Saturday, July 21, 2007

Perspective: A mother's need to know

Victor Langarica

Pearl Lucas walked into the Decatur funeral home with trepidation. The Army casualty assistance officer had advised her not to open the casket.

But Victor was her only son. She had to look.

Wearing an ebony pantsuit and the unmade face of a 53-year-old woman stung by sudden sadness, Lucas walked up to the coffin she had ordered — made of cherry and more regal than the one the Army had chosen.

She stood in front of her son, known to the rest of the world as Cpl. Victor Langarica, and prepared herself for the worst: Perhaps his body would be blue with bruises, red from burns, stitches running up and down like zippers. Or perhaps a limb would be severed.

But it was what she did not see that shocked her. She opened the casket and fell limp into her sister's arms.

Victor was not there.

Instead Lucas stared at an empty green dress uniform lying in the coffin, complete with her son's nametag, rank and medals. The coat sleeves flowed flawlessly into blank, snow-white gloves.

"What did you do with my son?" she screamed. "Where is Victor?"

A funeral home employee prompted her to feel under the uniform. She touched a small plastic bag.

Many American troops return home this way from Iraq, where injuries are grisly enough to make even a trauma surgeon cry. But the public knows little of what families confront beyond the dreaded knock on the door. They are informed of death, but not of death's details. The military's urge to protect sometimes clashes with a family's urge to know.

The horrors of Iraq were incomprehensible to Lucas, who left her native Nicaragua to make a new life in America.

She wanted to pull the bag out. "Pearl, please," her sister cried, stopping her.

"I need proof," Lucas kept saying. "I need to see my son."

Read the rest at the Atlanta Journal Constitution