Sonja Ruhren vividly recalls that morning 16 years ago. Just days before Christmas, she heard someone pull into her driveway and then knock on her door. A pair of uniformed troops stood on her front porch in Stafford, Virginia. One was a chaplain. Confused, she invited them in out of the cold. They appeared painfully uncomfortable. It took them a while to finally explain why they were there. They had come to talk to her about her only child, Davey, her best friend, her “Golden Boy,” the sensitive, generous, forgiving son with green eyes she raised as a single mother. He was gone. Killed in Iraq.
Smoldering with red hot rage, she ordered the troops out of her house. Her anger with the U.S. military gave way to grief in the days that followed, sorrow so suffocating that just summoning the will to climb out of bed in the morning became a struggle. The day she lost Davey, Dec. 21, can be especially painful each year.
“Sometimes, December 21 comes and I am numb. It doesn’t register with me,” she told me. “And then sometimes it comes and it just takes the wind out of me — it completely just knocks me on the ground. And there are times when December 21 comes and I am OK, but then the next day it slaps me really, really hard. Really hard.”
On that day in 2004, a suicide bomber infiltrated a sprawling U.S. military base in northern Iraq, walked into the bustling mess tent there at the busiest part of lunchtime and detonated his explosives. The deafening blast killed 23 people. Among the dead were the bomber, Ruhren’s son, 13 other U.S. troops, four civilian contractors and four Iraqi soldiers. Dozens of others were injured.
The bombing at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul was the single deadliest attack on a U.S. military installation during the war in Iraq, according to icasualties.org, which tracks troop fatalities. It made headlines around the world. On the day of the bombing, President George W. Bush trained his focus on grieving loved ones like Sonja Ruhren, telling reporters: “We pray for them. We send our heartfelt condolences to the loved ones who suffer today.”
I narrowly survived the attack.