Single Mother by War, Not Choice

Suzie Fetterman holds her 6-month-old son Mason i i

It took Suzie Fetterman some time to accept that she would be raising her son, Mason, alone after her fiance was killed in Iraq. Katia Dunn for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Katia Dunn for NPR
Suzie Fetterman holds her 6-month-old son Mason

It took Suzie Fetterman some time to accept that she would be raising her son, Mason, alone after her fiance was killed in Iraq.

Katia Dunn for NPR

Last August when Army Scout Michael Hook was killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq, his fiancee, Suzie Fetterman, was weeks away from giving birth to their son, Mason. Now Fetterman, who lives in Altoona, Pa., is adjusting to having to raise her son without his father.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Fetterman lifted Mason out of the swing he was sleeping in.

"The eyes, the blond hair, the ears ... he's all dad," Fetterman says, and her mother agrees. Fetterman says after Hook died, she spent two weeks not thinking about her status as a single mom.

"I was kind of leery when I had Mason, because I was kind of dreading looking at him, thinking, here I am and, you know... you're not here," Fetterman says.

According to the group Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, there are an estimated 3,000 children who have lost a parent in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least 800 of them are too young to remember the parent.

Fetterman says that although it's painful, she feels obligated to teach Mason about his father.

"He's 6 months old, and I tell him stories," she says. "He's never too young. I show him pictures, and he clearly looks at it and he knows who it is."

Fetterman attends Greenwood United Methodist Church, just down the street from her parents' house, where she is staying. She's in the process of closing on a house.

"I think one thing that Mason has going for him is his family," says Jeff Wakeley, the church pastor. Hook's family is also nearby.

Experts at TAPS who have helped other families in this situation agree with Wakeley — an extended network of support can be a critical factor for a parent raising a child alone.

Wakeley anticipates another, more elusive challenge for the family: explaining to Mason his father's death. Altoona is in conservative Blair County. But Wakeley says that though people in his congregation support the soldiers, many don't support the war. He says that contradiction will be a hard thing to explain to Mason.

"You have to sort of take the person and the contribution apart from the overall war," he says. "Mike did his duty. He wanted to serve his country and he did, and in the process of helping people, he lost his life tragically."

The political aftermath of the war is hard to explain, says Bonnie Carroll, the founder of TAPS. She says the group regularly works with families to come up with coping strategies for children, "when friends, teachers, even strangers are talking about their loved one in a way that is tough to hear because it's related to the politics of the war not related to the individual."

Fetterman says she's looking forward to explaining to Mason that his dad was a hero. But there are days, she says, when even she can't figure out the reason behind Hook's death.

"Here I am now, a single mother raising my son without a father because of this war," she says. "I would love to know why he died when I was 9 months' pregnant, and we were supposed to get married. If someone could answer that, please tell me."

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