A patriotic story, or really any story, is made more impactful when paired with a visually arresting picture. And what could be more arresting than a young woman crying on a flag draped casket on a tarmac?
The story behind the picture is a blank that gets filled in through the tear-blurred eyes of the viewer. It’s assumed the young woman is now a widow, and the casket is the mortal remains of her hero husband. But does it really matter, the details of this particular picture, this story that has played out thousands of times over the past decade and a half of war?
When it is your son, your husband, your family member in that particular casket, it matters. A lot.
Imagine flipping over to Facebook for a little diversion from your work day, only to be hit between the eyes with the brick that is this picture, a snapshot of one of the most horrific moments of your life? The day you are told your soldier is dead is surreal, literally nothing feels real. The day that casket comes home is when reality sits down on your chest with the weight of a thousand elephants. Now, imagine being surprised with this visual reminder of that moment in the middle of an ordinary day.
Now, try to imagine having that intensely heart wrenching moment attributed to someone else’s story.
This picture is Spc. Jason K. Edens’ return home to Tennessee after he died of wounds sustained in Afghanistan. The young woman sobbing on his flag covered casket is his widow, Ashley. He was 22 years old, and the only child of my dear friend Janet Crane.
Burying your child is the hardest thing a parent will ever do, but when it is your only child there are fears almost as horrible as the grief. Once you’re gone, there will be no one left who knows the story of your child, no one who will remember them. Of course that is not true, not in any case, nor in Janet’s. True or not, rational or not, it’s the fear that wakes you in the middle of the night.
Jason was very young, but he was already married for nearly three years. He had step-siblings through his dad. And of course, he had the family he chose for himself, brothers and sisters more deeply connected and felt than anyone who does not share the bond could understand. He will not be forgotten but fear, like grief, is seldom subject to rational thought. When other factors support that fear, it doesn’t feel so irrational anymore.
When one of the most important moments of your only child’s journey home is captured, but attributed to every one and every thing else, is that fear still irrational? Every time this picture is attached to some other story, for Janet it feels like her son’s existence is being erased. The one thing worse than war is being forgotten, so the saying goes. But it feels like Jason is not just being forgotten, he isn’t even being remembered in connection to a picture of the casket in which his body rested, on which his widow wept.
This photo of Spc. Jason Edens’ return home popped up in my Facebook newsfeed this time around in connection with a beautiful and touching story that is just that, a story. It’s purportedly written by an airline pilot who learned the remains of a hero were onboard. While this particular story has many incarnations, and I’m sure many parts are true, none of it is true in connection with this photo.
It’s a modern fable, a story of true events or facts retold in such a way to impart a moral lesson. In our culture, reminding people of the courage and sacrifice of our armed forces is important. But what about the morality of being oblivious to the pain of the real-life people? Being amoral is not as bad as immoral, but when you are on the receiving end of this kind of pain, that difference can’t exactly be felt. Worse, you’re expected to accept it as inevitable, as just another price that must be paid.
Because this photo is a statement, and makes a tear-jerker of a story even more so.
Beyond the danger of turning the death of an American soldier into an urban legend, beyond misappropriating someone’s grief to generate Likes or Clicks, there is real pain caused by the blithe use of a picture of these horrific moments.
There is a picture out there of a firefighter carrying the bloody, broken body of a toddler from the wreckage of the Oklahoma City bombing. The photographer won a Pulitzer. But every time I see that picture, I think of the horror that mother must have felt.
What most people don’t know is, seeing that photo on the front page of the newspaper the morning after the bombing is how that mother found out her child was dead. The other thing most people don’t know is, how much of that first moment of shock that too quickly gives way to unending horror is felt every time she sees that picture. My friend Janet knows more than a little what that is like.
More than a year ago, when we first found out this picture that has been used by so many people, groups, organizations and even a couple otherwise reputable news sites was so deeply personal to our friend, The Onlys took action. This group, The Onlys, are the women whom I call my sisters, the ones who truly understand the unique combination of pride and pain that comes from burying your only child because your baby grew up and decided to be a soldier.
These women are the strongest and most loving, toughest and most gentle, fierce and unconditionally supportive of any I’ve been privileged to know. And they are the last group of women you want to piss off. Did I mention tough? And fierce? And when feeling righteous anger, downright terrifying?
We Onlys vowed to our sister Janet that each time we saw this picture in any setting and not appropriately attributed to our sister’s son, we’d comment, contact whoever posted it and request it either be properly attributed or taken down. Thankfully, most of the time people are decent, act quickly on the request and apologize. Afterall, these are patriotic stories the picture is attached to, forwarded and shared by people who support those who defend us all.
Those of us who have had the most horrific moments of our lives documented for the consumption of strangers understand this is simply the way it is. What for others is private was for us, at least in some respects, public. What none of us realized is in how many ways this public aspect is permanent.
Those moments, those pictures, those videos are out there forever, and can pop up and surprise us at any time. All we ask, for ourselves and in this case, for Janet, is to pause and remember those are real people, that is real pain. Respect that, and if asked to take down or delete, please do so.