Vernon Dent of the District won't be among those celebrating Memorial Day today.
It has been nine months since his son, Spec. Darryl T. Dent, 21, was killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He thinks it was wrong for U.S. troops to be sent there. He thinks they've been there too long. He thinks they should come home.
Brenda May disagrees. She supports the war and believes that it was right for the United States to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein. She'll be at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond for a ceremony today.
Still, it troubles her that the Marine Corps has denied a Purple Heart to her son, Staff Sgt. Donald C. May Jr., 31, who died last year in an accident near Baghdad. "I think he deserves the Purple Heart because he died backing our president," said May, who lives in Richmond. "He supported this war, and he wanted to go. But they won't tell us anything. It's like, 'He's dead. He's gone. Forget about it.' "
As the nation's mood on the 15-month war in Iraq sours, the families of those killed there wage their own private battles to come to terms with the deaths. Some rail against a war they never wanted. Others, even those who support the Iraqi invasion, nurse smaller grievances: the missing medal, the casualty officer who won't return a phone call, the death report filled with conflicting information.
A few find solace that their loved ones died doing what they wanted to do.
"He didn't have it for long, but my son loved serving in the Army," said Beverly Fabri of Chestertown, Md., mother of Pvt. Bryan N. Spry, 19. "He was happy to serve his country."
More than 800 Americans have been killed since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003, including 29 from the District, Maryland and Virginia.
For some families, the public attention that comes with the loss has been hard to bear. "We don't want to talk about it," said Arthur MacDonald, father of Lance Cpl. Gregory E. MacDonald, 29, a Marine Reservist from the District who died June 25 when a light-armored car he was in rolled over. "We just don't want to discuss it."
Dent, too, doesn't broadcast his feelings on the war. He hasn't written letters to the Pentagon or called members of Congress. But if asked, he'll say exactly how he feels: "I'm not supportive of the war. . . . I feel like they ought to bring those children home. They shouldn't be over there. My son shouldn't have been over there."
Dennis Bobo, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, came by his skepticism slowly. It was the siege of Fallujah -- and the death of a friend's grandson, Pvt. Brandon L. Davis, 20, of Cumberland in March -- that the war began to remind him of Vietnam: a mistake. "I agreed with it for a while," he said. "Now I disagree."
First Lt. Jenna Kaylor went to war with her Army unit and remains convinced that the invasion was justified. But she is disturbed at how the Army has handled the April 2003 death of her husband, 1st Lt. Jeffrey Kaylor, 24, of Clifton.
The Army's initial reports indicated that he died in a grenade attack in Iraq. But Jenna Kaylor said her husband was killed when a commanding officer "made a decision to fire an AT4-propelled rocket" into the missile hold of a vehicle Kaylor's unit had disabled. Shrapnel from that explosion killed her husband, she said.
"Their assignment was to disable, not destroy, but the decision was made," she said. "I don't know why they called it a grenade attack."
Her husband's death, and her disenchantment with the way the Army has handled it, helped seal her decision to leave the armed services when her tour is up in August. Still, she'll attend the Memorial Day ceremony today at Arlington National Cemetery, where her husband is buried.
Brenda May and her son's widow, Deborah May, said that for months, they have been trying to determine why the Marine Corps denied awarding May, a tank commander, the Purple Heart, a commendation for service members who are wounded or killed in a conflict against an enemy of the United States. His father, who was a tank commander in Vietnam, received the award, Brenda May said.
May died March 25, 2003, when his tank plunged off a bridge at night and landed upside down in a river. The Mays said the Marine Corps initially told them that the medal would be awarded. They postponed placing a marker on May's grave until the commendation was received.
"Then they changed their mind and said it wouldn't be awarded. Then they said it would, then they said it wouldn't -- again," said Brenda May, a retired Marine who is commandant of the Marine Corps League in Richmond. "I'm very discouraged by the way my Marine Corps has treated my son."
Frank Adamouski of Springfield, a retired Army intelligence officer, said he, too, has been dissatisfied with the military's response to questions about the death of his son.
Capt. James F. Adamouski, 29, a West Point graduate, died in April 2003 when a Black Hawk helicopter he piloted crashed near the Karbala Gap. A preliminary investigation by the Army said the crash was caused by "spatial disorientation" by the pilot.
Frank Adamouski, who has extensively investigated the crash, including talking to pilots and crew members on a helicopter that was flying with his son that night, said the initial inquiry was fraught with error. When the Army did not respond to his request to reopen the investigation, he contacted elected leaders, including Virginia Sen. John W. Warner.
Adamouski said his son and his son's co-pilot were too experienced to become disoriented over a few hundred meters of water. If a thorough investigation shows that pilot error caused the crash, though, he can accept that. But he wants the determination based on fact, not supposition, he said, adding that he believes friendly fire might have been the cause.
"My concern is that when someone goes to the archives at West Point . . . and reads about Jimmy Adamouski, that what really happened when he died be reflected in what they read," he said.
Fabri, whose son, Bryan Spry, died Valentine's Day of injuries suffered when his Humvee fell into a ditch in Baghdad, said she copes with her loss by remembering how much Spry loved serving.
She remembers how her son, a joyful teenager, struggled through high school because of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. And she remembers how he found himself in the military, stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., with the prestigious "Delta Company" of the 504th Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division.
She visited him several times during airborne training and marveled at how much more self-assured her son had become. "He loved what he was doing, and he was so proud to be airborne-qualified," she said. "He had finally found his place."
Fabri was at Fort Bragg on Thursday for a memorial service for Delta Company members who did not return from Iraq. Her son was among those honored. He'll be remembered again today at a service at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium, Md. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is scheduled to speak.
"I'll be right there to honor my son," she said.
Staff writer Mary Otto contributed to this report.