The Ongoing Cost Of War
BY KAREN ZACHARIAS
A statue of a magnificent woman
towers over Danang's main thoroughfare in Vietnam. With one
hand she embraces a knapsack of household treasures; the other
palm is outstretched, reaching for something unseen. Anguish
creases her brow. Hero Mother, as she is known, is a national
tribute to the untold number of women who lost their husbands,
their brothers, and their sons to war in Vietnam. No such
tribute exists in this nation for millions of grieving
American mothers, wives, and sisters.
Lorri Spada, 54, is one such woman. She was 18 when she
married Tony Conti. The two Pittsburgh kids had been
classmates since elementary school.
Their first date was in 1966 at a school picnic in an
amusement park. But it was while she was out of town on
another school trip that Lorri learned how much Tony really
cared about her. He sent her a six-page letter, filled with
his innermost longings.
"Up until that point, I didn't realize he liked me so much,"
Lorri said. "It was very flattering. And the guy could really
write. Most of the guys I knew could hardly ask you to dance,
much less write a letter telling a girl how much they liked
That fall, while Lorri was completing her senior year, Tony
attended the local community college. He soon grew bored. So,
after one year of college, Tony dropped out and enlisted in
the Army. At that time, neither he nor Lorri knew anything
Lorri earned a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh and
left for school in September. Tony left for basic training on
his birthday, October 10, 1967. The two didn't see each other
again until Christmas. Then, Lorri learned she was pregnant
and Tony received his orders for Vietnam. The two married on
February 24, 1968, in the Catholic church their families had
attended for years.
"It was a small ceremony but a happy day," Lorri said. "We had
a big love."
the pregnancy, the couple tried to have his orders changed. But
Tony left for Vietnam in May. He had a premonition that he would
not return home alive.
"He said he had a feeling he would die before he turned 21," Lorri
She didn't know how to reassure her husband or how to quiet her
own fears. So she said nothing and hoped for the best.
"I believed he would come home. I thought all along he'd come back
okay," she said.
On July 15, 1968, while serving with the 4th Infantry Division,
Tony Conti drove over a land mine in the Central Highlands. He was
posthumously promoted to corporal.
"Tony was the FNG. He'd only been in
country six weeks," Lorri said.
Lorri was living at home, helping care for her four younger
siblings the day military officials showed up with the news of
Tony's death. He was 19.
On Sept. 30, 1968, Lorri gave birth to a girl.
Losing a husband at such a young age made things especially
difficult. "I wasn't accepted into any social set," Lorri said. "I
wasn't military, but I wasn't civilian either. I didn't fit in
with the college girls. Even though I was their age, I was a
widowed mother. I wasn't one of the single girls. I didn't belong
Additionally, she felt a great deal of rage.
"It was such mix of emotions. I couldn't be an antiwar activist
because I felt that would be a betrayal to Tony and the other
soldiers. I felt embarrassed that I didn't have the courage to
take a stand. I felt so impotent."
But the absolute hardest part of being a widow was raising her
daughter without a father. "Her loss started before she was born,"
Lorri said. "It was difficult raising her all alone. There was
never a time in my life where I felt I could get sick or take too
many risks. I had no one to fall back on to care for her if
something happened to me."
She turned to her parents for help. And Tony's family treated her
as one of their own. That was important, Lorri said, because it
gave her daughter a connection with her father she would otherwise
"There are so many men in Tony's family who look just like him. My
daughter can look at these men and, through them, see a reflection
of her dad."
In 2003, Lorri joined Sons and Daughters in Touch on their journey
to Vietnam to the battlefields where their fathers died. "I was
elated to have something 'material' of him back: dirt on the road,
grass in the clearing, lovely pine trees or their descendants
among which we conducted the memorial ceremony. I imagined we both
looked at the same sky, there above the Central Highlands,
breathed the same air, saw the same villagers," Lorri said.
But, she still couldn't shake a sense of regret. "I was ashamed
that I didn't have a tear for him. I only had forgiveness and a
sense of ease and peace. Forgiveness for leaving me alone and
pregnant 35 years earlier."
That forgiveness, though, has enabled her to build a better
relationship over the past year with Tony's family and with her
own daughter. "I have more freedom to talk about Tony," Lorri
Lorri Spada hopes that one day she'll hear from the other men who
were with Corp. Tony Conti on the day he died on a red dirt road
just outside the town of Plei Bon, including Lt. Jones. Sgt.
Kitrell, SP4 Houghton, and SP6 Moore.
"Welcome home" are the two words Estella Shockley longed to tell
her own husband, but 31 days before his homecoming, Bobby Joe
Shockley, 19, was struck by sniper fire in a village at Binh
Duong. Shockley was serving with C Company, 1st Battalion, 26th
Infantry, the First Infantry Division's "Blue Spaders."
Estella and Bobby Shockley fell in at a dance at the local YMCA in
"I was tall and gangly and never had a boyfriend before, but I
could dance, and so could Bobby Joe," she said. He was 6'2", so we
were a perfect fit. We danced real well together."
The high schools they attended were vocational schools. Estella
trained to be a secretary; Bobby Joe, a welder. In 1964, she found
a job right out of high school with the city of St. Louis, but he
was having trouble. As a black man, he was not welcomed into the
welder's union. Because he couldn't get into the union, Bobby
Shockley was forced to work as a laborer for lower wages. When
Bobby learned that Estella was pregnant with their child, he
joined the Army to provide a more financially secure environment
for their growing family.
Their son, Kelly, was born in March 1965.
"Going into the Army was Bobby's way of taking care of me and
Kelly," Estella explained. Bobby shipped out for Vietnam on
October 25, 1965. He was killed on August 13, 1966. Estella still
weeps when she talks of the day she received the news of her
"I will never forget it. Kelly and I were living in a two-family
flat with Bobby's folks. We'd gone to church that day and then
taken a nap. Kelly had just woken up from his nap. I'd carried a
plate of beets out onto the front porch to feed him. It was a hot
day. I saw Bobby's aunt drive up with a soldier. I couldn't figure
out why Mary Lou would be with a soldier."
When she saw the stricken look on Mary Lou's face, she knew.
"Before that soldier said a word I yelled at him. 'Shut Up! Don't
say anything!' Then I went and woke up my in-laws so we could all
hear the news together. It's amazing how it affects you even all
these years later. That hurt will always be there, no matter what.
So I just cry and go on."
Watching her son grow up fatherless continues to haunt her. Kelly
will soon celebrate his 39th birthday--one more reminder how much
of life Bobby Joe Shockley has missed.
She credits her mother-in-law, whom she still refers to as Mrs.
Shockley, as being a source of great comfort.
"My own mother told me 'Get over it. He's dead.' My friends told
me the same thing," Estella said. "Mrs. Shockley never did."
"I don't know what I would've done all these years without her."
When Kelly turned 12, a school counselor recommended she get help.
"The first therapist I saw told me that Vietnam was ancient
history and I needed to put it behind me. People don't understand
how the loss just goes on and on."
It's only been recently that Estella has found others who
understand her loss.
"Thanks to Patty Lee at Sons and Daughters in Touch, I was finally
able to hook up with one of the men who was there the day Bobby
Joe died. I will be forever grateful to SDIT for that," she said.
That man was Ralph Jones of Idaho. The two still keep in contact.
She also credits the Gold Star Mothers and Gold Star Wives for the
work they do on behalf of those bereaved by the Vietnam War. "When
I first attended a Gold Star Wives event, I was a tall woman with
a big Afro. I didn't fit in, but now we are all just a bunch of
old broads. We are all the same," Estella Shockley said.
Linnie Blankenbecler isn't sure just yet where she fits in. She is
struggling with the death of her husband, Command Sgt. Maj. James
Blankenbecler, who was killed October 1, 2003, when his convoy was
attacked in Samara, Iraq. SMAJ Blankenbecler was assigned to the
4th Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery
at Fort Hood, Texas, in mid-August after graduating in May from
the nine-month Command Sergeants Major Academy at Fort
Bliss. At the time of his death, Blankenbecler, 40, was the
highest ranking enlisted man killed in Iraq. He left behind two
step-children, Amanda and Joseph, and a daughter, Jessie, 14. As a
military wife, Linnie knew her husband would face heavy combat in
Iraq. "But whenever I told Jim how scared I was, he would say,
'Baby, don't be scared, be proud.'
"Before he left, Jim had a really disturbing dream. He said he
couldn't remember it. He only remembered pleading with God not to
take him away from his family," Linnie said.
SMAJ Blankenbecler had told his wife that if anything happened to
him, she and the kids would be well-cared for by the military, but
she is finding a harsh reality.
"Jessie and I will only receive medical and dental care for the
next three years. After that we have to start paying for it.
Jessie will only be 17," she said.
As his widow, she will draw only 55 percent of her husband's
"I don't think that's fair," she said.
"Used to be whenever I saw a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair, I
felt a lot of compassion," Linnie Blankenbecler said. But now I
really understand the sacrifice the soldiers who have served in
other wars made, and the sacrifices their families made. I really
know what it means when veterans say freedom isn't free."
Karen Spears Zacharias is the author of the forthcoming book,
Hero Mama,(Morrow). She can be reached at