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McClatchy Newspapers, Published May 31 2010

For some, every day is Memorial Day

CHICAGO – Memorial Day is a tough one for parents who have lost a child in Iraq and Afghanistan. But then, all days are tough. Birthdays. Anniversaries. Family gatherings.

“You never know when it’s going to catch you by surprise,” said Jim Frazier, whose 24-year-old son, Jacob, was killed in Afghanistan in 2003. “I can be driving down the Kennedy and something will hit me ... and I’ll find myself choking up. You never really get over it.”

First comes the men at the front door bearing bad news, then the flag-draped coffin, followed by the precision of a military funeral – the snap of a salute, the spit-and-polish of a uniform, the firing of rifles in unison.

But after the crowds go home, grief is rarely tidy, say those who have lost a child in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some people inadvertently contribute to the heartache with awkward talk of closure or a tone deafness about the significance of Memorial Day.

On this somber holiday, here’s what three parents said they want you to know about their sadness: what helps, what hurts and why it’s important to remember.

Jim Frazier, father of Staff Sgt. Jacob Frazier, 24, Illinois Air National Guard

“Don’t ever use the word ‘closure’ with me,” said Frazier. “I once threw a reporter out who used that word. It’s simply a hole in your heart that is always there ... and you learn to live with it.”

That was just the first of some well-meaning but clumsy gestures after Jake was killed in southern Afghanistan seven years ago.

Another occurred Memorial Day 2003 – just two months after burying Jake. Jake’s parents found themselves on a parade float going down a street in Chicago. The jarring contrast between the happy, smiling crowds and their own sadness left an indelible imprint.

“When it was over, I said, ‘Thanks for having us, but don’t ever make anyone sit on a float again.’ ” It’s one reason why he has been involved in the city’s parade committee ever since.

He explains his activism this way: “I lost a boy ... I can’t do anything for him, but I sure as hell can do something for the other young men and women in harm’s way. ... It’s the way recovering addicts help recovering addicts. They’re the only ones that understand ... and I seek out people who have gone through the same thing.”

Kirk Morris, father of Marine Pfc. Geoffrey Morris, 19

Geoffrey Morris was a 19-year-old Marine when he was killed by a grenade six years ago in Iraq. His father’s voice still catches describing all the activities they shared, such as fishing and pheasant hunting.

“The one thing I don’t do is play pool anymore. I have a beautiful table downstairs, but I just can’t do it.”

Like Frazier, Kirk Morris marched in Chicago’s parade. Still, he wrestles with ambivalent feelings on Memorial Day.

“It’s one of the most important days of the year to me, but it’s also unsettling,” said Morris.

“I don’t think that the majority of Americans get it,” he said. “It’s about remembering those who have fallen. ... I don’t want to diminish our veterans, but that’s why we have Veterans Day. This day is about all those who never got their tomorrows.”

Since Geoffrey’s death, he has kicked his activism into high gear, including an unsuccessful run for Congress, a fishing tournament to benefit military families and a Facebook page dedicated to these “Heroes of Freedom.” But he’ll call you out if you ask if lending a hand is a means of coping.

“It doesn’t help me recover one bit,” he snaps. “In fact, it makes things worse because I see so many families in pain, but families have so many questions ... and I saw a need, and I filled it.”

He also has a long list of expressions of sympathy that rub salt in the wound. The worst: “When someone says, ‘They’re in a better place.’ I just want to yell, ‘Are you frickin’ kidding me?’ He was 19 years old. His place was with his daddy.”

Sandra Miller, mother of Army Pvt. DeWayne White, 27

The yellow ribbons – faded and tattered – are still wrapped around the trees on Sandra Miller’s front yard in Country Club Hills. She can’t seem to take them down. It’s just one of the many ways she remembers her son DeWayne White, one of three U.S. soldiers killed by a roadside bomb near Baiji, Iraq, in 2007.

Another is the prayer box she keeps on her bedroom dresser. Every time a member of the U.S. military dies in battle, she writes his or her name on a slip of paper, adding it to the box and praying for the family.

“There’s an awful lot of pain in there,” she said.

But while Miller, a deeply religious woman, does her part to tend to the legacy of her son, she is baffled that so many Americans do not recognize or even think about his sacrifice, especially on Memorial Day. Even family members, she said, are too busy to mark the occasion, leaving her alone in her sorrow.

“It’s not about having a barbecue. It’s a day for remembering. ... And what’s up with all the sales?” she said. “If one TV channel could just put up the photos of all the fallen for just one day, that would make a huge difference.”