I can think, off the top of my head, of a dozen sad stories this holiday season. But for some reason the story of Denise Anderson won't let me go.
Denise is 42, a single mom. Her son Army Spc. Corey Shea was killed in Mosul last year shortly before Thanksgiving. About a month before his tour of duty would have ended in Iraq. Corey was 21, Denise's only son.
Like many soldiers bearing the brunt of our two wars, Corey was so young he wasn't married, didn't have kids. So Denise made a request. To be buried alongside Corey in his plot at the Massachusetts National Cemetery, not far from his hometown of Mansfield.
Sounds reasonable enough. But that's when Denise ran headlong into the enlightened thinking at the VA. They told her there was a policy and the policy was this: only spouses or children could be buried with their loved ones who'd died on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. It came down in the end to a space problem. A matter of concern that when push came to shove, there might not be enough grave slots in the national cemeteries for dead vets and their dependents.
And since Denise was only a mom--and a single mom at that--she didn't count.
Even some vets' groups didn't back Denise up. "In this particular case, we really have to fall on the side on protecting the integrity of the veterans benefits system," AMVETS spokesman Jay Agg told the AP. "The position of AMVETS is that the benefits are for service members and their eligible dependents."
Pretty chintzy, don't you think? But if that makes you mad, you might want to take a breath.
According to the AP story, the VA does make exceptions to its burial policy and has done so for four parents since 2005. Denise asked for a waiver, too, but was turned down.
Here's the hitch: Before they'd grant Denise's request, first she'd have to die.
Or as VA spokeswoman Laurie Tranter explained using this convoluted logic: Because Denise made the request "in advance time of her need," it didn't fit VA policy.
That made my head hurt just typing it.
"It was the most devastating blow that I could ever get," Denise said of the decision. "I just miss him so much. Just being with him will give me some sort of peace."
The VA wasn't totally heartless about the grieving mom's request. Corey's remains were buried "at a sufficient depth to accommodate her future burial." How prescient!
Maybe the VA is trying to think ahead. Be proactive. Avoid the kind of public outrage they engendered when they allowed wounded vets at Walter Reed to languish in filth. Or maybe they're trying to get a jump on the plot problem the way the military has with sexual assault. (Read here: http://bit.ly/7jS2pj). Maybe the VA is right. The number of Americans who've been killed in Afghanistan this year has already surpassed last year's. Imagine what the tally could be by the time we leave in 2011, the date Obama has promised he'll withdraw our troops?
All those dead soldiers. And no place to rest.
Maybe there won't be enough burial plots if they grant every mom who wants to be buried with her dead soldier son--or daughter, for that matter--her wish.
If that's true then we're in worse trouble than we think.
But I digress. Denise, bless her stubborn heart, isn't planning to die anytime soon. So she's decided to fight the VA's cruel and antiquated burial policy with the help of some allies. Including a Vietnam War hero and former presidential candidate.
You can probably guess who.
"No mothers or fathers of a fallen soldier should have to worry about their child being buried alone," Sen. John Kerry told the AP. "I think Corey Shea would be unbelievably proud of his mother for her determined efforts to honor his memory and ease the burden for other parents who have experienced unbearable loss."
Kerry and Barney Frank, Denise's representative in Congress, are spearheading the Corey Shea Act. If it becomes law, the bill would allow biological and adoptive parents to be buried with their dead sons and daughters in any of the VA's cemeteries. Unless, that is, the veteran has children or a spouse, or there isn't enough gravesite space.
I have a son. He's not in the service, and I wouldn't want him to be. A few years ago when recruiters were hot on his 16-year-old trail, I did everything to persuade him it was a terrible idea. For me it came down to the Iraq war. I didn't believe in it. I still don't.
Before some of you start shrieking, she hates the troops! she has no respect for the military! hold your horses. My cousin's son just spent his first Christmas in Iraq. My stepmother served in the Korean War. Her best friend was one of the Army's first female colonels.
And now I have friends whose children might be heading to Afghanistan. According to icasualties.org, we've lost 941 Americans to that war since 2001. That sounds like a trickle compared to Iraq. But wait. Just now the New York Times reported that at least six Americans were killed in an Afghan attack by a suicide bomber.
I don't want to be buried with my son. I hope it never comes to that. But Denise Anderson does. And if I were Denise and my son were the one lying in that cold lonely grave, I'd want to lie there for eternity with him too. Talk about patriotic. It's the least the VA can do for Denise.
For any parent who loses a child to war.