Willard, Ohio sits just west of the southern Cleveland suburbs. It is an area that reminds me of much of the country I have seen for the past 2 months except for the presence of more trees. The roads are quiet and traffic is sparse. The sound of cicadas that has accompanied me for so long, is fading as fall and the cooling temperatures quiet their melodious songs. We drive in silence to a 15 acre farm on the outskirts of town. Silence is good sometimes, even with a host. Her name is Kathe and there are things she wants to tell me and in time she will. At the farm are her horses and an array of goats and cats, rabbits and turkeys, roaming chickens and cows and best of all, two Shrek-like donkeys. She feeds the horses and walks them a bit and I soak in this quiet country night. Unable to reach Joe-the-hay-guy for some much need bales, we walk to the field and rake what little hay there is and feed the rest of the animals. Kathe is a native of Willard. Born and raised here, she would in turn, raise her three children here. As a single mom I can imagine it was difficult at times and yet a blessing and rewarding in many other ways for her. After dinner we head for her home and in her living room make small talk and she asks if I would like to meet her son Keifer. Rising from her chair she leads me to a hutch and Keifer is there, his ashes, in a beautiful mahogany box. Pictures come out. He was a beautiful little baby with blue eyes and blonde hair. There are photos of him from almost every age through school. Soccer photos and wrestling photos and always a smile. She is a very proud mother and yet I see the sadness and there is more for her to tell. “Do you know how he died?” I am puzzled. “No, I don’t.”
Keifer Wilhelm enlisted in the Army in December of 2008. He graduated from Basic Training in Fort Benning and in May 2009 received news he would be deployed to Iraq. Kathe speaks fondly of her son. She tells me how he was saving his money to buy a new car when he returned. She tells me of his battle with weight in high school and how he had shed the pounds needed on his own so he could enlist. In Basic he toned up and carried himself taller and with more confidence when he came home on leave. She had the month of July with her son and then within 4 days of arriving in Iraq, he was gone. In a bathroom stall he would end his life with a gunshot. In those few short days he was driven to despair and depression, the result of extreme hazing by 4 higher ranking soldiers. Tragic and sad. I sit there and listen to her story, I see the tears in her eyes. A soldier should never die that way, not having their dignity reduced to a level that would lead to suicide. Most importantly, not by those who would lead you and watch your back in the heat of battle. I read the reports. Stacks of court papers and statements by fellow soldiers reveal extreme physical punishment and mental abuse. “Why should it get any easier for you?” His bunk mate would say to him. The four would be brought up on charges of maltreatment and from what I am told, only a sentence of six months is given out to one. They will go home and carry on with their lives and be treated as heroes but there is darkness on the badges of honor that they carry. Kathe sits there and is quiet now. She wrings her hands over and over, rocks gently back and forth. She will not see her son marry or giver her grandchildren or see him on fall evenings at the farm like the night we shared. There are only blank pages now and she only has her memories to soothe her anguish. Maybe Keifer will return, maybe he already has. I believe that this wonderful, thoughtful, young man is around his mother each day and although he was never given the chance to protect his country, he will protect her. It is as it should be and it is an awareness of these things that I experience on the road………..