My colleagues traveled to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to cover a standard weather story, to do live shots lashed to utility poles as the wind savaged their coiffures. Instead, these reporters witnessed, in real time, a disaster peel back America’s economic and racial divide. I knew this divide existed before Anderson Cooper or Jack Cafferty told me it did, but it was good to hear these folks acknowledge reality.
I watched Hurricane Katrina approach and engulf coastal Louisiana and Mississippi from a hotel room in Los Angeles, courtesy of CNN and the networks. As a reporter, I wanted to be there. I felt I should be there. But I had invested too much to leave before gathering what I needed. I was already knee-deep – and heart-deep – in covering another catastrophe. So I stayed put in LA.
I was waiting for a phone call from a grieving widow. I had met her husband, Edgar Lopez, a 27-year-old Marine, in Iraq during the summer of 2004. I arrived in LA, his hometown, a day after the first anniversary of his death. Rosie, Sgt. Lopez’s widow, had agreed to sit for an interview, but I was having trouble fixing a time with her. I figured Rosie was having second thoughts about talking.
Rosie and I had spoken in person once already, at her in-laws, but the evening was awkward, and our conversation was brief. She seemed reticent, distant, preoccupied. The kids, Ana and Edgar Jr., had that frantic and unstable end-of-the-day energy. They scuttled about the living room, checking me out one moment, huddling with mom the next. Rosie sat on the couch next to a shrine to Edgar that his mother had assembled from flowers, candles, icons, and photos. In between mothering her beautiful and sensitive kids, Rosie talked.
Edgar and Rosie met in a Chicago club in 1998, Rosie told me. He tried way too hard to impress her - and she wasn't at first. But he kept coming. “He was very persistent,” she said with an unabashed smile – her first of the evening. “I think the persistence was what got me. That’s what I tell everybody. If he wouldn’t have been persistent, we would never have been married, never had kids.” Rosie's smile faded.
“I was always telling him he should have changed what he did – he was in infantry. He was always working, always gone, always training. But I supported it because he loved it. He loved his job. He loved his Marines.”
Edgar made it through the 2003 Iraq invasion. During his second deployment to Iraq a year later Rosie and the kids lived with Edgar’s parents . “We were celebrating Ana’s birthday. She was turning four and we were at the lake and everybody was really happy,” Rosie remembered. "I was going online to email him to let him know how her birthday went when the doorbell rings. And then his mom just screamed." The legendary – and terrifying – Marines in dress blues, the Casualty Assistance Call Officers, were at the front door waiting to deliver news of Edgar's death in an insurgent attack.
Rosie told me she's not political. But Edgar's death has pushed her into a tentative and visceral opposition to the war. “I figured we had no reason being there. And you know, the first time he was there, I mean, I thought that would be it. I never imagined that when he went back for a second deployment that he wouldn’t come back.” She started to cry. Ana, moments away from her fifth birthday, brushed away her mother’s tears, her eyes wide and worried.
I found the location of Edgar’s grave in the Los Angeles National Cemetery through the National Gravesite Locator (gravelocator.cem.va.gov/j2ee/servlet/NGL_v1), a website with precise burial information for thousands of vets and relatives interred at Veterans Affairs-run cemeteries. I videotaped his headstone and items left at its base - a family photo, a US Marine flag, a little plastic Raiders helmet. I spent 30 minutes shooting, and then I just sat, fighting disturbing visions of the Marine, the father, the husband beneath me.
A thin older black man in a green uniform rolled up in pickup truck. He could have passed for one of my grizzled Virginia relations. “That’s not right,” he said to me in a measured but clearly disapproving voice.“What you’re doing’s not right. It’s disrespectful.”
What? I asked.
“It’s disrespectful taking pictures,” he replied.
“I knew the man,” I stammered. “I was with him in Iraq. I knew him. I was embedded with his unit in Iraq. I’m not making some Hollywood Schwarzenegger movie. ” I tried to explain. “I’m trying to honor his memory, his sacrifice.”
The man shook his head. “Were you in the service?” I told him no, but my father was in the Army. Once again he shook his head. Score one for his side, I thought after answering.
“You have permission? You need permission.” He pointed toward a building next to the front gate.
“This is a public place,” I responded, incredulously.
I had climbed into a senseless and unwinnable argument. My explanations couldn’t penetrate his conviction that I was a scumbag exploiter. I packed up my gear mutely and drove out and away, down Wilshire Boulevard and into the anonymity of LA traffic.
I was pissed, truly upset, that this man was blind to me and deaf to my explanations. To him, I must have been one of those Hollywood low-budget movie types or a film student treading across graves he carefully tended to shoot b-roll for some indie flick.
One day before I flew back to New York I nailed down another interview with Rosie. She assured me that she hadn’t been ducking me. She was slammed, she said, with her new job, the recent move from her in-law’s into an apartment, Ana's birthday party preparations, and the onset of a new school year.
I sat Rosie down in her in-laws concrete courtyard. The kids seemed more at ease with me, though they hovered. Rosie was more comfortable - preoccupied, but more at ease. I asked her what she would say to President Bush if she had the opportunity to meet him.
“I honestly don’t think I would have anything to say," she told me. “Nothing is going to bring him back, you know?”
More than a year after Sgt. Lopez was killed, Rosie still hasn’t told the kids their father is dead. “I tell them he’s in the sky, he’s an angel,” Rosie said, “and that’s where I left it." But Ana senses that something is wrong. “I guess I want to be able to be strong enough to tell her without me breaking down, which I don’t think is going to happen."
As I write from the comfort of a Greenwich Village coffee shop on a gray October afternoon, Katrina’s aftermath, the horrific earthquake in South Asia, and the Yankee’s loss to the Angels for the American League championship crowd Iraq off the front page. But the war grinds on. Iraq is still a shambles. The Bush administration’s attempts to bang up a democracy like so much aluminum siding aren’t working. And Americans and Iraqis continue to die.
The 155th Brigade Combat Team, the Mississippi National Guard unit that took over from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit in February 2005, has lost 14 men in attacks. (Fifteen Marines from the MEU were “killed in action” during their seven-month tour). Iraqbodycount.net estimates that between 26,457 and 29,795 civilians have been “killed by military intervention in Iraq." And IBC gets specific about what’s happened in north Babil: six people killed by gunfire at an elementary school in Muelha on September 26; six killed on September 25th by a suicide bomber in Musayyib, where I spent three days during the January election; one person killed in a suicide attack in Musayyib two days earlier; three blindfolded bodies found in Iskandariya. (See (www.iraqbodycount.net/database/.) And this is just for the last half two weeks of September, in one corner of the country.