Through sacrifice, a purpose

As Memorial Day nears, parents of Marines lost in war support others


They have never met but they have much in common. All three are Bel Air residents with family members who joined the Marines and went to wars, from Vietnam to Iraq. And all lost a 21-year-old son in combat.

Their paths didn't cross before now, but Virginia Schafer, Michael Adle and Martina Burger are connected by the deaths of their sons and their simultaneous efforts to work through their grief. They also share the desire to see that the memory of their fallen soldiers is honored and, to that end, are taking part in a Memorial Day service tomorrow in Bel Air.

"Memorial Day is the day millions of people gather to honor our fallen soldiers," said Adle, who is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the ceremony. "I think it's important to have people with firsthand experience be there."

As they try to cope with their loss, the parents have found comfort in reaching out to others experiencing pain, each in a different way: Schafer phones local parents of soldiers who have been killed, offering her support; Adle delivers speeches at schools and to civic organizations; and Burger volunteers at a veterans hospital.

"I know that nothing I do will bring my son back," Burger said. "But I can still do things to show I support those who do come back from war."

Other parents, in addition to Adle, may address the crowd at the ceremony, which is being organized by the American Legion Harford Post 39 in Bel Air and is set for 11 a.m. at the band shell in Shamrock Park.

Their stories seem to epitomize the spirit of the day, honoring the memory of brave soldiers cut down in combat while serving their country.

Schafer's son, Gary, was a member of the 3rd Marine Division and died Sept. 21, 1967, in Quang Tri Province in Vietnam during a fierce ground battle. Although almost four decades have passed, Virginia Schafer, 82, said the pain persists.

"It never gets better, it never feels like it will be OK," she said. "Because it won't."

In the spring of 1967, a week before her son was killed, Schafer visited him in Hawaii, where he was on leave. As they said their goodbyes, she recalled, Gary put his hands on her shoulders and said: "Mom, you shouldn't love me so much, a lot of people are getting killed over there."

He wrote letters to his mother weekly. She still has every letter he wrote.

"They are stashed away upstairs in the attic in a cedar box," she said. "I can't bear to even see them. Some of them are scribbled on pieces of paper he tore off rations containers."

The letters continued until two Marines showed up at her door.

"I just fell to pieces," she said. "I made them move their car into another driveway as if the car being gone would make it all go away."

She said she was angry at the world in general and God in particular and stopped going to her church.

"People told me when my son left to Vietnam to pray for him and God would look out for him," she said. "When he was killed, I was angry."

About three months later, she made her way back to church.

"The very verse I read and prayed every night for my son, was the verse they read the day I returned," she said. "They had no idea either, and I just thought that was so strange."

Schafer hasn't yet spoken about her son's death in front of a group, but she's found a more personal way of reaching out, calling the families of soldiers who have died.

"Because unless you have lost a child, you can't understand how it feels," she said. "I don't do things publicly, but I can do it privately."

Although each call dredges up the pain of her son's death, she feels she need to make the calls anyway.

"I cry for all our boys," she said. "It upsets me to even be at the memorial services, but I have to go and lay a wreath for my son. I have to honor him."

For Michael Adle, taking part in the Memorial Day ceremony provides a welcome opportunity to laud the good works his son had been doing in Iraq.

Patrick Adle, a member of the 6th Engineer Support Battalion, was killed June 29, 2004, in an explosion triggered by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

"Every day to me is Memorial Day," said Michael Adle. "It doesn't get any easier. I don't know yet what I am going to say at the service, but I am very proud that my son served his country."

When he heard his son had been killed, Adle was devastated, but also felt pride because his son believed in the cause.

"You have to have been there, or talked to the people to understand, but we are making a difference over there," said Michael Adle. "Patrick died defending freedom. It was what was right for him. I don't think he died in vain."

Even before her son was killed, Martina Burger, 48, had felt the pain of war. In 1969 at age 19, her husband, Dale Burger Sr., lost his arm in combat in Vietnam and spent the next three decades suffering from complications of the injury. He underwent multiple operations and was in and out of the Perry Point Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Cecil County before he died there May 23, 2004.

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