The mother and the Marine both took a deep breath of the sea air coming in off the Atlantic. This wasn’t going to be easy.
Amy Wolfe was about to hear from one of the men who was serving in Iraq with her son, Colin, when a roadside bomb ripped through his Humvee in 2006, killing the 19-year-old from Manassas.
“I don’t want to share details that don’t need to be shared, but I can assure you it happened instantaneously. The explosion was right under Colin,” said Steven Hill, 29, who now works as a security guard in Virginia.
But Wolfe — one of thousands of American parents who lost a son or daughter in Iraq and Afghanistan — didn’t want to be spared the toughest details. She told him, “I request that you tell me everything.”
That July night in Virginia Beach, Wolfe, her husband, Mark, a Manassas City Council member, and Hill worked their way through dinner at a table near the ocean. There was Wolfe, elegant in a lavender dress, a shawl over her slight, ballerina’s frame. And Hill, a bulldog of a man covered in tattoos, struggling to bring up all of the memories he’s nearly ruined himself trying to forget.
This story has many parts.
One is a mother’s attempt at salving the gaping wound her son’s death left through the most expressive medium she knows: dance.
Wolfe is the artistic director of Manassas Ballet Theatre, where she created a short, one-act ballet last year to memorialize her son, a dancer himself. “Colin” got a fantastic reception from veterans, families who lost loved ones and ballet fans. So now she’s been creating something bigger, something that could travel across the country and tell the story of 6,805 Americans and their families who made the ultimate sacrifice.
“Telling Colin’s story, it’s just one story among thousands,” she said. “It’s just numbers to a lot of people now. But when you tell the story of one individual, one family, then you begin to understand the loss.”
To expand the ballet, she has been interviewing her son’s Marine comrades, including those who witnessed Colin’s death.
Which brings us to the other part of the story: the silent suffering of the veterans who survived. Slowly, over the eight years since Colin died, some have contacted her. One came into her ballet studio and made a large donation. Another sent her a letter. But for the most part, they avoid talking about the horrors they saw and carry with them every day.
Before Colin confounded his parents by announcing that he wanted to join the Marines, they knew little about that world.
“We’re not a military family. No one in our family served, it just wasn’t part of our world. We just lived in this little bubble,” she said.
To her, Colin was a dancer, not a warrior. She’d taught him to be an athletic, technically sound ballet dancer.
Turns out that made him quite a Marine. Wolfe heard stories of Colin killing it in basic training, standing tall with his pack on after every one flopped on the ground after a 15-mile run. He had the uncanny agility and endurance that come from dancing until your shoes are bleeding, then dancing some more.
“I had no idea he did that. None of us did,” Hill told Colin’s mom. Telling the guys in his company — after they knocked back some beers and smoked some cigs — that he was a dancer wouldn’t have gone over well.
But he did tell everyone about being Jewish and wore his Judaism proudly.
“He had it right there, on his dog tags, ‘Jewish.’ Going into Iraq,” Hill said, shaking his head. “Something about that kid. He was something special. Everybody liked him. He was like everyone’s little brother.”
Hill met the Wolfes at Colin’s grave. He was there, in Arlington, visiting the friends he lost in combat. And he saw this nice couple walking toward the grave. And he tried to leave. “I’m like, please don’t be coming here. Please don’t be Colin’s parents,” Hill said.
Because the worst thing he could imagine, besides being engulfed in the smoke and the fire after the explosion, and trying to tear the door off the Humvee that was stuck in the sand, and seeing what a bomb could do to a 19-year-old body and trying to put the fire out with an extinguisher, and searing his hands and arms when he reached in to pull what was left of Colin out, the next worst thing would be to have to talk about it. With Colin’s parents.
But Hill stopped and talked. A little. And he’d seen the Wolfes twice since that first encounter, but couldn’t bring himself to say much about Colin’s death.
In mid-July, he agreed to sit down with Colin’s parents and tell them what they wanted to know, revisit those dark places in his mind that he’s shared with only one other person — his therapist.
Wolfe took notes in her day planner, asking about the angle of the Humvee, where the others were, how badly the vehicle was damaged, imagining her boy’s last moments.
It was Wolfe who was calm and composed, approaching that day’s scene like a mystery she was unraveling.
But that tough, tanned former Marine had the harder time telling the story.
“Most people, they just don’t know that war is very messy. And the way they die is just horrendous,” Amy Wolfe said. The suffering of the witnesses gets very little space.
“Go ahead,” she told Hill.
“If you hang a left, we were about 500 feet from the compound,” he told her. Almost back safely.
Wolfe sucked a breath in. “I never knew you were that close,” she said.
After the blast, Hill went to the wrong side of the Humvee with his fire extinguisher — a misstep that still haunts him, he told her. “That’s part of the reason I have to go to therapy,” he said, exhaling.
When they were finished, after Hill told Colin’s parents that he wished he had been the one killed, and after Colin’s parents hugged Hill close and told him he was like another son, they said goodbye in the hotel lobby.
You’ll come to the show, right? they asked.
Yes, he said. He will.
8For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.