I was reading Saturday's Washington Post, and 14 pages into the main news section was this headline: "Blasts Kill Six Marines in Western Iraq." It was far from front-page news, nothing as spectacular as an earthquake or a flood, just more roadside bombs adding to a steady stream of U.S. military war dead.
Such events were starting to feel almost routine, so I telephoned William and Eileen Shea for a reality check. It's useful to be in touch with people who have lost loved ones in these wars, if only to remember what being at war really means.
Maj. Kevin Shea, the eldest of their three sons, was killed Sept. 14, 2004, while fighting in Iraq's Anbar province.
"It feels like it happened yesterday," Eileen Shea told me.
William Shea said: "It was his 38th birthday. We'd been having a good interaction through e-mails and occasional telephone calls, then all of a sudden we get the news that he was killed."
The Sheas live in Northwest Washington. William Shea is a retired federal investigator with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. He volunteers as a coach for the freshman football team at his high school alma mater, St. John's College High.
Eileen Shea is a nurse who has devoted her life to helping others, her sons most of all.
The couple belong to the Compassionate Friends, a national support group for parents coping with the loss of a child. They know from commiserating with other grieving parents that no one's pain is greater than another's. A loss is a loss. "The pain is the same," Eileen Shea said.
And yet, military troops alone are duty-bound to die, if necessary, anywhere in the world, for their country. And their country is duty-bound, as well, to make sure their deaths are not in vain.
But here we are, more than two years after the United States invaded Iraq, more uncertain than ever about what we are doing and why we are there. Most Americans believe that the cost in blood and money has been too high.
As of yesterday, 1,948 U.S. military personnel had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 14,902 wounded, since the war began in March 2003. In Iraq, 105 U.S. civilians have been killed, and as many as 29,653 Iraqi civilians.
You can find Kevin Shea's portrait featured in an exhibition of artists' works, "Faces of the Fallen," at Arlington National Cemetery until the end of the year. It is a seemingly endless display of the 1,300 or so U.S. service members who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan -- between Oct. 10, 2001, and Nov. 11, 2004.
"You think as time goes by, it'll get better," Eileen Shea said. "But it's just emptiness and sadness. Thank God I'm a religious person. And there better be a heaven, because I do a lot of talking to my son up there."
Eileen Shea opposed the war from the start but has tended to keep her concerns private. You won't find her participating in antiwar demonstrations. On the contrary: She and her husband are expected to be at the Marine Corps Marathon this month, cheering from the sidelines as sons Tom, 37, who lives in Germantown, and Dan, 33, who lives in Seattle, team with Ami, her widowed daughter-in-law, to make the run in Kevin's honor.
Kevin was a graduate of the Air Force Academy. He taught electrical engineering and coached the rugby team at the U.S. Naval Academy before joining the Marines. He and Ami lived near Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base in California, and have two children: a daughter, 12, and a son, 8.
Kevin did not fit the profile of many young men from the District who go into the military with hopes of getting the jobs and education promised by recruiters. All he wanted was to serve his country and protect his fellow Marines. His nomination for the Bronze Star with valor is testament to how well he did both jobs. "He'd always been our hero," William Shea said.
I asked Eileen Shea whether she had seen the article about the six dead Marines in The Washington Post. She had. "It's buried in there," she said. But that didn't mean it wasn't important to her. Or that it shouldn't be for everybody else.