FALLEN SONS: For the families, grief and pride

SANDUSKY
Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

For many families, Memorial Day is marked by parades, backyard barbecues and boating during a welcomed long weekend.

For others, it is a day to reflect upon loved ones who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Five years into the war in Iraq, American casualties have surpassed 4,080, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. While the statistics seem small when stacked up against the other wars in history, the impact for the families left behind cannot be measured.

Seven area servicemen died while serving their country, each leaving a void that can never be filled. In the weeks following their deaths, the families who survive them were met with an outpouring of gratitude and support from the community. But for some, the worst was yet to come as they coped with the day-to-day emotions and personal struggles that remain years later.

"I don't think people appreciate it until they've lost someone. It kind of hits home closer to them," Sandusky AMVETS head trustee Allen W. Kidd said. "We should remember all our soldiers, and right now, with the way things are going ... I feel like Memorial Day is every day of the year for a veteran," said Kidd, an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force and state district commander of AMVETS. "We really should celebrate it 365 days a year."

Each of the area families personally touched by war will share their stories as part of a week-long series exploring the obstacles they continue to overcome.

The first area soldier killed in Iraq was Sgt. Benjamin Biskie, 27, of Vermilion, who was killed Dec. 24, 2003, when a roadside bomb detonated near the convoy in which he was traveling. He is survived by his wife, Marcie, and a son, Benjamin Jr.

Less than a year later after Biskie's death, the community mourned the loss of Army Spc. Charles "Chuck" Odums, the son of a Baptist preacher and a newlywed whose long-awaited honeymoon with his college sweetheart, Melanie, never came.

The 22-year-old Sandusky resident died May 30, 2004 (May 31 in Baghdad), when the Humvee he was driving came upon a roadside bomb. He was credited with saving three others just before he died.

The youngest soldier was Pvt. Jason Sparks, 19, who was injured a week after arriving in Iraq, when his platoon was engaged in direct fire. He died Sept. 8, 2004, in Fallujah.

The Monroeville High School senior was remembered by his friends as a role model with a "life of the party" enthusiasm -- and by his family as an athletic young man who enjoyed hunting.

Sgt. Michael Finke Jr., 28, was a month away from returning home when he and 30 others died in a helicopter crash during a desert sandstorm in Iraq. He was planning to move to Hawaii with Heather, his wife of two years. He is survived by his mother, Sally Rapp, and stepfather, Geoff, along with his father, Michael Finke Sr., stepmother, Nadine Finke, and three siblings.

Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremy Shock, 22, was killed Nov. 19, 2006, when his convoy hit a roadside bomb. He is remembered as a disciplined football player and active participant in his high school choir. He met his wife, Clara, at Tiffin University.

Then came Keith Kline, a 24-year-old Oak Harbor graduate who left his mark on the school's wrestling mat. He died July 5, 2007, when the convoy in which he was traveling struck a roadside bomb. Kline was a member of the United States Army Special Operations Command 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne). He had served just eight months of a second term after re-enlisting.

Most recently, the community gathered in honor of Sgt. Jon Martin, 33, who died last Thanksgiving Day after his vehicle hit a roadside bomb. The Bellevue resident, a platoon leader with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, was awarded a Bronze Star and his second Purple Heart at the funeral.

The families who grieve the loss of these soldiers often have a continued need for support, particularly after time passes and the phone calls and visits become less frequent, said Samantha Bechtel, a licensed social worker and bereavement counselor at Stein Hospice. Bechtel and other counselors help families to realize ways they can continue to have a relationship with their loved one, even without their physical presence. Support groups are also beneficial for families still struggling to cope, she said.

"In support groups, you get a sense of normalcy -- you're with other people who have gone through similar, if not the same experiences as you," Bechtel said. "You can hear other people talking about the same thoughts and feelings that you thought were crazy ... and research shows that when you give and receive support, there's nothing more beneficial."

Friends and relatives close to a grieving family should continue to reach out as time passes, even if they don't always know what to say.

"The best thing you can do is listen -- not to offer judgment on someone, because everyone is different," she said. "We all have our own journey to walk through grief ... so it's understanding where people are at, understanding that they're going to be angry, they're going to have feelings of guilt. They're going to have times where they don't want to be as active as they were," she said. "Don't forget about them, and remember those special days -- their loved one's birthday or anniversary," she said. "Let people know you're there for them."