Torn Apart By War

Four brave sons, four grieving mothers

Iraq's impact on Maryland


The casualties were clustered around Veterans Day a year ago. In a span of four days, four young Maryland soldiers were killed in separate attacks in Iraq. Three were shot in the head, one in the throat. They died instantly.

Almost as quickly, military messangers bearing the news kncocked on doors in Silver Spring,Port Deposit and Towson. It made the front pages for a while. Then the Ravens played. There was Christmas and New Year's, spring and the Orioles. Life returned to normal.

But not for the mothers of Army Spec. Thomas K. Doerflinger, Marine Lance Cpl. David M. Branning, Marine Cpl. Dale A. Burger Jr., and Marine Cpl. Nicholas L. Ziolkowski. Their lives adjusted to accommodate a black hole.

Now as they struggle with the raw reality of this first anniversary, they say there are no good days. Not like before.

"There are bad days and there are days that aren't bad," said Lee Ann Doerflinger of Silver Spring, whose 20-year-old son was the first of the four killed during a week of fighting that proved unusually brutal.

These four mothers have each chosen a different path to deal with their grief: One formed a support group for other Maryland families who have lost soldiers, one turned to working full time to stop the war and bring U.S. soldiers home, one finds comfort spending time at Arlington National Cemetery at the graves of her husband and son, and the last is running for public office in hopes of making a difference.

"There's no manual for this," Doerflinger said. "You just keep moving and make it up as you go along."

"My son was killed today in Iraq." - Lee Ann Doerflinger

At lunchtime on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2004, Doerflinger nestled into a flood of sunshine near her living room's bay window and listened to National Public Radio dispatches from Iraq. Insurgents had chased thousands of Iraqi police from their stations in Mosul, where her son's brigade was located.

She was still sitting by the window when the first car pulled up at 2:45 p.m. Two men in military uniforms climbed out and began the slow procession toward the door. The rest of the day is remembered in snippets that filter through the fog.

"I can't come into work," Doerflinger recalls saying in a phone call to G Street Fabrics in Rockville, where she cuts cloth part-time.

"You have the flu?" her colleague and friend Julie Werner asked.

"My son was killed today in Iraq," she said.

Six weeks later, she returned to work. She had been a runner, but stopped. In the summer, she began jogging again regularly and training for a biathlon.

But even as she tried to wrench her life back to normal, reminders of her son were everywhere.

In Shoppers Food Warehouse, she spotted his favorite food, Jamaican Beef Turnovers, and began crying in the frozen food section. Friday, she witnessed a bad car accident and began crying at the thought of death.

The last photo she took of her son was with his older sister, Anna, outside the Taco Bell near his base in Fort Lewis, Wash. He died a month later.

Today, Doerflinger can't bear to eat at a Taco Bell. And across the street from the Gate of Heaven Cemetery, where Thomas is buried, sits a Taco Bell. "He would find humor in that," she said.

At a private reception held this spring by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for the families of Maryland's killed soldiers, Doerflinger and Martina Burger - two military mothers who refuse to protest the war - met and bonded. Doerflinger decided then to form a support group.

About two months ago, she sent letters to the families of Maryland's soldiers killed in Iraq. Only mothers have responded.

One, who had moved to West Virginia, phoned just out of curiosity. The woman said she didn't have much to say. Then she and Doerflinger - strangers except in their grief - talked and cried for 90 minutes.

"I thought if you've had this happen to you and you can use it to help others get through it, that is a good thing," Doerflinger said. "Who else is going to understand what it's like seeing those people in uniform coming up your driveway?"

Her 5-mile biathlon is this weekend in Washington. She and her co-worker Werner, who is legally blind, plan to run and kayak to raise money for the physical rehabilitation of injured servicemen and women.

"All I know is it feels better to be moving than to not be moving," she said.

"We can talk about him endlessly." - Tia Steele

Five days before David Branning, 21, died Nov. 12 last year, he called his stepmother Tia Steele from Iraq. He was near the firestorms in Fallujah, and his voice sounded different to her - subdued or anxious.

Before he hung up, Steele, who helped raise him after his mother died when he was 11, said, "Be safe. Pay attention."

They said goodbye, but then there was a pause and she could hear him holding the receiver. He didn't hang up for several seconds. Then, click. "I knew he was standing there with his buddies," she said. "So what is he going to say - I'm scared?"

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