Death Comes Knocking

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

November 12, 2004

The e-mail to John Witmer from his daughter Michelle came on Father's Day in 2003.

"Dear Daddy," it said, "Happy Father's Day. I love you so much and you can't imagine how often I think of you. I hope you have lots of fun today and that the weather is lovely.

"We had a briefing telling us to prepare ourselves as best as possible for what lies ahead. Things like children running out in front of vehicles to try and get them to stop. We have to prepare ourselves to hit people because stopping is not an option. I guess every convoy that's gone up north so far has taken fire or been ambushed. The question of whether we will or not is not even really a question, more like a guess as to when.

"These things, as you can imagine, are a lot to take in. I'm doing my best. I've been a little depressed lately but I'm trying to keep my chin up. I really miss home. Tomorrow will be exactly three months since I got deployed. Wow, time does not fly. Jeez, this letter wasn't supposed to be down. Sorry. Back to the point. Happy Father's Day. I love and miss you so much.

"Love, Shelly."

Specialist Michelle Witmer of New Berlin, Wis., survived for nearly 10 more slowly moving months in Iraq, until she was cut down by enemy fire in Baghdad last April 9. She was 20 when she died.

The e-mail was read on camera by her dad in an extremely moving documentary, "Last Letters Home," which was jointly produced by The New York Times and HBO. It premiered on HBO last night.

In the hourlong program, grieving relatives read aloud from letters, cards and e-mail sent by troops who died in Iraq, and comment on the ways they've been affected by the loss of their loved ones. The program is not about pro-war or anti-war sentiments, or grand geopolitical visions. It just gives us a glimpse of the searing personal toll that is inevitable in war. I imagine it would be difficult for anyone to see it and not take the war more seriously. Anything that imposes such unmitigated agony should give us pause.

Second Lt. Leonard Cowherd III of Culpeper, Va., commented in his last letter to his wife, Sarah, about how young so many of the soldiers were, which was interesting because he was only 22 himself. He wrote:

"Some of these guys out here, Sarah, they're just kids. I'm not that old myself but I couldn't imagine going through the experiences these guys are going through at the age of 18, 19 and 20. If you saw them walking down the street you would think that they belonged in an arcade or at a movie theater doing stuff kids do. Not putting their lives on the line every second of every day."

The Cowherds were married last year and spent only a few months together before Lieutenant Cowherd was shipped to Iraq. He was shot to death in Karbala in May.

A theme that runs through the documentary is the overwhelming sense of dread that grips relatives when their doors are knocked upon by soldiers or marines in dress uniforms.

"It was the lightest tap on my door that I've ever heard in my life," said Paula Zasadny, the mother of Specialist Holly McGeogh, a 19-year-old who was killed by a bomb in Kirkuk.

"I opened the door and I seen the man in the dress greens and I knew. I immediately knew. But I thought that if, as long as I didn't let him in, he couldn't tell me. And then it - none of that would've happened. So he kept saying, 'Ma'am, I need to come in.' And I kept telling him, 'I'm sorry, but you can't come in.' "

As much as possible, the reality of war is kept at a distance from the American people, which is a shame. My own belief is that the pain of war should be much more widely shared. That would help guard us against wars that are unnecessary, and ensure a more collective effort in those that are inevitable.

This documentary takes us a small step toward understanding the awful depth of that pain.

Melissa Givens was told by a chaplain that her husband, Pfc. Jesse Givens, who was 34, had drowned when his tank fell into the Euphrates River. Distraught, she insisted that the chaplain was lying. But she said that was O.K., because she would never tell anyone that he had lied. She said he could walk away and she would just forget about the whole thing.

Private Givens died on May 1, 2003, the day that President Bush, on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, declared that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended."