Grief-stricken see Army-Navy differently

December 02, 2005|By RICK MAESE

More than a year has passed for those left behind. By this point, you learn to appreciate normality and routine. So what if the routine means waking up, brushing your teeth, showering, changing your clothes and then breaking down into tears? Every single morning. At least it's a routine, right?

Tomorrow the football players for Army and Navy will take the field, resuming one of the most storied rivalries in all of sports. Those left behind will be watching, though from far away. They're the ones who best understand that it's just a game; that when it's all over, something else begins for this group of players.

That something else is entirely different and not everyone survives it. J.P. Blecksmith, Ron Winchester, Scott Zellem, all of whom played for Navy, graduated from the academy, hanging up their cleats for good to begin their respective tours of duty.

Today they're among 2,000-plus American casualties since the war in Iraq began. They died in separate incidents, all more than a year ago now. For those they've left behind, the wounds are no longer fresh, but the pain stings as much as ever.

Ed Blecksmith, J.P.'s father, says he's on the verge of tears all day long. Jennifer Zellem, Scott's widow, has been a single mother for the past 14 months. Marianna Winchester, Ron's mother, is just now understanding what it means to have lost a son.

"The first six or seven months, you live in denial and shock," Marianna says. "You think it's just one long, bad dream. I tell you one thing, now that we've moved past a year, it's actually been more difficult. The reality finally hits.

"I still have his number in my cell phone. I can't erase it. You just wait for the phone to ring, to see his name pop up on there. Or an e-mail that says `Hi mom, how you doing?' You know it's not going to come anymore. You walk into a store and know that you don't have any reason to visit the men's department. There's nothing over there for me to buy."

The ones left behind were all surrounded at first. But as time passed, everyone else was able to return to their normal lives. Soon, the rest of the platoons came home. And their sons' friends keep aging. They're getting married. They're having children.

"They're naming their sons after Ronald," says Marianna. "They tell me they can't wait to tell their sons about the brave man behind the name."

The three Navy men are connected to today's game in memory. None of the three was a star for the academy's football team. They're all important parts of the academy's lore.

Marine 2nd Lt. J.P. Blecksmith was a quarterback and wide receiver who graduated in 2003. He was shot on Nov. 11, 2004 - Veterans Day - atop a building in Fallujah, Iraq, picked off by a sniper's bullet. "I'm hit," were the last words he said. The bullet entered his left shoulder, just one inch from the plate in his flak jacket. It deflected off his shoulder bone and pierced through his heart.

Marine 1st Lt. Ron Winchester was an offensive tackle who graduated in 2001. He was just eight days into his second tour of duty in Iraq when his living area near the Al Anbar province in Iraq was attacked on Sept. 3, 2004.

And Navy Lt. Cmdr. Scott Zellem was a linebacker for the Midshipmen who graduated in 1991. He was a Navy pilot for 13 years and was a flight officer on a jet that carried President Bush onto the USS Abraham Lincoln, where Bush addressed the nation following the fall of Saddam Hussein. Zellem's jet crashed on an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean on Aug. 10, 2004. He left behind a wife and a 13-month-old son, Tanner.

"When Scott initially died, I was put in touch with other widows and widowers," Jennifer says. "They all told me that Year 2 was harder than Year 1. I thought they were absolutely insane. I thought nothing could be tougher. But you know, they were right.

"Year 1 was hard because of the initial loss and devastation. It's very scary and very lonely. ... Year 2, the newness has worn off. I don't want to say that people start to forget, but people aren't as compassionate, maybe as tender to your feelings. You're forced to establish an identity without your spouse. It's hard."

There are reminders of her husband, of course. Tanner is now 2, and his mannerisms and facial expressions are just like his father's.

You take comfort in those reminders, the old photographs, the football trophies, letter jackets and uniforms.

"Our house is like a shrine," Ed Blecksmith says.

Other people's kids are football players who pretend to be soldiers. For the ones left behind, their sons were soldiers pretending to be football players.

You talk to people and you try to understand. But sometimes, you just can't fathom. Can you imagine feeling fear when your phone rings and disappointment when you see the name that never appears? I can't.

If I lost a loved one in battle, I think I'd hate everything about the war. Damn it all, you know?

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