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· *VMBB Senior Chief Of Staff*
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January 12, 2013

A Soldier’s Requiem, Never Fading Away


WOODBRIDGE, Va. — Each December, Jackie Finken pulls plastic bins from the basement and distributes carefully wrapped Christmas decorations to her three daughters. Each girl has her own ornaments. And each of those ornaments has a story. That is a Finken tradition, one of many.

So there Mrs. Finken was on her kitchen floor a few weeks back, telling tales. About the treble clef that she and her husband, Paul, gave Emilie, the cheerful eldest, when she started loving her violin. About the Cinderella they gave to Caroline, the cranky middle one, when Disney princesses were all the rage. About the mouse they gave to Julia, the mischievous youngest, the year a brigade of vermin feasted on her candy stash.

Suddenly Julia stopped to ponder a decoration adorned with a tiny soccer ball, baseball mitt and football. It belonged to her father, the coach. “Should I hang this one?” she asked her mother. The answer, of course, was “Of course.”

Every day there are small reminders, and here was one: Julia would hang the ornament because her father, Lt. Col. Paul J. Finken, died in Iraq six years ago, killed by a roadside bomb on the final patrol of his yearlong deployment.

The moment capsulized one family’s self-guided journey through loss. Over six years, Mrs. Finken and her daughters, ages 14, 12 and 10, have struggled through different phases of mourning, sometimes together, sometimes on individual calendars. But the one constant has been their determination to remember, without letting memory become a millstone.

“I don’t want to squeeze the life out of the memories, because I want them to still be precious and mean something,” Mrs. Finken said. “I also don’t want the memories to drag us down. Because memories can do that sometimes.”

Since 2001, about 4,800 children have lost a parent and 3,650 adults have lost a spouse to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For most, finding that balance between holding on to lost loved ones — and releasing them — will be the key to recovery.

“When people grieve, they have to give up the presence of that person in their lives,” said Dr. Stephen J. Cozza, the director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., the military’s medical school. “But they also can be reassured by the memories and the sense of connection psychologically. That can be very powerful and healing.”

After 11 years of war, the military is only now beginning to study how the deaths of active-duty troops have affected their families. The National Military Family Bereavement Study, a five-year project begun in 2011, will look at the families of those killed both at war and at home since 2001 and will try to answer a frequently asked question: Do military families grieve differently than nonmilitary ones?

Dr. Cozza, who is leading the study, said evidence pointed in both directions. Sudden, violent deaths can often be hard to accept for all families, he said. And many military deaths fall into that category, typically resulting from combat, training accidents or suicide.

But deaths that occur in the line of military duty may also impart a sense of purpose that helps families move on, Dr. Cozza said. Evidence also suggests that military rituals and memorials that honor the dead can help salve grief.

“It doesn’t mean they don’t mourn,” he said. “But perhaps they mourn in a way that is not as prolonged.”

Ask Mrs. Finken, 43, about the many ways she keeps her husband’s memory alive, and she will wince if you use the words “ritual” or “memorial.” And yet: walk through the Finkens’ red brick colonial house outside Washington and reminders of the colonel are easy to find.

On the refrigerator hangs a letter from Julia thanking him with xoxo’s for being such a great dad. On the living room mantel rests a photograph of Colonel Finken, a consummate prankster, clowning around during a deployment. On a table sits a bowl filled with rocks he collected from his first deployment to Iraq; on another, a cookie jar brims with “pick me up” notes he wrote to the girls.

“Give your mommy a big hug.” “Make a silly face.” “No whining, be happy.”

When they are blue, the girls read them still. Just as Mrs. Finken still buys the girls ornaments before Christmas, still takes the girls out for ice cream on Valentine’s Day, still watches Army-Navy football games with them each fall. The things they did with their father have become traditions, and the traditions carry memories.

“I want them to take the best parts of him and hold on to them and carry them throughout life,” she said. “It’s not dwelling and it’s not sad, because I just think that would tear him up if he thought we were down here just crying and not moving forward.”

‘Your Dad Went to Heaven’

He was the head of a unit in the 101st Airborne Division that trained Iraqi soldiers in Baghdad. He went on scores of patrols and participated in many firefights, but it was the last one, the team’s 469th mission, that proved deadly.

“Give those girls hugs and kisses, and I’ll see them in 10 days,” he told his wife over the phone the night before. Then on Nov. 2, 2006, as Colonel Finken was escorting his counterpart from the incoming battalion, a bomb exploded under their vehicle, killing him, the other lieutenant colonel and a staff sergeant. Colonel Finken was 40.

Mrs. Finken vividly recalls the phone call from a friend at Fort Campbell, Ky., asking her to come to the post because “something” had happened. “I wanted to think it was someone else in the battalion,” she said. “But deep down, I had a suspicion.”

That night she gathered the girls on her bed and told them: “Your dad went to heaven today, and you’re going to be O.K.” Then they cried together.

The next morning, Caroline, 6, wanted to stay home. But Emilie, 8, argued for normalcy. So their mother made them pancakes as usual and sent them to school.

Those first few years, Mrs. Finken recalls, were painful. When the girls got tired, one would start crying for Daddy and the others would join in. She had decided to stay in Clarksville, Tenn., near Fort Campbell, where they had friends. But the 101st was continually deploying, and reports of new casualties were all too commonplace. Even the girls’ Catholic school had a memorial plaque to their father that they walked past almost daily.

One day an old Army friend of her husband’s pointedly asked Mrs. Finken why she was still in Tennessee. Indeed, her husband had counseled that if he died, she should stay only one year and then start fresh somewhere else. She had always liked the Washington area, so during a trip to help raise money for a nonprofit group that had helped her and the girls, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, she went house-hunting.

Her demands were specific and, she suspected, unrealistic: the house had to be walking distance from church and schools, had to have woods and a creek in the backyard, had to be on a cul-de-sac with a pool nearby. “I wanted Earling, Iowa,” Mrs. Finken said, referring to her husband’s tiny hometown.

Yet on the final day of Mrs. Finken’s weeklong visit, the broker called. She had found it.

They moved to Virginia in 2009. As they entered their fourth year without Colonel Finken, a friend who had also lost her husband to war suggested that the good days might begin to outnumber the bad. And so it came to be. Where the Clarksville house had been all Daddy’s handiwork, this one belonged to the girls. They chose the decorations, hung the pictures, oversaw repairs to the deck. They had a sense of ownership.

At school, the girls also found that they had new power to define themselves. Unlike in Clarksville, where everyone knew about their father, in Virginia they could choose whom to tell. They confided in close friends, but others might be told that Daddy was deployed or was “up north,” the girls’ euphemism for heaven.

“Back at Tennessee, there were some kids who didn’t understand,” Emilie explained about her selectivity. “They thought that we couldn’t see pictures of our dad without freaking out and starting to cry. But that’s not true.”

Emilie is the rock, as emotionally steady as she is sophisticated. She loves playing her violin, is a stalwart on the middle school robotics team and dreams of becoming a Disney Imagineer, a theme park designer. Her basement bedroom is scattered with Lego constructions.

Her mother worries that she tries to be a surrogate parent. Though she gets sad at certain milestones when her father’s absence seems most poignant, like her first communion, she is typically more upbeat and industrious, helping with chores or making coffee for her mother, just as her father did.

“I’ve had to remind her: ‘You’re not the second adult,’ ” Mrs. Finken said.

Caroline is the quiet observer, the tough nut. She took up the cello at her parents’ behest but professes to hate it, even though she made an all-county orchestra while vowing to skip the concerts. Running is her private escape, and she has excelled in the 800 meters for her middle school team. Her room is a tidy counterpoint to her sisters’ messes, scores of stuffed animals stacked perfectly on shelves, drawers closed, books in place.

To her mother, Caroline struggled the most with her father’s death. As a toddler, she insisted on being carried by him and spent hours on his lap. “When he was gone, he took a little piece of her happiness,” Mrs. Finken said. Since his death, Caroline has seemed most comfortable confiding with people who have also lost family members, including a therapist and a grade-school teacher.

“When my dad died, I think I changed because I got a little bit tougher,” Caroline said. “If a kid bullies me, I don’t really care, because I’ve gone through harder things than that.”

Julia is the prankster, perhaps the most like her father, whom she barely knew. Told she had to play an instrument, she chose the drums, “something more my speed,” she said. She is the purest athlete, playing football with boys and defender on a select girls soccer team. A sign on her bedroom door warns that you are entering “Juliatopea,” her kingdom of elves and ponies.

Just 4 when Colonel Finken was killed, Julia struggled to understand where he had gone and why he had to be buried in Iowa instead of their backyard. But comprehension has caught up, and these days his death seems to weigh heavily on her, Mrs. Finken said. A victory in a big soccer game, for instance, led to tears because he was not there to appreciate it.

“There’s bittersweetness with everything,” Mrs. Finken said.

When she misses her father, Julia often goes to her room and opens a box of photographs of him. The other girls have similar routines. Caroline might go for a run, and Emilie might hug her stuffed otter while listening to Christmas music. But they all return to photographs.

“It helps a lot to have the pictures,” Emilie said. “Because some days I just can’t recall his face.”

For Mrs. Finken, cleaning and rearranging furniture are often her antidote to melancholy. “Perhaps a part of me likes to hide behind being so busy so I don’t have to be so sad,” she said.

Ask about her own future, and she is liable to give a similar answer: “I’m too busy now. I’ll think about it when the girls are grown.” For now she occasionally substitute teaches, while also receiving military survivors’ benefits.

When she has tough decisions to make, she seeks counsel, and solace, from an old friend, Paul.

“I keep an active dialogue going,” she said. “People might think I’m a little crazy. But I think it’s my way to verbalize what I’m thinking. And he’s who I would always verbalize it to. And he’s not here.”

Links in the Chain

Last summer, the Finkens visited Earling, a speck on the map 40 miles northeast of Omaha. Colonel Finken was the youngest of 10 children, the son of a telephone company worker and a homemaker. When he was alive, the girls loved reunions at the family’s rambling house, loaded with cousins.

But this time the Finken girls went to celebrate their father’s 46th birthday in the family plot outside town. Each glued her favorite photographs from the year on wooden sticks and planted them around his grave. For good measure, they left scratch-off lottery tickets in memory of his mother, an inveterate player.

Each time they visit they find evidence of others who have paid their respects anonymously, like the young man who arrived in town a few years ago, emerged from the men’s room at a local restaurant in dress uniform and delivered beer to the colonel’s grave. Mrs. Finken has no idea who they are, only that they cared enough to come.

“Paul keeps touching people’s lives,” she said. “I guess that means you’re not really gone, right?”

It is in that spirit that she encourages her girls to hold tight their fondest memories of their father, whether real, shared or appropriated.

Emilie recalls eating apples while lounging in a kiddie pool with her father, then stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Or playing Star Wars in the living room using light sabers he constructed from Pillsbury biscuit cans and plastic tubes.

Caroline remembers a water fight in the backyard, or the made-up song he sang to her before bed: “I see the moon, you see the moon, I love the moon and you love it too.” Mrs. Finken sings it to her still.

Julia tells a story about a family trip when the car engine caught fire and their quick-thinking father extinguished it by urinating on the flames. She tells it with dramatic relish because it is funny, but it is not really a memory: she was just an infant at the time. No matter. It now belongs to her.

In the same way, Mrs. Finken has required the girls to continue the activities their father encouraged: serving at Mass, playing an instrument, learning how to defend themselves. Caroline, for one, is not enthusiastic about the music or the tae kwon do, but she dutifully does them because she knows her father wanted her to.

“It’s a link to him,” Mrs. Finken said. “They kind of honor that.”

Giving ornaments each Christmas is one more link in that chain. Last month, Mrs. Finken gave each of the girls a ceramic guinea pig, handmade by an artist in New York and modeled on the children’s real pets, Buttercup and Spice. Julia and Caroline squealed with glee. But Emilie, in an uncharacteristic fit of pique, stomped off to her room, declaring, “I hate guinea pigs!”

After several minutes of cajoling, Mrs. Finken coaxed Emilie back to the tree trimming. “When you’re 40, you’ll take that ornament out and laugh and say, ‘Grandma got that for me, and I hated it,’ ” Mrs. Finken told her.

Then, in a surprise, Caroline gave Mrs. Finken her own ornament: a tiny movie poster for the John Wayne film “Rio Bravo.” Colonel Finken loved the Duke, owning his entire film oeuvre on DVD.

“You get it!” Mrs. Finken exclaimed. “You get the idea. Every ornament has a story.” A tradition had been passed.

The next day was the start of Julia’s indoor soccer season, and the entire family would be in attendance. But first the girls gathered on the front lawn for a family photograph.

One by one they emerged from the house: Caroline in jeans and light blue Converse sneakers; Julia in her black uniform; Emilie in a green knit coat, carrying the family dog, Audrey; and finally Jackie. But something was missing.


So Mrs. Finken asked Julia to find a photograph, and she returned carrying one of Colonel Finken smiling broadly, handsome in his formal dress uniform. Suddenly Mrs. Finken asked for a moment to blink back tears. This was, she had realized, their first family portrait since before her husband deployed for the final time.

Under a steel gray sky, surrounded by suburban calm, the Finken girls linked arms and smiled, silently holding a memory before it could slip like sand through their fingers. Then they piled into the car. New memories awaited.

“It all works out, it does,” Mrs. Finken said. “Amazingly. Maybe not how I choose it to. But we seem to be doing O.K. I think we’re O.K. We’re going to be O.K. We are O.K.”
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