Soldier's mom still recovering while world has moved on
By JODIE TILLMAN Valley News | July 28,2005
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Karen Burgess Moore and her family have a picnic July 16 at the grave of Moore's son Alan, who was killed in Iraq.
BRADFORD — Karen Moore turns on the computer and watches her son again, nine months after the soldiers came to her doorstep.
"Things have been dull and boring here," New Hampshire Army National Guardsman Alan Burgess is saying in the video he made of himself in his Iraq barracks, and his mother ignores the words she already knows to point out details.
Look how tan he got, she says.
See how easily he handles his machine gun? she asks.
Oh, he took so many pictures, she says, as he holds up photographs of tanks and boats and street vendors and a rosebush.
She tries not to cry again.
When Burgess — the third of her seven children — died at the age of 24 after a car bomb went off near his patrol in Mosul last October, the world seemed to grieve with Moore.
His picture ran in the papers. Congressmen sent her condolence letters. People asked her: Can we do anything for you?
Nine months later, she is still recovering while the world seems to have moved on.
She watches his videos to hear his voice and stores his clothes in plastic bags to preserve his scent. She keeps a living room clock set to Iraqi time and imagines his daily schedule as if he were still on duty in Mosul. She keeps his framed military photograph on the kitchen table, some days illuminated with a candle.
People ask her: Are you moving on with your own life? "They seem to think that you have to be able to put it all away. It won't happen here, not yet" Moore, 48, said. "Out there, there's nothing. You have to come here to be able to see Alan is still alive." Besides that, she said, what would it look like to recover, anyway? That's a question not only for Moore and other relatives of soldiers and guardsmen killed in Iraq, but for any parents who survive their children.
"Everybody goes through it at their own pace," said Donna Pierce, a White River Junction resident who is active in the support group for grieving families called Compassionate Friends. "There's no wrong way, and there's no right way. Only people who are in that circumstance can under stand."
Moore knows what she can feel moment to moment: She has good days, when she can stay focused on her family. She has bad days, such as when she suddenly realizes that she's making Alan's favorite dish — shepherd's pie — and feels immobilized.
"No matter which way you turn, you start crying," she said. "It's just so devastating that he's never coming home."
She has thought about support groups such as Compassionate Friends, but said she doesn't know if other parents would understand the layer that war seems to add to her son's death. "It's the what ifs. What if I could've made some decisions? He died within a few hours. In my mind, I can picture all his soldier buddies going to see him. But his mom wasn't there to help him, to say something."
Ask her about the first day, what she calls "the turning point in all our lives," and she begins: "It's October 15, 2004, 10 minutes until 5."
She and her young daughters — ages 5, 9 and 10 — were checking her e-mail to see if Alan had written yet. Supper was in 20 minutes. One of the girls called out: "Mom, there are two soldiers at the door."
"I didn't even need to look," said Moore. "From then, everything was in slow motion."
She told them to go away. They tried to talk to her through the door.
"If they came in," she said, "it'd be final." But she knew it was inevitable, and she finally opened the door. A chaplain accompanying the soldiers knelt before her.
"I couldn't tell you one word he said," said Moore.
Early the next morning, she called her friend, Maura Naughton of Wilder: "He's gone," she said and could say no more.
And she had so much to say about Alan, an assistant manager at a tire shop in Hillsborough, N.H., and a 1998 Oxbow High School graduate who split his childhood between her and his father, who lives in Lisbon and Landaff, N.H. How he made world- class pancakes, how he came within inches of the newspaper box every time he wheeled into her driveway. How his was always the goofy grin in family pictures.
Moore, a Massachusetts native, had worked office jobs and was studying to be a nurse when Alan was deployed in January 2004. She couldn't concentrate she was so nervous, so she stopped taking the courses.
She has been a mother since she was 18. She had a daughter and a son and then Alan and then another daughter.
She started over later and had three young daughters. "Everything has a purpose," said Moore, who has been divorced three times. "If I didn't have these three girls, I might've just crawled into myself and died. You just want to die."
Naughton said she thought Moore had done the best she could to keep the young girls' lives normal while dealing with her own grief. "She's very motherly," said Naughton. "She doesn't want them to be affected."
Moore said she had been on edge about her son serving in Iraq, anticipating something but never getting past the abstract questions of what might happen. She never brought her self to imagine the specifics of what did happen: soldiers coming to the Whistle Stop Mobile Home Park and knocking on her door before supper time.
"Your whole world is never the same," she said. "How you look at things, it's just never the same." She looked around for a few minutes, and her eyes fell on the wall , the wood-paneled walls where his face is captured in so many of the frames. "I don't get to add to that," she said finally. "I don't have any more pictures. The pictures stop. I'm not going to have any more pictures when he turns 30. The pictures just stop."
The tears started. Her 5-year-old, Emily, who had been pushing dolls around in a plastic car, ran into the kitchen. As if she had done it a million times before, she patted her mother on the back.
Ask her about the days following October 15, 2004, at 10 minutes until 5, and she speaks of going to the Manchester airport to get his body. His face was so swollen, she could barely recognize him. She turned back his white gloves for the only proof she knew: burn marks from a grease-fire he'd had in his apartment years earlier.
She sat through two wakes and a memorial service she can barely remember. She got a "Patriot Certificate of Achievement" in the mail, which had misspelled her son's name as "Alen." She keeps that part folded behind the photograph they sent of him.
She and her girls went to Arlington, Va., to see a fallen soldiers memorial. Artists had painted, sketched and sculpted the faces of soldiers who had died in Iraq. She walked right past the painting of her son.
"It was so distorted," she said. One of her girls said he was the same gray color he was when he lay in the coffin. Moore's father told her, "This is not him. You can't have a picture of this."
She took a few photographs, anyway, but she keeps them in an envelope.
Moore went to the airport, again, when members of Alan's unit — 2nd Battalion, 197th Field Artillery — came home, to offer her support and also to think about where he would have stood. The group he would have been with left an open place for him in formation. It was a gesture that Moore won't forget.
She changed the blue star in her window to a gold one. A blue star means you have a soldier serving somewhere. A gold star means you lost him.
Life did continue in so many ways. One of Moore's older daughters gave birth to twins shortly after Alan died. Moore calls them a blessing, and keeps their picture beside Alan's on the kitchen table.
Still, though she surrounds herself with her son's things, she has not seen the only living memento of Alan — his 4-year-old son, Dakota — since Alan's funeral.
Alan was divorced from the boy's mother, Mandy Bragg. After he died, Bragg no longer allowed Dakota to come to Moore's home as he had done every weekend since his father was deployed.
Bragg said she worried that Moore would talk in inappropriate detail about Alan's death to the young boy and that Moore's mourning had got ten out of hand. Moore, she said, can come visit the child at their home. But Moore said Bragg never offered any reason for not letting the boy visit and that she is in fine condition to see him. She said she feels she would not be welcome in Bragg's home.
The two women give remarkably different views of what happened when and who said what. They no longer talk. They live about 10 minutes away from each other.
Shared wisdom holds that the holidays are the hardest for those who have lost family members. Many times, that means Thanksgiving or Christmas, holidays built around family gatherings. For Moore, it was also the Fourth of July this year.
She went to the parade in Woodsville and saw some of Alan's fellow guardsmen. They called out to her and waved.
Months earlier, they had left that space in their formation at the airport. But now there was nothing signifying where he might have fit in.
Later, she felt overwhelmed by the absence of something marking her boy's sacrifice. She fell into a sadness that her friends could detect if they listened carefully.
"She's not a doom-and-gloom person at all," said Naughton.
But when they talked a few days after the parade, Naughton said, "She had no life in her voice."
Back at her home, Moore says she had a bad weekend when she was talking to Naughton. Maybe the parade, maybe other things. "It just seems to hit," she says. "No particular reason."
She's feeling better on this day. Her voice is peppy. She laughs often. She has gotten her 9- and 10-year-olds off to summer camp and made blueberry muffins for Emily, the 5-year-old. Moore and the girls plan a weekend trip to the Landaff cemetery where Alan is buried. They will take breakfast and clean the pine needles off his grave.
Moore finishes watching the computer movie of her son. Even Emily has abandoned constructing a fort of couch cushions to watch.
On the video, Alan is holding up a taxi sign he got off a cab. He says he thinks it would be hilarious to put it on a Hummer. Moore turns around and points to her doorway, where she hung the sign after the military sent it and his other belongings to her.
Alan is talking directly to his son now, calling him by name. He shows a photograph of soldiers holding up crabs they found and, as pranks, planting them in the seats of tanks. "It's good to have some fun now and again," he says. "Don't tell anybody."
Emily giggles and looks at her mother. Moore is shaking her head and smiling. Her lips start to move, as if she were reciting his words. As if she were trying to help him speak.