Friday, May 23, 2008

Different paths for three families united in grief

‘No one else quite understands’

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Photo courtesyof FulvioCarbonaro
Sgt. Alessandro Carbonaro of Bethesda died May 10, 2006, from wounds he sustained when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb in Iraq on May 1. He was 28.
One mother in Bethesda said her son’s death in the Iraq War motivates her opposition to the conflict.

Parents in Silver Spring grieve their son by honoring the principles he died to protect.

And a mother in Gaithersburg just wants people to remember her son.

Out of two wars on the other side of the world, three mothers in the same county have taken vastly different views on the conflicts that have claimed about 4,500 American lives.

‘‘It’s a hard time. It does not get easier the second year for us,” said Gilda Carbonaro from her Bethesda home. ‘‘It’s just a reminder that while everybody else may have forgotten there is a war going on, for us, we haven’t forgotten. The fact that our son died in this war is a reminder that other kids are still over there and are still dying every day.”

Her son, Sgt. Alessandro Carbonaro — or Alex, as he was known to family and friends — died May 10, 2006, at a hospital in Germany. Alex was on his second tour of duty as a Marine in Iraq when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb on May 1. He was 28.

‘‘I don’t regret [my son enlisting in the military] because I always respected my son’s wishes, and he wanted to discover himself,” his mother said.

But she opposed the war when he joined the Marines. And since Alex’s death, Gilda Carbonaro has revived her work with anti-war groups, including Veterans Against the War.

‘‘We lived in a different world when he enlisted: We were at peace. And when the most important country in the world goes to war and destabilizes the Middle East, it’s a totally different world,” she said.

Her anger about the war is not directed at soldiers like her son, but at their leaders.

‘‘Whoever is left in the military, the higher officers in the leadership, those people are just people who wanted to further their careers,” she said.

The Doerflingers have taken a different tack. Their son, 20-year-old Spec. Thomas K. Doerflinger, was killed Nov. 11, 2004, Veterans Day, by small arms fire after a month in Iraq.

‘‘Our son Thomas was a smart, dedicated, wonderful young man who volunteered for the Army to serve his country and protect innocent people. He understood the risks of his chosen path and gave his life doing what he had committed himself to doing — standing against those who have no respect for human life. Even as we grieve for our loss, we honor the ideals he stood for and ask others to do the same,” his parents, Richard and Lee Ann Doerflinger said in a statement at the time.

In a recent telephone interview from her home in Silver Spring, Lee Ann Doerflinger said dealing with his death remains difficult.

‘‘He was special,” she said. ‘‘We’ve found some peace. We mourn him. We grieve for him. Memorial Day is hard. We’ve been learning to do without him.”

He had enlisted in the Army Reserve three months before graduating from high school. But after graduating he realized he wasn’t ready for college. Even though he was highly intelligent, he lacked discipline as a student, she said. She told him he’d have to wait to sign his own papers when he turned 18 because she didn’t want the guilt if something happened to him.

‘‘It was not my decision,” she said. ‘‘But it was a decision he thought about. He understood what he was doing there. By the time he was killed, they’d seen combat for several weeks.”

She was at home on that Veterans Day when she looked through a window and saw two uniformed notification officers walking up to her front door.

‘‘I knew immediately what it had to be,” she said.

Doerflinger occasionally attends meetings of a Maryland chapter of Gold Star Mothers, a group of women who lost their children in combat.

The mothers range in age from their early 40s to one woman whose son died during the Vietnam War era. They all share the same grief.

‘‘No one else quite understands,” Doerflinger said.

For Paula Davis of Gaithersburg, the greatest fear is that people will forget the contributions made by sons and daughters serving in the military.

‘‘We feel like nobody else is sacrificing but our loved ones and their families. We don’t want them to be forgotten,” Davis said.

Her son, Justin Davis, died June 25, 2006, at 19 in Afghanistan in a war that many don’t seem to think about.

The single mother had worried when her son told her he wanted to enlist in the military. She has pictures of him when he was in elementary school dressed in Army fatigues. He played with G.I. Joes as a young boy. But she did not want him to enlist and tried to talk him out of it.

‘‘We had some debates,” Davis said. ‘‘I was clipping articles out of [the newspaper] every day about casualties. I’d ask him to read those. We debated back and forth about the war and his joining at this time with the country at war. But at the end, I knew that’s where his heart was and I supported him.”

As a mother, she knew she could have forced a different decision, but she didn’t.

‘‘At the end I knew that’s where his heart was and I supported him,” she said. ‘‘But he had to bring me around. We had some heated debates before I accepted ... he was going to go in.”

She believes he was drawn to being surrounded by people in the Army, of belonging to the military’s ‘‘brotherhood.”

When he asked for the infantry, she was filled with anxiety. With every knock on the door, she feared the worst.

Her job as office manager for the American Bankers Association sent her to a conference in Wyoming. Davis said she feared going in case notification officers showed up at her home with news of her son and she wasn’t there.

That is exactly what happened. The officers waited from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. outside her apartment, not knowing she was out of town. They tracked her down through an emergency contact number.

A casualty notification worker called her at the hotel and asked if she was alone and told her an officer would meet her.

She said she begged and pleaded to know what happened. When she saw an officer arrive at the lobby, she ran to him.

‘‘He said, ‘Ms. Davis, the United States Army is sorry ...” she said. ‘‘That’s all I heard. I immediately went into shock.”

As she recounted the events, her voice cracked, but she kept talking. Months later she learned he probably died from a mortar shell fired by fellow soldiers during a battle in Korengal Outpost, Afghanistan.

‘‘Whether he was hit by enemy fire, would that have made it any less sadder?” Davis said. ‘‘No, because I know they were aiming for the enemy. So they called for a mortar attack. It’s not a perfect science. ... It’s painful regardless. I bear no anger or ill will towards the military.”

She takes comfort that her son died doing what he wanted to do.

‘‘Every e-mail, every letter, he was loving it,” Davis said. ‘‘There were never any regrets.”

She remembered the last time she saw him after she dropped him off at the airport.

‘‘We pulled up and I walked in with him to see if the line would be long, and he hugged me and he walked away and never looked back,” she said. ‘‘I take comfort in that. He was doing what he wanted to do.”

Davis said she plans to spend Memorial Day the same way she spends her Sundays. She takes fresh flowers to her son’s tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery.

‘‘I’m comforted by the other parents,” she said. ‘‘I take my chair and greet whoever comes by to visit or leave a note. Some of his comrades or friends come by, and I just spend the day there. The parents that are there will laugh and talk and cry on each other’s shoulders. That’s generally what we do on Sundays and that feels right at this time.”

Staff Writer Janel Davis contributed to this report.