Another Memorial Day Marks Grief's Journey
Two Va. Families Struggle, in Different Ways, Through Losses From War's First Years

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 28, 2007

Not a waking hour goes by when Judy Adamouski does not think of the son she lost at war. Some nights, she drifts from room to room in her Springfield home -- sleepless, taking in what is left of his life. A framed photograph of a soldier in uniform. A wedding portrait. A diploma from West Point.

"You miss the voice," she said. "You miss seeing him. It's just hard. All we have is our memories and our pictures."

Her son is not a recent casualty but one of the early deaths of the Iraq war: Army Capt. James F. Adamouski, killed April 2, 2003, in a Black Hawk helicopter crash as U.S. troops made their way toward Baghdad two weeks into combat operations.

This is her fifth Memorial Day since then -- a holiday that marks time's passing but still finds her living with a mother's grief. "Jimmy," as she called him, was her only son, 29 years old, newly married, bound for Harvard University for a master's degree.

"People always tell you that time heals all things," she said, sitting with her husband, Frank, in the home where they raised Jimmy and his three sisters. But she said her experience has been more complex: "I have my good days and I have my low times."

Less than two miles away, in another Springfield neighborhood, the parents of another fallen soldier, Army Capt. Mark N. Stubenhofer, have also grappled with a son's death over many months. They, too, have faced inconceivable loss and the permanence of grief.

The two families would eventually find that they belonged to the same large Catholic church and that both of their sons' names were placed on the same prayer list as war started in Iraq. The list ran pages and pages long.

Jimmy Adamouski was the first name on the list.

Mark Stubenhofer was the second.

Strangers before their lives intersected at their sons' funerals, the two families have grieved and coped in different ways. For one family, steadiness comes in the familiar rhythms of the workplace. For the other family, founding a service organization has helped.

For both grief has been unpredictable, sometimes rendering the years that pass almost meaningless. Still, for both life has slowly moved forward.

At times, they have found themselves lifted, unexpectedly, by acts of remembrance performed by strangers.

'It Can't Get Much Worse'

On Dec. 7, 2004, two casualty officers stood beside the Christmas tree that Sallie and Norm Stubenhofer had decorated the night before. They told the couple that their son Mark had been shot in Baghdad's Sadr City while on foot patrol with his men. He was dead at 30.

"You go into shock," Sallie recalled.

Mark was their middle son, a lanky infantry officer with an impish grin who had been awarded a Bronze Star the first time he went to Iraq, as the war started. He was a Clemson University graduate, talkative and opinionated but also humble and committed to working side by side with his men. He was a company commander in 2004, part of the 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment, out of Fort Riley, Kan.

He had a wife and three young children, including a 4-month-old daughter whose name was inspired by his military career: Hope Riley. Hope was "what I am all about -- what we are doing here in Iraq," he had explained to his mother shortly after his daughter's birth. Riley was for his Army post.

He died before he could ever meet Hope Riley.

Not the sort of woman given to tears, Sallie Stubenhofer found that after Mark died, she could not hear his name without crying.

Sometimes she sat down at her desk in a spare bedroom -- where she had often e-mailed Mark in Iraq -- and wrote to the son she had lost.

She told him that she wanted him to know she was proud of him. That she loved him. That everyone would be okay -- his parents, his four siblings, his wife and children.

None of her e-mails bounced back, which allowed her to imagine that, somehow through cyberspace, the words had actually found him. "It was like sending an e-mail to heaven," she said.

With the family's grief came unexpected illness. In a matter of months, both Sallie and Norm were battling cancer. Norm, then 64, received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in January 2005. Sallie, then 61, was diagnosed in December 2005 with breast cancer.

For all the pain and difficulty of their diseases and treatments, the Stubenhofers said, cancer did not take the emotional toll it might have. Said Norm: "It was almost like, 'It can't get much worse.' "

But both openly wondered, as Sallie put it, "why we're still here, why we're going to get better, and why Mark is gone at age 30."

Religious faith helped enormously, they said.

They also were grateful when, nine months after Mark died, his wife, Patty, moved from Kansas to Virginia to be closer to Mark's grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

Sallie and Norm talk about how Patty has been both mother and father and also kept Mark's memory alive. Mark's children, now 2, 5 and 7, often draw pictures for their dad that they take to Arlington; they also bring his favorite gum.

On Mark's birthday, Patty and the children celebrate at his grave with ice cream cake, his favorite.

On some days, how Patty gets by surprises even her. "I think with the strength I get from my kids," she said. "I need to make sure I'm strong for them."

Holidays can be the toughest, she and the Stubenhofers said -- Mark's birthday, Memorial Day, Christmas, Mother's Day, Father's Day -- but at times they have been touched by unexpected kindness.

That first Christmas, a fellow graduate of Clemson who did not know Mark showed up at the Stubenhofers' door with wrapped gifts for each of his children.

The first anniversary of Mark's death, when it seemed difficult for Norm and Sallie to imagine holding up through the day, they went to visit Mark's grave at Arlington and noticed two strangers scanning names on headstones.

The men had come to see Mark. One had served under him in Iraq, and he told the Stubenhofers how Mark had changed his life, inspiring him to go to college. For an hour, he recollected their time at war.

In the end, Norm said, "it was a beautiful day."

"It was like a gift," Sallie said.

Mark was honored at West Springfield High School, at the Clemson ROTC program from which he had graduated, at the local post office named in his memory. His high school buddies started a yearly golf tournament to raise funds for his children's education.

"To see how many lives he touched gave us a tremendous sense of comfort," Sallie said.

Thinking more about the importance of service, Mark's family founded "Mark's Hope," a nonprofit organization, to help Iraqi children. The group collects soccer balls, school supplies, shoes and stuffed animals and ships them overseas for troops to hand out in the war-ravaged country. Their daughter's husband serves in Iraq.

"It was a way for our family to carry on what he believed in," Sallie said. "He always said, 'If you could see these children, you would know that what we're doing there is right.' "

The organization has sent more than 500 boxes since 2005, but Norm and Sallie find themselves surprised when strangers show up, as they sometimes do, with loads of unrequested donations.

Recently, a woman in a pickup brought dozens of bags to the Stubenhofers' colonial on a leafy street in Springfield. A week later, she came back with more.

"People just find us," Sallie said, and they are always glad. She reflected, "You grieve forever, but in different ways at different times."

Grand Plans Cut Short

In another living room in Springfield, Judy Adamouski, 60, was motioning toward a tall oak china cabinet with glass doors. She was about to get rid of it when her son died in Iraq. Then she remembered she bought it the year that Jimmy was born.

"Now it stays," she said.

She said there is not nearly enough left behind of Jimmy -- the outgoing son who embraced every sport that involved a ball, the stellar student who decided on West Point in the fourth grade. Jimmy became a soccer standout and senior class president at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield. He went on to become an accomplished military pilot with 1,200 flight hours; he was a company commander.

"As tough as I am, I still cry every day," said Frank Adamouski, 67.

Frank himself had a 23-year military career, trained as an intelligence analyst, serving in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. A retired lieutenant colonel, he is grateful the country supports the troops more than it did during his era. But he longs for answers about the Black Hawk crash that killed Jimmy -- whether it was caused by mechanical failure, enemy action or friendly fire.

"Nothing's going to bring him back," Judy said, "but you feel these doubts. You want to know."

"If you analyze it well enough, you may find something that would save someone else's life," Frank said.

The day it happened, Judy Adamouski remembered, she returned home from an outing to see her husband watching a television report about a Black Hawk down in Iraq.

"Oh my God," she said, falling to her knees. "Jimmy!"

Her husband calmed her. What are the odds, he asked. "How many Black Hawks are there in Iraq?"

Jimmy, part of the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Aviation Regiment, had left for the war thinking he would be gone only a few months. He had done multiple tours of duty in Bosnia and Kosovo, and his commanders were sending him home to prepare for fall classes in Harvard's MBA program.

After grad school, he had a position lined up to teach economics at West Point.

Instead he became West Point's first Iraq casualty.

After the funeral, his young wife, Meighan, moved in with his parents -- staying a year -- and the three of them helped one another through a period of profound shock and grief.

Frank, who had recently retired, took a new job -- believing it best not to be home all day with his mourning. Judy was working part time as a nurse.

Now Judy wears a memorial bracelet engraved with the names of all six men who were killed on Jimmy's helicopter in Iraq. On her right hand, she wears a miniature West Point class ring, with her engagement diamond set into the center.

The complete loss she feels, she said, is "something I think only a mother could understand. There is something about a mother's bond with a son."

Because they believe in heaven, Judy said, "we know he's happy. It's us -- we're a mess."

Still, religious faith has helped her move forward, she said, and she finds comfort in how well Jimmy's life was going when he died.

His memory has been honored by West Point, by Harvard, by his high school -- and unexpectedly.

Last Christmas, a young man rang their doorbell and left flowers and his "plebe" hat from West Point. Tucked inside was a note saying the young cadet, Class of 2010, knew about the family's loss and that Jimmy would never be forgotten.

Joined in Loss

Church of the Nativity in Burke is the third-largest Catholic church in Northern Virginia, with 4,500 families, the pastor says. The Adamouskis and the Stubenhofers had never crossed paths there, but now all four parents serve as Eucharistic ministers.

The families have become acquainted through their grief.

The Stubenhofers went to Jimmy's funeral because they had a son in Iraq and wanted to honor a fellow soldier. The Adamouskis went to Mark's services because the pastor suggested they knew better than anyone what the other family was going through.

Outside the church, dogwood trees have been planted in honor of Jimmy and Mark. Early bloomers, they bring promise of spring to a bleak landscape.

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