For many Americans, Memorial Day means the beginning of the summer vacation season. But Memorial Day was set aside as a national day of remembrance for those who have died in America's wars. To date, 800 U.S. military personnel have died in the latest conflict, in Iraq. For their families and friends, Memorial Day is a time share both personal memories and feelings of grief.
At 6:00 p.m., most of the tables at the Massapequa Diner on New York's Long Island are occupied by working parents and their young children eating dinner together. Yet, in one corner, sits a small group of parents who will never see their children alive again.
"My name is Cathy Heighter and I am the mother of the late Corporal Raheen Tyson Heighter. His convoy was ambushed and he was killed on July 24, 2003 in Mosul. Today is just one of those days I feel like I need to cry. But I don't like to cry. And if I do cry I want to cry to with somebody that can understand my tears and my pain."
One of the other parents reaches across the table to pat her arm.
"Raheen was a very brave hearted young man. Raheen was extremely persistent. And he used to use that on me all the time, until I eventually pretty much gave in most of the time," she laughs. "He was determined to reach the goal he set out to accomplish. I was proud of his decision. I didn't really want him to go into the military but I was proud that he was making an honorable decision for his own life and pursuing it. And I give him all due respect for that."
Ms. Heighter seems tortured with the sense that her son's spirit cannot rest. "My son was not ready to leave here. His life was cut much too short," she says. "And I think Raheen in a spiritual sense is still waiting to come home - struggling to continue to be alive and to be here. And only I can say that because I'm his mother. There are days - even today as I was coming over here - I could feel his presence so strong it was just like he was breathing through me. It's very powerful."
Leonard Wahl is new to this group. His son Gregory was killed on a combat mission in early May when his truck overturned and fell down a ravine, where he drowned. "He is married to Maricela Wahl, an El Salvadoran and the love of his life. Two people that you never saw that were so inseparable. Anytime he was off work, they did everything together," he explains. "They have a beautiful daughter Alexis, four years old. And Maricela, she's just totally lost. She came from El Salvador and Greg gave her everything.
This Memorial Day I would like people to know that Greg cared about other people. It wasn't just about being in the military. Military is one thing serving your country. But he has a lot of compassion for kids. And he was very concerned about the kids in Iraq. And he said that one day, he would like to come back and take one home. That's the way he was.
He told me about this one little girl who had no shoes and she was missing teeth and she a little shirt on, and every day for three days she kept coming up to his truck because he was giving her Rice Krispies [breakfast cereal]. And I couldn't be any prouder of him. I wish he could be here but he's not. He did what he had to do and he died for his country and I respect him for that. I feel bad for Maricela and Alexis, but we'll get past it. We're a family."
Marlowe Fletcher, picks up the maroon paratrooper's beret his son was wearing when he was struck by a homemade mine. Jacob Fletcher enlisted soon after some of his friends died in the attacks of September 11, 2001.
"He seemed to take it to heart. And he wanted to serve," he says, as he fights back tears. "And I just want people to remember him, and uh, the other kids like him. They are all heroes. And he's my hero. I wish I could turn back the clock. But you can't. He leaves behind a mom, a dad, an eleven-year-old brother, Joshua, a step dad and a stepbrother and [step] sister. And we all miss him."
Every human life is a web, and Jacob's life touched the lives of many others who were not family members, but who still remember him in their own special ways? friends, teachers, sweethearts, like Kristi Ruppert.
"He was the most gorgeous man I've ever seen. I was 17 when we had met And he was very passionate - to say the least! He was intense and he loved art and music and he always had an interest in being a soldier," she says. "And he loved tattoos and he loved his cats. We had two of them 'Rollins' and 'Miss Sweetie.' He was definitely unique. He would dedicate songs to me. He was that type of person and just find the perfect song to put to how he was feeling so he didn't have to say it. And we'd lie there in a dark room with candles as it played. That's how it was with Jacob. He became a part of who I was. And I miss him more than words can say. I miss my confidante. I miss someone getting me that way. He was an amazing man."
Jacob's mom, Doreen Kenny, says that more than her son's life was lost the day he died. "My heart was lost. A big part of my life was my son," she says, crying. "I spent a lot of my time writing to him and keeping him motivated, wanting him to come home and get his life the way he wanted it and have his family. We were very spiritual together. I think I discovered a lot of who I was through being his mom. He gave me a lot of courage. I miss him so desperately! This [grief] is a trip that I pray no other parent goes though it. And I just know they are going to, because it's still active over there [in Iraq]."
Some of these parents have taken steps to honor their children by helping others. Cathy Heighter, for example, has started a small scholarship fund in her son's name, and Doreen Kenny has founded the Jacob's Light Foundation, which collects food and letters to send to troops who have no family support here at home.