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Photographs by Felipe Buitrago

Look Back in Anger: May 30 of last year was the day Karen Meredith got the news that her son had been killed in Iraq. She was at a crafts fair in San Ramon when her neighbor called to tell her that two Army officers were parked near her house. She knew immediately why they were there.

A Soldier's Mother's Story

With her son on extended duty in Iraq, Karen Meredith suddenly got the call every parent fears. In trying to cope with her son's death, she's become a mom on a mission, speaking to parents and their children about the realities of the Iraq war's human cost.

By Matt Reed

EVERY DAY over these past several weeks, Karen Meredith has been reliving her life from one year ago. It was in April of 2004, as she sat in her Mountain View condo among her many photos of her only son, Kenneth Ballard, that she received the news that his duty had been extended in Iraq.

Ballard, an Army tank commander and a 1995 graduate of Mountain View High School, had already turned in his weapons when he found out he wouldn't be going home. He had been getting ready to pack his gear and spending much of his time posing for commemorative photos with his fellow soldiers in preparation for his return to his base in Germany.

Within days of the news of Ballard's extension, Meredith says, "all hell broke loose" in Iraq. Several newspapers were shut down, prompting an outburst of attacks on American soldiers by the Iraqi insurgency. As the attacks grew more frequent through April and May of last year, Meredith made a nervous habit of checking the Pentagon's website each morning to see if the name of her son had been posted to the military's casualty list.

"He was really good about calling me. If I saw on the news that there was an explosion in Baghdad today, I would wonder if it was my today or his today," Meredith says.

And then she would hear from Ballard, who was able to call and email on an almost daily basis, and be momentarily relieved.

Mother's Day 2004 went by. Then the Memorial Day holiday approached, and through one of these phone calls from her son, Meredith learned that Ballard was headed to the holy city of Najaf, where the insurgency was especially strong and active.

It was on May 30, 2004, that she received the phone call she had feared for months. Meredith had already heard on the news that morning that American soldiers had been killed. She was at a crafts fair in San Ramon when a neighbor called, informing her that two Army officers were parked near her house. Meredith knew what this meant immediately.

Death Star: Meredith had her left ankle tatooed after her son's death. Parents of soldiers killed in action have used the gold star to symbolize their loss since World War II.

'They Saw Things That You and I Will Mercifully Never See'

Ballard was born in Rome, N.Y., in July 1977. His mother and his father, who was then in the Air Force, moved to the South Bay when Ballard was still an infant. His parents divorced, and Ballard grew up in Mountain View from the time he was 4.

He graduated from Mountain View High School in 1995 and immediately joined the Army after graduation.

"He was not a student," Meredith says with a laugh. 'I think he knew he was going into the Army when he was 18."

From 1995 to 1998, Ballard was stationed in Germany, and for close to a year during that period he served in Bosnia and was one of the first American soldiers to serve under the United Nations in Macedonia. A photo of Ballard wearing the U.N.'s blue beret sits among the many photos and mementos displayed in Meredith's home.

"They saw things that you and I will mercifully never see. Human desecration. Atrocities," Meredith says. "Just after he left Macedonia, two American soldiers were kidnapped. They had been working as guards; Ken had been doing the same job just weeks before."

Ballard's experiences in Europe opened him up to new possibilities and sparked his ambition, his mother says. "He traveled so much. He didn't stay at home one weekend. He was always like, 'Gotta go to Berlin. Gotta go to Austria,'" she recalls.

Ballard applied to the Army's ROTC Green to Gold scholarship program. Middle Tennessee State is one of the few universities with both ROTC and an international relations program, and Ballard, encouraged by an officer, enrolled there in 1998.

He made the dean's list twice. He joined a fraternity and made a number of friends. After a less-than-stellar academic career in Mountain View, his mother was happy to see him do well. Just after his graduation in May 2002, Ballard was commissioned a lieutenant in the Army and began his four-year active duty service commitment to pay back his scholarship.

'He's Dead, and He's Not Coming Back'

Meredith has yet to see the Army's official report on how Ballard was killed—she says now that she's not sure if she wants to read it.

"He's dead, and he's not coming back," she says.

But a handout from a memorial service for Ballard says the following: "Ken's company was moving through an urban area of Najaf and came under heavy small-arms fire from the rooftops of all sides. Ken immediately moved his tank platoon in close to provide covering fire for two of Charlie Company's platoons caught in the open.

"The covering fire Ken provided allowed both of the platoons to exfiltrate to safety and resulted in 15 enemy insurgents being incapacitated. Ken's inviolable fidelity for his comrades in arms and the love for his country led to the ultimate sacrifice."

Meredith says Ballard was in battle for much of April and every day in May, and earned two of his three Bronze Stars during this period.

Meredith spent a few months grieving, and then after a visit to Ballard's grave at Arlington National Cemetery in October, she said she had an epiphany. She could turn her anger and loss into something positive.

"You're kind of in shock for a while. It's not about politics," she says. "But I just knew that I had to go out and say something. People need to know that the war is affecting people in Santa Clara County. I just want to keep this in front of the public because people don't understand that this is happening every day. That's when I'll stop talking about the war—when everybody in the country has stopped talking about it."

She's become a mom on a mission. The daughter of a lieutenant colonel, the granddaughter of a colonel, the sister of a colonel and the former wife of a former Air Force serviceman, Meredith says she's not anti-military and she's not used to speaking out.

But she's angry about the war. She's angry at Donald Rumsfeld because the military turned down her request for a photo of her son's flag-draped casket as it arrived at Dover Air Force Base last year. She's angry at Colin Powell, the former secretary of state who made the case at the United Nations that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was producing weapons of mass destruction. ("He has blood on his hands, as far as I'm concerned," Meredith says.) And she's not happy with the way the Army has treated her since the death of her son.

So Meredith is speaking out.

She's spoken at public forums and demonstrations. In September, she spoke at a televised town hall meeting in which family members of deceased Northern California soldiers came together. "He was killed 100 days ago today," she told the San Francisco Chronicle shortly after she began speaking out on the war. "You just miss their voice. You miss every single day. And it isn't 100 days ago, it's one day 100 times over. ... When's it going to stop hurting? And when do you stop missing them?"

She's become friendly with advocacy groups like the Gold Star Families for Peace, Military Families Speak Out and Code Pink. She was asked recently to appear at a counter-military recruitment event, but begged off because it took place on Mother's Day (although she is quick to note that Mother's Day started as an antiwar holiday).

She recently participated at a gathering in Berkeley and also traveled to Arlington West, a project by the Santa Barbara Veterans for Peace to re-create the grave sites of soldiers killed in Iraq. Later this month, on Memorial Day, the anniversary of Ballard's death, Meredith plans to return to Washington to again visit her son's grave at Arlington.

"Our generation learned that it is not the soldiers, but the president who made the decision to send them on their mission," she says. "The president has been misleading. He won't define success. And why are they building 14 permanent bases over there? I know that many of the soldiers there feel that we're not accomplishing anything."

Persistence of Memory: 'In every picture in Iraq, he had a smile on his face,' says Meredith of her son. 'He just loved life. I loved watching him.'

'Just Don't Call It A Shrine'

Last month, at a televised cable access forum in Palo Alto, Meredith warned viewers that a military draft is looming. "You do the math," she said. Recruitment for the reserves and for regular military is down, and the involvement in Iraq looks to be another unending quagmire. Who are they going to turn to? What else can the government do?

"I have been pushing people to know that this is not a journey that they want to go down. People need to know they have choices," Meredith says. "I don't know what it is about the mainstream media that they don't want to annoy those at the top. So many people say to me: 'I've not been touched by the war.' And we are not being asked to sacrifice for the war, except for the oil prices," Meredith says.

Nadia McCaffrey of Tracy is also the mother of a deceased soldier. Her son, Patrick, also an only child, graduated from high school in Cupertino and had lived in Palo Alto. He was killed in Iraq in June 2004. McCaffrey says Meredith is an effective speaker.

"She has not spoken up as much as I have," she says, "but she is catching up."

In an interview at her home, Meredith wears a button with a picture of a flag-draped coffin and a number written in green—the number of American soldiers killed through April 22. This number changes almost every day, as casualties mount, and Meredith changes the number accordingly. On this particular day, the number is 1,566.

The button is just one reminder of the war and of Ballard's death. Meredith has a tattoo on her left ankle with a gold star and a red heart on the inside—the gold star an indication that she is the mother of a deceased soldier. On a table in the hallway near the front door are photos of Ballard in uniform, with friends and fellow soldiers. In the living room, next to the couch, is another collection of photos, keepsakes and miniature American flags.

She even has his CD collection from Iraq, which includes Metallica, Vivaldi, Alan Jackson, Megadeth and Puccini. Ballard told his mother that he liked driving through the streets in his tank with opera blaring because it reminded him of the scene in the movie Apocalypse Now.

"Just don't call it a shrine," she says, laughing and looking over the collection of photos and flags. "He was irreverent. In every picture in Iraq, he had a smile on his face. He just loved life. I loved watching him."

She talks about the Pentagon's denial of her request for a picture of Ballard's coffin, saying it doesn't make sense that these photos aren't released; the stated reason is that it would violate the privacy of family members. "And we don't see wounded soldiers coming home because they land after dark. The Bush administration is really good at hiding the cost of war," she says.

She talks about the support she received from family and friends in the last year. A website (www.ltkenballard.com) devoted to Ballard features postings from college friends and fellow soldiers, as well as perfect strangers and other parents of dead soldiers. Meredith received gifts from people across the country after Ballard's death. One woman in Kentucky sent a package of bereavement books and a video.

One moment she's talking about Ballard, his fun-loving personality and the effect he had on others. And the next moment she's raging against the government.

"You guys planned this war. You should have known people were going to be killed," she says to no one in the room. "You should have planned better."

This past weekend, Meredith was scheduled to head back to Arlington West in Santa Barbara, her third visit to see Ballard's imitation grave.

"I just wanted to be alone for Mother's Day," she says. And then she heads off toward another memory of her son.

"He always picked up a goofy card for me," she says.

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From the May 11-17, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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