Forgotten mourners: Soldiers’ brothers, sisters

Courtesy of Stars and Stripes

WASHINGTON — The photo tells one story: brothers Chad and Ian Weikel, all smiles, arms around each other on Ian’s wedding day. The tattoos now on Chad’s forearms tell another — about his anguish over his brother’s death in Iraq.

Words like “rage” “alone,” and “fury” are interwoven in the tattoos along with the likeness of Captain Ian Weikel, a West Point graduate. Chad, 32, says his older brother’s death in 2006 put him on a path that led to divorce and a decision to enlist in the Army Reserves. He recently moved from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to Washington for a fresh start after a car crash kept him from starting basic training.

“It got pretty dark after all the services and all the family and friends stopped coming by,” says Weikel. “We were very close. I miss him every day.”

Weikel is one of the wars’ forgotten mourners, the brothers and sisters of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike a parent or a spouse, they don’t typically get the knock at the door notifying them of a sibling’s death. At a time when they, too, are grieving, they find themselves doing the comforting, writing the thank you notes, mediating family disputes.

On Friday, about 100 siblings and their spouses are meeting in Las Vegas for a weekend retreat organized by Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a Washington-based nonprofit that offers support to anyone who lost a loved one in the Armed Forces.

TAPS says there are thousands of surviving siblings from the recent wars. A majority are in their 20s or 30s — a time when many are starting careers and families.

There have been divorces and suicide attempts among siblings taking part in an online private support group facilitated by TAPS, says Ami Neiberger-Miller, 38, a spokeswoman for the organization. Her own brother, Army Specialist Christopher Neiberger, 22, of Gainesville, Florida, died in Iraq in 2007.

“Your spouse really joins you in life kind of late in life. … Your parents will leave you late in your life, but you expect your siblings to be with you through all of this. You expect for them to be at your wedding. You expect for them to be with you when you bury your parents,” Neiberger-Miller says. “You don’t expect to be watching your family go through that.”

In one case, Specialist Andrew Velez, 22, of Lubbock, Texas, took his life while serving in Afghanistan in 2006 two years after his brother, Specialist Jose A. Velez, 23, died in Iraq. Their sister, Monica Velez, 30, of Austin, Texas, says people fail to understand sibling grief.

“As a brother or sister, they feel like you’re supposed to be over it,” she says. “It’s not understood that this is somebody you’ve had all your life. A lot of people don’t understand that loss of companionship.”

Like Chad Weikel, she participates in the online group, which has grown from just a few siblings who exchanged e-mails to more than 180. They say without their brother or sister they feel incomplete, often feel pressure to fill the sibling’s shoes, and work to keep the family close.

Culturally in the United States, the death of a sibling isn’t considered as significant as losing a child or spouse, and there are few resources available on adult sibling loss, says Darcie D. Sims, a psychologist who is helping with this weekend’s retreat.

A surviving sibling’s spouse or friends “may not realize the depth of your grief or understand why you’re grieving so much,” Sims says. Even when brothers or sisters weren’t close it can be painful because the survivor is also grieving that problems weren’t resolved, Sims says.

A common complaint among the siblings is that well-meaning people don’t ask about them.

Karen Veater Walker, 31, of Old Forge, Pennsylvania, the oldest of six kids whose youngest brother, Marine Reserve Lance Corporal Dennis Veater, 20, died in Iraq, says people frequently ask her about her parents, her brother’s fiance, or his son.

“Sometimes, this little piece of me wanted to yell out like, ’What about me? Are you going to ask how I’m doing?’” Walker said. Since her brother’s death, another brother is coping with an addiction, and her family’s relationship with her brother’s fiance has become strained, leading to the loss of a bond with her young nephew.

“For some reason we just have some split we can’t resolve, no matter how hard I try,” Walker says. “You put so much energy into making sure everyone else is OK. I try to make sure I don’t upset my parents, or I try to make sure that other people don’t upset them. I try to make sure my remaining siblings are OK.”

Kristen Norwood Hullum, 33, from Pflugerville, Texas, who is attending the retreat, struggles with guilt for not being with her brother, 25-year-old Marine Sergeant Byron Norwood, as he died — as she has been for strangers in her job as a nurse.

“It was not peaceful and beautiful. It was horrible and violent and he was alone. He had his Marines there with him, but I would’ve wanted to hold his hand to comfort him and just to make sure he knew how much we all loved him,” Hullum says.

Chad Weikel says he wanted to avenge his brother’s death in 2006 and went to a military recruiter’s office, but then decided it wasn’t the right time to join. Once the dust settled, he says he started to feel a calling to join the military — a decision opposed by his family. Before he was to leave last year for basic training, he was in a serious car wreck that left him in a coma for a couple days and with broken ribs.

Meanwhile, his marriage crumbled.

“I definitely wasn’t the husband I needed to be. I just wasn’t around enough. I was around, but I wasn’t present,” Chad says. “So my wife looked elsewhere to get that attention and that’s been a real devastating loss for me.”

He says he’s slowly worked through his pain and finds himself laughing again and feeling optimistic about the future. He’s appealing a decision from the military disqualifying him for service because of the injuries from the car accident.

He points to the tattoos on his arms and explains that the emotional words in his tattoos are designed in a way that spells “Hope.”

“Through all those emotions, I still have hope,” he says.

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