These are the stories of Ramon, Will and Michael — all Marines; 22, 23 and 20, respectively; all from this state, all killed in Afghanistan — and the families, friends and fellow service members they left behind.
Their presence hovers over thoughts and emotions that never go away.
Perhaps with a passing news item you’ve thought about whether it was all worth it: President Joe Biden recently announced our troops will be fully out of that country by Sept. 11.
Ramon T. Kaipat’s mom mostly sits quietly when remembering, staring into the distance, the urn containing her son’s ashes a few feet away in the living room. She sometimes goes to her bedroom and cries.
Michael T. Washington’s dad tells how PTSD from his own service in the Marines in the Middle East, and then the death of his son in Farah province led him to stand on the East 34th Street Bridge in Tacoma. “I was about to go over,” he says. Then he felt his dead son pull him back. “Dad, this is not where it ends. We have work to do.”
Will Stacey’s, parents have talked about his bedroom at their Seattle home.
The room is frozen in time, with books Will had read, such as “Dispatches,” Michael Herr’s war correspondent experiences in Vietnam; baseball caps; a baseball with his pitch selection written on it from a Little League championship game in which he was the winning pitcher.
It’s been nine years, maybe time to turn the room into a library or guest room. “I guess we’re all ready,” says the mom about changing the room. “Ask me in December whether we were.”
The price of fighting wars is carried by fewer and fewer of us. According to the Census Bureau, in 2018 only about 7% of U. S. adults were veterans. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minority groups make up an increasing share of the military, rising from 36% in 2004 to 43% in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center.
When Biden announced the pullout, he said, “When will it be the right moment to leave? One more year, two more years, 10 years. ‘Not now’ — that’s how we got here.”
Those who knew Ramon, Michael and Will, and the more than 2,400 others, have had years to deal with their deaths in Afghanistan. The years haven’t eased the pain.
It was early on April 11, 2012, when two Marines in uniform knocked on the door of the Kaipat residence in Tacoma.
Ramon had been killed on combat patrol in Helmand province by one of those infamous improvised explosive devices. A 2007 congressional report said IEDs were responsible for more than half of U.S. military combat casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Kaipats had come to Tacoma in 2004 from Saipan, a commonwealth of the United States in the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific Ocean. There was Sinforosa, the mom; Pedro Sr., the dad; Ramon; his brother, Pedro Jr.; and a sister, Pearllita.
They came here for that most common of reasons. “They wanted a better life for us,” says Pedro Jr.
The Kaipats all lived in the same household, and still do. Ramon’s ashes are there, and by his side now in the cabinet are the ashes of his dad, who died in 2020.
Pearllita remembers that awful morning.
“My father went into his bedroom and just screamed into the pillow,” she says. Pedro Jr. had to catch his mom as she fell from a chair, crying.
Sinforosa Kaipat talks a bit about her Ramon.
“I didn’t want him to go into the military. I’ve known people dying. I don’t want to lose my son,” she says. She withdraws and sits there.
At one point, when Ramon was at Camp Pendleton in California, Sinforosa talked of the entire family moving there, just to be together again. It didn’t happen.
Pedro says his brother loved the Marines. He graduated from Mount Tahoma High School in 2007, and the next year he exercised to get in shape and enlisted.
He was a rifleman assigned to the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, and was on his second deployment in Afghanistan.
Was it worth it?
Pedro Jr. says, “It’s a slew of mixed feelings. I’m glad they’re pulling out of there. We won’t have more people passing away.”
Pearllita says, “He loved his job. But he was already telling my dad this was going to be his last tour. It’s worth knowing that he did good.”
There are days, she says, “I’ll just cry for a bit. After that I put on a smiley face and walk outside and continue. I just try to make sure our house is still somewhat functional.”
Besides the immediate family, others who keep Ramon in their thoughts are the Marines he served with.
In 2017, he wrote of Ramon, “He was a huge Pacific Islander … He was the guy who gave you a haircut when you came home drunk at 4 a.m. on Sunday and the barber was closed and you needed a fresh buzz before formation. He was a meticulous point man, incredibly cautious …
“I don’t know why he died. I know that he was young. I know that he was beautiful, and so were all of the other heroes. F—ing war. What can you say?”
Lucier has a 2012 photo of him and his buddies in Afghanistan, sitting in the sand. In a phone interview, he talks about that picture.
You can see an IED-sniffing dog with them. They had just gotten through an operation in which they had been dropped off by helicopter where intelligence reports said a bomb maker was holed up.
They didn’t find the bomb maker. A sand storm — “red air” — had descended and a helicopter couldn’t fetch them. They had to walk 60 miles, at one point running out of water until finally some was supplied. The photo shows the men, exhausted, Lucier says, with their machine guns and rifles, their body armor and helmets in front. Most are wearing sunglasses to protect their eyes from fragments and dirt in battle, even though the mission is over.
Michael Washington’s dad, Mike Sr., was a Marine, 23 years active, 15 in the reserves, tours in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan.
Before a deployment to Iraq, when Michael Jr. was around 5 or 6, he put on his dad’s fatigues and boots and saluted. The young boy had a proud smile.
Another time, when the son was in his senior year at Stadium High School in Tacoma, the two took a road trip to Los Angeles. They listened to an NPR report about fighting in Fallujah, scene of a historic and bloody battle. Mike remembers his son was transfixed.
Mike Sr. asked, “Son, you’re going to join the Marines, aren’t you?”
“And you are going into the infantry, aren’t you?”
Grace Washington, an artist and program manager for Arts Impact, which helps schools incorporate art into their teaching, didn’t want her son to enlist.
“I never thought we should have been in Afghanistan,” she says. But she says, “I kept my views to myself. I did what I was supposed to be. A good Marine Corps wife.”
Grace says Michael wanted to enlist before he turned 18. She agreed because it would mean he could be home for Christmas after basic training.
“He went in because he thought he had a calling to help other people,” she says. “He had a high sense of moral right and wrong.”
On June 14, 2008, an IED blew up the Humvee Michael was in, killing him and three other Marines, with a fifth critically injured.
Around then, the Washingtons’ marriage fell apart and they’re now divorced. “A lot of things are foggy from around that time,” she says. “Your body has a way of protecting you.”
The dad, with his tours as a Marine, and then five years as a firefighter in California and 27 years in Seattle, says it all combined for “dormant PTSD.” He says, “I was about to hit bottom doing some risky things with suicidal ideations.”
He’d drive through busy intersections with his eyes closed. And in 2012 he was standing on that Tacoma bridge, ready to jump and felt the spiritual presence — “a very physical experience” — of his son pulling him back. Since then he’s joined Team Rubicon, in which veterans use their skills in disaster relief.
These days, Mike, having earned a master’s in social work, is a counselor at a clinic dealing with stress issues.
Michael had a sister, Aja Collins, a traveling nurse who lives in Augusta, Georgia.
In an email, she writes, “I really can’t stand when people ask me if it was worth it. Nothing in this world is worth my brother, or the countless others who die in war. Michael was a human being, not a political pawn, and my family has already lost this war in the most devastating way possible …
“When people ask me if I think it’s worth it, I now respond by asking, ‘Are YOU worth it?’“
Back on Jan. 31, 2012, Anna Stacey was 16 and heading out the door of the family home in Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood. Across the street, she saw the two Marines in full uniform. “Oh, no. Oh, no!” she exclaimed.
Her brother, Will, on his fourth deployment in Afghanistan, was on foot patrol when an IED killed him in the Now Zad district of Helmand province.
Anna is 25 now and just graduated from Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. She visits her brother’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery, Section 60, reserved for those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sometimes she brings a journal and a writes a letter to Will, updating him on her life and the little things, like their mother’s lilacs blooming.
Sometimes, in her mind, she also updates Will, “sort of like he’s walking alongside you.”
Anna wonders about her brother’s death, “What was it all for, and I mean my family but also the civilians in Afghanistan who were impacted by the war, their livelihoods destroyed, other families like mine affected. I still don’t have an answer.”
Bob Stacey is dean of the University of Washington’s School of Arts and Sciences. His wife, Robin Stacey, is a UW history professor.
On his commute, Bob sometimes talks to Will. He drives Will’s 2005 Toyota Tundra pickup, a little dented from a trip Will made in ice and snow. He tells his son what happened that day, what his sister is up to.
Bob says that one of the consequences of an all-volunteer armed forces is that there is a perception “that the military is solely made up of people who come from families that have never been to college.”
Yet here was his son, with parents from academia. Will was a 2006 Roosevelt High graduate and had struggled at school.
Bob says he blossomed in the Marines. “He wanted to do something important, something really hard.”
Back in 2011, Lawrence Dabney, who then posted on “an online chronicle of the realities of war,” was embedded with Will’s squad.
Dabney wrote of the sergeant, “ … it was plainer than anything that he kept the men under his command alive. … He is the sort of man you would want commanding your troops, analyzing a million pieces of data to save a few extra lives … He helped turn Now Zad from a scarred hell to a place where hundreds of children can walk to school every day. He brought sanity and compassion to a place sorely in need of both …”
Will’s mom envies that Bob and Anna feel as if Will is there and talk to him.
“Honestly, I mostly feel like he’s dead and I’m alone and missing him,” says Robin.
Robin says that when she does talk to Will, “It’s usually on one of what we call in the family a ‘bad Will day,’ a day where the pain is just really unrelenting.
“And then I cry mostly.”
Will left a letter to be read in case of his death.
It said, in part, “My death did not change the world; it may be tough for you to justify its meaning at all … But there will be a child who will live because men left the security they enjoyed in their home country to come to his. And this child will learn in the new schools that have been built … He will grow into a fine man who will pursue every opportunity his heart could desire.”
Nine years later, Bob says, “Sometimes people fight for causes that are just and proper, and they don’t win. That’s kind of the way I see this.”