Mourning in America
Lynn Bradach lost her son in Iraq—a son she believes died for a lie. Now, she’s headed to Washington, D.C., to join Cindy Sheehan and others for what is being billed as a huge, war-stopping march on September 24.
Like the young man in the new Army recruiting commercial, Travis Bradach-Nall had issues with his father. His parents had divorced just before he turned 13, and he barely saw his dad again after that. Instead he lived with his mother, Lynn Bradach, in the close quarters of her brown cottage-style home in Portland, Oregon. Like many teenagers, Travis was furious at his dad and in love with loud noise. He liked explosions. He liked to play the drums. He liked to yell.
He also loved his mother—Mama, he called her—with the protective intensity of the eldest child of a single mom. He played man of the house well, but played teenager better, giving his mother plenty to worry about. At 17, tattoos began appearing on the kid Lynn used to call her "little muscle man," something Travis knew his mother wouldn't like. There was a dagger, a serpent, a three-eyed monster breathing fire. And there was the word "Tamaris" written across his chest, which he sometimes told people was his name in Latin, and at other times told people was Latin for "crazy bastard." He began skipping high school. He bickered with his mother about what he would do after he graduated. Then, one day in his senior year, he came home and told his mom he had joined the Marines.
Like the mother in another of the new Army recruiting commercials, Lynn was not happy at first. Hysterical, was more like it. But Travis was firm, told her there was nothing she could do about it, and she eventually accepted it as something her son needed—a place with rigid structure, an experience to push him to the edge of limits he was already testing.
Again, it was a lot like in the new recruiting commercials, which are part of a fresh strategy by the Army to focus on the moments when a young man breaks free from parental control rather than on images of war that might remind potential recruits of the rising casualty count in Iraq. In the commercial, "Dinner Conversations," a son tells his mom that joining the Army will help him pay for college, "and besides," the actor playing a soldier says, "it's time for me to be the man." Travis saw the military exactly this way: a place to grow up, a way to earn money for higher education, a way to become a man.
He changed markedly once his military service began. In letters home from boot camp, he told members of his family that he loved them—told his little brother Nicklas, his uncle Joel, his mother. It was notable, because until then his was not a family to say "I love you" much. He told his mother that she was right, that he had been spoiled by a comfortable life that he didn't appreciate. There wasn't a war on when Travis joined in July of 2000, but all of that changed quickly, and by February of 2003 he was bound for Iraq. He told his mother he was terrified of going to war. Travis, by then a corporal, turned 21 in Kuwait, where he complained bitterly of not being able to buy his first legal beer on his birthday. Shortly after his birthday, Travis's mine-clearing company helped breach the demilitarized zone between Kuwait and Iraq. After the initial invasion he saw more latrine-building action than anything else, and during downtime, often talked about his father. On one occasion, a fed-up friend told Travis that he just had to let go of his anger, that it was simply unhealthy to hang on to so much rage. The friend would later tell Lynn that Travis made a vow then to talk to his dad—really talk to him—when he went home.
* * *
In that recruiting commercial about the young man who has issues with his dad, a father and son walk out onto a covered Midwest porch and look at each other, a steady rain falling beyond them. It's called "Two Things":
Father: "You're a changed man."
Son: "How's that?"
Father: "When you got off that train back there you did two things you've never done before—at least not at the same time. You shook my hand, and you looked me square in the eye. Where'd that come from?"
And then the Army logo flashes on the screen.
Travis had a moment like that in mind before he was killed by a landmine in Karbala on July 2, 2003, shortly after President Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq over. No weapons of mass destruction had been found then, and none have been found since. Travis was about the 300th soldier to die in Iraq, one of the early deaths in a war that his mother at first questioned only quietly.
* * *
I first met Lynn Bradach shortly after Travis's death, as she was planning his funeral. She showed me baby pictures and letters. She explained she could not bring herself to change the message on her answering machine, which still announced: "Hi, this is Lynn. Sorry I couldn't make it to the phone. Give my cell phone a try. Especially you, Travis." She looked pale, her brown hair a bit wild. She held the gold star the military had given her in her hands, gently, like it was a piece of her son. There was no way to stop her tears, so she cried unselfconsciously as she spoke. She knew she only had a brief moment—maybe a week—in which to tell the world about her son, and then the funeral would happen, and perhaps some television cameras would come, and then all the people like me would move on to new tragedies. She told me she felt as if she could easily slip over some edge in her mind, so slick was it with grief, but that she was not going to let herself do that. Maybe after the funeral, but not now. Not while people were still listening to her stories about Travis.
I left with a full notebook, and made it a few blocks from her house before I had to pull over from crying myself. I had supported the war, based on a convergence of my own feelings about Saddam Hussein's nasty human-rights abuses and the Bush administration's warnings that he was gathering the world's most dangerous weapons. But, like Lynn, I was starting to feel that I had been misled, that the nation had been misled, and that the human cost of such manipulation was unbearable. She had hinted at a strong personal distrust of Bush as I sat in her living room that day, but had asked me not to write anything about that. The war had just been declared "over," and the sense that criticism of the administration was unpatriotic and an affront to dead soldiers who had given their lives to "liberate" Iraq was still pervasive. She didn't want to say anything that might be interpreted as bashing the military, especially the Marines, for whom she has a fierce fondness and respect, and for the moment she was willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt as the WMD search continued. "I was very vulnerable," she says now.
The funeral, a huge affair with explosions to honor Travis's love of fireworks and stretch limos to honor his love of spectacle, did draw reporters, but by then I was back in Seattle. I sent flowers, and then moved on to other stories.
* * *
Two years passed. Bush was reelected, based in large part on his record as a "war leader." Casualties mounted, first breaking 1,000, then approaching 2,000, with more than 14,000 wounded. Rationales for the war shifted after no WMDs were uncovered. We were spreading democracy. We were fighting in the central front of the war on terror. Finally: We had to keep going simply because so many Americans had been killed already. I read more and more interviews with grieving mothers of dead soldiers, and I wondered, as I read some of them, what had happened to Lynn. I wondered if she was still keeping quiet.
There is something curious about the way this war has been protested. There were huge protests before it began, when the rationale for invading Iraq was harder to argue with. Back then, before Shock and Awe, the rationale was based on a hypothetical that could not be proven or disproven until an actual invasion. Maybe Saddam Hussein had WMDs, and maybe he didn't. One simply had to trust or not trust the government, and many went into the streets to say they did not.
But as it has become clearer that the war was launched on false premises, and that those who distrusted the government were right, there has not been an accompanying rise in mass protest. As it has become easier to question the rationale for the war, there has been less mass questioning. There were huge demonstrations, briefly, at the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004, but then Bush was reelected, and things quieted again. It is as if the many liberals who didn't support the war are too depressed, the comparatively small group of liberals who supported the war too chagrined, and Democratic leaders in too much disarray for focused opposition to the war to materialize. Until recently, the hope among liberals seemed to be: Once the rest of America realizes, then maybe something will be done, or at least said.
Then on August 3, as Bush began a five-week vacation at his Texas ranch, a woman named Cindy Sheehan sent an e-mail to those in her network of war opponents, many of whom, like her, had lost sons in Iraq. Bush had recently made a speech in which he said that American soldiers who died in Iraq had died for "a noble cause," and an outraged Sheehan began her e-mail with a sarcastic reference to this statement:
We can relax now. From the war zone of Crawford, Texas, George said that we families of loved ones that have been killed in Iraq can "rest assured that your loved ones died for a noble cause."
I am going to be in Dallas this weekend for the VFP [Veterans for Peace] convention, and I don't care how far Crawford is from Dallas, I am going to that [deleted] ranch. I will not leave until he explains to me exactly what the noble cause is. I hope some VFPs will join me in the crusade to Crawford. If they don't, I know my sister will, and we will go alone if we have to.
It has to stop. The time is now. I mean it.
Until Sheehan showed up at Bush's ranch demanding an answer to a simple question—"What is that noble cause?"—nobody had effectively rubbed the country's face in the lack of coherent justification for the war. Not John Kerry, not the protesters at the Republican National Convention, not Michael Moore, not the media. Compounding the problem, most of America was not ready to hear criticism of the commander in chief until this summer, when Bush's approval rating dipped below 50 percent. Bush's falling approval ratings opened him up to a summer of real political discontent, but no one seemed to realize just how large the opening for dissent had grown until a person beyond reproach, a mother who had given her son to the Iraq war, stepped in and posed a simple question that the president could not answer.
I wanted to do a phone interview with Sheehan while she was camped out in Crawford with Joan Baez, Al Sharpton, and other lefty luminaries, but of course I couldn't; by then she was being guided by savvy PR handlers who limited her interviews to a few outlets with huge audiences. They offered, however, to put me in touch with a woman from Oregon, a member of Gold Star Families for Peace who, like Sheehan, had lost her son to the war. They said the woman had been so moved by Sheehan's protest that she jumped on a plane to Crawford to be with her. The woman was Lynn Bradach.
* * *
Lynn Bradach was born in Burns, a tiny Eastern Oregon farming and lumber town, in 1952, but moved to Portland with her family when she was 10 years old. Her father was a mill worker who became, in Portland, a dredging engineer. Her mother was a homemaker. She went to a Catholic girls' high school, and grew up dreaming of a comfortable middle-class life with a husband, kids, and a nice little house. Her family was not political, and neither was she, though she remembers that in the '70s, when one of her brothers was in danger of being drafted into the war in Vietnam, he discussed moving to Canada to dodge military service. Her father was incensed. When your country asks, her father told his son, you go. With that war clearly a mess, and the protest movement in high gear, Lynn thought her father's thinking was crazy—not the loyalty to the country part, but the idea that loyalty demanded blind obedience even during a flawed, failing war. As it turned out, the war ended before her brother's draft number was called.
Lynn married, had her two sons, and got divorced at age 45 for reasons she doesn't like to discuss. That was the first rupture of what she calls her "nice, middle-class bubble," but it wasn't the big one. She dated when she could, which wasn't often with two boys who didn't always take well to new men around the house, but that was fine. She enjoyed her friends, knew how to have a good time. She continued her work for Qwest Communications, training workers to sell DSL service and voicemail. Later she was transferred to a Qwest subsidiary called Dex, a phonebook company where she worked sales and customer service. She always considered herself liberal but was never active in politics. "I was always quietly concerned," she says, "but I never wanted to speak out against anything. I voted. That's all I did was voted."
* * *
After the death of her son, Lynn says she became a different woman. This is, she believes, how all parents deal with the loss of a child. "In order to survive, the person who we are dies," she says.
She does look, in moments, like someone who has had a death inside of her. She is an energetic person—"frantic," she says—but sadness comes easily to her face, as do tears. She runs and bikes religiously, to get to a feeling of joy. She used to be a twice-a-week Catholic, but now cannot set foot in a church without beginning to sob. She has different friends these days, in part because she began gravitating, after Travis's death, toward people who are more politically active and spiritually minded. She has lost some friends, too, simply because some people feel awkward around a woman who has such an intense relationship with death and grief.
She had Travis cremated, but couldn't bear to part with all of his ashes. She put some in a coffin that is buried at Willamette National Cemetery, located on a wooded hill high above the city, and the rest she keeps in her living room. She talks to them, sometimes while she's watching TV. She tells him what's going on in the world. She journals to him, too, and she feels that he answers her, that he's around her always. The September after he died she was feeling particularly lost, and journaled to him. Soon afterward she received a message on her answering machine from Adopt-A-Minefield, the anti-minefield group run by Paul McCartney that raises funds to support de-mining and landmine survivor assistance. She saw it as a sign, and got involved.
She ended up being invited to an L.A. fundraiser hosted by McCartney, where she met Mickey Rooney, Gina Davis, and Larry King. It was surreal, but Travis always loved spectacle, and since she felt like he was with her, she could say to him quietly: "Hey, look at where we get to go." She threw a fundraiser in Portland that year that netted $10,000 for the landmine group, and she had a minefield in Cambodia cleared in Travis's name. Her goal now is to clear a minefield in Iraq as soon as it is safe to do so. She also made it her mission to support John Kerry, raising $4,000 at a house party for him in Portland.
* * *
Lynn's new life as an activist is fueled by her outrage, but it is funded by the money she received after Travis died. Before his death she was making about $60,000 a year—solidly middle class. But between the military death benefit and Travis's military life insurance, she received $500,000, and now, she says, "I will never have to do a job for money again."
When Dex wanted to downsize, she was able to take a buyout without worrying about what she would do next.
This freedom to quit her job and become, essentially, a full-time activist is due to a huge change in how much the government pays the families of soldiers killed in action. From the Vietnam era until recently, the "death gratuity" was only a few thousand dollars. But after 9/11, when widows of victims of the terror attacks received huge payments from the government, there was a move to increase the payments to family members of soldiers killed in the so-called war on terror. The result is that, like the 9/11 widows who ended up with enough money to quit their jobs and turn themselves into a full-time, formidable lobbying force in D.C., many of the mothers of dead soldiers are now using government death benefits and life insurance money to fund their protest and peace activities. It's a tactic that would have been unthinkable for many mothers of the Vietnam era who, even if they'd had the same amount of money as today's mothers, wouldn't have had the benefit of the last 30 years of the women's rights movement encouraging them to speak up.
Lynn sometimes feels guilty about the money and can't avoid thoughts like, Did I sell my child? To get over this guilt she imagines saying to Bush: "This really frees me up to make sure you pay for this." She is exceptionally, exquisitely mad at the president. "The man is a destructive force," she said. "I am angry at the current administration beyond belief."
Ironically, last year the Marines called her to ask if she wanted to meet the president during one of his sessions with families of dead soldiers at Camp Pendleton in California. She said no.
"I don't really want to talk to him," Lynn says. "I think he's not a really honest man." But like Sheehan, she does maintain fantasies of asking the president some pointed questions: Why did we go to war? Do you lay awake at night? Does it make you sick to your stomach to know that you caused this?
When Lynn picked up a newspaper and read about Sheehan—and then heard that Sheehan was being disparaged by the right-wing attack machine—she was disgusted. She also had the means to channel that disgust into action, so she bought a plane ticket, packed her carry-on, and took off for Texas.
* * *
Lynn arrived in Texas late on August 17, a Wednesday, with her friend Michelle DeFord, a Salem woman whose son also died in Iraq. The two rented a car, got lost, and ended up at a motel in the town of Temple, 40 miles south of Crawford, where, to their surprise, the check-in staff cheered their mission and told them to "Go get Bush!" Lynn had never been to Texas before, and was also surprised by its beauty, how green it was. With a bit of help, the next morning the two moms finally found the road to Crawford, and Camp Casey, named for Sheehan's son. Lynn loved meeting the other Gold Star mothers at the camp and sharing stories of their kids. "It is part of the healing process to tell the story of your child," she says. "We met Cindy for a few minutes... She was very tired but she thought everything was going well."
Sheehan, now on a cross-country bus tour to rally support for the Sept. 24 march on Washington, still recalls that moment in Crawford. "The other mothers coming helped a lot," Sheehan told me in a recent phone conversation, "It helped to know I wasn't alone, that I wasn't the only mother in America who wanted answers."
Not long after that, Sheehan got news that her mother had suffered a stroke. She prepared to leave Crawford to be with her, and as she did there was suddenly fear in the camp that their momentum would be lost when Sheehan departed. A decision was made to start getting the other Gold Star moms in front of cameras. Lynn, Sheehan remembers, "was really awesome," jumping right in to help.
On August 20, in a tone as unvarnished and raw with emotion as Sheehan's, Lynn told the CBS evening news why she had traveled all the way to Crawford.
REPORTER: "Lynn Bradach is one of the newcomers to the camp at Crawford. We first met her two years ago, just after her son, Travis, was killed in Iraq... He was a 21-year-old Marine who died after he had volunteered to stay in Iraq an extra three months. She told us something back then that has stuck with her and with us ever since."
BRADACH: (From October 2003) "The whole world's hearts should be breaking. If you all could have met all these wonderful boys, they're not just soldiers. They're wonderful boys."
REPORTER: "That's what drew her to this sweltering ranch road in the middle of Texas, not just as somebody who opposes the war, but as a mother who paid for it dearly."
BRADACH: "I need to face people down. I want you to look in my eyes and realize how much pain I have suffered..."
* * *
Lynn learned something from the counter-protesters crying "treason" in Crawford. She learned that some people simply haven't been paying attention. She recalls a counter-protester across the street from her group of mothers, holding up a sign that said "9/11 survivor."
She couldn't believe a 9/11 survivor would support the Iraq war, since Iraq was not responsible for 9/11. The police in Crawford would not let the competing groups of protesters cross the street to talk to each other, but some sweet-looking elderly ladies managed to get around the rule, and wandered over to Lynn's side of the road. They asked why Lynn and her fellow protesters had no pictures of 9/11 survivors, and Lynn and her friends answered that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. They cited the September 11 Commission Report as proof.
The women replied: "It has everything to do with September 11. They attacked us!
"We're all like, who is 'they?'" Lynn recalls.
"The Iraqis!" the women replied.
"You don't even know what to say," Lynn sighs.
* * *
Lynn remains in awe of Cindy Sheehan, and what her protest accomplished.
"You know what I think really happened?" she says. "I think somehow we all knew what was wrong, but we didn't know what to do. We didn't know how to rally against it. There was no plan of action. What do we do? Do we march? Do we rally? Cindy's plan of action, standing up in the field and saying, 'This is wrong'—if that one mother can stand up in the field and say it's wrong, so can everyone else. Everyone who knows it's wrong has to stand up. I think it's something 50 percent of this country, at least, needed. And I think there're others that are on the edge, and they're tilting our way."
* * *
It may have seemed like there were a lot of Gold Star moms down in Crawford with Cindy Sheehan last month, given all the media amplification their voices received, but there were actually never more than a dozen. There were a couple of fathers, too. But mainly the crowds of supporters were members of the radical left, people whom the Gold Star moms' handlers effectively kept out of the media spotlight, knowing that mothers would be listened to, but that radicals would sink the moms' credibility by association. This is another difference from the Vietnam era, and a slightly paradoxical one. While it has become less radical for women to speak out about the war, radicals of any gender are not heard when they weigh in.
The dilemma concerning what to do with the lefties, while finessed in Crawford, may become a big problem at the march on Washington on September 24. While a media-driven protest outside the president's ranch only requires a few well-cast, articulate spokespeople, a mass protest in D.C. requires, well, masses. The antiwar movement, such as it is, currently looks like a lopsided triangle with the Gold Star moms at the top and a whole bunch of people on the far left beneath them. Students are conspicuously absent from the mix, at least in Vietnam-era numbers, and everyone in the movement believes this is due to the absence of the draft. The march on Washington is sponsored by the ANSWER Coalition and United for Peace & Justice, and has already drawn some concern that it will put the typical potpourri of lefty gripes on parade—Haiti, the Palestinians, etc.—muddling the anti-Iraq-war message and creating an easy target, something conservative and even mainstream commentators could easily dismiss. Sheehan says the controversy over the march's message has been settled, and that it will focus solely on the Iraq war.
"I think it's going to be an amazing opportunity for the people of America to show their elected officials we mean business when we say we want our troops home," Sheehan says.
As we talked, Sheehan's pre-march bus tour was rolling through Louisiana, headed to deliver aid to New Orleans, and her location was a reminder of another, perhaps even bigger, hurdle that march organizers face. She admitted that the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has taken public attention away from the Gold Star moms' odyssey. Barely a word has been reported about them since Bush left his Crawford vacation to return to the White House to oversee disaster relief efforts, as well as the efforts to control the political damage he is suffering from having responded too slowly to what may be a greater calamity than 9/11.
But the hope of the Gold Star moms is that the public soon makes a connection between Bush's bungling of the Katrina response and his bungling of the Iraq war.
"People are still dying every day in Iraq and we still have a war going on," Sheehan says. "We need to link them together, and they're connected. It's just another example of failure by this administration. Since the media's not merging them together it's going to be hard, but we'll keep trying."
The march on Washington could definitely be a moment when the anger at the Katrina response merges in the popular consciousness with anger at the way the war is going, and the sum of the common themes of the two national embarrassments—incompetence, poor planning, a cavalier attitude toward the lives of American citizens—becomes a blow from which the administration cannot recover. But it could just as easily happen that the two remain unlinked, and the anger generated by Katrina drowns out the march against the Iraq war completely.
Whatever happens, Lynn Bradach is going, taking with her the same carry-on bag that she dragged through the dust of Crawford. Her message will be simple: We need a timetable for withdrawal, a plan to stop the loss of American lives. She's practiced at answering critics who point out that her son volunteered for his assignment.
"Yes, it's a volunteer army," Lynn says, "and they volunteer to give their lives if this country is in imminent danger... but this was a lie, an out-and-out lie that put us in there. They didn't give an oath that said they would die for a lie."
Lynn says she's not naive. "Will we be able to end this tomorrow?" she asks. "No. But maybe we can force people to stop it from going on and on and on. If we save one child, if this war stops one day earlier, at least that's one day."
She says this with the certainty and sense of purpose that has come from joining the Gold Star moms, but later, she also admits that she thinks of the group as "a horrible club," one that she's working to shut down by working to end the war. "The price of this membership is disgusting," she says. "We're fighting to close the club. When we die, this club should die."