The first thing Greg Belanger did that Tuesday morning was call his mother.
As Kathy Belanger cradled the phone, she wondered what her son could possibly need her to see on the television so urgently. It was an unseasonably warm September day in Deerfield, and she’d spent it gardening, far from the hum of the news. The display flickered to life just in time for her to see the second plane hit the World Trade Center.
Greg, who had joined the Army reserves in 1999 for tuition aid to Johnson & Wales University, remained silent on the other end of the landline.
“You’re going to be activated,” his mom said slowly. Greg did not respond.
Two years later, a casket would arrive on the tarmac of Bradley International Airport carrying the body of this 24-year-old chef who’d been deployed to Iraq just six months earlier. He was the 374th American killed in the sprawling wars launched after 9/11. His is a story about what happened after the towers fell, when history and happenstance collided to shatter lives, and how a forever war never truly ends for those who make it back alive.
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When a military recruiter arrived at the Belanger door one afternoon in 1999, no one could have known a 20-year war lurked on the horizon. At that point, Greg Belanger had a megawatt smile, long eyelashes, and a twinkle in his eye that made him a rotten liar. He could be spotted water-skiing on dry land behind a four-wheeler, or smacking golf balls into the flat farmland along the Deerfield River. He would often park his car at home by gathering speed on sleepy Wapping Road, yanking the emergency hand brake, drifting along Kathy’s beloved yard, and then — finally — coming to a stop in the driveway. But an afterschool dishwashing gig at Turnbull’s Restaurant lit a fire inside him. He knew he wanted to become a chef. And that recruiter on the porch offered a way to help pay for that dream.
“Like a lot of those kids back then, he had his hopes and plans,” recalled George Hendrickson, a sergeant in Belanger’s battalion. “He went through the motions to get college money in order to be able to go to school, to become that culinary artist, and to do what his dreams were.”
Belanger — who served as a cook for the unit — was part of the 325th Military Intelligence Battalion, out of Windsor Locks, Conn., which was activated almost immediately after President George W. Bush declared war on Sept. 12, 2001. The battalion narrowly missed deployment to Afghanistan, but was among the first to head to Iraq for a 10-month tour at Camp Anaconda along the Tigris River in Balad.
“They were ready to go kill. And I would say, ‘No, you should be ready to go cook,’ ” Hendrickson said. “‘If everybody does their job to the best of their ability, then we should be able to go there and come home with no casualties.’”
But the situation on the ground told a different story. The insurgents relied on grisly guerrilla tactics. Everywhere and everyone was a threat. A loose paper bag, a man in soccer slide sandals, or an 8-year-old child on the side of the road could spell danger.
Back in Massachusetts, far from highways checkered with hidden roadside bombs, Kathy clung to the solace that her son’s job was in the kitchen, rather than the front lines.
When Hendrickson learned that a Military Police Corps security team was searching for volunteers to help with patrol and escorts, he forbade anyone on his team from raising their hand. But Belanger had other plans.
“He volunteered behind my back. When I found out I was pissed. But he was my guy, so then I made it my mission to get him an up-armored Humvee,” said Hendrickson.
The security team — like most units in the early days of the war — drove “soft-skinned” Humvees with soft tops and plastic doors. Fast and reliable, the vehicles were also exceptionally vulnerable to the roadside bombs and convoy ambushes typical of guerrilla warfare.
Every afternoon around 3 p.m., Hendrickson would stare at Camp Anaconda’s front gates. As soon as Belanger rolled in safely, he would beeline to the end-of-day battle briefing to request armored vehicles for Belanger’s new team.
His superiors wouldn’t budge.
One day in late August, as Hendrickson waited at his afternoon perch, a panic set in. Soldiers were running. Someone had been killed during a transport mission. His major appeared within the frenzy.
“We’re going to stop work today,” he told Hendrickson. “We lost a soldier.”
“It was Belanger,” he added.
Hendrickson let it rip: “I told you all that if you kept letting them go out the gate in that car then one of them is going to come back dead. And now we killed the cook, who should have never been off this base. I hate every single one of you for this.”
The last words Hendrickson would ever say to his commander were: “That was all your f****** fault.”
On the other side of the world, at a nursing home in Greenfield, Kathy’s manager asked if she’d accompany her to the lobby. During the elevator ride, Kathy joked that she was getting a pink slip. Instead, a military officer was waiting for her. It wasn’t until he called her Kathleen — her full name and a surefire sign ever since she was little that trouble awaited on the other side of the sentence — that reality set in.
“He started his spiel about how the president wants to extend sympathies or whatever,” she recalled. “I’m hearing words. I’m seeing his lips. But the room is closing in.”
“Your son has been killed,” he finally said. Kathy let out a scream that she doesn’t remember.
Her son’s autopsy revealed body-wide trauma — a severed arm, a nicked brain stem, facial injuries — but it was the shrapnel embedded in his stomach that incenses Hendrickson still. Had the door been armored, he believes, Belanger wouldn’t have sustained those core injuries and could have piloted the Humvee to safety.
Another Massachusetts boy was dispatched to crashes like this. His name was Matt Silvia, a 24-year-old from Fall River, who enlisted in the military after losing his gig at Home Depot in the summer of 2001. Within days of collecting his sign-on bonus, the towers crumbled in Manhattan. On his birthday, no less. From then on, he wished he could change the day he was born.
He arrived in Iraq as a communications specialist with the 325th Military Intelligence Battalion, but his role quickly took a grim turn to recovery of the dead. When Greg Belanger died, he was the one to pack up his platoon mate’s belongings. Among them, a Gerber multitool with Belanger’s dried blood in the creases, a camouflage Crest toothbrush given as a joke by Kathy the day he deployed, and photos of his fiancee and family.
Once finished, Matt called Kathy by satellite phone. He explained how he and Greg had spent long summer evenings beneath the starry Balad sky, smoking and contemplating the world’s problems, 5,800 miles from their New England homes. Greg’s death marked the worst day of his life, he said.
A week and a half later, Kathy suffered a heart attack. She landed at Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River. One day, she asked her nursing assistant if she had any children. The woman drifted off when she got to her eldest son.
Kathy recognized the look. “Oh my God, he is over there, isn’t he?” she said.
Not only was her son serving in Iraq, he was part of the unit out of Windsor Locks. His name? Matt Silvia.
The 325th Military Intelligence Battalion’s tour ended that following spring. Matt was quiet on the way home from the airport. He desperately wanted to sleep. So many mothers, like Kathy, would never see their child alive again. And yet, for his mother, JoAnn Silvia, “there was still this overwhelming sense of loss.”
How could he be whole again? He’d spent 10 months recovering the singed limbs of soldiers hit by roadside bombs. Now, he cruised the smooth boulevards of Fall River, adhering to stop lights and speed limits. Before he deployed, Matt had a silliness about him, sneaking off while shopping and reappearing in the next aisle with a wastebasket on his head. Now, he stood on street corners in his hometown and scanned rooftops for snipers. Crowds and fireworks were off-limits. He ended a marriage that had only just begun in September 2001. He drank a lot and talked little. Only rarely did he offer glimpses into his trauma.
He found reprieve in his fellow veterans and sought solace in service, joining the Fall River Police Department for 11 years. But he couldn’t shake what he’d seen. Matt died by suicide on Sept. 2, 2017, nine days before the birth date he never stopped wishing he could change.
“After the crushing feeling of loss and regret, there was a feeling of relief,” said JoAnn, describing his mental illness as one might a terminal cancer. “He doesn’t have to fight that battle against his own mind anymore.”
Some 7,070 service members died in the military campaigns launched after 9/11. It is estimated that more than four times as many, or 30,177, have died by suicide while serving or after returning home.
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Most of America stopped contemplating long ago the war it rallied behind after the towers fell. In 2009, then-defense secretary Robert Gates said, “Whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the wars remain an abstraction, a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally.” Twelve years later, abstraction might be too generous a word.
But for those with worn uniforms tucked away in trunks, war never recedes. For them, the term “forever war” is not a euphemism to be thrown around in think-piece headlines or presidential remarks, but a haunting reality.
Greg Belanger will forever be stuck at five days past 24, his grave shadowed by a Deerfield evergreen he used to climb as a kid and littered with beer cans from the peers — now nearly twice his age — who still mourn for him.
JoAnn Silvia safeguards a printed copy of the last texts Matt sent before his suicide, a small sampling of words from the son she wished would have told her more.
George Hendrickson treats his job in inventory at the VA hospital in Northampton with military precision, determined to supply his veterans with anything they could possibly need, all because he couldn’t give Greg that up-armored Humvee.
Matt Silvia, a man forever at war, lies finally at peace in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Fall River, one casualty amid 30,177 that does not make it onto the official list of the fallen.
And Kathy Belanger continues to garden, holding out hope she’ll unearth one of the golf balls Greg used to careen into the woods when bored, one more connection to the boy she never got to see become a man.
Hanna Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @hannaskrueger.