sent from his parents.

“In a tragedy, I have to look for the positives,” Earley said. “We have a lifetime of good memories of our son.”