A Death in the Family

updated 02/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Dear Carol,
Once in a while I get this feeling...that I'll he one of the casualties. After I stop and think about it, that's almost impossible. Something inside tells me I'm going to be okay. I pray every night that you and the kids are doing fine. I'll be fine. I avoid praying for things that I just might get, like coming home soon, because I'm a little superstitious. They say be careful what you pray for 'cause you just might get it.

Cpl. Stephen E. Bentzlin
Nov. 17, Saudi Arabia

On the morning of Jan. 30, Carol Bentzlin awoke after yet another fitful night and heard the grim report over the radio: Eleven marines had been killed in the first ground battle of the gulf war. Immediately she feared that the nightmare that for months had racked her sleep and haunted her days had come true, that her husband, Marine Cpl. Stephen E. Bentzlin, was dead. She opened the front door of her home in Camp Pendleton, Calif., and stared into space. "I felt lost. I felt really scared," she says. Turning back inside, she left the door open; if bad news was coming, she wanted to see it arrive. She settled into the garden, thinking weeding might calm her fears. She froze when a white van pulled up to the house, certain that official notification of tragedy had arrived; it turned out to be a garbage truck. When the afternoon passed without word, she dared to hope. And when night fell without news, she was relieved. Her husband, she thought, was alive.

Then, at 11 P.M., came a knock on the door. A chaplain in dress blues, flanked by two marines, delivered the devastating news: Stephen Bentzlin, 23, a rifleman on a light armored vehicle, had been killed in the Jan. 29 battle with Iraqi forces outside Khafji, Saudi Arabia. As of early last week there was still no confirmation whether he had been among the seven soldiers killed by a U.S. missile. While Carol, 28, says she would be "crushed" if Steve had been killed by friendly fire, "it's not going to bring him back. What would I do? Does it matter?" Her kitchen is filled with flowers and cakes brought by neighbors, and in the living room stands a pair of Steve's combat boots, a light coat of dust dulling the black finish he had worked into the leather before he left for the gulf last summer. For Carol, the empty shoes are poignant reminders that the young man she married just 13 months ago will never come home. "I'm trying hard not to think about him," she says, dragging nervously on a cigarette. "Logically, I know he's gone."

In Steve's hometown of Wood Lake, Minn., virtually all of the 420 residents were mourning the death of one of their sons. People gathered at BJ's Coffee Shop, wondering in hushed tones what to say, what to do for his family. Some baked casseroles, others drove 25 miles to the nearest K Mart and bought out its supply of flags. "This whole town hurts," said pastor Jim Creselius of the United Methodist Church. But none more than Barbara Anderson. Steve's mother. The town fondly remembers a funny, polite boy who loved basketball, led his youth group at church and in summertime helped out on neighboring farms for pocket money. But Barbara, a 48-year-old Native American, faces deeper and darker memories of the battles her youngest child fought and survived at home—against abuse, alcoholism and his discomfort with his Indian heritage—long before his final confrontation in the far-off Middle East.

In her single-story married-quarters home at Camp Pendleton, Carol fights back tears as she sorts through her husband's possessions—and her own inescapable memories. It was January 1989 when she first saw Steve, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at the Friendship Center in San Clemente. Carol was immediately taken by the handsome, strapping, 6'2" marine whose leg was in a cast and who spoke openly of his life and troubles. Two months later Steve asked Carol out for coffee. "He was a gentle and quiet man, somewhat pensive, a bit vain at times," she says, recalling the way he stroked his chin and struck a kind of John Wayne pose. "I fell in love with him on the first date." He proposed the following week and again in July before shipping out to the Pacific on a six-month tour. When he returned, Carol said yes, and they married in December, in a tiny chapel near San Bernardino.

But the romance was more than flowers and midnight strolls on the beach. A native of Orange County, Calif., Carol had married right out of high school in 1980 and divorced six years later. Even during her courtship with Steve, she was involved in a bitter battle for her children. "We both had terrible inner turmoil," says Carol, alluding also to the alcoholism that for years had disrupted both their lives. But love, and patience, won out. "Steve walked me through the tough times. He helped me and I helped him," she says. "Being sober is the only way he could have lived. He had changed from a completely irresponsible and reckless young man to a warm and caring individual."

With Steve's encouragement, Carol gained the confidence to quit her job as a clerk in an insurance agency and enroll in a local community college to study literature. By July 1990, Carol had won custody of her youngest child. Ricky, 7, and was still fighting for custody of daughter Ryan, 10, and Michael, 8. Because all three lived with her, Steve was thrust into parenthood and helped provide the attention and stability they needed. "He was so wonderful with the kids. He hugged them and kissed them, read to them, wrestled with them. He let them wash the car," says Carol. "You couldn't have special-ordered a better father. Steve was very aware because of what his past had taught him."

The fifth and youngest child of Barbara and Edward Bentzlin, Steve was born in St. Paul and reared in a chronically troubled family. Barbara was shy, frightened, and married to a man whom she describes as an abusive heavy drinker. Edward refuses to comment on the allegation. Just weeks after Steve's birth, Barbara and Edward separated, but she could not escape the pain. "I was a battered woman with all the scars that brings," she says. "The children didn't get the attention I wish they'd had."

For several years, Steve, his brother, Ed, and their sisters, Susan, Kathleen and Sonja, lived in an apartment above Barbara's parents as she tried to make ends meet working in a St. Paul factory. A few years after her divorce in 1970, she met a railroad worker, Wally Anderson, and in 1975 they moved to a rented farmhouse on the outskirts of Wood Lake. It seemed, to everyone, an auspicious new beginning. "We had a big field where the kids could play kickball and woods right next to the house where they built forts and climbed trees," says Barbara. But the idyll soon came to an end. Wally, whom Barbara married in 1977, had a drinking problem and took out his anger on her. "He was as nice as could be when he wasn't drinking," she says, adding that he was a terror when he was. Says Steve's brother, Ed, 25: "It was a battleground. You never knew what would happen next."

What did happen, says Barbara, was that to prevent Wally from striking Steve and the other children, she would hit them instead. "We were never mad at her," says Ed. "We knew Wally made her do it." Wally went into treatment in 1981, but two years later, still grappling with her fears, Barbara and her children took refuge in a home for battered women. "I know Steve was embarrassed to be there," she says. Though Wally and Barbara resolved their problems, Steve was increasingly consumed by his own demons. He seemed a well-adjusted teenager, but according to Carol, Steve had begun to drink in his teens. "Steve never wanted to talk about the things that hurt," says Ed. "Mom would try to bring things up with Steve, but he'd just leave the house."

In time, Steve began to develop a closer relationship with his father. After his parents had separated, he and his siblings spent one week each summer with Edward, a paint-factory worker who still lived in St. Paul. Steve was increasingly interested in his father's military past; Edward had served as a marine during the Korean War, and his three brothers fought in World War II. "He'd come to my place and look through my military books and want to talk about it," Edward recalls. After high school Steve enlisted in the Army, but when he was told he had to wait two months before basic training, he switched to the Marines. "He'd made the decision," says Barbara, "He wanted the action."

He got it, and thrived on it. Based at Pendleton, he served also in Japan, the Philippines and at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Back at Pendleton in January 1990, he was selected Marine of the Quarter out of the 17,000 men and women in the camp's First Division for his skills and leadership. Last August, just days after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Steve was among the first to volunteer for an advance unit for Operation Desert Shield. He was flown to Saudi Arabia that month, and during the long wait for war, Steve's sense of purpose held firm. He wrote letters nearly every day to Carol and the kids, to Barbara, to friends, to children and the students at Wood Lake High School, which he had attended. "Out here we pray for mail," he wrote to one friend. "Now I have 40 fourth-grade pen pals! Watch what you pray for." Another time he mused about digging a foxhole in the sand: "Let me explain. It's like trying to empty a full sink with a leaking paper cup and the faucet is going full blast."

Yet even before the fighting began, Steve's thoughts had begun to turn inward. On Jan. 24, he spent two hours on the phone with Carol, wanting to talk about what would happen if he didn't return—her finances, even his funeral arrangements. "I felt so bad for him," she says, "because I couldn't hold him and tell him everything was going to be okay." That same day, he called his father, waking him at 4 in the morning. At first, Edward says, "we just made conversation. Are you dressed warm? Do you get enough food? That kind of thing." But as the call came to a close, he sensed something strange in his sons voice. "Steve said, 'I got a feeling I never had before in my life.' I wonder if he had a premonition, a fear. I didn't ask. I wish I had."

In the two-story wood-frame home Barbara now shares with Wally and their 13-year-old daughter, Penny, the usual quiet has given way to the commotion of friends and neighbors paying their respects. Barbara, who is director of the Non-Violence Network, which provides services for abused women and children, turns to Native American practices to comfort herself, such as tying together tiny packets of tobacco while saying prayers—a ritual she compares with the Catholic recitation of the rosary.

Bereaved but tranquil, she remembers the last time she saw her son, in May 1989. "Steve came into my room at about 1 A.M. He asked if he could sit on the bed. He had some questions he wanted to ask me." They talked until dawn, going over family history, both good and bad. "He wanted to know if I remembered things about his growing up. He wanted to know that he was important. He thought no one noticed him. But I did. I told him that I loved him." As she spoke. Steve began to cry. "I didn't do a lot of hugging when he was small," Barbara explains, "but I think sometimes what older kids need is a hug from their mother. I'm so glad I did that. I think he came to peace with all this."

For Carol, though, much has yet to fall into place. Though she will receive a pension from the Marines, she must also find work to get by. She has 90 days to move from Camp Pendleton, but she can request an extension so that her children can finish the school year. Ryan and Michael arc adjusting to the fact of Steve's death, but her youngest, Ricky, who was closest to his new father, cannot yet understand that he will not be coming home. Just finding the time to grieve has been difficult. "I'm looking forward to when I can stop and just be with Steve for a while." she says. Carol must now work out alone the differences that she and Steve never had time to resolve, especially her anger at his decision to volunteer, "I said, 'Let's go to Canada. We'll forget everything.' " she recalls. "We were both crying. He said. 'I can't. It's the principle of the thing. Saddam cannot be allowed to do this. I hope you understand. It's something I need to do for me.' " Now, says Carol, "I want to feel what he felt. This war, this loss, has put a big hole in my life. But I'm getting more so I understand it."

Meeting Steve's family. Carol believes, will help. Sadly, because of distance and circumstance, until Steve's death, the two women closest to him were strangers to each other. "We met through the news broadcast." says Barbara. "What a strange way to meet." At first, their mutual despair turned into disagreement. Carol wanted cremation in California, and Barbara wanted a burial in Minnesota. But as of last week, the dispute had been resolved. Following services in Minnesota. Steve will ultimately rest in California. "We want the whole family together." says Barbara. "We all need that, to make it complete." Meantime. Carol is planning to visit Wood Lake and see where Steve grew up. "His home was here, but his heart was in both places," she says. Whatever their differences, both women hope to come to terms with who Stephen was—and what he wanted out of life. A world away, in the throes of war, he had tried to explain. "I just had to volunteer," he wrote. "You may think that's crazy, but...I didn't join so I could wear the uniform.... No matter how this turns out, I can proudly say I did my part."

—Karen S. Schneider, Lyndon Stambler in Camp Pendleton, Margaret Nelson in Wood Lake

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