Like the young man in the new Army recruiting commercial, Travis Bradach-Nall had issues with his father.
His parents divorced just before he turned 13, and he barely saw his dad again after that. Instead he lived with his mother, Lynn Bradach, in the close quarters of her brown cottage-style home in Grant Park. Like many teenagers, Travis was furious at his dad and in love with loud noise. He liked explosions. He liked to play the drums. He liked to yell.
He also loved his mother with the protective intensity of the eldest child of a single mom. He played man of the house well, but played teenager better, giving his mother plenty to worry about. At 17, tattoos began appearing on his body—something Travis knew his mother wouldn't like. There was a dagger, a serpent, a three-eyed monster breathing fire. He began skipping high school frequently, saying he found school boring. He bickered with his mother about what he would do after he graduated. Then, one day in his senior year, he came home and told his mom he had joined the Marines.
Lynn was not happy at first. Hysterical, was more like it. But Travis was firm, and she eventually accepted it as something her son needed—a place with rigid structure, an experience to push him to the edge of limits he was already testing.
It was just like the Army recruiting commercials, focusing on the moments when a young man breaks free from parental control rather than on the deathly images of war in Iraq. In the commercial "Dinner Conversations," a son tells his mom that joining the Army will help him pay for college, "and besides," the actor playing a soldier says, "it's time for me to be the man." Travis also saw the military as a place to grow up, a way to earn money for higher education, a route to becoming a man.
He changed markedly once his military service began. In letters home from boot camp, he told members of his family that he loved them. It was notable, because until then his was not a family to say "I love you" much. There wasn't a war on when Travis joined in July of 2000, not even the thought of one, but all of that changed quickly, and by February of 2003 he was bound for Iraq. He told his mother he was terrified. Shortly after his 21st birthday, Travis's mine-clearing company helped breach the demilitarized zone between Kuwait and Iraq. After the initial invasion he saw more latrine-building action than anything else, and during downtime, often talked about his father. On one occasion, a fed-up friend told Travis that he just had to let go of his anger, that it was unhealthy to hang on to so much rage. The friend would later tell Lynn that Travis made a vow then to talk to his dad—really talk to him—when he went home.
In that recruiting commercial about the young man who has issues with his dad, a father and son walk out onto a covered Midwest porch and look at each other, a steady rain falling beyond them. It's called "Two Things":
Father: "You're a changed man."
Son: "How's that?"
Father: "When you got off that train back there you did two things you've never done before—at least not at the same time. You shook my hand, and you looked me square in the eye. Where'd that come from?"
And then the Army logo flashes on the screen.
Travis had a moment like that in mind before he was killed by a landmine in Karbala on July 2, 2003, shortly after President Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq over. No weapons of mass destruction had been found then, and none have been found since. Travis was about the 300th soldier to die in Iraq, one of the early deaths in a war that his mother at first questioned only quietly.
I first met Lynn Bradach shortly after Travis' death, as she was planning his funeral. She showed me baby pictures and letters. She looked pale, her brown hair a bit wild. She held the gold star the military had given her in her hands, gently, like it was a piece of her son. She cried unselfconsciously; there was no way to stop the tears. She knew she only had a brief moment—maybe a week—in which to tell the world about her son, and then all the reporters like me would move on to new tragedies. She told me she felt as if she could easily slip over some edge in her mind, so slick was it with grief, but that she was not going to let herself do that. Maybe after the funeral, but not now. Not while people were still listening to her stories about Travis.
I made it a few blocks from her house before I had to pull over from crying myself. I had supported the war, based on a convergence of my own feelings about Saddam Hussein's nasty human-rights abuses and the Bush administration's warnings that he was gathering the world's most dangerous weapons. But, like Lynn, I was starting to feel I had been misled, that the nation had been misled, and the human cost of such manipulation was unbearable. She had hinted at a strong personal distrust of Bush as I sat in her living room that day, but had asked me not to write anything about that. The war had just been declared "over," and the sense that criticism of the administration was unpatriotic and an affront to dead soldiers who had given their lives to "liberate" Iraq was still pervasive. She didn't want to say anything that might be interpreted as bashing the military, and for the moment she was willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt as the WMD search continued. "I was very vulnerable," she says now.
The funeral was a huge affair with explosions to honor Travis' love of fireworks. I sent flowers, traded some phone messages with Lynn's family, and then moved on to other stories.
Two years passed. Bush was reelected, based in large part on his record as a "war leader." Casualties mounted, first breaking 1,000, and then approaching 2,000, with more than 14,000 wounded. Rationales for the war shifted after no WMDs were uncovered. We were spreading democracy. We were fighting in the central front of the war on terror. Finally: We had to keep going simply because so many Americans had been killed already. I read more and more interviews with grieving mothers of dead soldiers, and I wondered, as I read some of them, what had happened to Lynn. I wondered if she was still keeping quiet.
There is something curious about the way this war has been protested. There were huge protests before it began, when the rationale for invading Iraq was harder to argue with. But as it has become clearer that the war was launched on false premises, and that those who distrusted the government were right, there has not been an accompanying rise in mass protest. No one massed in the streets on the day the Iraq Survey Group announced its fruitless task completed. There were huge demonstrations, briefly, at the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004, with many I-told-you-so points about the war made there, but then Bush was reelected, and things quieted again.
Eventually a default strategy emerged. Let Bush flail in Iraq until it becomes more obvious to more Americans that he is flailing. Until recently, the hope among liberals seemed to be: Once the rest of America realizes, then maybe something will be done, or at least said.
Then on August 3, as Bush began a five-week vacation at his Texas ranch, a woman named Cindy Sheehan sent an e-mail to those in her network of war opponents, many of whom, like her, had lost sons in Iraq. Bush had recently made a speech in which he said that American soldiers who died in Iraq had died for "a noble cause," and an outraged Sheehan began her e-mail with a sarcastic reference to this statement:
We can relax now. From the war zone of Crawford, Texas, George said that we families of loved ones that have been killed in Iraq can "rest assured that your loved ones died for a noble cause.
I am going to be in Dallas this weekend for the VFP [Veterans for Peace] convention, and I don't care how far Crawford is from Dallas, I am going to that [deleted] ranch. I will not leave until he explains to me exactly what the noble cause is. I hope some VFPs will join me in the crusade to Crawford. If they don't, I know my sister will, and we will go alone if we have to.
It has to stop. The time is now. I mean it.
Until Sheehan showed up at Bush's ranch demanding a meeting and an answer to a simple question—"What is that noble cause?"—nobody had effectively rubbed the country's face in the lack of coherent justification for the war and its ever-rising casualties. Not John Kerry, not the protesters at the Republican National Convention, not Michael Moore, not the media. Not effectively enough, not in a way that touched a deep national nerve. It always seemed that the patriotism of those parties was somehow suspect, or their motivations dubious, or their delivery bad, or their timing off.
Bush's falling approval ratings eventually opened him up to a summer of real political discontent, but no one seemed to realize just how large the opening for dissent had grown until a person beyond reproach, a mother who had given her son to the Iraq war, stepped in and posed a simple question that the president could not answer.
I wanted to do a phone interview with Sheehan while she was camped out in Crawford, but of course I couldn't; by then she was being guided by savvy PR handlers who limited her interviews to a few outlets with huge audiences. They offered, however, to put me in touch with a woman from Oregon, a member of Gold Star Families for Peace who, like Sheehan, had lost her son to the war. They said the woman had been so moved by Sheehan's protest that she jumped on a plane to Crawford to be with her. The woman was Lynn Bradach.
Lynn Bradach was born in Burns, a tiny Eastern Oregon farming and lumber town, in 1952, but moved to Portland with her family when she was 10 years old. Her father was a mill worker who became a dredging engineer. Her mother was a homemaker. She went to a Catholic girls' high school, and grew up dreaming of a comfortable middle-class life with a husband, kids, and a nice little house. Her family was not political, and neither was she, though she remembers that in the '70s, when one of her brothers was in danger of being drafted into the war in Vietnam, he discussed moving to Canada to dodge military service. Her father was incensed at the idea. When your country asks, her father told his son, you go. With that war clearly a mess, and the protest movement in high gear, Lynn thought her father's thinking was crazy—not the loyalty to the country part, but the idea that loyalty demanded blind obedience even during a flawed, failing war. As it turned out, the war ended before her brother's draft number was called and the family debate became moot.
Lynn married, had her two sons, and got divorced at age 45 for reasons she doesn't like to discuss. That was the first rupture of what she calls her "nice, middle-class bubble," but it wasn't the big one. She dated when she could, which wasn't often with two boys who didn't always take well to new men around the house, but that was fine. She continued her work for Qwest Communications, later transferring to a Qwest subsidiary called Dex, a phonebook company where she worked sales and customer service. She always considered herself liberal but was never active in politics. "I was always quietly concerned," she says, "but I never wanted to speak out against anything. I voted. That's all I did was voted."
After the death of her son, Lynn changed. "In order to survive, the person who we are dies," she says. "You become a different person."
She does look, in moments, like someone who has had a death inside of her. She is an energetic person—"frantic," she says—but sadness comes easily, as do tears. She used to be a twice-a-week Catholic, but cannot set foot in a church now without beginning to sob.
She had Travis cremated, but couldn't bear to part with all of his ashes. She put some in a coffin that is buried at Willamette National Cemetery on a wooded hill high above the city, and the rest she keeps in her living room. She talks to them, telling him what's going on in the world.
The September after he died she received a message on her answering machine from Adopt-A-Minefield, the anti-minefield group run by Paul McCartney that raises funds to support de-mining and landmine survivor assistance. She saw it as a sign, and got involved.
She ended up being invited to an L.A. fundraiser hosted by McCartney, where she met Mickey Rooney, Geena Davis, one of the Arquette girls, and Larry King. It was surreal, but Travis always loved spectacle, and since she felt like he was with her, she could say to him quietly: "Hey, look at where we get to go." She threw a fundraiser in Portland that year that netted $10,000 for the landmine group, and adopted a minefield in Cambodia that she had cleared in Travis' name. She also made it her mission to support John Kerry, raising $4,000 at a house party for him in Portland.
Lynn's new life as an activist and fundraiser is fueled by outrage, but it is funded by the money she received after Travis died. Before his death she was making about $60,000 a year, plus child support—solidly middle class. But between the military death benefit and Travis's military life insurance, she received $500,000, and now, she says, "I will never have to do a job for money again."
When the Carlyle Group and other investors bought Dex recently and wanted to downsize her, she was able to take a buyout without worrying about what she would do next.
This freedom to quit her job and become, essentially, a full-time activist is due to a huge change in how much the government pays the families of soldiers killed in action. From the Vietnam era until recently, the "death gratuity" was only a few thousand dollars. But after 9/11, when widows of victims of the terror attacks received huge payments from the government, there was a move to increase the payments to family members of soldiers killed in the so-called war on terror. The result is that, like the 9/11 widows who ended up with enough money to quit their jobs and turn themselves into a full-time, formidable lobbying force in D.C., many of the mothers of dead soldiers are now using government death benefits and life insurance money to fund their protest and peace activities.
Yet as it stands, she is exceptionally, exquisitely mad at Bush. "The man is a destructive force," she said. "I am angry at the current administration beyond belief."
Ironically, last year the Marines called her to ask if she wanted to meet the president during one of his sessions with families of dead soldiers at Camp Pendleton in California. She said no.
"I so dislike him," she says. "I don't really want to talk to him." But like Sheehan, she maintains fantasies of asking the president some pointed questions. Her list: "Why did we go to war? Do you lay awake at night? Does it make you sick to your stomach to know that you caused this?"
When Lynn picked up a newspaper and read about Sheehan being disparaged by the right-wing attack machine, she was disgusted. She bought a plane ticket, packed her carry-on, and took off for Texas.
Lynn arrived in Crawford, Texas late on August 17. She loved meeting the other Gold Star mothers at the ranch and sharing stories of their kids. "It is part of the healing process to tell the story of your child," she says.
Then, "We met Cindy for a few minutes... She looked very, very exhausted, but thought everything was going well."
Cindy Sheehan recalls the moment. "The other mothers coming," she says, "helped me a lot—to know that I wasn't alone, to know that I wasn't the only mother in America who wanted answers to those questions."
On August 20, in a tone as unvarnished and raw with emotion as Sheehan's, Lynn told the CBS evening news why she had traveled all the way to Crawford.
REPORTER: "Lynn Bradach is one of the newcomers to the camp at Crawford. We first met her two years ago, just after her son, Travis, was killed in Iraq. His funeral was gut-wrenching, as they all are. He was a 21-year-old Marine who died after he had volunteered to stay in Iraq an extra three months. She told us something back then that has stuck with her and with us ever since."
BRADACH: (From October 2003) "The whole world's hearts should be breaking. If you all could have met all these wonderful boys, they're not just soldiers. They're wonderful boys."
REPORTER: "That's what drew her to this sweltering ranch road in the middle of Texas, not just as somebody who opposes the war, but as a mother who paid for it dearly."
BRADACH: "I need to face people down. I want you to look in my eyes and realize how much pain I have suffered. If only every mother stood up and said, 'No, no, I'm not going to allow this. I'm not going to allow you to take my beautiful child and send them someplace where, even if they come back—you will never get your child back, not your beautiful, innocent, joyful child.'"
REPORTER: "The protest, of course, does have its opposition, not the least of which are other family members who have also lost loved ones in Iraq, who call this nothing short of treason. But for Lynn, she says this is simply her way of grieving and it's grieving with a purpose."
BRADACH: "If I'm not doing something—and something that's making a difference—I really do get lost. I really get lost."
Lynn remains in awe of Cindy Sheehan, and what she accomplished with her protest.
"You know what I think really happened?" she says. "I think somehow we all knew what was wrong, but we didn't know what to do. There was no plan of action. Cindy's plan of action, standing up in the field and saying, 'This is wrong'—if one mother can stand up in the field and say it's wrong, so can everyone else. Everyone who knows it's wrong has to stand up."
It may have seemed like there were a lot of Gold Star moms down in Crawford with Cindy Sheehan last month, but there were actually never more than a dozen. Mainly the crowds of supporters were from the radical left, people whom the Gold Star moms' handlers effectively kept out of the media spotlight, knowing that mothers would be listened to, but that radicals would sink the moms' credibility by association.
The dilemma concerning what to do with the lefties, while finessed in Crawford, may become a big problem at the march on Washington on September 24. While a media-driven protest outside the president's ranch only requires a few well-cast, articulate spokespeople, a mass protest in D.C. requires, well, masses. The march on Washington is sponsored by the ANSWER Coalition and United for Peace & Justice, and has already drawn some concern that it will bring the typical potpourri of lefty gripes to Washington—Haiti, the Palestinians, etc.—muddling the anti-Iraq-war message and creating an easy target, something conservative and even mainstream commentators could easily dismiss.
Also working against them, and perhaps even more damaging to their agenda, is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Barely a word has been reported about the Gold Star mothers since Bush left his Crawford vacation to oversee disaster relief efforts, as well as the efforts to control the political damage he is suffering from having responded too slowly to what may be a greater calamity than 9/11.
But the hope of the Gold Star moms is that the public makes a connection between Bush's bungling of the Katrina response and his bungling of the Iraq war.
"People are still dying every day in Iraq and we still have a war going on," Cindy Sheehan says. "We need to link them together, and they're connected. It's just another example of failure by this administration. Since the media's not merging them together it's going to be hard, but we'll keep trying."
The march on Washington could definitely be a moment when the anger at the Katrina response merges in the popular consciousness with anger at the way the war is going, and the sum of the common themes of the two national embarrassments—incompetence, poor planning, a cavalier attitude toward the lives of American citizens—becomes a blow from which the administration cannot recover. But it could just as easily happen that the two remain unlinked, and the anger and intrigue generated by the Katrina failures, and their attendant inquiries, drown out the march against the Iraq war completely.
Whatever happens, Lynn Bradach is going, taking with her the same carry-on bag she dragged through the dust of Crawford. Her message will be simple: We need a timetable for withdrawal, a plan to stop the loss of American lives.
Lynn says she's not naive. "Will we be able to end this tomorrow?" she asks. "No. But maybe we can force people to stop it from going on and on. If we save one child, if this war stops one day earlier, at least that's one day."
While giving her a sense of purpose, Lynn thinks of the Gold Star moms as "a horrible club," one that she's working to shut down by working to end the war. "The price of this membership is disgusting," she says. "We're fighting to close the club. When we die, this club should die." n