Facebook status update on June 15, 9:51 p.m.:
DOD announced today the death of a soldier. Sgt. Mario Rodriguez, 24, of Smithville, Texas, died June 11 in Powrak, Afghanistan, "of wounds sustained when insurgents attacked his unit using small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fires." He was assigned to the 264th Clearance Company, 27th Engineer Battalion (Combat) (Airborne), 20th Engineer Brigade, Fort Bragg, N.C.
For the past year and a half, I've been posting Department of Defense casualty alerts to remind me — and my 2,400 or so "friends" on Facebook — of the human beings behind the statistics of American losses in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent weeks, a woman named Pat McDermott Nixon has added an update of her own after each of my posts about fallen Americans.
Nixon's Facebook comment on June 15, 9:56 p.m.:
Sgt. Mario Rodriguez, 24, left behind a wife and 7-year-old daughter. His was the fourth active duty death from Smithville (a town of fewer than 5,000) in four years — three in the last year alone.
She listed the three other residents' names and when they died.
After I thanked her, Nixon explained in a second post that she often did "a little search to discover something more personal" about each American who dies.
"Tonight," she added, "I decided to post what I'd found."
Thus began an online partnership with a woman I never have met. I post the latest DOD announcement, and Nixon almost always follows up with a bio and a link to the obituary.
Earlier this week, I decided to find out more about this 62-year-old woman in Strongsville, Ohio. Why was she willing to do this?
"At first, I was reading the posts and saying the names aloud to myself," she said. "Saying their ages, too. I have three boys, ages 29, 25 and 22."
She started researching the names of the fallen online.
"I've always been intrigued by the micro of life rather than the macro," she said. "I don't know anyone who has died in Iraq or Afghanistan. We can become so insulated by where we live and who we know — and don't know."
Nixon is a retired children's librarian, so research is a lifelong habit. But there's more to her story. She came of age during the Vietnam War, and as we talked, she recalled another list of names — and faces — that may have planted the seeds for her current practice of honoring the fallen.
She was a young elementary school teacher in Cleveland when the June 27, 1969, issue of Life magazine devoted 12 pages to 242 young men who had died in Vietnam in a single week, from May 28 to June 3. Nine of them were from Ohio, which ranked fifth in the number of Vietnam deaths by the time the war was over.
"We must pause to look into the faces," read the introduction to Life's photo gallery, which listed each man by name, age, rank and hometown. "More than we must know how many, we must know who. The faces of one week's dead, unknown but to families and friends, are suddenly recognized by all in this gallery of young American eyes."
You can find that Life issue online at http://tiny.cc/VIETNAM. The article starts on Page 20.
Forty-one years later, Nixon still remembers looking at those pages of young faces, reading each name and age aloud and feeling "a deeper awareness of the loss." Now she publishes her own version of a gallery, one bio at a time.
On Tuesday, July 20, I paused in writing this column to post the following DOD alert on Facebook:
Sgt. Justin B. Allen, 23, of Coal Grove, Ohio, died July 18 in Zhari, Afghanistan, "of wounds suffered when he was shot by insurgents while conducting combat operations."
Another Ohio boy.
A few minutes later, Pat McDermott Nixon posted an excerpt from his obituary in The Ironton Tribune:
In November Justin was going to marry his fiancée, Kimberly Schwartz, whom he had met when she moved to Lawrence County from Florida. "She had already bought her dress," (his mother) Bonnie said.
The last time Bonnie saw her son was this spring when he came home between deployments. She wants her son to be remembered for his generosity, honesty and patriotism.
It was Sgt. Allen's fourth tour of duty.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine. To find out more about Connie Schultz ([email protected]) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.