A pot of coffee brews inside the one-story home on Seth Dvorin Lane, as the father of a dead American soldier salutes his son's picture...
EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. — A pot of coffee brews inside the one-story home on Seth Dvorin Lane, as the father of a dead American soldier salutes his son’s picture, and sets out to keep his memory alive another day.
His weathered, one-level home sits on a street named after Army 2nd Lt. Seth Dvorin, 24, killed by a roadside bomb near Iskandiriyah, Iraq, on Feb. 3, 2004. Seth liked playing basketball, traveling, flying remote-controlled helicopters and driving Mustang cars, says his father, Richard Dvorin, a refrigerator of a man, before he breaks into tears for the fifth time this afternoon.
Dvorin, 65, knows his son’s story sounds like one you’ve heard before. He knows you probably don’t care to read about another dead soldier.
He wants you to pay attention anyway.
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“People are becoming callous toward the war,” he says. “There are things more important today, like the presidential race. … Whether we lose the first soldier in the battle or the last soldier in the battle, that soldier is important to all of America.”
Seth was somewhere between the 526th and 529th soldier killed in Iraq, Dvorin believes. When the 4,000th soldier killed in Iraq became a milestone last month, Dvorin wept watching the 24-hour news coverage. He knows the deaths of most U.S. soldiers slip by without widespread attention. Since then, 63 more have been killed in Iraq.
“It should have been me”
Dvorin fills a thermos with coffee and packs it into his duffel bag. He is headed to the night shift at a hotline for soldiers and their families from New Jersey. Three days a week, he fields calls from people dealing with post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, financial problems, death.
“I know what other families are going to go through; I know the sorrow,” Dvorin says.
“I know probably every parent that views their child in the casket will say to that child, ‘It should have been me and not you.’ “
Polls show interest in the war is waning. Between August and February, public awareness of the number of American military fatalities in Iraq declined, according to a report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
At the same time, news stories devoted to the war dropped from an average of 15 percent of the news hole in July to 3 percent in February, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Dvorin doesn’t need statistics to confirm what he already knows. After the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq recently came and went, he watched tributes sputter out of the news cycle again.
The television is off now, the room quiet. The flag that draped Seth’s coffin rests folded in a wooden box, next to his military medals.
“Seth was more than a son to me,” Dvorin says. He draws his breath and cries again. “He was my friend; he was my confidant; he was my idol. I lost a lot.”
Dvorin wipes his tears, puts on his jacket and climbs into his gray van, its rear painted with Seth’s name.
“I know that’s what he would want me to do — continue helping people,” he says.
“So I do.”
Working the hotline
The call center is buzzing when Dvorin sits down at his cubicle, tilts a framed photo of Seth toward himself, and turns on his computer. He has an important number to dial today.
A week earlier, he went to a soldier’s funeral. He tries to attend as many local services for soldiers as he can, and he usually stays anonymous. But this time he offered his condolences to the family and told them about the hotline. A few days later, the mother called.
Her husband “was just starting to lose it,” Dvorin says. He spent two hours talking to her, staying calm and focused.
“Everybody in the office was there, and ready to jump on the call just in case I broke,” Dvorin says. “But I handled myself well.”
Dvorin arranged for the couple to receive counseling. Tonight, Dvorin pulls their file up on his screen and dials the number, reaching the mother.
“Rich Dvorin speaking, how are you today? All right, how is everything going? Did you meet with the doctor?
“OK,” he continues. “Very good. … Just keep going to the doctor. It helps — even though you don’t think it does, it helps.
“I will call you in a week or so. Stay well. Stay safe,” he says, before hanging up.
“When I put the phone down, I’ve done the best I can; I’ve honored my son,” Dvorin says. “That’s my mourning.”
Dvorin never has seen a counselor for his depression. Staffers at the call center have become his support network, and talking others through their problems, he said, is enough to help him get by.
There isn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t think about Feb. 3, 2004. He remembers how he tossed and turned that night, waking up at 4:30 a.m. He made coffee and listened for the thump of the newspaper at his front porch. He turned on CNN and saw a banner gliding across the bottom of the screen announcing that a serviceman had been killed and another wounded in a roadside explosion five miles south of Baghdad.
“I knew that was where Seth was. All night long I had been thinking of Seth,” he says.
He tried to keep his mind off the worry, cleaning his house, dusting shelves. About 6 p.m., Dvorin received a call from Seth’s mother-in-law, followed by a call from Seth’s mother: His son had been killed.
Sue Niederer, Seth’s mother, coped with his death with activism. Seven months after he was killed, Niederer wore a T-shirt that read “President Bush, You Killed My Son” to a speech by Laura Bush, interrupting her to ask when her children were going to serve. She teamed up with another mother, Cindy Sheehan, who gained international fame by camping outside Bush’s Texas ranch to demonstrate against the war after her son was killed.
Dvorin felt angry, too, but he didn’t take part in protests. He couldn’t bring himself to tinker with his model planes or trains anymore. A retired cop, Dvorin had encountered violence and death, but the only time he remembers crying was when his father passed away. Now, he cries at least twice a day.
Vet to Vet
In 2005, a notice about a support hotline, Cop to Cop, arrived in his mail. It was started a decade ago to help cut the high rate of suicide among New Jersey police officers. The program recruits law-enforcement officials to field calls. Dvorin signed up to volunteer.
He soon learned that the organizers had launched another hotline, called Vet to Vet, in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. It began as a support network for veterans, in response to the growing number of suicides among U.S. troops, offering help to soldiers coming home with emotional problems.
Dvorin, who had served in the Air Force, decided to volunteer for the veterans hotline, too. The call center has been busier in recent months because New Jersey is preparing to deploy 4,000 troops in June — the largest number since the war began, according to Stephen Abel of the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. About a third have already served in the war at least once, he said.
Dvorin scans a list of callback numbers. Each entry includes the caller’s background: “Death of son. Disability. Possible PTSD.”
He dials the number of a veteran’s wife he spoke to before. The couple have had marital problems since the husband came home from the war.
“I called to find out how you’re doing,” Dvorin says. “I noticed you’re going to try another counselor. Did you try anyone else yet?”
He offers to help them find another counselor, and says he will check in again soon.
Once, a father of a dead soldier called, upset that his son’s name had been misspelled on a memorial. The mistake had plunged the father into despair again. Dvorin helped him submit paperwork to correct the error.
“Every time I help somebody, it’s like putting another gold star on my son’s shoulder,” Dvorin says.