Children of U.S. soldiers are
war's unseen casualties
Almost 900 youngsters have lost a parent in Iraq
By LISA HOFFMAN AND ANNETTE RAINVILLE
SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE; December 20, 2004
Sad to the depths of his 4-year-old soul, Jack Shanaberger knew
what he didn't want to be when he grows up: a father.
"I don't want to be a daddy because daddies die," the child
solemnly told his mother after his father, Staff Sgt. Wentz "Baron"
Shanaberger, a military policeman from Fort Pierce, Fla., was killed
March 23 in an ambush in Iraq.
On that terrible day, Jack and his four siblings joined the
ranks of the largely overlooked American casualties who, until now,
have gone uncounted. Although almost daily official announcements tally
the war dead, the collateral damage to the children left behind has not
But, from Defense Department casualty reports, obituaries and
accounts in hometown newspapers, and family interviews, Scripps Howard
News Service has identified nearly 900 U.S. children who have lost a
parent in the war, from the start of the conflict in March 2003 through
November, when a total of 1,256 troops had died.
Although comparably specific historical data are not available
for other U.S. wars, military experts said the proportionally higher
number of American children left bereaved by the Iraq war is
"This is a new state of affairs we have to confront," said
Charles Moskos, a leading military sociologist and Northwestern
Overall, Americans in uniform today are far more likely to be
married and have children than in the military of the past, Moskos and
others said. And the reliance in Iraq on reserve forces -- who tend to
be older and even more settled than active-duty soldiers -- also means
more offspring at home.
Even though the federal government provides an array of benefits
for widows, widowers and minor children, more help is needed --
including counseling -- for at least 882 American children left without
a parent from the war in Iraq.
"As much as we are concerned about veterans programs, we now
have to be concerned about orphan programs," Moskos said. "This is the
first time we have crossed this threshold."
According to the Scripps research, more than 40 percent of the
1,256 war dead through November were married, and 429 had children. At
least half those youngsters were 10 years old or younger. Among the
parents who died were six female soldiers who had borne a total of 10
children among them -- another historic first for women in the U.S.
Perhaps most heartbreaking are the more than 40 service members
who died without ever seeing their children. At least 34 wives were
pregnant -- four with twins -- when their husbands died, and 15 others
had babies while their spouses were deployed. Although some of the
latter were able to return home on paternity leave, most died before
Among those who never held their babies was Army 1st Lt. Doyle
Hufstedler, 25, of Abilene, Texas, who was killed in March when a
roadside bomb hit his armored personnel carrier near Habbaniyah. In his
uniform pocket, Hufstedler carried a sonogram picture of his unborn
daughter, the only image he would ever have of Grace Ashley, who
arrived six weeks after his death.
Ursula Pirtle gave birth to Katie, her husband's first-born and
spitting image, 27 days after Army Spc. James Heath Pirtle, 27, of La
Mesa, N.M., was killed Oct. 3, 2003, in an insurgent attack north of
"It's almost hard to look at her sometimes," Ursula Pirtle, who
now lives in Harker Heights, Texas, wrote in a posthumous online letter
to her husband. "I would give my right arm to get a chance to see you
two together ... I know she would be the biggest joy you've ever known."
Despite their losses, Pirtle and most other surviving spouses
say they still support the war. They say they are profoundly proud of
their loved ones' willingness to give their lives for their country and
to help bring democracy to Iraq. That pride helps their children cope
Veronica Collier of Harrison, Ark., found great solace in her
husband's undimmed belief that the Iraq war was not only justified, but
also engendering more good than the media have portrayed. A father of
four, her husband, Army National Guard Sgt. Russell
Collier, 48, was killed Oct. 3 trying to help a fellow soldier under
fire in Taji, Iraq.
"He died doing what he loved," Collier told a newspaper.
By all accounts, children also bring a measure of comfort to the
bereaved spouses and other relatives, providing a tangible link to the
parent who is gone. Hufstedler's widow, Leslie, said her daughter is a
perpetual prod to get on with life.
Now sharing a home with her parents in Charlotte, N.C.,
Hufstedler, 25, said she dreads the coming Christmas season, which
would have been the first for her brand new family, but she has
resolved to celebrate for Grace's sake.
In Hinesville, Ga., Denise Marshall also expects a sad
Christmas, a holiday for which her husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Robert
Marshall, once handled the biggest decorating chores.
That is the least of the new widow's problems. Since Marshall,
50, was killed in a rocket-propelled gun attack in April 2003, his wife
has struggled financially and otherwise to care for their three
children, all of whom have medical disabilities. The trio is getting
counseling to help with the loss, but the emotional wound remains fresh.
More than a year after his father's death, Marshall's son,
Richard, 16, still has a hard time sleeping. Once, his mother said,
Richard asked her, "Did Dad love his soldiers more than he loved us?"
The fierce love many fallen soldiers had for their children is
evident in both the reasons they joined the service and in letters they
Pfc. Stephen Downing, 30, of Burkesville, Ky., gave up his
truck-driving job to join the Army to provide a better life for his
children, Taylor, 9, and Stephen, 5.
"His kids were everything in the world for him," Downing's
ex-wife, LeAnn Emmons, told a local newspaper.
A man with a soft spot for all children, Downing -- killed Oct.
28 by a sniper in Ramadi -- told his family he would also be fighting
for the children of Iraq. "He told his kids that he wanted Iraqi kids
to have the same opportunities (American) kids do," Emmons said.
It was his own bottomless love for his wife and two daughters
that gave rise to the worst fear for Army Chief Warrant Officer William
Brennan, an Army helicopter pilot killed in a crash Oct. 16 on a
mission to protect Iraqi civilians fleeing under fire from insurgents.
"It's not the fear of death that wears me down. It is the
feeling of not being there for my three girls," Brennan, 36, of
Bethlehem, Conn., wrote in an Easter letter to his sister. Only 2 years
old when his own father died, Brennan worried that, if he were killed,
his children "would never know me."
Corey Shanaberger, widow of the Florida MP killed in March, is
doing everything she can so her children will remember their father in
both life and death. Baron Shanaberger left instructions that, if he
died, his five kids should be permitted to see him in his coffin,
believing that would help them come to terms with his passing and
provide them some closure.
At the funeral home viewing, Jack and his twin sister, Grace,
climbed up so they could touch and kiss him in his open casket. The
children placed precious mementos in the coffin with him -- a little
red truck, a stuffed puppy dog, a favorite doll, a photo.
Now, each night when the stars are out, Corey Shanaberger tells
her children that one star is their daddy coming out of
heaven to watch over them. They all blow a kiss to the sky.
"I always tell my children, 'You might forget what your daddy
looked like, but always remember what he felt like,' " she said.
"Always remember his hugs, always remember his kisses, and always
remember his love."
MOTHERS WHO DIED
In all, six mothers in uniform have died in Iraq between the
start of the war in March 2003 and the end of November, leaving behind
a total of 10 children. Overall, 27 women troops have died in the war.
Among the mothers were:
Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa, 23
Piestewa, the first female American soldier killed in combat in
Iraq, was also the first U.S. military mother to die in the war. She
died in the March 23, 2003, ambush in which Pfc. Jessica Lynch was
captured in Nasiriyah. She had two children, Brandon, 4, and Carla, 3.
Both now are being raised by their grandparents in El Paso, Texas.
Spc. Jessica Cawvey, 21
Another single Army mother, she joined the Illinois National
Guard to build a better life for her daughter, Sierra, 6. In Iraq since
February, Cawvey, died Oct. 6 when a roadside bomb exploded as her
convoy passed near Fallujah.
Cawvey "wasn't the military type," her mother, Sandra Cawvey,
told a local newspaper. She enlisted in the Guard simply to help pay
for college so she could get a decent job. Before she deployed to Iraq,
Cawvey had been living with her parents and Sierra, and working on a
bachelor's degree in accounting at Illinois State University.
The affect of Cawvey's death on Sierra was somewhat cushioned by
the fact that the child is continuing to live with her grandparents in
Mahomet, Ill. "She's doing just fine," said Clarence Cawvey, Jessica's
uncle. "It's more like she lost a sister."
Army Sgt. Pamela Osbourne, 38
Less than a week after Cawvey died, Osbourne was killed by
shrapnel from a rocket attack on her camp in Baghdad. A native of
Jamaica, Osbourne came to America when she was 14 with two dreams -- to
become a U.S. citizen and to serve in the military.
A medical condition could have kept her out of Iraq duty, but
Osbourne was determined to serve her country, her husband Rohan
Osbourne told a local newspaper in Hollywood, Fla.
While she was deployed, her husband tended to their three
children, ages 9 to 19. A supply specialist, Osbourne managed to call
home almost every day, between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m.
She made her husband promise not to hide anything from the kids
if the worst happened.
"Even if I come home in a box, you should know that I did it for
(all of) you. Take care of the kids. Stay strong," Osbourne told her
HELP FOR FAMILIES
When a U.S. service member is killed on duty, his family is
entitled to an array of benefits.
Among other help, the family can receive a one-time payment of
$12,000, burial benefits, life insurance proceeds, and at least $967 a
month in survivor compensation. In some cases, the Department of
Veterans Affairs also will pay $241 a month for each child left without
But, due to the vagaries of regulations and individual
circumstances, the amount a surviving family receives varies and, in
many cases, does not stretch far enough to cover a family's expenses.
Across the country, some friends, relatives and co-workers of
troops who have died in Iraq have set up funds for the families or for
their children's educations.
There also are several national groups that help military
families in need, and, in some cases, accept donations from the public.
Among them are:
· Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund: Provides unrestricted
grants to families of fallen troops. 212-245-0072. On the Web:
· Fallen Patriot Fund: Provides financial grants to the
families of those killed or seriously injured in Operation Iraqi
Freedom. Call 214-658-7125. On the Web: www.fallenpatriotfund.org
· Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS):
Provides services to all who have lost a loved one while serving in the
U.S. armed forces. 800-959-TAPS (8277). On the Web: www.taps.org
· Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society: Provides financial
assistance and emergency grants to families and survivors. On the Web:
BY THE NUMBERS
· U.S. troops killed in Iraq who had children: 429
· Children born after their parent died in the war: At
· U.S. military mothers who died in the war: At least 6
· States with the most children of fallen U.S. troops:
California -- 103; Texas -- 69; New York -- 48; Florida -- 41;
Pennsylvania -- 38
· Children by branch of military: Army -- 710; Marines --
139; Navy -- 19; Air Force -- 13; Coast Guard -- 1
· How parent died: In hostile fire -- 649; By accident or
non-hostile incident -- 233
· Children by rank of parent: Officers -- 78;
Non-commissioned officers -- 573; Enlisted: 231
· Was deceased parent in regular or reserve unit? Regular
-- 649; Reserve: 233
Here are excerpts from the last letters of fallen U.S. soldiers
to their children.
Marine Staff Sgt. Russell Slay,
28, of Humble, Texas
Slay, who was killed Nov. 9 in Fallujah when his armored vehicle
was attacked by insurgents, wrote the following in his last letter home
to his daughter Kinlee, 9, and son Walker, 5.
"Tell Kinlee that I love her and never knew what life was before
she was born. ... She'll always be Daddy's little girl ... Daddy will
always be with her and watching out for her. I'll miss you. Hugs and
To Walker, "You're the sweetest little man. Be studious, stay in
school and stay away from the military. I mean it. Always be a man. If
you make mistakes, stand up and say so."
Slay told his daughter to go to college, and his son to have
children of his own so he could "feel the joy and happiness you brought
"My family was in my last thoughts. I can't say I love you
Army Pfc. Jesse Givens,
34, of Fountain, Colo.
Givens was killed May 1, 2003, when his tank tumbled into the
Euphrates River when a riverbank gave way. He wrote what follows to his
sons, Dakota, 5, and Carson, who was born four weeks after Givens'
"Dakota -- You are more son than I could ever ask for. I can
only hope I was half the dad. You taught me how to care until it hurts,
you taught me how to smile again. You taught me that life isn't so
serious and sometimes you have to play. You have a big, beautiful
heart. Through life you need to keep it open and follow it.
"Never be afraid to be yourself. I will always be there in our
park when you dream so we can still play together. I hope someday you
will have a son like mine. Make them smile and shine just like you. I
hope someday you will understand why I didn't come home. Please, be
proud of me. Please don't stop loving life. Take in every breath like
it's your first. I will always be there with you. I'll be in the sun,
shadows, dreams and joys of your life.
"Bean (his pet name for the unborn Carson) -- I never got to see
you but I know in my heart you are beautiful. I will always have with
me the feel of the soft nudges on your mom's belly, and the joy I felt
when we found out you were on the way.
"I dream of you every night, and I always will. Don't ever think
that since I wasn't around that I didn't love you. You were conceived
of love and I came to this terrible place for love. Please understand
that I had to be gone so that I could take care of my family. I love
(Editors Note) In the original article Dakota Givens hugs the
television in his room as he asks his mother, Melissa Givens, to rewind
a videotape that his father, Army Pfc. Jesse Givens, made for him.
Givens, 34, of Fountain, Colo., was killed in Iraq in May 2003 and left
behind a wife and two sons, including a baby he never got to see.