For families grieving their personal losses in the war, one of the hardest questions to answer on Veterans Day is: 'Where's my Daddy?'
Before he was deployed to Iraq, Marine Lieutenant Joshua L. Booth made seven videos of himself reading bedtime stories, so that his daughter, Grace, could hear her father's voice before going to bed.
Booth was killed by a sniper on Oct. 17 of last year in Haditha. A graduate of St. John's High School in Shrewsbury who grew up in Sturbridge, he was 23.
He left behind a pregnant wife, Erica, and an 18-month-old daughter, Grace. Their son, Tristan Joshua, was born in January. Grace, now 2 1/2, is starting to ask questions about her father.
"She asks me occasionally, 'Where's my Daddy?' It's hard to answer," said Joshua's mother, Debra L. Booth. "My intention at some point is to ask [Erica] what she wants me to tell her. . . . When she was alone with me, I told her Daddy was in heaven with God."
Booth is one of 10 members of the military from communities west of Boston who have died since the United States responded to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Two others, Seth R. Michaud, a Hudson native, and Kyle A. Little of West Boylston, also left behind young children who will grow up without a father.
The Booth family played the videos for Grace again recently, but her reaction wasn't what they expected. She had nightmares for days afterward.
Debra Booth said she feels fortunate because the home that she and her husband, John, share in Sturbridge is within a few hours of where Erica and the children live. She gets to see them often. She has spoken to other mothers of lost servicemen whose daughters-in-law live hundreds or even thousands of miles away and rarely see their grandchildren.
But Booth acknowledged that sometimes she's not sure how far to go in promoting her son's memory with her grandchildren. She doesn't want to intrude on her daughter-in-law's right to determine how much the kids are exposed to, and when.
"I think she's cautious, too," said Debra Booth. "I thought about it a lot, and I realized that a wife's task is different from a mom's task. She needs to go on with her life, while I need to keep my son alive."
At nearly 6 years of age, Ian Michaud has only the most fleeting memories of his father. Marine Captain Seth R. Michaud was lost in a training accident in Djibouti, Africa, on June 22, 2003. Michaud, a native of Hudson, was a 27-year-old pilot who was seemingly safe, far from the violence in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was killed when an American B-52 accidentally dropped a bomb near his helicopter. Ian was then only 18 months old.
On July Fourth, Ian's mother, Karen, now remarried and living near her family in Wooster, Ohio, took her son to Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C., so that he could place a flag on his father's grave.
Karen Michaud said that national holidays now "have a totally different impact."
"There's more of a connection, not just, 'Oh, it's Veterans Day, a day off from school.' I stop and appreciate not just Seth's family and mine, but there's a lot of family losing loved ones.
"I'm sure if it was up to Ian, we'd be driving to Arlington" for Veterans Day, "but it's quite a trip. There's a little cemetery I told him that we would take flags and go to. I'm sure there will be talk of the day and what it means and his dad."
Linda Goldman, a Washington-based grief therapist and adviser who helps military families through a nonprofit support group, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, said rituals can be important for children who have lost a parent when they were barely old enough to remember. Rituals provide occasions for the children to recall being with their mother or father, even one who is no longer alive.
When Ian asks how his father died, "I tell him he was in a helicopter accident, and I really just leave it at that," Michaud said. "If he asks why, I tell him, 'I don't know why Seth had to die, but he'll always be with you and he loves you.' "
Ian does seem to have some vague memories of his time with his father. After Seth had graduated from the Air Force Academy, his father, Francis Michaud, gave him a 1977
As Ian has grown, his grandparents have seen him take on their son's mannerisms, as though they somehow have been passed through the genes. Francis Michaud said that last summer, his wife, also named Karen, saw Ian leaning against a doorway, the toes of one foot resting on top of the other, in perfect imitation of his father.
"I'm not sure if Ian has his own memory of Seth, but we make sure he has a connection," Ian's mother said.
Goldman said that children in military families face specific challenges after losing a parent. "The thing that makes it hard on families as well is that it's such a hyped, public, traumatic death, where the media is constantly bombarding kids with the images of the war, the huge controversy of whether we should be in the war or not, and this has a huge impact on children.
"Someone has their father killed in Iraq, and every time they see these visuals, they relive the terror. . . . They can't let go of it. It's constantly in front of them and constantly held to scrutiny."
Kylee Andrea Little will always carry a reminder of her father - her name. Army Specialist Kyle Andrew Little was killed in May in an explosion in Iraq. He was 20 years old.
Kylee was born Oct. 24, fulfilling one of the last pieces of news Michael Little heard from his son. It had been casually slipped into an e-mail soon after Kyle arrived in Iraq.
"The e-mail was very short, and very brief, and, 'By the way, Tiffany's pregnant and we'll be calling you Granddad soon,' " Michael Little recalled.
The day after Kylee's birth, all three desktop computers in the Little house in Maine, where Kyle's father now lives, were plastered with her photo. Michael Little won't be able to meet his granddaughter for a few more weeks, when Kylee and her mother, Tiffany, are to visit from their home in Alabama.
Michael Little said his daughter-in-law started early to make sure that Kyle would have a presence in Kylee's life. The child's crib is adorned with photos of her father, he said, and the American flag that draped his casket and was flown over Fenway Park in honor of the Red Sox fan hangs in the baby's room. In a corner is the guitar Kylee's father loved to play.
Michael Little has a special spot in his yard that he visits when he wants to feel close to his son. It has two flagpoles. One flies the American flag, and the other, the Army flag. He can't wait to sit on the bench between them with Kylee, who is his first grandchild.
"I have a little red wagon next to the flagpoles, and a little tricycle," he said. "Neither of them were Kyle's, but they are things that symbolize Kyle and what he was as a little kid. And those are things that I'd like to share with Kylee."
Stephanie V. Siek can be reached at email@example.com.