A rainstorm is blowing in by the time Summer Lipford, deep in conversation, notices the setting sun and apologizes. "It's time for my nightly ritual," says the Statesville woman as she rises from her couch, cigarette in hand.
Moments later, we hop into her Volkswagen Beetle and head to Oakwood Cemetery, just a little more than one mile away. Darkness has almost set in as the car nears one of many rows of headstones. Plodding across the moist grass, she approaches her son's grave. She whispers softly to the young, fresh-faced man in the picture set within the granite.
Then, just as she and her family have done each night since her son Steven was buried, she lights a candle. More murmurs pass her lips, she wipes her face, and heads back to her car to return to an empty house.
Nineteen months have passed since Pfc. Steven Frederick Sirko was found lying facedown by his bed at Camp Normandy in Muqdadiyah, Iraq, after failing to report for duty one morning. No sign of trauma marked the 20-year-old man's body. The Department of Defense press release would say he had died of "non-combat related injuries."
In that time, Army officials would acknowledge that several soldiers' deaths -- most famously NFL standout Pat Tillman -- had been misreported, and they would reopen investigations of other casualties. Support for the war would erode. Democrats would take control of Congress for the first time in 12 years.
Out of public view, the lives of soldiers' families would change immeasurably. Many could take solace that their loved ones died for a cause they supported. But many other Gold Star relatives, like Summer Lipford, would struggle to make sense of the death of sons, daughters, husbands and wives. Lipford's days and nights would be consumed by grief.
Her life would become a swirl of e-mails, phone calls and urgent pleas as she turned into an anti-war activist. Trying to exorcise her pain by sharing it with anyone willing to listen, she'd hope somehow to find answers to her son's death. And, she hoped, fewer mothers would learn their children had died in the Iraqi desert.
Nineteen months later, the U.S. casualty count in Iraq has topped 2,800, and answers to her son's death continue to elude Lipford. Today she still wonders, "Why was my perfectly healthy 20-year-old son found dead in his barracks at 8 a.m.? What -- or who -- is responsible?"
Steven Sirko had served in Iraq for only three months. A medic assigned to the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Benning, Ga., Steven worked 12- to 16-hour shifts at an emergency aid station, helping stabilize injured Americans and Iraqis until they could get to a hospital. Other times, he was assigned to an infantry unit as a medic.
Though Lipford says that he had been scared to go to Iraq, he told her and other family members that he was making a difference by saving lives. "He loved being a medic," says his sister, 23-year-old Laura Sirko of Statesville.
Lipford says she never had questions about his mental state, though Steven had mentioned the last time they spoke that other soldiers were having emotional problems and didn't feel they could get help. He brushed off Lipford's urging that he flee to Canada when he returned to the U.S. on leave.
"Steven was actually able to feel like he was able to make a difference," she says. "He took very seriously what he did."
The experience was far from the life he had known in the States, where Steven, the youngest of four siblings, was known as a jokester with "bags of personality," his mother says. A high school football player and wrestler, he had lived in Statesville with his mother and in Portage, Ind., with father Fred Sirko. Steven was exceptionally close to his mom and delighted in his niece and nephew. "Everyone would say that they were the closest [to Steven]," says Laura Sirko.
As high school graduation neared, Steven wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life. He began talking about joining the military in 2001, and Lipford and her husband -- Steven's stepfather -- initially embraced the idea. The couple believed the teenager could benefit from the structure and direction the military has offered many a teenager before. "I felt that Steven going to college right out of high school was not a good idea because he was so young and immature," she says. "The Army was a good life."
But it soon became clear that the kind of Army living in store for Steven was not the variety the Lipfords had in mind. Tensions were building between Iraq and the U.S. after 9/11, though the Lipfords wondered why. What, they thought, did the Iraqi dictator have to do with al Qaeda or the Saudi terrorists who flew planes into buildings? "I'll bet we go to war," her husband said. "You just wait and see."