A club they'd love to leave
By BRADY DENNIS
Published November 19, 2006
TAMPA - Dick Linn sits inside Room 109 at the La Quinta Inn, lost in the glow of his laptop.
He's 53, a traveling software salesman far from his Virginia home. He's also the father of Marine Lance Cpl. Karl Linn, 20, who was killed during an ambush near Haditha, Iraq, in January 2005.
Each month, the war creates new Dick Linns across the country. Despite the presence of support groups and counseling, many of them still grieve alone.
But Linn and others like him have discovered a safe haven in a quiet corner of the Internet. The popular Web site, www.marineparents.com, contains a private, password-protected forum for Gold Star families - those who have lost a Marine at war - where they can share openly with others who have suffered a similar fate.
Linn has posted on the Gold Star message boards thousands of times since his son's death.
He visits the site several times a day, and says he's comforted that even in a hotel room 800 miles from home, friends are only a click away, ready to share his sorrows and lift his spirits.
"We cry, rant, doubt, even tell jokes and tease each other. We compare notes about the stages of grief and the bad times that seem to come and go," Linn said.
"Sometimes we tell stories about our sons. Sometimes we just want to be around people who understand. There's an air of respect and kindness that is only borne of such a loss."
A place of their own
The www.marineparents.com Web site gets about 12-million hits each week. A military mother from Missouri, Tracy Della Vecchia, started the site in 2003 as a resource for parents on all aspects of Marine life.
There are sections on recruiting, boot camp and Marine slang, information about deployments and homecomings. There are message boards on hundreds of topics, from protective gear to post-traumatic stress disorder. Members have organized care packages for those serving overseas and have sent cards and letters to injured troops.
As the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan grew, Della Vecchia said she saw the need to add another element to the site. She realized families who had lost a loved one deserved their own private space. The Gold Star forum was born.
"I realized there was a need for them to talk with other people that got it," she said. "Nobody else understands."
These days, more than 150 family members have passwords to the Gold Star section. Most of them were using the regular Web site before they heard the dreaded knock at their door.
Just days ago, Della Vecchia added another new member.
"We add them all the time," she said. "I wish I didn't."
Leaning on each other
Each day, when John Dyer signs on from Cincinnati, a familiar group of names fills his computer screen. DevilDawgDad from Oregon. AmyH from Ohio. Nick_sDad from Montana. Rochelle from Seattle.
He may not know their full names. He may never have heard their voices. But he knows their stories and their sons and their struggles. And they know his.
"Everybody's in the same boat," said Dyer, whose 19-year-old son, Lance Cpl. Christopher Dyer, was killed in August 2005 near Haditha. "It's group therapy, at a distance. We lean on each other and somehow keep standing up."
They talk about the most sensitive of subjects. Should I view the autopsy? What should I do with his room? How do I make funeral arrangements?
"Where else can you go to ask someone that?" Dyer said.
They tell each other about their nightmares. They share the strange moments that trigger memories - a smell in the kitchen, an aisle in Target, the sight of beef jerky. They share pictures of their Marine, tell stories about his teenage antics.
But it isn't all grimness and grieving. Family members trade advice on computer problems and car trouble. They share prayers and poems.
They recommend TV shows and talk politics. They write about their good moments, like the birth of a grandchild. They tell jokes: "A Marine walks into a bar..."
"People in your everyday life, they've moved on," said Gayle Naschansky, 48, from Byron, Ill., who signs on daily. Her son, Lance Cpl. Andy Patten, 19, was killed by a roadside bomb in December near Fallujah.
"Even though your family is supportive and your friends are supportive, it's just not the same. This would have been such a long, lonely journey if I hadn't had these people."
On tough nights, Mark Dewey sometimes posts at 3 a.m., from his home near Phoenix. He knows that by dawn, others will have replied, comforting him, encouraging him to stay strong.
"It's there 24-7," said Dewey, father of Lance Cpl. Brandon Dewey, 20, killed in January by a suicide bomber in Haqlaniyah.
"When everything else falls apart, you got somebody there."
One day at a time
The message board regulars have put together a guide for new Gold Star parents. It includes advice on every aspect of losing a child at war, from what to expect during the trying first days to suggestions on life insurance and loneliness. Most members also post their phone numbers, in case someone needs to hear a friendly voice.
Back in his Tampa hotel room, Dick Linn lights another Vantage cigarette. He takes a sip from his Budweiser. He checks the message board to see if any new Gold Star parents have introduced themselves on this night.
No one has. He's thankful.
But if and when they do, Linn knows, a few of the regulars will be signed on. And they will welcome the newcomers, same as they did with him, into the club no one wants to join.
Brady Dennis can be reached at email@example.com or 813 226-3386.