cathytomasnathan(1)Cathy Smith and sons Tomas and Nathan Young in Fort Campbell, Kentucky (Photo: Ellen Spiro. From Body of War)


Cathy Smith, 55, works at a Target store near Kansas City, Missouri. And this week, her co-workers greet her with a big smile, saying “Happy Memorial Day!”

Smith, who manages the grocery section at this Target, knows they mean well. They’re not just cheering the “start of summer,” or the cheerful crowds with carts jammed with shorts, sunscreen, and tortilla chips. Most are aware that Smith’s son, Tomas Young, died two years ago—and that 10 years earlier, he was shot by a sniper in Fallujah, leaving him a paraplegic and then a quadriplegic.

Most even know that Smith then became an antiwar activist, joining Tomas as he spoke out against the war in Iraq, and she feels even more so since becoming a Gold Star Mother. But that doesn’t mean she opposes observing Memorial Day—rather, the opposite.

I asked Cathy to be part of WVFC‘s Memorial Day this year because I needed to take my lead from families like hers. I’ve written about the holiday’s history as Decoration Day, and contemplated works of art that spur remembrance, but I’ve veered dangerously close to treating it as another Veterans’ Day. Some veterans I know well reminded me last year that this  day, and none other, is best devoted to remembering those who died in America’s wars. And who knows that better than families with a huge hole where their brothers, husband, or children used to be?

So I think about Sue Niederer, whom I met not long after her son died and she’d started Military Families Speak Out. Or Sally Davidson, who, below, is reading names of the dead in Afghanistan.

And I think quite a lot about Carlos and Melida Arredondo, most recently in the news for Carlos’s heroism in helping victims at the Boston Marathon. I don’t remember when I met them, but it wasn’t long after their son Alex was killed by a sniper as the Iraq war began, and Carlos set himself on fire with rage.  Melida’s voice on social media has only grown stronger since. She and Carlos brought pictures of Alex to last week’s Memorial Day observance, when they were among those who planted 37,000 flags on Boston Common to represent all of Massachusetts’s war dead in history.

Tomas Young BTMP COMP Ernie cs4Cathy knows Melida too; they are part of the national network Gold Star Mothers for Peace. “When I think of Melida,” she said, “I think how grateful I am to have had those 10 years with Tomas, even the five that came after a blood clot burst in Tomas’s brain, robbing him of speech.  And she’s glad that a new book came out last month, called Tomas Young’s War, about the 10 years it took Tomas to die. The book includes some of the more humiliating aspects of being wounded in combat—something just as important to Smith as pictures. “This country is big on looking at war as glory,” she told me. “But in saying ‘wounded’ they don’t think about catheters and IV pumps and the ones we lost even though they came home.” She added that she hopes the book will counter the relentless campaigns by military recruiters in high schools: “I don’t think anyone would join the army if they thought, My mom might have to handle my poop for the rest of my life!”

Today, Memorial Day, Cathy will reach out to Melida  and to some 50 others she knows personally whose sons “either didn’t come back from Iraq, or came home irreparably broken.” But mostly, she’ll have a quiet day with her son Nathan, himself a vet of two Iraq tours, and her other children: they’ll hold Tomas’s memory high.

“We’re survivors of all of it,” she said. “We can celebrate.”



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  • celeste zappala May 31, 2016 at 12:58 am

    I honor these Mothers, as we mourn the loss of our children to the sin of war. We will always be their witness, they our cherished ones. Today as the Nation Looks on, and everyday, – in the most mundane of moments and memories- our children.
    Celeste Zappala Mother of Sgt Sherwood Baker, KIA Baghdad, 4/26/04

  • Andrea May 30, 2016 at 1:15 pm

    The strength and courage of these amazing mothers is inspiring. Thank you for this beautiful tribute