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A Marine's Choice, A Mother's Conflict

Antiwar Parent Copes With Enlistment, Then Death

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 21, 2005; Page B01

CLICK TO PLAY AUDIO: Tracy Miller reflects on the life and death of her 22-year-old son, Nicholas Ziolkowski, who was killed by a sniper's bullet in Fallujah last November. (Audio by Amanda M. Zamora - washingtonpost.com; Photo by Michael Robinson-Chavez - The Washington Post)

70 Lives: A Portrait of Fallen Neighbors: Since the start of the war in March 2003, more than 1,500 members of the U.S. armed forces have died. Many of them were from the District, Maryland or Virginia.

First of five articles

The memory remains vivid in Tracy Miller's mind: She is stepping carefully over the guys sprawled out on her living room floor, doing her best not to wake them as she heads toward the door.

The one whose legs are sticking out from under the coffee table is her son, Nicholas Ziolkowski. The others, none of whom bothered to use the blankets she offered, are the Marine Corps buddies he brought home for the weekend from Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Cpl. Nicholas L. Ziolkowski (AP)

She gently closes the door of her Towson home and heads to the District, where the protest against the invasion of Iraq is underway. When she arrives, thousands have jammed the Mall, from the Capitol almost to the Washington Monument.

The chants, the speeches, the subversive mix of indignation and mischief all remind her of her college days, when she marched against the Vietnam War.

It is January 2003. She is a 52-year-old single military mom, with a son who was so eager to enlist that he shipped out to boot camp less than two months after his high school graduation. The next stop could be the war.

When she returns home, one of her son's friends asks why she went to the protest. Nick remains silent. He already knows. His mother -- the Towson University academic adviser, the liberal, the pacifist who will later affix a "Mothers Opposing Bush" bumper sticker to her car -- has always hated war. Which is why she struggled to accept that her son grew up to be not just a Marine, but a Marine sniper.

She thinks about the question for a moment, then answers carefully. These boys are almost certainly headed for combat in Iraq. To say what she really thinks -- that the country is rushing to war -- might plant doubts that could distract them at a critical moment.

So she says simply, "I just want to see you back here real soon."

It is a Saturday afternoon. Nick is 13 or 14 years old, and Miller has just picked him up from the "Young Marines" program he recently joined. He isn't in a particularly good mood.

It was boring, he huffs. They didn't get to do any fun stuff such as run the obstacle course, or learn cool fighting moves. All they did was march and drill, he complains. He doesn't want to go back.

Thank goodness, she thinks. She wasn't thrilled that he had wanted to try the "Young Marines," which the Corps uses as a recruiting tool. But saying no only have would increased the allure. Maybe now the fascination with the Marines will end. Then again, maybe not. It is clear that like a lot of boys, he's got an adventurous streak. What she doesn't yet know is whether it is an adolescent fad or a calling.

"Well," she reminds him, "if you join the Marines, you're going to have to do a lot more drilling."

It is a sunny spring day, and Miller is driving Nick, now 17, to a friend's house through the green hills of Baltimore County's horse country. She is well aware that he soon plans to enlist in the Marines.

She always has supported her children (Nick's brother, Peter, is almost two years older), and she wants them to think for themselves, to follow their passions. She has nothing against the military. She's even recommended it to students who she thought could use a little structure.

She even can see how it could benefit Nick, never a stellar student. But she also isn't sure that he's thought this all the way through, and she's not ready to accept that he is joining just yet.

"Why do you want to join the military and hurt people?" she asks.

Nick looks at her as if she doesn't understand him at all.

"I don't want to hurt people," he says. "I want to help people."

If you want to help people, she says, then why not become a doctor? They help people all the time. At least go to college and join the ROTC.

But before she can press her case any more, they arrive at the friend's house, and he pops out of the car.

It is Sept. 28, 2001, graduation day at Parris Island, S.C. Miller and her ex-husband, Andrew Ziolkowski (they divorced when Nick was 5) are in the stands, unable to tell which of the hundreds of starched uniforms and buzz cuts, marching in perfect lockstep, is their son.

She can't help but be proud. She wrote him every day he was away, often varying how she addresses him. "Hi Honey." "Darling Nick." "Dearest Nick."

The one she wrote shortly after he left begins, "Sweetheart Nick," and continues: "I love you and am proud of you and glad you are happy."

His letters were just as affectionate. "Dearest Mother," one begins, "Look babe, I have no time to write. But I got your letter and started to cry almost. I have fun here but I'm so sad of how much you love me and I don't show much in return. I love you more than words, you are a special person."

Coming so soon after Sept. 11, the ceremony has taken on a deeper urgency. The Marines no longer are just the vehicle for self-improvement that Miller was hoping would help Nick. The country is at war.

Nick also has changed. Skinny when he went to boot camp, he is now gaunt. He stands up straight and looks his parents in the eyes. When Nick calls his father "Sir," he says: "Nick, it's me Dad."

And when he calls his mother "Ma'am," she gives him an exasperated look.

But after two days of "Ma'am," he is calling her mom again.

It is 6 one morning last November, a few days after Nick was killed by a sniper's bullet in Fallujah at age 22. She starts the day with one more memory.

Nick is 20 or 21. She is half-asleep when he crawls into bed next to her and says, "Can I have a back rub?" He has loved back rubs ever since preschool, when the teachers used them to coax the kids asleep at nap time.

She rolls over sleepily and runs her hand up and down. The hair on his neck is prickly short, the way the Marines make him keep it.

Tomorrow: A father struggles to complete the work his son began.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company