Memories of the fallen, like the wars, plod on

As the troop death toll rises, relatives of those lost learn to cope

May 31, 2010|By Robert Little, The Baltimore Sun

You had to knock loud, above the whir of air conditioning and the squeals from the community pool across the street. But eventually Michael Waters-Bey appeared.

Not on the porch, where seven years ago he'd held a photo of his only son up for the television cameras, and implored the president to take a hard look at the price his family had paid for the war in Iraq. This time he came to an upstairs window. He lifted the sash, leaned out and politely declined to talk about his son, the war, Memorial Day or anything else.

"I don't want to talk about it anymore," he said, his head slumping deep into his shoulders. "I'm done with that. There isn't anything else to say."

Marine Staff Sgt. Kendall Damon Waters-Bey died March 21, 2003, in a helicopter crash near the Western border of Kuwait. Officially, it was the second day of the war in Iraq. But if a war's stopwatch starts when the first man dies, that was the beginning. Day one.

The scorecard from Afghanistan already included 73 dead Americans by then. But Waters-Bey and five other American troops died in the Middle East that day, all of them Marines. And by sundown the 29-year-old from northern Baltimore, father of one, who grew up not far from Herring Run Park and attended Northern and Harbor City high schools, accounted for fully one-sixth of all the casualties from America's new war.

The family found out at 3 a.m., and by sunlight the block was aswarm with friends and neighbors, and soon the media. A congressman stopped by the house. The secretary of defense issued a letter of condolence. The mayor called, and ordered all flags in Baltimore flown at half-staff.

Of course, that was seven years and another war ago. And three mayors and two presidential elections ago. And 5,479 dead American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines ago.

There were no American flags flying on Waters-Bey's block today.

There was one at the fallen Marine's grave. It was stuck in the ground behind the small metal marker bearing his name, in section B-10 of the Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery in Owings Mills. The Boy Scouts put one there — as they did on every grave in the cemetery — for Memorial Day. They'll start taking them down Tuesday.

Lori Martin-Graham was sitting in the grass two rows over, in front of the marker for Staff Sgt. Jay E. Martin, a nephew she considered like a son. Soon Noland Garrett came by, on the way to his brother's grave, and stopped for a hug. They were acquaintances in the small community of regulars at the veterans cemetery, there for the same thing, if not for the same people.

Martin-Graham knew some of the Waters-Bey family regulars too, their destination in the cemetery being so closely situated, and she wondered if they might be coming.

Then she started talking about Staff Sgt. Martin: How he attended Junior ROTC at Forest Park Senior High School, how he entered the Army because he admired retired Gen. Colin Powell, how he gave up a seat home from Iraq to a colleague with a new baby, and soon the sweat beading on her cheekbones was mixed with tears.

"I know people have cookouts and it's a day for fun and being with family," she said. "But I hope they remember too. And I hope they pray for all the others that are still over there, to be safe."

robert.little@baltsun.com

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