Five years without you: A memoir of life without my son.

Benjamin's graveside service at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, TX in October 2011. from Left, Benjamin's best friend and Marine escort, Jeremy Laster, Benjamin's sister Casey, Mom Becky, and her husband John Cheairs.

Benjamin’s graveside service at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, TX in October 2011. from Left, Benjamin’s best friend and Marine escort, Jeremy Laster, Benjamin’s sister Casey, Mom Becky, and her husband John Cheairs.

My precious son was killed on October 6, 2011, in a mother’s worst nightmare scenario on a ledge in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The details of what happened that Thursday afternoon have trickled in over the last five years as the family has taken bits and pieces from numerous sources to put it all together –we need and want to understand it.

My brain takes these pieces and plays the scenes in gruesome technicolor. Worse than any horror movie, it goes like this: Benjamin and his Marines Scout Sniper platoon had been trying to take down three Taliban snipers causing trouble in the area all afternoon. Perched on the right end of a huge horseshoe-shaped ledge, Marines are all over the area on other parts of the ledge and behind them. Benjamin has been laying on his stomach almost in a snuggling position with his face pressed against his fellow sniper’s shoulder in the role of spotter. They have killed two of the snipers, and are trying to take the last. The Marines stop to listen to the Taliban sniper fire so they can calculate his location and finish their business. In their line of work, every Marine in the area knows where the other
ones are, and their positions are frequently updated and confirmed.
Suddenly, five seconds of tank fire begin spraying the area where Benjamin’s Scout Sniper platoon is working. They all know immediately that is from their own group of Marines perched several hundred yards behind them. Benjamin and the other Marines stand to run for cover. Benjamin looks over his shoulder to see where the tank fire is coming from  … “Stupid bastard!” Benjamin thinks to himself. “You’re shooting at your own men, fool!” He turns to run, the shooting stops, then starts again for 5 seconds. The second spraying of bullets hits Benjamin. A bullet goes into the right cheek and goes straight through his brain and blasts through his skull in the upper left rear portion of his head. The camera rises and shows my son’s buddies running to him where he lays in an ever-growing pool of blood. He is gone and his body is shutting down in some sort of death convulsion. It’s a brutally ugly scene that will haunt them forever. They’ve lost their friend, and want to kill the men in the tank who made the decision to spray fire their way.
While this was going on, Benjamin’s family was going about their day in San Antonio, Texas, oblivious to what news
was about to come. Our lives would never be the same. Something so dear was gone forever due to unnecessary military stupidness.
I sometimes fantasize that I was there to hold him in those final moments. I should have been there with him in his darkest time. I get so sad, then angry. My anger is a response to my thoughts: I have been ripped off, why can’t I see my son grow up, why did the tank Marines do such a stupid thing, why!?
Then I think of the baby boy he was. So adorable, active, hilarious … and always fascinated with guns and war. This is the exact opposite of his mother, who has always hated those things. Raised in the 1960s when assassinations and war were on the news almost every day, I had long concluded I had no use for guns and violence. Believe me when I say I did my all to raise pacifist children, but Benjamin was drawn to be a Marine and could not resist the call to be a part of the Enduring Freedom war when the opportunity came.
I always imagine what might have been had he lived. I try to solve the mystery of who he was and where he was going by using information from his last phone calls, the messages he left, letters he wrote, conversations we had. It seemed
after a treacherous teen hood and college experience, he was finally maturing and becoming determined to get his life together. He wanted to focus on making the world a better place and have a family of his own. As a mom, I was ticking the days away until he would be out of the Marines forever, and then I could see if his words would turn to action. He had six months left in his 4-year commitment when he was killed.
There always will be so much pain, I think of it now as a chronic broken heart, but there are blessings, too. People can be so kind and thoughtful, and show such caring and love. I regret being such a numb zombie at the time to the point that I could not respond to everyone who reached out. I just couldn’t muster the energy. I continue to be so deeply touched and nourished when I hear from his friends from childhood, high school, college, and the Marines.
They tell me things about him I didn’t know, share stories, and tell me how much they love and miss
him. Hearing from them or spending time with them is like a healing medicine, and I can never get enough.
Then there were also people who I was sure would be there for us, and they were not. Some people just don’t know what to do or what to say, and some assume you are blanketed by throngs of loving friends and don’t need another. What I have taken from it is to never doubt that your friends need you and want to hear from you. I know now that I want to be a person who always shows up to let my friends and family know I am sorry for what they have lost, the pain they feel, and let them know that I care very much. I know how much that means.
One hugely important – and surprising – blessing in my American nightmare story comes from the connections made through social media, especially Facebook, since Benjamin died. Without such a resource I never would have come to know Benjamin’s fellow Marines, who reached out to me there. From the depth of my heart, no one or nothing can make me feel more unburdened or normal again as spending time with these boys who served with my son and loved him so much.
Just this year I met several of them in person and spoke with them for many hours. They all had similar things to say: he was an amazing and gifted Marine and Scout Sniper, he never judged anyone and would never join in bashing people, and they looked up to him as a person they wanted to emulate. Seeing their tears of pain, the fact that they made the effort to visit me, and feeling their love and caring was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I hope to have many more, as I know we help each other.
I was a member but barely used Facebook in 2011. The night I was told of his death I knew there were numerous people to call, but the thought was overwhelming.. Thankfully, my family offered to do it for me. Somehow I mustered the heart to call one person, Benjamin’s girlfriend Taylor Ryan, myself. Why? Because one of the last things Benjamin told me before he left for Afghanistan was, “If something happens to me I want you to be the one to tell Taylor.”
After I hung up from talking with her in one of the world’s saddest phone calls, I knew word would soon be spreading, and I really wanted my friends to hear it from me, so I went to Facebook and posted it there. During those first days we posted news about his memorial service and more so everyone would know what was going on. People began to reach out and post photos and stories that I still cherish to this day. A fellowship began to form. Since that time we have created a LCpl Benjamin Whetstone Schmidt memorial page on Facebook that hundreds of his friends have found and
joined. There we share photos, stories, memories, and talk about how much losing him hurts. Every time I see a new photo or video of him it makes me feel joy and happiness! It is like one more piece of news about him I hadn’t had before. The big jigsaw puzzle of Benjamin with so many missing pieces becomes clearer and more complete over time as more and more of his friends contact me and share what they have and what they know. There is nothing I appreciate more than my old and new friends of Benjamin staying in touch and keeping him alive with heir stories and in their hearts. Some of the new friends are caring Americans that I have never met and who never met Benjamin, but who found his story and reached out. The way people from across the country have contacted us and sent loving mementos is beyond thoughtful and so appreciated.
Part of the journey these past five years has included some crazy thinking. One of my crazy thoughts is how fortunate I am to have had my son become an honored war hero, as there are so many opportunities to honor him throughout the year. When your child is a war hero killed in action it is not deemed crazy to keep talking about him and celebrating his life year after year. I feel for the parents who don’t feel they have the freedom to do that, but I also encourage them to do it anyway.
I want to say a word about Benjamin’s sister, Casey Marie, who has already outlived her older brother by two years at age 26. The two of them grew up within the madness of their divorced family, and she has lost her only other witness to talk about all the nuttiness with. He was so special to her, and her to him, and it pains me to see her missing him so much. Parents get much sympathy when they lose a child, but siblings, not so much.
I spent the 5-year anniversary of Benjamin’s death doing things I love to do. It’s my husband’s birthday and we always go to dinner and do the gifts and cards, and because we are in California for a few days, we went for a mountain
bike ride on Mt. Tamalpais. Riding through the wooded trails I thought Benjamin would want me to be here, to keep living, to keep myself fully engaged in life, and I’m doing allI can to achieve that. As the day wears on, my heart gets heavier, the mind will play more movies.
The best blessing you could give Benjamin and his family is to let us talk about him, and for you to hold him in your heart for a few minutes on days such as this, and whenever you can.
Preparing for Jingle Hell? Forget that! Here’s how to have the kind of holiday season you really want to have.

There's usually a little bit of "this" in every holiday season.

There’s usually a little bit of “this” in every holiday season.

Well, the holidays are almost here again, and based on what clients tell me, finances, family, food, rituals and raking leaves are on the mind. Some of these things are comforting and wonderful, and other things are – uh – not.

Since I’ve been around a long time and I’ve heard what clients love and hate about the holidays, I’m going to offer my reflections on what’s worthwhile about the holiday season and how to deal with the things that aren’t so fun. Here goes …

On the bright and sparkly side …

Bonding opportunities abound. Rituals are things people do together that strengthen their relationship, and the strengthening of the relationship is called bonding. The more bonds a marriage or family has the stronger it will be, so bonds are a very good hing! There are endless rituals families can do together that fit the bill, and they can be simple or … not. Watching TV on the couch every night, cooking, bowling on Wednesdays, having friends over every Tuesday, weekends at the river … during the holidays it can be a special dish that you serve, a certain way that you dress, a toast that you make, goodies that you make, preparing stockings for everyone, a certain movie you watch every Christmas Eve … the ideas are endless. I urge every family to have holiday rituals that strengthen their bonds!
Love Languages People of all ages have love languages, if you don’t know what they are, here’s your chance to learn. Love languages are things we can do for those we love and who love us that makes them really feel that love. Bring this list and ask someone you care about, what is your love language? Once you find out, you’ll know what to do to keep that love alive – it’s wonderful to stoke to fire of love and caring …

1. Physical touch. If this is one of your loved one’s love languages, you need to find out what kind of touch and how often. Then do it.
2. Words of Affirmation. Appreciation, love expressed, caring affirmed.
3. Quality time. It is, what it says it is. Your focused attention and/or time, in the way your loved one appreciates.
4. Acts of service. Take a load off your busy loved one’s day by doing a chore or an errand, help clean up, babysit the kids so she can rest, wash his car.
5. Gifts. Money and value isn’t the thing. Could be a card or a flower picked on the side of the road. Most loved ones especially love gifts that fill a need that you’ve taken note of, like a night light for the hall if they get up, a warm robe for the cold bathroom, a cell phone charger for their car.
Another word about gifts. I know people who think it is blasphemy to tell your loved one what you’d like to receive for Christmas, and others who swear by the list concept. Please know that in no way is it greedy to let people what you’d like to receive for a gift, and it is absolutely OK to want things. As for me, I always believe in what is kind and thoughtful towards the person I am buying for, so I like to give my loved ones some things they tell me they want, and a little something they wouldn’t splurge on for themselves. So I ask for a list, and then I throw in some surprises. The key to being a gift-giver is knowing who you’re buying for and the types of things they love and enjoy. If you don’t know what that is, ask. The best gifts I ever received were not expensive, but showed that the giver put thought into it. Yes, receiving is wonderful fun! But I also love the joy and delight of giving, and think it is a wonderful thing to encourage in your young family members.
• In the end, love. Show it, give it, be open about it.

On the less sparkly side …

We all have things we don’t like about the holidays. Many have crazy family members, too many people they are expected to visit, do too much cooking and preparing without enough assistance, spend too much, eat and drink too much … what’s a person to do?

Crazy family members. We all have ‘em, but once we’re grown up there is no law that says we are obligated to spend lots of time with them – or any, for that matter. So while you may tell yourself you have no choice, you really do. I highly recommend severely limiting time spent with unpleasant people, and if you do decide to be around them, play a game with yourself like when you step into their house you are really stepping into a movie that is a comedy, and you are visiting these weird characters who will amuse you briefly and then you leave.
Too many people to visit. Young couples complain to me regularly that, “We have to go visit his parents, then his aunt, then his cousins, and then my family and we’re fitting in about 10 stops in 18 hours and I hate it.” This sort of insanity is very easy to fix, and that is by learning to tell family members with expectations a very warm, friendly, “Sorry, we can’t make it!” If your spouse hates visiting your extended family and friends over the holidays please do not subject them to it. Look out for her and have her back … create a holiday visit plan that works for both of you, and consider the possibility of having your own Christmas together and not visiting anyone at all.
Too much cooking, doing, preparing and not enough help. It takes a team to create huge family meals without stress! Limit your menu, cook ahead and freeze, request that people bring a dish, buy part of the meal from a caterer like your local grocery store, and ask your family to help decorate, set the table and create a family ritual of whoever cooks doesn’t have to clean, and vice versa. Create a cooking crew and clean-up crew with your attendees. If you can’t or don’t know how to ask for help, it’s time to learn. If you’re a control freak and don’t want another person involve, get over yourself and invite the helpers to help.
Spending too much. When my kids were little I did this and the way I remedied it was to decide how much was reasonable for me to spend per person in my family, and then I stick to my budget. I tell myself if I can’t pay it all off by February, my budget is too high. Over the years I have severely limited my list of people I buy things for to my husband, our kids and the people who work for us. No more gifts for siblings, nieces, nephews, friends … it just got to be too much, financially, and cutting the list took loads of stress away, too. Some families draw a name so that they only have to buy one gift – anyway you cut your responsibilities down, I’m all for it.
Eating and drinking too much. I once read that the average American eats 10,000 calories on Christmas Day, and I do think there are times to indulge yourself, and times to hold back. I enjoy eating a healthy diet most of the time, and if I’m going to over-eat it is going to be at some wonderful holiday meal or when I’m on vacation in a beautiful place that has the best crab cakes or bread pudding around. It’s all in how you conduct yourself most of the time. A life of deprivation is not a life, so why even try? As far as drinking, I always think that should be done in moderation, but if you fail at that, we now have Uber or Lyft, which I’ve used several times in different cities and have found it quick, easy, affordable and headache-free.

So now that you know how to improve the quality of your holidays, go out and enjoy! And here’s to wishing you Happy Holidays and a joy-filled New Year!

Hi, all! It’s Dr. Becky’s assistant, Tiffany, back again with another guest blog! I don’t know about you but I’m ready for fall weather. I’m finally looking forward to the holidays. I wasn’t always so eager to embark on a new season, though. As I’ve stated before in my introduction to this blog, I’ve dedicated a large part of my life to being a classroom teacher before having enough sense to step away. During that time I looked at autumn with very weary eyes. Year after year when the leaves started to change color it meant that another stressful school year was underway and it would feel like an eternity until Thanksgiving break and Christmas vacation. Days feel like months when you’re spending most of your waking hours around children who are old enough to talk back. To add to an already bad situation, I never really enjoyed those coveted holiday breaks because I’d feel like I was going off to battle on another front. I would have to spend time with my family.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m crazy about the holiday season but I like it a lot better when I get to pick and choose who I spend time with…and this kind of selectivity is rare for a lot of people. I grew up with strong feelings of obligation to others. My family used Thanksgiving and Christmas as the grand high holidays of obligatory behavior – we HAD TO go have dinner with family members who we really didn’t enjoy being around. Why? Because it’s family, of course. Show up without a gift for the cousin or aunt you only speak to twice a year? That was unimaginable in my house. It didn’t matter to my family if the dinner ended up in an explosive shouting match or awkward silence and tears. We were all together in the house, and it was Christmas. I have only a few ‘good’ holiday memories as a result, because most of the time we were forced to be somewhere we didn’t want to be.

Now that I’m much older I realize that I have options when planning my holiday season. I also understand that there are toxic people who should be avoided at all costs, even if they’re family. Above all else, I’ve learned that ‘home’ for the holidays can mean sending gift cards from the comfort of my living room sofa and not having to go anywhere or entertain anyone. I felt very liberated the year I decided to stay at my own place for Thanksgiving simply because I wanted to spend time with people I actually wanted to see. If any family member’s feelings were hurt by my absence, they’d eventually get over it. I was no longer a child, but an adult making my own choices and deciding and where I felt comfortable. Seriously, though – we live in the 21st century. If Aunt Judy feels slighted that she didn’t get to say hello to me from across a well-decorated Thanksgiving table, she can poke me on Facebook. I’ll get back to her by New Year’s Eve.