|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
My husband was certain that he was going to die in Iraq.
Sgt. 1st Class David J. Salie had been an American soldier for almost 17 years. He'd deployed many times, and he'd been to war before. He'd parachuted into Panama with the 82nd Airborne Division, served in the Gulf War and gone to Haiti with the 25th Infantry Division. But he'd never been so certain that he was going to die that he prepared for death.
David told me that he wouldn't be coming back. I didn't believe him. I felt that he was just under so much stress thinking of our children and me, and about the 40 soldiers in his platoon who were his responsibility.
In the month before he left for Iraq with B Company, 2nd of the 69th Armor, 3rd Infantry Division, David went over his will with a fine-toothed comb, and he checked out his Survivor's Group Life Insurance, which provides protection for military people.
David even gave away some of his personal belongings. He also checked on the death benefits that a soldier's family receives.
My husband came home and proudly announced that if he died in Iraq, his family would be taken care of. I tried to tell him that he shouldn't worry about things like that. He said that every soldier going to war worries about his family and wants to make sure that if he's killed, his family will be taken care of just as they would be if he were still alive.
We were "all squared away," David told me.
I wish I could say that he was wrong about dying and right about the rest of it. Instead, he was correct in his premonition about his own death, but wrong in his belief that we were "squared away."
On the evening of Feb. 14, 2005, a little after 9 p.m., I heard a knock on the front door of our house at Fort Benning, Ga. I got up from the couch in the living room, where I'd been resting with a sick child, and I saw two soldiers in dress green uniforms standing on the front porch.
After making it through my husband's funeral, I was greeted with mountains of paperwork.
I was escorted from office to office by my casualty officer as my military identification card was changed and reissued; as I signed up for the Veterans Administration's Dependency and Indemnity Compensation and the military's Survivor's Benefit Plan.
I reviewed the paperwork after all of these appointments, and I was shocked to discover that David had been wrong: We weren't going to be cared for as if he were still alive.
My husband didn't know that dependents' compensation offsets the Survivor's Benefit Plan. If he'd known that, it would have made him very angry.
DIC is a payment made to widows, their children and some parents who've lost a husband, father or son. Widows are entitled to the benefit for the remainder of their lives, unless they remarry. DIC comes from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
SBP pays a deceased soldier's income, and it comes from the Department of Defense.
The offset, a dollar-for-dollar deduction, is supposedly intended to prevent double-dipping from two similar benefit plans.
But the Survivors Benefit Plan and Dependents Indemnity Compensation are provided for different reasons, and the offset leaves many military families with no survivors' benefits at all. Others receive only the pittance that's left over after the offset is deducted.
As we try to rebuild our shattered lives, the offset deals us a second blow. Grief and loss are hard enough to handle, but now we have more important worries, such as providing homes, food, clothing and schooling for our families.
This is not a partisan political issue. This is not a matter of whether you're for or against the war in Iraq. This is about those who died serving our country, standing between our enemies and us and believing that their families would be cared for if they gave their lives.
It's a shame that that isn't true.
When my son was killed in Iraq earlier this month at age 27, I found myself pondering my responsibility for his death.
Among the hundreds of messages that my wife and I have received, two bore directly on this question. Both held me personally culpable, insisting that my public opposition to the war had provided aid and comfort to the enemy. Each said that my son's death came as a direct result of my antiwar writings.
This may seem a vile accusation to lay against a grieving father. But in fact, it has become a staple of American political discourse, repeated endlessly by those keen to allow President Bush a free hand in waging his war. By encouraging "the terrorists," opponents of the Iraq conflict increase the risk to U.S. troops. Although the First Amendment protects antiwar critics from being tried for treason, it provides no protection for the hardly less serious charge of failing to support the troops -- today's civic equivalent of dereliction of duty.
As a citizen, I have tried since Sept. 11, 2001, to promote a critical understanding of U.S. foreign policy. I know that even now, people of good will find much to admire in Bush's response to that awful day. They applaud his doctrine of preventive war. They endorse his crusade to spread democracy across the Muslim world and to eliminate tyranny from the face of the Earth. They insist not only that his decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was correct but that the war there can still be won. Some -- the members of the "the-surge-is-already-working" school of thought -- even profess to see victory just over the horizon.
I believe that such notions are dead wrong and doomed to fail. In books, articles and op-ed pieces, in talks to audiences large and small, I have said as much. "The long war is an unwinnable one," I wrote in this section of The Washington Post in August 2005. "The United States needs to liquidate its presence in Iraq, placing the onus on Iraqis to decide their fate and creating the space for other regional powers to assist in brokering a political settlement. We've done all that we can do."
Not for a second did I expect my own efforts to make a difference. But I did nurse the hope that my voice might combine with those of others -- teachers, writers, activists and ordinary folks -- to educate the public about the folly of the course on which the nation has embarked. I hoped that those efforts might produce a political climate conducive to change. I genuinely believed that if the people spoke, our leaders in Washington would listen and respond.
This, I can now see, was an illusion.
The people have spoken, and nothing of substance has changed. The November 2006 midterm elections signified an unambiguous repudiation of the policies that landed us in our present predicament. But half a year later, the war continues, with no end in sight. Indeed, by sending more troops to Iraq (and by extending the tours of those, like my son, who were already there), Bush has signaled his complete disregard for what was once quaintly referred to as "the will of the people."
To be fair, responsibility for the war's continuation now rests no less with the Democrats who control Congress than with the president and his party. After my son's death, my state's senators, Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, telephoned to express their condolences. Stephen F. Lynch, our congressman, attended my son's wake. Kerry was present for the funeral Mass. My family and I greatly appreciated such gestures. But when I suggested to each of them the necessity of ending the war, I got the brushoff. More accurately, after ever so briefly pretending to listen, each treated me to a convoluted explanation that said in essence: Don't blame me.
To whom do Kennedy, Kerry and Lynch listen? We know the answer: to the same people who have the ear of George W. Bush and Karl Rove -- namely, wealthy individuals and institutions.