What the mother of a dead soldier knows, a nation at war easily forgets
"The most shocking fact about war is that its victims and its instruments are individual human beings, and these individual beings are condemned by the monstrous conventions of politics to murder or be murdered in quarrels not their own."
-- Aldous Huxley
Four months ago, Lisa Johnson lost her son and only child, Pierre Esprit Piche, in the Iraq War. To honor his death, the White House conveyed 37 words of appreciation from "a grateful nation." They were mailed to Johnson on a paper certificate, the kind a schoolchild receives for a perfect attendance record, with a gold seal on top and a rubber-stamped signature from George W. Bush.
But Johnson doesn't want her nation's gratitude or her president's empty gestures. She wants her son back. Since that's impossible, she wants an end to a war she never believed in, so that no more mothers will have to experience the unspeakable pain and horror of losing a child. "I wish I had something that would help people who might experience this but I just don't," she says.
"It's just as bad as anyone can imagine. Or worse."
There is anger in Johnson's eyes, which are red and puffy after four months of mourning, but it's closely guarded, at least around people she doesn't know well. What's easier to see is her profound grief. But there's something else there, too -- a solemn, determined strength to speak candidly about her loss.
On the one-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a war whose justification now seems more dubious than ever, there are gnawing questions about when it will end, how many more lives it will claim and what good, if any, will come of it. No weapons of mass destruction have been found. As public support for the action wanes and reports of American casualties are pushed further and further back in the newspapers and nightly TV news, those questions weigh heavily on Johnson, who bitterly opposed the war but put her own feelings aside to support her son. Now that he's gone, she's left wondering what he died for.
His death came nine months after his arrival in Iraq. United States Army Capt. Pierre Piche, 29, of the 101st Airborne Division, was killed on November 15, 2003, along with 16 other soldiers in the crash of two Black Hawk helicopters in Mosul. It took time for the news to reach his wife, Cherish, who still lives in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where Piche was stationed. His body was burned beyond recognition. His wedding ring was never found.
Just weeks after her son's death, Johnson provided the media with a front-row seat to her bereavement, allowing a CBS News crew to invade her Starksboro home for a day and a half to tape a segment of "Sixty Minutes II." They cluttered her house with so much equipment that she couldn't even get to a hairbrush before they interviewed her. Their cameras went so far as to capture images of Cherish scattering her husband's ashes in the woods where he'd proposed to her.
Why did Johnson put herself through it? In part, to honor her son's memory. But also because, in spite of her own feelings about the war and the leaders who took from her what she considers "the most important experience of my life being Pierre's mother," Johnson believes that the men and women who are still serving in Iraq need to know that they haven't been forgotten. "We don't think about the soldiers as human beings. We think of them as numbers and casualties," she says. "We make their deaths objective and polite and this war is going to go on for another decade if we don't do something about it." At last count, 656 Coalition soldiers have died, including 558 Americans, and at least 3190 U.S. troops have been wounded in the $125 billion war in Iraq.
On a bright and chilly Sunday afternoon in early March, Johnson once again opens her home, and her grief, to a reporter's cameras and questions. I'm greeted at the door by Anna, a skittish, black-and-white greyhound mutt, who eyes me warily and doesn't approach right away. Anna was rescued from an animal shelter in Tennessee, near where Piche was stationed. He used to volunteer his time training the homeless dogs there to increase their chances for adoption.
"We had 20 years of big, black dogs -- Rottweilers, Bouviers -- and when the last one died, I told Pierre, That's it. I'm buying a white couch. I'm done with dogs,'" Johnson says. But when Piche pleaded with his mother to take Anna in, fearing that this timid, abused little animal would never find a home, Johnson relented. The dog was flown up to Vermont. Later, when Piche was deployed to Iraq in February 2003, he spent his off-duty hours finding homes for the many abandoned dogs whose Iraqi owners had been killed.
But even those small gestures of compassion were not easy to pull off in a war zone. "Pierre said that the people of Iraq are generally nice human beings. Ninety-five percent of them wanted to give him a donkey or a goat or whatever rural people do when they're grateful," Johnson says. "But [he also said that] there is a small percentage who want us dead. And they really want us dead. So you're constantly looking over your shoulder. It's an insane way to live, trying to be a human being and trying not to be killed."
Seated at her kitchen table, Johnson flips through a photo album showing Piche as a baby, then later as a little boy playing the piano. In one picture, Piche sits in his mother's lap reading a book, his blond hair nearly indistinguishable from hers. In another, Piche is 11 years old and dressed in the navy-blue jacket he wore as a legislative page in the Vermont Legislature. His political views were just beginning to emerge -- on a path that diverged from his mother's. "That was the point where we decided he was a little Republican," Johnson says, with a chuckle. "People used to joke that he was Alex Keaton because he was very much of an achiever and always worked hard at school."
Mother and son didn't always see eye-to-eye on issues, but they remained close nonetheless. "At some point in his teens we said, You're Pierre, I'm Mom, and we're not going to talk about that stuff,'" Johnson says. "We'll talk about everything else, like who we are to one another, and leave politics alone.'"
Late in his senior year of high school -- Piche was attending Loomis Chaffee, an exclusive private school in Windsor, Connecticut -- he began to consider a military career. By this time, his parents had divorced and his father, who had been paying for his schooling, threatened to withhold Piche's tuition if he didn't attend a college of his father's choosing. With finances suddenly an issue, Piche decided to enlist in the Army Reserve.
"This was his way of saying, The hell with you, Dad,' and gaining his independence," Johnson says. "I expressed my concerns and also realized that it was his life and he had to make his own decisions. And so he did. It's really not a parent's prerogative to tell their children what they're going to be or do."
Still, it was a hard decision for Johnson to accept. As a teenager growing up in the 1960s, she had attended demonstrations in Burlington, and later in Washington, D.C., to protest the Vietnam War. "I remember the draft and watching everyone's brothers and cousins disappearing and then seeing the guys come back not whole," she recalls. Back then, she adds, the war wasn't as neat and tidy as it is today. Unlike today, TV news reporters expressed genuine sadness, not just sentimental sound bites, and their cameras were allowed to show images of flag-draped coffins coming home.
But if Johnson disagreed with her son's chosen path, she never discouraged him from following it. As a youth, Johnson admits, Piche had been "an adrenaline junkie" who occasionally got thrown off the ski slopes for skiing too fast. But he also loved adventure and independence, and a career in the military offered both. After just two years of college at Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Vermont, Piche enlisted full-time in the Army. From there, he rapidly rose through the ranks, earning his sergeant stripes by the age of 22.
"Lisa always respected his choice, but I think she struggled with it and didn't understand why somebody of his ability, who could have done pretty much whatever he wanted to do, would have chosen that route," says Molly Jarvis, a friend and colleague of Johnson's. "She is somebody who is very detail-oriented and obviously very bright, and Pierre was very much like her that way."
Piche arrived in Iraq with a sense of purpose about his mission, Johnson says. But it soon became evident to her that his focus had shifted to getting home as quickly as possible. "Morale over there was very low and it took a lot of energy to keep the spirits of the men up," Johnson recalls. "It was horrible and it wasn't stopping and it wasn't going away. He never said that We don't understand why we're here,' but it seemed suggested. There was a very distinct frustration."
Clearly, Johnson had frustrations of her own. Despite her deep opposition to the war, she's never participated in any anti-war demonstrations, partly because she doesn't feel it's appropriate as a state employee -- she is a social worker with the Vermont Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. More importantly, though, her son had warned her that when soldiers are taken hostage, their captors sometimes use images of their family members at antiwar protests as an instrument for psychological torture.
"I've always been opposed to the war," Johnson says, "but the job of the parent or the wife or the other person who's home is to be the cheerleader, to encourage them, to focus everything on hope and on the future. So every conversation that you have, every thought, every prayer, is about their safety and their safe return."
Piche may have been a risk-taker in his youth, but as an officer he was described by the men who served with him as "hyper-vigilant," "detail-oriented," someone who would smile even when things were going poorly. In his last phone call to his mother just weeks before his death, his entire focus was on getting himself and his men home in one piece. He didn't believe in taking unnecessary risks -- and that meant avoiding unnecessary travel. For weeks he'd avoided going on a rest-and-recuperation leave. With so little time remaining before he was scheduled to come home, he didn't want to take the risk. "He was being sent to Baghdad, which was ridiculous, because why would anyone go to Baghdad for R and R?" Johnson asks.
But on November 15, Piche was not given a choice. He and his men were ordered to board a Black Hawk helicopter that was flying out of Mosul.
Johnson sensed that her son was gone even before the news reached her. "It's kind of odd," she explains. "At the time of day that he was killed, I was putting his Christmas package in the mail and -- although you see tears in my eyes now, I'm not usually one who cries in public -- I was standing in line with his package and I just broke down. I said, Something feels very wrong.'"
Johnson was so shaken that she canceled her appointments for the rest of the day and went home. Shortly afterward, she received a phone call from her daughter-in-law. They had both seen the images of the downed helicopters on TV. Cherish kept calling the base at Fort Campbell. When no one would give her any information about her husband, she knew something was awry.
"And then she called me and said, They're here,'" Johnson says, almost in a whisper. "And I knew what that meant."
An hour later, two officers arrived at Johnson's door as well. "I felt sorry for them because I thought, these people had to get dressed up in the middle of the night into their officers' uniforms," she says. "It just seemed like an absurd activity taking place in my living room."
At Piche's funeral, Cherish spoke about the dozens of little love notes her husband left around their house for her to find after he was deployed. She'd discovered two of those notes in the pockets of her winter coat as she prepared to travel north for the funeral.
Johnson described her son as a man who believed in leaving the world a better place. In his last phone call to her, he'd talked about the Masters program in which he'd enrolled to become a schoolteacher, like his wife, when he left the military. "He wanted to ensure that he could live a life where he was able to continue to serve," says Johnson. "He had a deep commitment that way."
The funeral was attended by the governor and a military honor guard, who presented both wife and mother with folded American flags. Piche's body was cremated; the silver, heart-shaped locket Johnson wears contains some of his ashes.
Questions lingered about the circumstances surrounding Piche's death. Not long after the funeral, a national journalist told Johnson that her son had been sent to Baghdad not for an R-and-R leave, but to participate in President Bush's surprise Thanksgiving Day visit to the troops. For the next four months, she believed that her son had lost his life to play a part in a public-relations stunt.
"If it had to do with saving someone's life or doing the right thing, he would have jumped off a cliff. He was heroic in that way," Johnson says. "But Pierre despised stupidity and he felt like it was stupid to expose themselves to that kind of thing for no apparent reason. So that will always bother me."
Last week, however, there was a momentary break in the fog of war. The Army officer who had identified Piche's body at the crash site flew to Vermont to meet with Johnson. "It was meaningful for me to have someone look me in the eye and tell me that he doesn't believe Pierre suffered," she says. "It made it easier to believe it was true."
He also told her that Piche and his men were not on their way south to Baghdad, as Johnson had been led to believe, but were flying north on another exercise. Did that news offer her any solace? She answers with a shrug.
Today, there isn't much about her son's death that gives Johnson comfort. "My son told me about Iraqi people who were very grateful to him and that they believe their lives are better off now," Johnson says. "I think that may be true, but I don't know."
Johnson is sure of one thing, however. She doesn't believe most of the news coming out of Iraq unless she hears it from somebody she knows has been there. "I've talked to a lot of journalists who have been there and had other journalists die next to them. And they tell me that we're being lied to all the time about what's really happening," she says. "It's filtered and I don't trust it. So it's hard to be comforted by much."
In the year since the invasion of Iraq, a whole new generation of support groups has sprung up for the families of servicemen who died or were wounded there. Johnson prefers to deal with grief in her own way. She exercises, continues her work routine, and relies on help from a strong network of friends, many of whom are therapists.
And despite what one might assume, she still follows the news from the war intently and thinks about the soldiers every day. With each report of another death, she wonders: Was he one of the nice men she met on the base? Or one of the soldiers who attended her son's wedding? "And I think of the other gap that's left," she says, "of all the good they could have done if they had returned and put their energies and talents to work."
It goes without saying that it's hard for her to hear other people dismiss the war as irrelevant to their personal lives. "These are our brothers and friends and sons and daughters. They're not strangers. These people should matter to us, period. And they're not going to stop dying," Johnson says. "An infrastructure is being created to support more war and death. My horror is personal and I'm more acutely aware of how horrible it is, but it's happening to all of us."