Monday is Bob Funcheon’s seventh Memorial Day since his son Alex was killed in Iraq.
Bob plans to barbecue at his home in Bel Aire for Alex’s friends.
He likes Alex’s friends. But truth be told, Bob dislikes Memorial Day.
He knows that’s not a popular thing to say.
But then, most people who celebrate Memorial Day haven’t lost a son to war.
He figures he can think what he wants.
There was one good thing from Alex’s loss, Bob said. He remade his life.
But not in a neat, tidy way. And he would trade it right now if he could have a beer with Alex.
• • •
Six years ago, only weeks after Alex died from a roadside bomb, Bob, his wife, Karen, and daughter Gloria stepped into the cabin of Air Force One and met the man who sent Alex to war.
Bob asked President George W. Bush to make sure Alex’s death counted for something. He spoke politely, but wanted to hold the president accountable.
Six years later, Bob doesn’t know whether we won or lost the Iraq War.
And he doesn’t care.
“What difference would that make? Would it make any difference if we could declare victory? No. Alex is dead.”
A few years back, Bob decided the only person who could make Alex’s sacrifice count was Bob.
• • •
Bob recommended Alex join the Army because he thought it was Alex’s only remaining option. Alex by then was well known to Bel Aire cops as a screw-up, drunk and pothead who skipped school and made trouble.
Local employers knew Alex as a former employee – someone they’d fired.
Gloria knew him as a bully.
Alex used the F-word when he talked back to Bob. But when Bob urged him to join the Army, Alex listened. He’d run out of other options.
Bob grieves over their arguments. But Alex was only 21 when he died, and Bob knew, even as his son cursed at him, that young guys calm down as they grow older.
Bob lost that future when Alex died on April 29, 2007.
At his funeral, fellow soldiers surprised the family.
They said Alex in the Army turned into a good person. They said they put him in the top hatch of the Humvee with the machine gun because they thought he was their best chance to keep convoy soldiers alive.
A few days after the funeral, when Bob heard that President Bush was coming to Wichita for a visit, he made calls and asked for a meeting.
• • •
What Bob did to remake his life would probably have made his son grin. Alex had a sense of irony.
Bob went to college using benefit money collected after Alex’s death.
Past the age of 50, Bob quit his job as a salesman for a chemical company, and earned a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in social work.
He had met Alex’s commanding officer from the war, Lt. Jon Bland, along with other Army buddies. Bob was upset at how they suffered.
The lone survivor in Alex’s Humvee, Sgt. Gerardo Medrano, told Bob that “I regret that I made it,” while Alex died.
After that, Bob went after that social work degree so he could counsel veterans suffering depression.
He felt as determined about that as he felt about Bush making the war count for something.
• • •
On Air Force One, on June 15, 2007, on the McConnell Air Force Base tarmac, Bob came quickly to the point.
“Mr. President, we came to see you here because there are a couple of things I wanted to say to you.”
“Karen and I support you, and we support what you are doing in Iraq … although, I should tell you, our daughter Gloria does not.”
Bob worried what Gloria might say.
Though Alex bullied her, Gloria loved her brother. She had never seen the logic of going to war in Iraq. Bob could see on the way to the meeting with Bush that Gloria’s blood was up. Gloria was 18, bright, thoughtful, blunt, fearless, a skilled debater. Bob thought she might give Bush a piece of her mind.
But when Bob said Gloria did not support the war, Bush nodded politely. He could not have been nicer.
Bob told him he didn’t want Iraq to turn out like Vietnam: needless sacrifice.
“When my son was killed, he came back, and he was honored at his funeral. But I began to resign myself to the idea that his life had meant something to us and to his buddies … but I felt like his death meant nothing in the war on terrorism.”
“When after we went to my son’s memorial service at Fort Carson, and I met several other wounded soldiers … as if his death wasn’t enough, there were these guys out there, maimed and hurt, and this upset me nearly as much as Alex’s death.
“I want you to think of my son, and those guys. And I want you to reach down deep and discover and do what needs to be done in this war, so that those guys, 20 or 30 years from now, will be able to look back and think that everything they had gone through and sacrificed, that it was worth it.”
Bush replied as best he could, Bob said later. But the truth was, no one knew then how the war would turn out.
Bush asked Bob a question a few moments later.
He said Bob did not seem bitter.
• • •
Bob says he dislikes not only Memorial Day, but Christmas and Thanksgiving, too.
“All it does is remind me of what we’ve lost.”
He thinks he could have reconciled with Alex.
He thinks he and Karen should be playing with Alex’s children by now. He has watched Karen cry, and though he doesn’t cry much, he grieves with Karen.
He doesn’t blame anybody.
“But when people tell me he died an honorable death, I almost get mad,” Bob said. “He’s still dead. It doesn’t do me any good that he died honorably.”
One thing they both learned, Karen said, is that people don’t know what to say to them. When they meet someone, and tell about each other’s lives, it’s a conversation stopper to say that their son died in the Iraq War.
Bob and Karen go to Alex’s grave in the cemetery north of Wichita every few weeks.
Karen said Bob’s grief, though low-key, seems to worsen a bit every year.
But he remade his life. Not neatly. Not in a tidy way, and not in a way that he could have foreseen.
• • •
On Air Force One, something good happened that surprised Gloria years later. It is one more example, she said, of how life turns out differently than what you think.
It started when Bush asked Gloria; What do you want to do when you get out of school?
“International relations,” she said. “I want to be a diplomat.”
Bush had majored in history at Yale. He began reciting “chapter and verse,” as Gloria said later, suggestions about how to study international relations, what classes to take. He named websites she could check out.
Ironic, Gloria said last week.
She got on that plane to confront the man who sent her brother to his death. Instead, he mentored her, and she paid attention.
Bush told Gloria to avoid a merely general study of history. Pick a region, he said. Study that region’s history until you become invested in it. His suggestions were detailed and helpful, and it occurred to her that he was not only the president but the son of an former diplomat and U.S. president. He knew what he was talking about.
Gloria Funcheon last week earned her master’s degree at the University of Kansas in Russian, Central Asian and Eastern European history.
She studied the region’s military history. She studied analytical research, political risk. She wants to go into the intelligence field. Maybe international security.
In a week, she flies to the Republic of Georgia, where she will work for an organization helping women who suffered trauma in Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia. At 24, she’s done precisely the sorts of things Bush told her to do to earn a diplomatic career.
Like her father, she said it’s too soon to say that anyone won or lost the war that killed Alex.
But she added one other story that showed, as she put it, that “I have had to accept that life is more complicated than I thought.”
When she got to the University of Kansas three years ago, she still thought Bush’s decision to launch the Iraq War was a bad idea.
But at KU, she helped teach international students how to speak conversational English.
She met Iraqi Kurds, a people persecuted and sometimes massacred village by village by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
The Kurds told Gloria they owed their lives to Bush.
• • •
Bob wanted the Iraq War to count for something
He wanted to hold Bush accountable. And yet, when Bush opened his presidential library last month in Texas, Bob paid no attention, though Bush’s legacy will be bound forever, for better or worse, to the invasion of Iraq.
On Air Force One, Karen had given Bush a set of Alex’s dog tags, and a photo of their son. Bush told the Funcheons he hoped to open a library one day, and would make sure these gifts found a place in it. Karen said last week that she planned to find out one day whether Bush kept his word.
But Bob no longer holds Bush accountable for whether we won the war Alex died in. He does not blame Bush for Alex’s death.
Sometimes, as he said, and as Gloria said, you accept that life is more complicated than you thought.
• • •
After Sgt. Gerardo Medrano told Bob that he was sorry he had lived while Alex had died, Bob had sworn to make a new career helping soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress.
But Bob has not counseled a single soldier.
After he got his degree at Wichita State University, there were no jobs in Wichita where Bob could counsel soldiers.
Instead, he went to work as a counselor for Comcare of Sedgwick County.
He found all sorts of people who had PTSD. They are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, young and not so young. There were so many of them, so many people suffering. Bob these days sees 18 people a week in individual sessions, and another 15 or so in groups.
Nearly all are victims of trauma: sexual, verbal, physical abuse.
They were not combat soldiers like Medrano. They had not sacrificed in war.
But they were as traumatized as any soldier Bob met.
And they lived in Bob’s hometown. And they needed help.
Bob helps them.
He earns less money than he did as a chemical salesman.
“But Karen said something the other day that made me think,” he said.
“She said she’d never seen me look so tired.
“Or so fulfilled.”