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Christmas Without Chase


I just returned to New York City after spending a week in Kentucky with my family. This was our first Christmas without Chase, my nephew killed in Iraq five months ago. We gathered for brunch at the home of my brother, Chase’s father. Many of us dreaded this tradition-a reunion disfigured by death. Forming a circle and holding hands, we sang the “Johnny Appleseed Grace.” My mother was silent. She’s the one with the opera-quality voice but she can’t sing a prayer of thanks anymore.

We do have lots for which to be grateful. We had lived for years without tragedy. I tell people that most of my friends have lost either one or both parents, but mine are still alive. My 86-year-old father is unstable from a stroke and has just been declared legally blind, but he’s had a wonderful life. At least he did-we all did-until Chase was killed in this war that was waged for oil and to ensure the reelection of George W. Bush.

My father desperately tried to talk Chase out of signing with the Marines. Daddy served with the Army Corps of Engineers and suggested that if Chase insisted on joining, he should opt for the Navy or Coast Guard. But Chase had listened to the Marine recruiters who said, “The few, the proud,” and “Why settle for second best when you can be first?” He was sold a bill of goods that became a package of death.

In my brother’s living room was a “Comfort Quilt” made by military families to present to a fallen troop’s next of kin. I couldn’t look at it nor could my mother. My sister said it was a wonderful tribute to Chase, this man/child who wanted to do something significant.

I picture Chase, boarding that plane that took him 6,000 miles away from his home to the battlefield. I wonder what he thought as the aircraft ascended. I see them all and in the image, they’re pumped with the training and energy that turns them into warriors. I think of the hours of flying and, then, the approach and arrival in Iraq. Did the basic training really prepare Chase for what he saw, heard, lived, felt and was ordered to do? It seems he was telling us different things. His calls to his father and my parents were laments. He was counting the days until he returned. He knew the exact number. He said he couldn’t wait to come home. My brother told me that he said to Chase, “I hear things are improving there.”

Chase said, “They’re not.”

He called once when I was at my parents’ house, and when I asked if he could speak freely, he said, “No.” This was in June. He was killed two months later. Chase already had experienced two close calls when he’d hit roadside bombs that exploded seconds behind his vehicle.

Some members of the family support Bush and the war. They say that Chase was proud of what he was doing and believed in his mission. To his peer group, cousins, sisters, and brother, he was filled with what his father calls “barroom bravado.”

I’ve been criticized for writing what I think Chase thought and felt. My opinions are based on what Chase said to me, my parents, and my brother on the phone and what he wrote in a letter to his sister that “no parent would want their child over here.” What he said to others, what they believe about his motives and convictions before and after he was there, they can examine and write.

Chase’s mother who is divorced from my brother maintains that he told her he was fighting to keep her safe and free. I have deep feelings for her. I’m a mother. I know it would be difficult to admit that your child died for nothing.

I do believe, though, that history will support this horrible truth. Cindy Sheehan is saying it. I’m saying it. My children are saying it. My parents are saying it. My brother and sister are saying it. Gold Star Families for Peace are saying it. And those analyzing the recent election in Iraq are indicating that a unified country doesn’t seem possible. Certainly, Bush Inc. will find it increasingly difficult to convince Americans that the deaths and injuries are noble sacrifices.

It took time for us to admit this about Vietnam–a war in which 59,000 Americans died. And it’s estimated that there were more than two million Vietnamese casualties. An anguished Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, in his memoir, apologized for this atrocity. Will Donald Rumsfeld someday regret the invasion of Iraq?

Because Iraq is Vietnam. It’s painful to say this. Oh, how I wish we could have talked Chase out of joining. Many of us tried. But since we couldn’t, I’d like to think that Chase was flown to Dover and then to Lexington, Kentucky to be eulogized for participating in some great cause, but I will never believe this. Some in my family do. Is this denial-the way they handle grief? To me, Chase’s sacrifice was meaningless, a move so politically motivated by George Bush that I wonder how anyone could trust that this president has any understanding of the Christianity that he says inspires his every action. I know I shouldn’t judge the religious authenticity of anyone.

But I just can’t help it. Not only do I doubt Bush’s sincerity, I also question his humanity.


Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in BaltimoreEmail:

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