By Cynthia Crosson-Harrington
I will always be grateful for the 22 years that I had our son — though I wished for many more.
When we as parents watch our children join military service we may have expectations — he’ll gain maturity, she’ll get an education, he’ll train for a career, she or he will give back to this country — but we assume this is just one step in their lives. Yes, we may worry about their safety as I did every day that my son served in Bosnia. We long for the day when they are home and seemingly safe. And once they return to us, it is almost unfathomable that the cruel fingers of war will reach into our lives once more and take them from us. When the experiences that these children have endured have impacted their minds and hearts to such an extent that they no longer want to live, we find ourselves almost ashamed to stand among the other parents who lost their children in combat. It should not be that way; but it is.
My son Jamie was the last one I expected to take his own life because he was so full of life. I recognized his enthusiasm for life in his very first moments. He began and ever was someone who loved to eat and in his teen years could polish off a gallon of orange juice in a day. As the middle child between an older brother who distinguished himself as “gifted” and a younger brother with medical and special needs, Jamie found ways to be engaging. His smile was legendary; his wit eased many an awkward moment.
From the very beginning Jamie loved the out-of-doors. Our summers at our cabin in the woods would find him catching pollywogs in the nearby brook or watching for beavers in an effort to learn more about them. His devotion to animals went far beyond that of most children and he had a kinship with dogs, cats, horse and other creatures that was an inspiration. One particularly unruly dog, Molly, would obey only Jamie.
Jamie was also popular with his schoolmates, perhaps because he was caring and a good listener. There was always a group of girls there to greet him when we dropped him off or school. His male friends were numerous as well and in high school, he went everywhere with a group of three other boys who we soon dubbed the "Four Musketeers."
Jamie’s great love in high school was the football team. When once asked by his Nana why he wanted to play a game that constantly ended him in “pig piles” — her interpretation of tackles — he explained that it was the camaraderie that appealed to him.
“Watching a bunch of guys work together for a common goal is inspiring," he told her. His senior year his team won the high school super bowl and Jamie distinguished himself by playing every game.
Perhaps it was this same camaraderie that attracted him to the military after hearing both his father and stepfather talk of the friendships that had endured from their time in the service. Despite our hope that he would attend college, Jamie joined the Army right after graduation from high school. He seemed to take to Army life and would make some lasting friends.
When he was deployed to Bosnia for a “peacekeeping mission,” I worried for his safety. Although the outright hostility was reportedly over, the reality was that it was a far from safe environment. Mines surrounded the post, snipers were a constant threat and fighting would erupt seemingly without cause. Among their other duties, soldiers dug up bodies from mass graves and reburied them with respect and dignity. Not a task a mother wanted for her then 19- year -old son.
I was relieved when Jamie returned stateside and even found a girlfriend while he was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. But when he came home for visits or eventually to stay, he was a different young man than the one we had tearfully sent off to boot camp. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was not talked of then as it is today. If you had "psychiatric problems," you did not admit it lest you be stigmatized. Ironic, as PTSD has been covertly recognized since th revolutionary and civil wars when it was called “soldier’s heart” and in later wars, shell shock or battle fatigue. I was trained as a psychiatric social worker and PTSD was not new to me. But I was a mother first and Bosnia was a “peacekeeping” mission, right? So when my son began exhibiting symptoms of PTSD, I rationalized that he was just getting used to being home. Little did I know then that many of his fellow soldiers would later be diagnosed with PTSD as a result of their tours in Bosnia.
Jamie returned home in 2001 after four years of his eight-year enlistment. Despite 9/11, there were not yet that many deployments to Iraq. His plan was to finish out his enlistment in the reserves while he attended college. But college life and living with s friends from his high school days — young men who had not experienced what he had — were difficult adjustments for Jamie. Then, as he was completing his first college semester, his orders came. He was being deployed to Iraq. Jamie was excited to go. He missed military life and his unit and eagerly anticipated his return to be with them in deployment. But those orders were postponed and postponed again and yet again. Unable to get more than a job with a temp agency as he expected to be deployed any time, Jamie was frustrated and his depression deepened. And then in early May, his orders to Iraq were canceled altogether.
Jamie coped with his disappointment by immediately finding a job working with troubled kids — something at which he would no doubt excel. His future seemed bright but for one problem.
Jamie had met a girl at Fort Riley and when he returned home she came to stay with us to be near Jamie. It took us several months to discover how disturbed she was and by that time the relationship with Jamie had also soured. Realizing that she was not good for him, Jamie had ended the relationship. We offered her passage back home but she wanted to stay in Massachusetts and eventually she moved to a friend’s apartment. She took the breakup badly and the next months were punctuated with her phone calls to Jamie in the middle of the night, her threats and unpleasant scenes that no doubt further taxed his fragile state of mind.
We have no idea exactly what happened on May 18, 2003. Did Jamie snap after months of stress or are there other factors that we may never know? At noon on that Sunday I returned from church to be greeted by the town’s police chief who informed me that my son was dead. He told me that Jamie went to the house where his former girlfriend was staying with her new lover, a struggle ensued, the other man was wounded and Jamie reportedly shot himself. The media called it a lover’s triangle. And yet Jamie and I had talked the night before.
“I no longer love her,” he told me. “But I wish her well in her new life.’” His sincerity was obvious.
No matter what actually happened the fact remains that my son is dead — probably by his own hand — and I have lost a beloved son who died too soon. That he died from the invisible wounds of war, I have no doubt. And yet, we have been robbed of the pride of standing up and saying "our son died in the service of his country."
I have come to terms with the way that my son died through working other veterans with PTSD. I have used his great love of animals to develop a program placing specially trained service dogs with these veterans. I am confident that Jamie would still be alive if there had been such a program to help him. It is what we — the parents of the lost — must do, find ways to cope with our grief.
One of my proudest moments was when a caring Blue Star mother heard my story and said “Of course you are a Gold Star Mother!. Your son died from the wounds of war." I display the Gold Star banner with Jamie’s name on it proudly remembering the ceremony when I was presented with it. My son served his country and despite the manner of his death, I am proud that he did.
— By Cynthia Crosson-Harrington
 Blue Star Mothers are those whose children are serving in active duty.
 Gold Star Mothers are those whose children have died in/from military service.