For a soldier's mother, only the loss is certain

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; B01

There is much about the war in Afghanistan that Hannah Lewis still does not know -- the location of Vashir City, for instance, where her son was killed in 2007.

"I tried to find it on a map but didn't see it anywhere," Lewis told me during a visit to her home in Northeast Washington.

Afghanistan -- a country the size of Texas, located nearly 7,000 miles away -- has towns and villages with names that can be spelled many different ways. On some maps, for instance, Vashir is spelled Waser or Washar.

For Lewis, it's as if the country itself was playing a shell game with her. During our talk over the Fourth of July weekend, she seemed resigned to the possibility that Afghanistan might never give up its secrets about what's going on with this war.

"I just know my son is gone and won't be coming back," she said.

Her spirits were lifted, though, as she watched Independence Day celebrations on TV. A rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" filled her with pride, and scenes of U.S. troops being saluted and cheered as they returned from Iraq and Afghanistan brought tears to her eyes.

"I'm happy for their families," she said, before confessing with a winsome smile, "I started wishing that my son had come home, too."

Army Capt. Darrell C. Lewis, 31, was on patrol in Vashir when he was mortally wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade. A casualty report by the Defense Department blamed "insurgents," but Lewis said she hasn't quite figured out exactly who they are. "I just assume it means enemy," she said.

Darrell joined the Army in 2002 and was assigned to the 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kan. He shipped off to Afghanistan in January 2007 -- one among 100,000 troops sent ostensibly to wage war on al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies in retaliation for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"He enjoyed serving his country," Lewis said.

But not all the time.

Louise Lewis, Darrell's sister, recounted some painful long-distance telephone conversations with him in the weeks leading up to his death.

"I remember being busy and asking him to call back, and he said: 'Don't hang up. This could be my last call,' " Louise Lewis said. "Things were getting worse, and he knew he was in danger. He said, 'I just saw a kid get his brains blown out right in front of me.' "

She continued: "I asked Darrell what exactly he was doing over there, and he said, 'It's a secret.' "

So far, more than 1,000 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan.

A few months before going to war, Darrell got married. His widow, Elizabeth, is raising their 3-year-old son in San Antonio. Like Darrell's mother, she has unanswered questions about his death.

"Darrell was frustrated because there were no clear guidelines about how soldiers were supposed to defend themselves -- whether or not to shoot back when they were being fired upon," she said. "One of his best friends told me that Darrell was killed because he didn't have the proper protection. Why send them over there ill-equipped and confused about their mission?"

Hannah Lewis serves as a peer mentor with TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors), and she runs a grief support group at her church, Pilgrim AME, in Northeast.

"Maybe I can help ease the pain of others," she said.

She said she no longer asks God why her son was killed or gets angry at those who would use military jargon and political cliche to obscure the harsh realities of war.

"Faith sustains me," she said.

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