RIP Benjamin Colgan: Fervent peace activists sort through complex emotions as they mourn a son killed in Iraq

Los Angeles Times
December 26, 2003
By Alex Tizon

KENT, Wash. – Joe Colgan glances at it almost every time he walks into his bedroom: a cardboard box sitting inconspicuously in a corner. It’s a care package he had prepared for his son Ben. Inside are items his son requested: a couple of books, pistachios, canned salmon, beef jerky and a big bag of candy from Costco. Ben liked to pass out candy to children in the street. Joe assembled the package on Nov. 1, not knowing that on the same day, 6,800 miles away in Baghdad, Ben, a second lieutenant in the Army, would be killed by a roadside bomb.

More than a month and a half later, Joe still doesn’t know what to do with the box. “I know I should give it away,” he says, “but I can’t seem to let it go yet.”

The grief is still settling, like a slow sinking to the bottom of the ocean, and somehow, for Joe, the package is something to hold on to. In the midst of their anguish, Joe and Patricia Colgan have clung tightly to one other thing: the idea that their son Ben died a hero. It’s a simple idea born out of complicated emotions. The Colgans are longtime peace activists who have opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning. They marched in antiwar demonstrations before Ben was deployed to Baghdad. Joe and Patricia Colgan still believe the war to be “completely wrong” and “unjust.”

“I know it seems like a contradiction. How can your son be a hero in an unjust war?” Joe says. “It’s the contradiction of a parent. We had a son in the Army, and we supported him no matter what. He did what the commander in chief wanted. He died doing what he believed in; he died doing what he loved. That’s a hero.”

In the next breath, Joe Colgan, 62, holds his head in his hands. “I’m still sorting it out,” he says softly. Patricia Colgan, 60, says she, too, has lingering questions. “After the war started, I prayed every day on my way to work: ‘Sweet Jesus, please protect Ben; please put your arms around Ben; please don’t take him yet,’ ” she says. “That prayer wasn’t answered. I don’t know why.”

Ben Colgan, 30, was slain on the first day of the deadliest month for U.S. forces in Iraq since the war began. November saw 77 U.S. service members killed. A total of 466 soldiers have died in Iraq, 328 of them since the end of major combat on May 1. For families across the nation, as with the Colgans, the war reached home.

It was a wet Sunday morning on Nov. 2 when the metallic gray pickup parked outside the Colgan home in an older, wooded subdivision in this working-class town south of Seattle. Two Army chaplains got out and knocked on the front door. Even before they spoke, Patricia spotted the gold crosses on their lapels and sensed why they were there. She let out a cry. Joe rushed into the living room and saw the uniformed figures in the doorway.

“I don’t want to hear it,” he said to the chaplains. “I don’t want to hear it.” He took a few steps and raised a fist in the air as if to strike a wall, but held back. The chaplains described the little they knew about the circumstances of Ben’s death, and informed the Colgans that the Army had given him a posthumous promotion to first lieutenant. They said his body would be shipped home in about a week.

As the chaplains left, the Colgan home filled with wails. Family members took turns with the telephone to break the news. Within hours, all of Ben’s seven siblings, his eight aunts and uncles and most of his 32 first cousins were at the house, crying and consoling one another. They told each other Ben stories and began immediately to scour the extended network of Colgan households for pictures of Ben. Suddenly, pictures of him became precious.

In the days that followed, grief was overcome by the business of getting Ben home, his body cremated, his life memorialized, his soul ushered into heaven. Four days after Ben’s death, nearly 50 members of the Colgan family flew to Aurora, Mo., where Ben’s wife of six years, Jill, and their two young daughters had been living with her father. Jill, who has turned down all media interviews, gave birth to a third daughter on Dec. 19. She and the kids had moved in with her father shortly after Ben left for Baghdad. Ben’s body was cremated in Aurora. The Colgans returned home in mid-November to prepare Ben’s memorial service to be held at St. Philomena Catholic Church in Des Moines, Wash., a few miles from their home. There were hundreds of people to invite.

“I don’t want the day to just pass,” says Gina Johnson, Ben’s oldest sister. “I want this to be special for Ben.”

The family had two weeks to send invitations and make all the arrangements. Ben’s mother and sisters feverishly set to work, keeping him close to their hearts: Dangling from thin silver chains around each of their necks were tear-shaped lockets containing Ben’s ashes.

*

The Colgans are a picture of stability. Joe and Patricia married in 1966. That year, Joe started working at a local utility company, where he has remained for 37 years. They live in the same house they bought for $13,500 in 1967. And they raised all eight of the children in its confines. The children, now ages 18 to 35, were baptized in the same church, attended the same schools, shared many of the same teachers and, except for Ben, lived in the same area — within a half-hour drive of Joe and Patricia’s house.

It was a raucous Irish American Catholic clan, light on niceties and heavy on bawdy humor. The family was devoted to Christian service and activism. Joe and Patricia protested the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race. As members of the Catholic peace group Pax Christi, the couple demonstrated against the Trident nuclear submarines at nearby Bangor Naval Base, which they considered “immoral.” Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., champions of nonviolent protest, were held up as models. Toy guns were not allowed in the home.

“Benny was right there with us,” says Joe, recalling the protest marches at Bangor. “He was only 12, but he understood.” More than their other children, Joe and Patricia say, Ben seemed to sympathize and accept his parents’ convictions.

At home, Ben was equal parts peacemaker and rabble-rouser. He had bright blue eyes and blond hair that darkened as he got older. He grew to have his father’s physique: short and stocky, with muscular arms and legs. He had a grin that seemed built in to his face. Family members describe him as the sparkplug of the clan, the bighearted jokester everybody loved. The free spirit who took up bull-riding on a whim, took his parents’ car on joy rides and introduced his little brother, Nick, to whiskey. As a senior at Mount Rainier High School, Ben, a 5-foot-7, 165-pound linebacker, helped the football team reach the Class AA state championship. “We saw him as invincible,” says sister Gina.

From out of the blue, it seemed to his family, Ben decided to join the Army right after high school. He respected his parents’ convictions but was also developing his own ideas. He wasn’t sure what to do with his life, and the military gave him a way to explore the world. The decision surprised and distressed his parents. Patricia described the period just after the decision as difficult. Their concern was allayed somewhat when Ben said he wanted to be a medic. His mother told him repeatedly that her constant prayer would be that he never kill another human being.

But Ben’s military career, which lasted more than 11 years, took unexpected turns. He joined Special Forces and for a while was part of the Army’s most elite and secretive combat group, the Delta Force. He learned to be a sniper and a paratrooper. He could shoot pistols with deadly accuracy using either hand.

“He was a highly trained killer,” says Joe, with astonishment rather than judgment.

“Don’t say ‘killer,’ ” Gina interjects. “Just say ‘highly trained.’ ”

It wasn’t until later in his career that he decided to become an officer. Ben’s unit —Headquarters Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Armored Division — was assigned to Iraq just days after the first American bombs were dropped on Baghdad. Before the unit left, Joe and Patricia visited Ben and Jill at a U.S. base in Giessen, Germany. The parents argued with Jill over the war, with Ben trying to play mediator. Emotions heated up to the point that, after Joe and Patricia went to bed, Ben and Jill stayed awake all night.

“Ben felt strongly Saddam had to go,” Joe recalled. “He knew where we stood, and he knew we supported him even if we didn’t support the war.”

The visit at Giessen in late March was the last time they saw him. From then on, Ben communicated through e-mail. He wrote family members that he was in Baghdad, working out of a palace formerly owned by one of Saddam Hussein’s sons. For the first few months, his e-mails were optimistic, talking about electricity restored and schools reopened. But the tone changed toward the end. He told of seeing a vehicle in front of him in a convoy explode. In an e-mail sent in late October, he wrote his parents that it “was getting old and it was getting crazy.” Early morning on Nov. 1, Ben Colgan wrote his last e-mail to his father.

“We treat the people very well,” he wrote. “They are just getting sick of seeing our faces and we’re sick of seeing theirs…. I see the news also. Many of the good things are not being reported (as well as many of the attacks we receive daily). Only time will tell and I hope it works out for this place. I just don’t care to ever visit again. I’ll talk to you soon. Love you, Ben.”

Hours after writing the e-mail, he was dead. The most complete account of what happened came in a roundabout way, through a eulogy. Lt. Col. William S. Rabena, Ben’s commanding officer, spoke at a memorial in Baghdad four days after Ben died, and copies of the eulogy were sent to the family.

According to Rabena, Ben’s platoon patrolled one of the most dangerous sections of the city. On his last day, Ben was in charge of a quick-reaction force, a unit on call to respond to immediate dangers. A call came in: U.S. soldiers were in pursuit of a man who had fired a rocket-propelled grenade. Ben took off with three other soldiers in a Humvee to cut off the suspect. He was in the passenger seat. On a well-traveled section of road, just as the Humvee made a turn, it hit what the military calls an “improvised explosive device,” in this case something resembling a land mine. Ben was struck with shrapnel, and much of the right side of his head was injured. He was conscious at first, able to answer questions about who and where he was. Four hours later, he died. One other soldier in the Humvee suffered a concussion.

“Nobody, but nobody, was more dedicated to the mission,” Rabena said in his eulogy. He described Ben as “absolutely fearless” and “the greatest guy around — the kind of guy you want living next door to you and your family.”

*

On the day the Colgans learned of Ben’s death, a family member lit a candle and placed it beneath “Ben’s tree,” a Japanese maple in the front yard. Joe and Patricia had planted a tree for every one of their children. Around the tree’s trunk was a yellow ribbon, which Patricia had tied shortly after Ben left for Iraq. Just below that hung a black ribbon, which she tied the day the chaplains came to the house. Below the ribbons, the candle flickered in a brass-colored lantern. Joe was vigilant about tending it.

There was talk that the candle would remain lit until the memorial service, which took place on the cloudy afternoon of Nov. 29. In all, Ben had three memorial services: one in Baghdad for his fellow soldiers, one in Aurora for Jill’s family, and one here, in the town that was home for most of his life.

The vast extended family poured into St. Philomena’s, as did old childhood friends. Some 650 people filled the pews and packed the aisles. Metal chairs from the closet were brought out to accommodate the overflow. The service opened with a rendition of “Amazing Grace” played on bagpipes, followed by a reading by one of Ben’s aunts of Ecclesiastes 3:1-9. It began: “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die.” Quiet sobs could be heard throughout the sanctuary. Afterward, the crowd jammed into a nearby high school to eat, drink and celebrate the memory of Ben — Irish-Catholic style. A slide show of Ben’s life was followed by a dance. Young children danced with elders, girls with girls, first cousins with second cousins.

At the end of the long day, in pitch darkness, Joe and Patricia, weary from the hectic pace of the last month, went home to the orange-yellow glow flickering in their front yard. The private part of grieving was upon them. Joe decided not to blow out the candle. He’d decided to build a small memorial for Ben in the backyard. He didn’t have the details worked out, but he knew in the center of it would be the candle lantern.

“I think I’m going to keep it burning,” he said. “I’m just going to keep it burning for as long as we need to.”

Joe said he has two other projects in mind for the start of the new year. First, he’s going to lobby the Army to give Ben a Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest honor. Second, he says he is going to campaign for an antiwar presidential candidate. Inside the house, in his bedroom, there was still the matter of the care package. Every so often, Joe told himself that someone else could benefit from the contents. But the thought never went very far. Every time, and without fully understanding why, something in his gut told him that he needed to hang on to it for just a little while longer.

“It was for Benny,” he says for explanation. “It was for my son.”