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EMBRACING MEMORIES OF THE FALLEN
LOVED ONES OF THOSE LOST IN WAR FIND WAYS TO MAKE THEIR LIVES EVERLASTING

Army National Guard Spc. Michael L. Williams was killed 13 months ago in a roadside bombing near Baghdad.

But call his home in Buffalo today, and you're greeted by his voice, in a message that ends with the words "God bless."

It's the voice-mail greeting he recorded three months before his death, when he came home for his grandmother's funeral.

Williams' wife, Carolyn, has kept the greeting on her machine -- just one way she has chosen to keep his memory alive.

"I just can't let it go," she said. "I just love that message. I love to hear his voice. I feel so close to him when I hear it."

A dozen Western New Yorkers have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 2 1/2 years.

And across the country, the number of Americans killed in Iraq has climbed to at least 1,149, compared with fewer than 400 a year ago.

They're gone but not forgotten. On this Veterans Day, those touched by their deaths mourn their losses in many ways.

Locally, memorial plaques have been erected, trees planted, union halls renamed, quilts put together, gardens put in and headstones adorned, all as living memorials to these war heroes.

The most artistic may be inside a tiny downtown design studio, Hero & Sound, where owner Mark Brickey created 4-by-3-foot pop-art illustrations of six soldiers from Erie County killed in Iraq. Also on display is an 8-by-6-foot ensemble illustration of all six.

"I felt like there wasn't enough awareness about this war and the price that's being paid," Brickey explained. "I just wanted to take pop culture and a social topic like this and merge them together to reach young folks."

Struggling with grief

Public memorials help people remember the fallen soldiers. Privately, some families still struggle with their grief, in some cases more than a year after the death.

There's no blueprint on how to remember the war dead.

Family members have chosen widely divergent ways to grieve:

Brenda Wilson, mother of Marine Lance Cpl. Tomorio D. Burkett, has kept her son's memory alive by putting stickers bearing his photo on her vehicles along with temporary tattoos on his siblings. And she talks to her son the first thing every morning and the last thing at night.

Bennie Williams Jr., Michael's father, doesn't have many photos of his son around his home, and he doesn't like to drive by his son's house.

"I remember him every day," he said. "I think about it constantly. But I don't think Mike would want me to suffer over it. . . . I want to remember him the way I last saw him."

Marleen Brutcher of Cheektowaga, the mother of Army Sgt. Philip L. Witkowski, has support-the-troops and American flag decals on her car. She wants people to keep thinking about these fallen heroes -- and those from other wars.

"I want to keep remembering, and I don't want people to forget the soldiers, just as I don't want them to forget other veterans," she said. "They paid the ultimate price."

Some families of Western New York servicemen no longer want to mourn in the public spotlight. Several did not return phone calls, and one relative was more blunt.

"I wish you people would leave us alone," this relative said. "I lost my (loved one) in Iraq."

Michael Williams' grave site in Forest Lawn tells a lot about him. It's a place where his wife, Carolyn, finds comfort.

A photo of the couple is etched into one side of the family's black headstone. The other side shows a photo of him on his motorcycle, with images of a tennis racket and bowling ball and pin below.

"That just shows me how much he enjoyed life," she said. "That's how I like to remember Mike. He loved life."

Carolyn Williams also keeps her husband's memory alive by riding the motorcycle he bought for her, a Kawasaki Vulcan 750.

"When I'm on the motorcycle, all I can think about is him, because that was one of his heart's desires," she said.

'Best gift you can give'

She's also comforted knowing how much it meant to her husband to go to Iraq with his National Guard unit.

"That's where his heart was," she said. "He was a giver. When you give your life, that's the best gift you can give. He was a Christian man. He gave his life, just the way Jesus did. That's how we try to remember him."

Like Carolyn Williams, Marleen Brutcher has a voice-mail message that she will never erase, from her son Philip Witkowski, two days before he was mortally wounded in May in Afghanistan:

"Hi, Mom. I know this is going to kill you, but I'm all right. I'm in Afghanistan. I'm doing fine. I'll give you a call tomorrow. I know you're upset, but don't be too upset. I love you."

Last week, when she needed to hear his voice again, she played back the tape three times. "It's bittersweet," she said. "That's all you have left of him, his voice."

The voice-mail messages, the videos, the photo galleries, the headstone photos -- all can help keep the dead soldier alive in his loved one's thoughts.

But a person's grieving process is as unique as a fingerprint.

"From my experience, everyone deals with grief differently -- anger, tears, sometimes they laugh when they look back at a funny event in the person's life -- but each one of us does it differently," said the Rev. Joseph H. Penkaul, a retired Air Force chaplain who presided over one soldier's funeral.

Thomas T. Frantz, chairman of the University at Buffalo's counseling psychology department, said people learn to cope with loss from the time they're in the crib, when they first lose their rattle or their mother leaves the room.

"Everybody has in place their own unique coping style," he added. "But they grieve predictably, given their own experiences in how they've coped with losses their whole life."

Penkaul, from St. Philip the Apostle Catholic Church in Cheektowaga, understands why some families want to grieve in private.

"Putting them back in the spotlight causes more pain," he explained. "It causes that first pain, when they first heard (about their loved one's death), to come back again."

Penkaul emphasized the role that faith can play. "Their faith can reassure them that this is not the end of life, that this person is alive with the Lord," he said.

Mindful of son's goal

Brenda Wilson has become known as the woman with the stickers. Stickers and temporary tattoos bearing photos of her son adorn her vehicles, her closet, even her children's skin.

She doesn't want anyone to forget her son or the troops still in Iraq.

"They just remind me of the good times," she said of the stickers. ". . . It lets a lot of people not forget the sacrifices that have been made over there. I don't agree with this war, to this day, but I still support our children over there. People have to remember the war's not over, and our troops still need our support."

Every morning, when she wakes up, she talks to her son, about how she's going to get through the day. She also thinks about the fun times they shared.

At night, when she says her prayers, she tells her son how much she loves him, how she hopes he can hear and see only the good things going on in his family's life.

"It was his goal to make the world a better place," she said. "I think he can do that better where he is now. He is making a difference."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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