JACKSONVILLE — Patty Desens wanted to shake the men in uniform standing in her living room. She wanted to tell them no, you're wrong. Instead, she pushed past them and out onto the back deck, where she clutched the railing and screamed her son's name, over and over.
The casket, like so many others, traveled from Iraq to an airport in Dover, Del. From there it was sent to a military cemetery in North Carolina that holds generations of Marines from nearby Camp Lejeune.
Soldiers folded the American flag and handed it to Desens. It was July 1, 2004, and they buried her son in the rain, under a row of Carolina pines.
Two months later, his platoon sergeant steered his car toward a suburban Jacksonville neighborhood of concrete driveways and clipped green lawns.
Sgt. 1st Class Chad Stephens didn't know his young gunner's mother slept next to her child's photograph, or that in the funeral home, she had asked for a shot of Absolut and insisted on wiping off the makeup that obscured her son's battle bruises.
He knew only that, on a temporary home leave, he felt duty-bound to make this drive. No one told him to visit the family.
But he had promised to bring everyone home.
Stephens stepped out of his car and into the yard. A woman walked over.
Who are you? she demanded.
I'm Sergeant Stephens.
She eyed him. Good, she said. I've got some questions for you.
She walked the platoon sergeant into the garage, around the pool table where Spc. Daniel A. Desens Jr. used to hang out with his Army buddies. The whole family was there: dad, older sister, a niece born a few weeks after Danny's death. He would have been an uncle.
They sat Stephens in the circle, in a plastic chair. Someone laid baby Kalie in Stephens' arms.
Patty Desens asked her questions.
What did he look like?
Stephens didn't want to do this. It had been he, not she, who had leaned into the turret amid the explosions in Baqubah, Iraq, had reached down to grasp his young gunner, realizing as he lifted that part of the soldier's body would be left behind.
"Ma'am," Stephens said, "you don't want to know."
She hadn't been in combat, and for hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops who have fought in Iraq, it is nearly impossible to explain its truth, even to someone who has felt the impact of war so personally.
Don't you lie to me, Patty said. I felt his body.
Stephens was quiet several moments. Then he told her. He told her everything.
"Ma'am, he had this part gone." Stephens touched the front of his left thigh and pelvis.
"And he had this hole." Stephens touched his stomach.
"And this hole." Stephens touched his chest.
And when she asked how Danny might look had he lived, whether he would have ever been normal again, Stephens told her what he thought might be the most difficult thing a leader could say to a grieving mother.
"Ma'am," he said, "I don't know how to tell you this, but your son is in a better place."
These weren't the last of her questions. In the years that followed, she would come back to him again and again with phone calls and visits and e-mail. Each time, he thought of how, during training before the deployment and in the desert, he had told Desens and everyone else: If you get into trouble, I will come get you.
But after that first visit in Jacksonville, Stephens flew back to Iraq and the war zone, and Patty Desens returned to her grief.
A born sergeant
Looking at Stephens, it's hard to tell where the Army ends and the man begins.
He loves being in the National Guard, feels that he was born for the Army. He loves the structure, the camaraderie, the feeling of competence that comes with getting things done.
He joined the National Guard at 17. He went active duty, qualified as Airborne and was about to attend the Army's elite Ranger school when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. He served eight months in Desert Storm.
Shortly after he returned, his mother died. Then he got pushed out when the Army cut its budget.
Stephens hadn't finished with the military, though. He joined the National Guard again and became a full-time readiness noncommissioned officer, wearing his uniform every day, pushing paper at the armory in between training.
In 2003, he got his own platoon in Jacksonville, about two hours from his home in Ahoskie. A lieutenant, Matthew Vross, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, was the top commissioned officer. But Stephens was the sarge. He was one of the men, enlisted. They related to him.
He laughed at the antics of the young kids in the platoon, guys who had grown up and joined the armed forces together, tossing back beer at every opportunity.
Desens and his best friend got drunk at night and busted into Stephens' room singing. They dangled chemlights from their shorts and danced in the dark.
"They were crazy," Stephens recalled, shaking his head.
On patrol in Iraq, one of his soldiers would duck into a building and lose communication. Stephens would sit inside his Bradley, waiting, hoping to God this kid was making good decisions in there. Sometimes, losing patience, Stephens would grab his medic, hop out and go hunting for the soldier.
The platoon returned from Iraq in early 2005.
A mother's grief
Every few days, his phone rang.
A doctor had told Patty Desens she was an alcoholic, but she had said no, that she had promised Danny that after his death she would drink every day for him. She sat in her son's bedroom, on a quilt stitched from his T-shirts, surrounded by photographs and medals.
She picked up the phone and dialed Stephens' number. The call unleashed, again, every memory burned into Stephens' mind of the soldier he couldn't save.
What did my son look like? she asked. What were his last words?
She would find out whether her son had called out for his mother, whether he had asked about his fiancee or screamed in pain. If she hadn't been there to gather him up and tend his wounds herself, at least she, too, would burn a memory into her mind, make it her own.
"I keep asking questions," she said. "I hope I'll hear something different, but it's the same thing."
Stephens answered every question, every time.
"I just feel like it's something I've got to do," he said. "It's like I owe 'em. I was their son's platoon sergeant. He relied on me more than anyone."
She cried. He listened without judging.
Inside, he was beginning to crack.
Sometimes she sat and stared at a print on her son's wall. Created by a military artist, it showed the firefight, bullets whizzing through the air. There was Stephens, sprawled across the Bradley, peering in at an unseen soldier. There were two more men, wounded on the ground.
She stared at the picture, trying to place herself next to her dying child on the other side of the world. Then she would pick up the phone.
Is that my son on the ground?
No. Your son's inside.
"She asks about it all the time," Stephens said. "All the time."
The artist showed the painting at a Triangle art gallery last year. Stephens went to the event after the National Guard asked him to. He signed prints for buyers and told the story of the battle over and over again.
He was a hero.
He was tired of talking about it.
The wounds not seen
The nation promises to take care of its fighters, to send them into war properly trained and equipped, to care for their wounds when they return. More than 13,000 have suffered serious physical wounds in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They have been strafed with shrapnel and lost limbs and been pieced together through operations and new parts by doctors who have become expert in the ways that the human body can be broken and then repaired.
But sometimes the wounds are not so easily seen. In urban warfare, the enemy blends with innocent families. Returning warriors bear memories of their buddies' blasted bodies, of children's limbs scattered in the dirt, of the knowledge that at any moment, an insurgent sniper could cut them down.
Some studies predict nearly one-fifth of the troops will, like Stephens, come home skittish, haunted by nightmares and unable to concentrate. It leaves the military struggling with the pragmatic questions of sending fighters into war: How do you treat horror? How can you patch guilt?
One afternoon last winter, Stephens sat in the armory in Williamston -- where he works now -- drinking a Bud Light. It was just before the New Year; the place was empty. He talked to a reporter about Iraq and the phone calls from Patty.
He talked about the secret he kept stowed in a cabinet. There, on a handful of digital videotapes, were some of the last images recorded of Danny Desens.
Stephens turned one on.
There was the young gunner squinting in the desert sun, loading ammo, muttering how he would break his back doing this crap.
And there was Desens again with his goofy grin. Stephens' laughing voice came from behind the camera: "You're gonna be famous some day," he told the young gunner.
There was a pause. Stephens' voice added: "One way or another."
In the armory, Stephens was quiet.
Then: "His mom ain't seen these videos yet."
Plenty of guilt
A few days later, Patty Desens sat in her son's room, surrounded by his medals and snapshots of his grin.
"I know I ask Sergeant Stephens every time I see him, 'Will you tell me the story?' " Patty said. "One day my husband said, 'Don't ask him anymore. You know the story.' "
She keeps asking, in part because she carries her own story.
When Danny was born, she felt his 9-pound body from the top of his head all the way to his toes. She had to make sure he was all there.
Years later, standing at his open casket, she had to feel him again.
She pulled off his hat. She smoothed the dark hair. It felt dirty. She touched his ear. His nose looked broken.
He looked whole, laid out in his dress uniform.
She pressed her hands against the cloth. She felt the hole in his chest. She felt the hole in his gut. She felt the stuffing that shaped his pelvis and his left leg.
Sometimes, the unseen wounds of war are literal, yawning craters disguised beneath pressed Army cloth.
Sometimes, the wounds of war can't be felt.
To look at Chad Stephens, even his men wouldn't know his pain. Like the holes that riddled the body of his young gunner, Stephens' injuries lay hidden beneath an Army-issue exterior.
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