Moving On After a Family Death in Iraq

From left: Rachel, Charity and Michelle Witmer before their deployment to Iraq. i i

From left: Rachel, Charity and Michelle Witmer before their deployment to Iraq. All three sisters served in the Wisconsin National Guard. Michelle Witmer was killed in April 2004. Courtesy Witmer family hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Witmer family
From left: Rachel, Charity and Michelle Witmer before their deployment to Iraq.

From left: Rachel, Charity and Michelle Witmer before their deployment to Iraq. All three sisters served in the Wisconsin National Guard. Michelle Witmer was killed in April 2004.

Courtesy Witmer family

Among the 2,000 U.S. troop fatalities in Iraq is 20-year-old Michelle Witmer, a Wisconsin National Guard member killed in an ambush in April 2004. Her parents and sisters still struggle with the loss, even as they try to move on with their lives. Wisconsin Public Radio's Brian Bull reports.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, we're going to revisit the family of one of 2,000 US troops who've died in the war in Iraq. It's been a year and a half since we met the family of 20-year-old Michelle Witmer of New Berlin, Wisconsin. Wisconsin Public Radio's Brian Bull reports now on how her family's been doing.

BRIAN BULL reporting:

Few stories out of the war have been as memorable as that of the Witmer sisters. After Michelle Witmer was killed in a Baghdad ambush, her two surviving soldier sisters, also stationed in Iraq, were given the option to stay there with their units or return home. This, coupled with Michelle's 1tatus as the first woman in the history of the Wisconsin National Guard to die in combat, brought waves of reporters here to the Witmer family's home in New Berlin just west of Milwaukee. In the dining room, John and Lori Witmer sit surrounded by momentos of Michelle including black metal bracelets they've warn since being notified of their daughter's death.

Mr. JOHN WITMER: It has Michelle's name engraved in it, and Operation Iraqi Freedom is the initials OIF, KIA, Killed In Action, 9 April 2004.

BULL: When John Witmer is asked if he still supports the war in Iraq, he says he struggles with that question. He says the hard fact is American troops are now there and that pulling out too soon would cause pain and anguish for the families who've already lost soldiers and to Iraqi citizens. John Witmer's quick to acknowledge his daily bouts of grief.

Mr. WITMER: The best analogy I've come up with is if you lose a limb, you never get the limb back. You just adjust living without the limb. The scars healed but you're always missing that part of you.

BULL: Both of Michelle Witmer's parents have tried to keep working. John is operations manager for a business communications company. Lori works as a fitness trainer. She says hundreds of her clients have given her emotional support by allowing her to talk openly about Michelle's final tour of duty. In the past year, numerous memorials and dedications have been done in Michelle Witmer's name. Lori says honoring Michelle is touching, but she'd trade it all just to have her daughter back.

Mrs. LORI WITMER: I think that a faceless Iraqi soldier took a shot to my daughter and took her life, we lost her physically, but our life--how hasn't it changed?

Ms. CHARITY WITMER: I always thought she'd be the first one I would tell when I was proposed to and maid of honor at my wedding, and it continues on but it's never quite as sweet.

BULL: Charity Witmer is Michelle's twin sister. The two appear in old family photos clowning around, traveling and cradling kids and puppies, but Michelle wasn't there when Charity was married two months ago to a fellow soldier. Lori Witmer sorts through nearly 800 photographs of the event.

Mrs. WITMER: She was a beautiful bride and it was a beautiful day.

Ms. RACHEL WITMER: Well, I feel like God blessed Charity and our family extra special that day because of the extra pain.

BULL: Charity and the other surviving sister Rachel returned home after Michelle's death and chose to be reassigned in Wisconsin rather than go back to Iraq. Rachel now works as a security guard in a hospital while Charity enrolled in a nursing school. Charity says she still has friends serving in Iraq and she's shocked by the toll the war has inflicted on American forces.

Ms. C. WITMER: It's a ritual. You just go on the Internet every day and you check and see if anyone was killed. I've gotten used to it at this point. You know what they're going through. You know what their family is about to experience.

BULL: It's this collective grief and hardship that has drawn dozens of military families to the Witmers. Right after Michelle's death, hundreds of thousands of people logged on to the family Web site which crashed in response. John Witmer recently re-launched the site and started a blog that he updates occasionally. He also gets comments from readers.

Mr. WITMER: This one said, `Your words are a comfort to me as I cope with Matt's loss.' She lost a son in an automobile accident 10 years ago. `Keep the words coming and know that lots of people think about you and remember you and your family in their prayers.

BULL: The Witmer Web site feature what's called The Michelle Project which solicits pen pals to soldiers, encourages charitable giving and helps match soldiers' families with volunteers offering help with household choirs. In his blog, John Witmer writes how Memorial Day used to be just a day off work. Now he says it's become one of the hardest days of the year for him and often triggers bouts of depression, but he wants people to understand that all soldiers were once part of a family, a family that will never be the same without them. For NPR News, I'm Brian Bull in Madison.

INSKEEP: To hear the original story we broadcast about Michelle Witmer, go to npr.org.

This is NPR News.

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