WASHINGTON – Tracy Miller used to have a nightmare in which she drove up to find a pair of Marines parked outside her Towson home, waiting with the news that her son had died in Iraq.
As it turned out, she was already at home on the November night when the Marines came to say that her 22-year-old son, Nicholas Ziolkowski, had been killed.
“They stayed as long as I wanted them to stay,” she said. But “there was nothing they could do except sit and tell me how sorry they were.”
Still, said Miller, the Marines who came to her house “really were wonderful.”
As Congress and the White House push for a sizeable increase in death benefits for survivors of military personnel killed in war zones, two Maryland mothers said it has been the comfort of soldiers — not the check that the government later sent — that they remember best.
But both appreciated the thought behind the proposed increase.
“There’s never a price you can put on somebody’s head,” said Beverly Fabri, whose son, Bryan Nicholas Spry, died a year ago in Iraq.
But the Chestertown woman said the plan to boost survivors’ benefits is “wonderful.” The increase is one step toward “at least recognizing the deaths of these children which I don’t think they’ve done a real good job of,” she said.
And, she noted, her son did not leave a family behind. Had there been a wife or children, she said, increased benefits would have mattered even more.
According to published reports, the fiscal 2006 budget that President Bush is to release Monday will include an increase in the government’s initial lump-sum payment to military survivors from the current $12,420 to $100,000. That would be followed by a $400,000 life insurance benefit, up from the current benefit of $250,000.
For Fabri, the money came through just days after Marines in the casualty assistance program came to her house to tell her that her son had died.
“It was his first time,” Fabri said of the officer who broke the news.
The officer was “very caring,” but he struggled to find out when her son’s body would be released and whether it would be prepared at Dover Air Force Base or at a funeral home, as Fabri wanted.
Fabri said the formal casualty assistance program is not perfect, a fact echoed in congressional testimony on military benefits last week. But she praised the informal support from her son’s comrades and officers.
She said, for example, that military officials first told her that Spry rolled into a ditch after his Humvee crashed into another. It was not until his superior officer called Fabri the next day that she learned the full story: Her son was driving over a bridge when it collapsed, sending him and three others into chest-high water.
Official channels said Spry died that day. The superior officer told Fabri that Spry actually died the next day, on Valentine’s Day 2004, she said.
From that day to now, Spry’s military friends and leaders have been invaluable, Fabri said, and have supplemented the help her assigned officer gave. Her son’s comrades sent a video of the memorial service they held for Spry, and they kept up with her over the year as the loss of her “fun-loving kid” set in.
It was a loss she thought she was ready for.
“My head knew he wasn’t coming back” after he left for Iraq, Fabri said. She had even planned the songs to play at his funeral before he died.
But “there’s such a big difference between your head and your heart.”
The military paid for most of Spry’s funeral at a high school where, Fabri said, nearly 1,000 people spilled out of the auditorium meant for 800.
Miller, too, has kept in touch with one of the officers who showed up at her door on that day in November and gave her their cell phone numbers before they left for the night — they came back the next day.
One of the officers has since been deployed, but the other fields the questions that Miller faces as time goes by, like how she can go about filing Ziolkowski’s income taxes this spring.
“There was so much that was noble and wonderful about Nick,” Miller said. Increasing the benefits survivors get after losing a loved one is fine, she said, but “it doesn’t bring them back.”
-30- CNS 02-04-05