Michigan fathers on a mission
Joe Menard / The Detroit News
WATERFORD TOWNSHIP - It's been more than three years and 100 funerals since John "Skip" Bushart buried his 22-year-old son, one of Michigan's first casualties in the Iraq war.
As the nation prepares to mark the fourth anniversary of the war on Monday, the Waterford Township father is on a mission.
He and friend John Dearing, whose son also died in Iraq, vow to continue attending the funerals of Michigan sons and daughters who die as a result of the war, and to present their families with flags. And they're working to have monuments erected in the hometown of every fallen Michiganian.
"They gave their lives. This is the least we can do," said Dearing of Hazel Park, who goes to the funerals not only to console the parents, but also to tell stories of his own son, 21-year-old Army Pfc. John W. Dearing, who was killed by a roadside bomb in November 2005.
Bushart, executive director of the Michigan chapter of Lest They Be Forgotten, started the local group shortly after his son's death in November 2003 to honor him and all other military men and women from Michigan who died in the war on terror.
As the war has stretched on, lasting longer than the United States' involvement in World War II and costing more than the war in Vietnam when adjusted for inflation, the two men have traversed the state.
From Iron Mountain in the Upper Peninsula to Temperance near the Ohio state line, they've shared hugs, tears and memories with the families of the young people who died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
'Every loss is deeply felt'
Funerals have become nearly a weekly occurrence for the pair. Bushart usually can be found standing in the back of the services with his son's dog tags swinging from his neck, and a photo of his son's smiling face pinned to his chest. Dearing, an unemployed furniture delivery man, wears replicas of his son's dog tags -- the originals never were recovered after the deadly blast.
"They're in heaven together," Dearing, 51, told the mother of a fallen Marine at a funeral in Davison on a cold February afternoon, before the two shared a sorrowful hug.
The men mark the places they've been with pins on a map at Bushart's home.
"Each and every loss is deeply felt," said Bushart, 57, whose son, Army Pfc. Damian S. Bushart, died in Baghdad in a collision between a Humvee and a tank. "There are some that just seem to hit home more than others."
Bushart, a retired Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam and Desert Storm, got the memorial monument idea from a Florida man who wanted to honor his own son who was killed in the war. Although the idea wasn't his, Bushart has pushed it forward, and his dedication has helped give Michigan the sorrowful honor of having the most Iraq war memorials in the country.
Michigan deaths hit 125
The dads have been busy in recent months as the number of Michigan deaths in Iraq has reached 125, the seventh most in the nation, according to the Web site icasualties.org, which tracks U.S. deaths in Iraq. The most recent, Marine Pfc. Bufford "Kenny" Van Slyke, 22, of Bay City died Feb. 28 after being shot during combat in Anbar province.
December 2006 was the state's bloodiest month since the Iraq war began, with 14 Michigan soldiers and Marines killed in combat. To start 2007, Bushart and Dearing attended 11 funerals in 10 days as the remains of December's casualties were returned home. At each, they presented the parents with a special memorial flag.
"To have that many, just one right after the other, it was very, very emotionally draining," Bushart said.
The fathers still flinch at the now-familiar ceremony: tearful families in black huddled around the casket, the bugler playing "Taps," the 21-gun salute.
"I can never get used to the rifles," Dearing said at the February graveside service for Marine Cpl. Mark D. Kidd in Brighton. "It reminds me of John's funeral."
It's the eulogies, with tales of patriotic men with youthful senses of humor that get to Bushart.
"When I hear that, I hear Damian's service over and over again," he said.
Bushart likes to blend into the background at the services, not wanting to draw attention from a hero's funeral.
At the services, his only statement is a final salute, his right hand slowly raising to his brow in a traditional goodbye. It's only after the casket is lowered to the ground that he approaches the families, allowing the tears to subside before sharing a few words, often followed by a long hug, and the presentation of the memorial flag.
Families honored with flag
The emotional encounters vary from funeral to funeral, but all leave an impact. Like the time Bushart presented the flag to a grieving mother who clasped it to her breast, overcome by the gesture of kindness from a stranger.
"They're just so honored by it," Bushart said.
Mike Kilpela of Fowlerville remembers the Sunday in June 2005 when Bushart presented him with the flag honoring his son, 22-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Andrew Kilpela, killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq nine days earlier.
"It was just overwhelming that someone would think that much of our son," said Kilpela, who had watched his daughter marry the day before he buried his middle child. "You kind of felt this connection with someone who had been in this situation and could understand all the emotions you're going through. Here is someone who truly understands that sense of loss."
The gold-trimmed white flag now flies proudly in Kilpela's backyard, a symbol of his son's sacrifice for his country.
"To me, it's just a reminder that America will not forget," said Kilpela.
Money raised for memorials
In addition to the flag, Bushart helped raise nearly $8,000 for a monument erected in Greenwood Cemetery in Fowlerville honoring Kilpela and two other fallen Marines from the town: Lance Cpl. Michael W. Hanks and Maj. Gerald M. Bloomfield III.
The 6-foot monument, whose granite base is engraved with the fallen Michiganians' names and topped with bronze boots, rifle and helmet field cross, was dedicated in May and is one of eight such memorials the group has erected across the state.
"It's an absolutely beautiful tribute to the three Marines from Fowlerville who gave their lives for freedom," Kilpela said. "It was kind of important for us to do something like this to offer to future generations. It touches all of us."
Bushart and Dearing hope to put a monument in the hometowns of each soldier, Marine, sailor or airman killed in battle, and have at least 13 planned for this year, including one in Hazel Park for Dearing's son; Lansing, Dearborn and White Lake; and on county property in Oakland and Macomb counties. The group holds fundraisers to cover the cost of the monuments and dedication ceremonies.
"We do not accept anything from the family," Bushart said. "This is a community project. This is the community honoring their son or daughter's sacrifice."
There are 20 monuments across the country honoring those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Gregg Garvey, who founded Lest They Be Forgotten in 2003 after his son, Army Sgt. Justin W. Garvey, died in Iraq.
He said he admires Bushart's efforts and credits him with making Michigan the state with the most monuments.
"He's doing an outstanding job," said Garvey, of Keystone Heights, Fla. "It's above and beyond."