That Friday morning in November, when Donna Gilmore heard the news reports that a U.S. Army helicopter had been shot down in Iraq, her heart ached to think what the families of the dead soldiers would be going through. As she waited inside her Stafford, Va., church, ready to leave for an out-of-town conference, she and her minister decided to pray.
"We prayed for the families," Gilmore said, "not knowing it was my own family I was praying for."
That was the beginning, Day One.
In a few hours, Gilmore would learn that her husband of 21 years and the father of her two college-age children had been aboard the Black Hawk UH-60 helicopter that crashed Nov. 7 in Tikrit, killing all six aboard. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Cornell W. Gilmore, 45, had been in Iraq just five days, for what amounted to a routine inspection tour. He was supposed to be gone a week.
More than 16 months after President Bush declared major combat in Iraq over, Gilmore and others are still dying there. Before that declaration, about 140 U.S. troops had died; since, more than 800 have fallen. Publicly, these deaths have prompted a bitter national divide. Privately, they have triggered a much more lasting pain.
The funerals have filled the news -- often young soldiers in the military a short time. Cornell Gilmore was different. He and his family had lived the military life for more than 20 years, and they knew, as his wife said, that "anyone in uniform is in jeopardy." He had fought on the front lines in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. But his family members had believed that in this conflict he was well-removed from danger, and now they are trying to reconcile their deep loyalty to the military with their sorrow over his death.
For this family and others, the experience is a struggle through time. Day One is one of the worst days, when the anguish is fresh and scalding. But there are many more bad days to come, a round of birthdays and anniversaries and holidays and ordinary times that will never be the same again, that stretch far beyond the funeral services and the surge of public attention.
Donna Gilmore, 43, and her children, Dawnita, 20, and Cornell II, or C.J., 18, have been navigating this altered life for almost 10 months. A close family who had lived on bases from Kansas to Germany to Hawaii, they are learning, as the days and months pass, to go on without their father and husband, their "team leader."
"I have had moments when I've been here by myself that have just been horrible, and you just cry out to God," Donna Gilmore said.
But "C.J. said something to me early on. He said, 'Mom, we're never going to get over this -- we just have to get on with life.' "
A Man of Big Smiles
Cornell "Gil" Gilmore, a tall, broad-shouldered man, would enter a room with a big smile and one of his signature lines, delivered with exclamation points. "Greetings, everyone! How are you?"
He had other phrases he liked to use, so closely identified with him that they were included on the back cover of his funeral program: "Come on, team!" "I got you covered." And his exit line, "Go forth -- and have a nice day."
He was known for his optimism, his love of baseball and gospel music, and his cookie habit. He believed in "life lessons" and being punctual. He went out every Friday night on a scheduled date with his wife, getting dressed up and enduring his children's taunts. He was tight with a dollar and loved his collection of cheap clunker cars, especially "The Blue Bomb," an old Chevrolet he took C.J. out in for father-son talks.
The youngest of 12 children who grew up in Baltimore, he had become the highest-ranking enlisted man and the highest-ranking African American in the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps. But he had vowed that when he retired in a few years, he was going to be a Wal-Mart greeter.
"He meant it," said Dawnita, a junior at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte and a self-described "daddy's girl," who resembles her father. "My dad had worked very hard, and he was going to be a greeter -- he said he did that already."
He had joined the Army in 1981, after graduating from the University of Maryland at Baltimore. When he announced his plans to Donna, then his fiancee, she had no idea what military life would be like, but she was ready to give it a try. Dawnita was born on a memorably hot Fourth of July in Fort Polk, La.; C.J., 15 months later, when the family was posted to Germany.
An involved father, Gilmore coached youth teams in every sport. Church was important. As a skilled pianist, drummer, bass player and singer, he always took the lead in worship services, and for a time, he and the children formed a gospel group called G-3, which stood for both Gilmore 3 and God's 3. Donna and Cornell also had what they called "a marriage ministry," teaching a course on improving relationships to other couples.
Military life suited them. Gilmore advanced steadily, lauded for his leadership skills, sunny personality and kindness toward junior soldiers. The family made close friends wherever they lived, and although they joked that no one joined the military to get rich, it was for them a satisfying experience.
In 2002, Gilmore was transferred to the Pentagon, on what he planned as his final assignment. For the first time, the family was back in their home area in a position to buy a house. They chose a two-story model on a corner lot in Stafford. The kids were off at college. Evenings when they were free, Donna and Cornell would sit in their matching recliners, up in the loft of their new home, and talk.
The Pentagon job, unlike his previous posts, required a lot of traveling. When he telephoned his wife from London in early November, en route to Iraq, he reported with a laugh that his luggage had been lost.
Donna Gilmore was aboard the church bus, headed to a women's conference in Williamsburg later that awful Friday morning in November, when her cell phone rang. A friend in Fort Stewart, Ga., another military wife, had heard the ranks of the six helicopter-crash victims in Iraq. One was a regimental sergeant major in the JAG Corps. That could be only one person.
Gilmore telephoned the Pentagon. "I kind of forced the hand," she said. "I said, 'Look, I can't wait till I get home to have somebody tell me this news. I need to know now.' "
Finally, an officer told her, reluctantly, that they believed her husband had been involved in an incident.
The bus was already stopped in a parking lot.
"There was a clear sky, and I remember a field, and I didn't want anybody to touch me. I just wanted to go out and talk to God," Gilmore said. "And I remember I was crying and talking to him at the same time, 'Okay, God, you got me. You're going to have to have me because I don't know what else to do.'
"And I remember the second thing that came to my mind -- 'I've got to get to my children before they hear about this on the news.' "
Dawnita, at school in Charlotte, had awakened that morning, thinking about helicopters and wondering why such strange things would pop into her head. When her mother called, "I broke down," she said. "I just fell on the floor and I was crying like crazy."
Her boyfriend and other friends arrived and helped her pack her things. Outside the dorm, they joined hands in a circle and prayed. "The next thing I know, two carloads of us were heading out," she said.
C.J., who was a freshman at St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, N.C., was worried about writing a paper in the hour left before speech class when his mother reached him about noon.
"She told me there had been a helicopter crash," he said. "I thought, 'Okay, my dad's coming back with one arm.' Death was far away from my mind. I said, 'What happened?' and she said, 'He died,' and I just lost it. I was angry. My fists were balled up, and I was ready to hit something, but of course, I didn't."
The next days passed in a blur of activity. There was the funeral to prepare for, a home-going service, as the family called it. The house was full of people. The family kept up a stoic front.
"I never ever that whole week cried in front of anybody. I waited until I'd go to bed," Dawnita said. "I'd have people come up to me and say, 'You're so strong, you're being so strong for your mom,' but you know, you do what you have to do. I kept myself busy."
C.J. was determined to stick by his mother. "When I went in the house, something hit me and I kind of closed up," he said. "I was making sure my mother was okay. I didn't have to worry so much about my sister because her boyfriend was there, and I was happy for that. I was looking out for my mother."
Long ago, in that thorough way of his, Cornell had explained to his wife what would happen should he be killed on duty. Army representatives were waiting for her when she returned home, and a casualty assistance officer was assigned to help make funeral arrangements and take care of bureaucratic chores. Baskets of sympathy cards arrived from soldiers around the world who had been inspired by Cornell.
The home-going service at Shiloh Christian Church in Stafford drew 2,000 people. Dawnita led a 300-person choir; C.J. accompanied on the piano. Donna was proud of her children, standing before so many people, speaking so movingly about their dad.
Ten days after their father died, they were both back at school.
"There was no choice," their mother said. "Cornell and I, we both always said, 'We're raising you guys to leave us.' I could've gotten real selfish and said, 'Look, I need my kids home.' But I couldn't do that. Their father would not have been pleased with that. They have their lives to live, and I have mine, whatever this new life is going to be."
C.J. had been particularly reluctant to go. Donna looked at her big, tall son, the star football player who played the piano with such feeling, and felt that she needed to release him somehow. During the past week, she had watched as well-meaning people patted him on the back and told him that he was "the man" now.
"I never wanted him to feel that kind of pressure," she said. "I told him, 'You'll never be the man of this house -- you'll always be the son of this house. But you're going to be the man of your own house someday.' "
Finally, she sent her best friend home, the friend who had reached her on the bus and driven 15 hours from Georgia to be with her, who illustrated how the bonds of military life sometimes were as strong as blood.
"She wasn't going to leave until I told her, 'You've got to get back to your family,' " Donna said. "And after she left, I remember being here by myself, and I sat up in that loft in my husband's chair and his blanket, and I slept in that chair all night."
Then there was a flurry of special days to get through, each one a numbing yet painful experience: Thanksgiving, the Gilmore's wedding anniversary on Dec. 4, what would have been Cornell's 46th birthday four days later, the first Christmas without him.
Thanksgivings had been huge, all those years on the military bases. Donna would cook for days, and Cornell would invite everyone they knew, as many as 60 people. Before they ate, he would make everyone hold hands and name something they were thankful for. Afterward, he would organize a Thanksgiving talent show. This time, the three Gilmores wearily visited relatives in Baltimore; Donna did not feel like cooking.
Sometimes, she could not help but wonder why things had happened this way, why her husband had to leave at such a prime time in their lives. She knew, she said, that "God's timing is his timing." But she still found herself counting the days of her new life as a widow, every day a small victory because she got through it.
She was thankful he had been so thrifty. With his pension, insurance and savings and her salary as a personnel security specialist, they would keep the house, and the children would remain in school. "He had his ducks in a row," she said. "It made it easier -- not easy, but easier."
But there were so many things to break her heart all over again. After her husband died, Donna learned that he had made plans for their wedding anniversary -- they had reservations for a long weekend in early December in Ocean City.
It hurt to know that his dog tags were lost, but a military friend in Korea had a special set made for her that she wore all the time. She would listen to Cornell's voice on the family answering machine -- "Greetings, everyone!" -- or hold the plaque he had given her the week before he left -- "Happiness is being married to your best friend" -- and the loneliness was bone-crushing.
"I don't know how anyone gets through this who doesn't have faith in God," she said.
The day of her anniversary -- Day 28 -- C.J.'s choral group was performing at school, and Donna decided to drive down to Raleigh to see him, declining friends' offers to accompany her. "It was kind of healing," she said. "I just talked to God and talked to my husband, all the way down to Raleigh and back."
C.J., aware of the day's significance, invited his mother on stage and gave her a bouquet of flowers. It was a lovely moment, Donna said, but there was always a downside. "Then you come home and you just crash," she said.
At college, her children also were feeling their way.
"When I got back to school, I was still at Day One," C.J. said. "I always felt at Day One. I mean, nothing was progressing. I actually talked to my favorite teacher -- I was ready to give up music and where I was going with my life. I wasn't sure if I was doing it for my father because I knew he would like it or if I was doing it because I loved music. I just had to stop and think."
One thing he knew for sure: Some of his happiest memories were of being with his dad in the empty church before choir practice on Saturday mornings, the two of them, working on their music.
Day 82, in late January, found Donna Gilmore on a trip to Lacey, Wash., to the family's most recent post before the Pentagon, Fort Lewis. She and Cornell had been involved in a group that encouraged young African Americans to go to college, and she was invited back for a scholarship program and a tribute to her husband. She was able to be there, she said, "and not cry buckets of tears" only because she knew Cornell was now at "his permanent duty station."
Her ties to the military felt as strong as ever. Each time she heard of a new death in Iraq, she felt a stab of pain. When Pfc. Jerrick M. Petty, 25, of Idaho, whom she did not know, was killed Dec. 10, she wrote a message to his family on a commemorative Web site: "I know your heart hurts so much that at times it seems unbearable," she wrote. "Take heart, unfortunately there are a lot of us here who are personally going through the same thing."
But a dark thought sometimes filled her head.
"The one thing that angers me about everything is that probably, if the war had never been declared over, Cornell wouldn't have been over there," she said. "They wouldn't have had that type of inspection he was doing if we were still at war. "
Death, of course, is a prospect for any military family, the unspoken reality they all have to live with. Her husband had served in the 1st Armored Division in Desert Storm, but that conflict "had a totally different feel -- we didn't have the casualties," she said. In his position with the JAG Corps, the group that oversees the Army's courts and legal affairs, he had seemed safe from the current dangers.
"You hate to compare it to Vietnam," she said, " . . . but it seems to me we're a few little people in a big country that doesn't belong to us, where we can't tell sometimes who the enemy is."
Beyond that, the Gilmores are reluctant to criticize the military or the government. Donna said that although she will always "love the soldiers and their families, the military bureaucracy is what it is." Looking forward to voting in her first presidential election, Dawnita would not say which candidate she supports, only that everyone "should be sure to vote."
The fifth and sixth months passed, and Donna switched from counting days without her husband to counting months. C.J. decided to stick with his music after all; Dawnita seemed on a steady course. Cards still arrived from soldiers and their families. Reports of more military deaths in Iraq continued to lead the news.
Fridays, their old date night and the day on which he died, were still hard; Sundays, too, "because we lived in church." It was hard to hear her brothers-in-law speak on the telephone -- they sounded so much like Cornell, it made her catch her breath. She never knew when something would hit her like that: Just a few weeks ago, as she sat in her hairdresser's shop, Stevie Wonder came on the radio, singing "Ribbon in the Sky," one of the couple's special songs, and she had to leave the room quickly to break down in private.
She still talked to him. She thought about how she used to chide him for sneaking too many cookies, concerned for his health. "But now I tell him, 'Honey, I wish I could give you all the cookies you wanted right now.' "
Gradually, it became easier for the three family members to talk about him with other people, to sit and laugh and sometimes cry a little, surrounded by his photographs. There was still "a crash" afterward, they said, but it was not quite as devastating. They were sure sometimes they could hear him telling them to "come on, team!"
"Dad was not a bitter person -- the person I remember was the epitome of happiness," Dawnita said. "So why would I have a horrible life after this? Because you know, all there is left to do is stay focused on God's work . . . and number two, do everything Dad taught me.
"And like he always said," and here she paused and her mother and brother joined in to chant in unison Sgt. Maj. Gilmore's famous exit line: "Go forth -- and have a nice day."