A war widow's grief, a mother's worry

Jun 6 2011 - 10:49am

Images

In this Nov. 3, 2007 file photo, the helmet, boots, dog tags and weapon belonging to fallen U.S. Army Spc. Brandon Smitherman from 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division are silhouetted as his comrades pay tribute at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. Iraqi security officials said Monday, June 6, 2011 that a rocket attack has killed five American troops in Iraq. Earlier, the U.S. military said in a brief statement that five troops were killed but gave no additional details about where the incident occurred or how they died. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo/File)
In this May 6, 2010, file photo, Sgt. Kevin McCulley stands in front of one panel in a monument bearing the names of more than 4,300 U.S. service members killed in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion is seen at Forward Operating Base Warrior in Kirkuk. Iraqi security officials said Monday, June 6, 2011 that a rocket attack has killed five American troops in Iraq. Earlier, the U.S. military said in a brief statement that five troops were killed but gave no additional details about where the incident occurred or how they died. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo/File)
In this Nov. 3, 2007 file photo, the helmet, boots, dog tags and weapon belonging to fallen U.S. Army Spc. Brandon Smitherman from 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division are silhouetted as his comrades pay tribute at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. Iraqi security officials said Monday, June 6, 2011 that a rocket attack has killed five American troops in Iraq. Earlier, the U.S. military said in a brief statement that five troops were killed but gave no additional details about where the incident occurred or how they died. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo/File)
In this May 6, 2010, file photo, Sgt. Kevin McCulley stands in front of one panel in a monument bearing the names of more than 4,300 U.S. service members killed in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion is seen at Forward Operating Base Warrior in Kirkuk. Iraqi security officials said Monday, June 6, 2011 that a rocket attack has killed five American troops in Iraq. Earlier, the U.S. military said in a brief statement that five troops were killed but gave no additional details about where the incident occurred or how they died. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo/File)

CENTERVILLE, Wash. -- Even after a year, and more than a half-dozen memorial services, Barbie Coleman often feels like her husband is still alive. She pictures him returning to their house east of Yelm, Wash., telling fresh tales of life with his Special Forces team like he had so many times before.

"Always, in the back of my mind, I think he's coming home," said Barbie Coleman, who first began dating her husband at Goldendale High School in Klickitat County. "I just can't think of myself as a widow."

Master Sgt. Mark Coleman died May 2, 2010, at age 40. The leader of a 12-man team, Coleman in his last minutes of life ordered younger soldiers back to a safe distance as he located a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan.

"I found it," Coleman called out, then began to disarm the device -- as he had done dozens of times. This time, it detonated.

For much of the public, the news of such deaths has become numbingly routine, accompanied by familiar rituals of flags flying at half-staff, uniformed pallbearers and buglers playing taps.

As others move on with their lives, families of the war dead try to cope with their loss. In an era when less than 1 percent of the population is involved in the fighting, some struggle with the normalcy of everyday life that surrounds them.

"This year, I'm trying to focus. But I am the only person in school who has had a father die because of war," said Jessica Coleman, a 16-year-old junior at Yelm High School. "Everybody else is talking about 'my parents did this, or did that.' It kind of gets to me sometimes."

For the Coleman family, the grieving is mixed with fresh concerns about the upcoming front-line duty of Jessica's 21-year-old brother, Brett, an Army specialist based in Anchorage, Alaska, who is scheduled to go to Afghanistan in December.

For support, they often have turned to the Green Beret community and friends and family in Klickitat County, where Mark and Barbie grew up. Hundreds of county residents turned out for Mark's burial at Centerville Cemetery, including a large contingent of high school students who helped ensure that protesters -- who arrived in a white van -- could not disrupt the service.

During his youth, Mark Coleman focused a lot on cars: tearing them down, fixing them up and racing them about on the wide-open spaces north of the Columbia River Gorge.

Early on, he told his family he wanted to serve in the Special Forces. He followed through by joining the Army after his 1988 high school graduation. He was accepted into the Special Forces 12 years later.

Coleman's career included two deployments to the Philippines and more than two years in Australia on a Special Forces exchange program, where twice he joined an Australian army unit in Afghanistan.

At home, he would talk for hours about his life in remote outposts. He was clean and orderly and would offer comic accounts of his attempts to persuade other members of his team to keep the kitchen area tidy. He would tell about building medical clinics or disarming bombs.

And he would rail about people doing stupid things, and the Army making stupid rules.

Coleman's son, Brett, said that, while growing up, he was more of a "mama's boy" and never fully connected with his father. Brett Coleman graduated from high school in Yelm and decided to enlist in the Army only after working a tedious job at a fast-food restaurant.

"I hated my life. It was just so bad there, making french fries and awesome burgers for fat people," he said. "Then Dad would come home and talk about all the great stuff he did. ... And I said, 'You know, I need to do something with my life.' That's why I joined. Because of him."

Once in the Army, Brett Coleman says he grew closer to his father. They shared some of the same stresses and complained about some of the same things. They went together on an Army air jump.

His son's enlistment appeared to add a new burden on Mark Coleman. He told his wife that he viewed all the younger soldiers in his unit as "a bunch of Bretts" and felt responsible to protect them. In the run-up to his last deployment in December 2009, he would sit in a chair at their Yelm home and contemplate the treacherous months ahead.

"He would look like he was watching TV, but you could tell he wasn't," Barbie Coleman said. "He would just kind of breathe out, and say 'this one is going to be hard,' only 'hard' wasn't quite the word that he used."

Brett Coleman found that life in his Army unit at Fort Richardson, Alaska, lacked some of the excitement that seemed to infuse his father's career in Special Forces.

The younger Coleman was grateful to receive an invitation to Joint Base Lewis-McChord to join his father's 1st Special Forces Group team in a helicopter jump last month to mark the anniversary of Mark Coleman's death.

"It was amazing," he said. "They treated me like a younger version of him."

After the jump, Coleman joined his mother and sister for a drive to Klickitat County to visit with his father's mother, Alice Eshelman, and view the memorial to his father erected outside the school in tiny Centerville.

With him was his wife, Jocelyn, an Australian whom he had met while his father participated in the Special Forces exchange.

The family gathered around the kitchen table in a modest house surrounded by pasture and told stories about life with Mark.

There was also talk of the future.

Barbie Coleman has quit her job at a chiropractor office to spend more time at home with Jessica. She said she may return to work once her daughter graduates from high school.

Aided by a foundation that provides scholarships for the children of the fallen, Jessica said she plans to study veterinary medicine in college.

Brett Coleman is interested in joining the Special Forces. His father's team members during the air jump urged him to consider joining "the family."

His mother wants him to stay put.

Meanwhile, Barbie Coleman wrestles with the emotions of her son's upcoming deployment. She lost her husband, with 21 years of experience, to this war. Now, her son will be headed to the fight in Afghanistan.

"I have got my 21-year-old filled with vengeance going over there," Barbie Coleman said.

"Not vengeance, just anger. It's different," Brett Coleman said.

"Yeah, well, I worry," his mother replied.

(c) 2011, The Seattle Times.

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