Sept. 11 has altered Americans’ lives forever. But for mothers and fathers with children in the military, Sept. 11 has a more personal meaning.
That date has resulted in days and months of worrying about their children, who are fighting in foreign nations. They are tense while watching news reports on deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have watched their grandchildren miss their parents for months on end.
And for some, like Lockeford resident Greg and Lori Coumas, they have had to live through their children giving the ultimate sacrifice.
The couple’s son, Kyle Coumas, 22, died in Afghanistan on Oct. 21, 2009 when the vehicle he was driving was hit by an improvised explosive device in the province of Kandahar in Afghanistan.
“It’s a tragedy that my son was killed, but he was exactly where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to do,” Greg Coumas said.
As the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, local parents with children in the military share where they were on Sept. 11, and how the resulting wars have changed their families’ lives.
‘I didn’t want to lose him’
Having her son, James Teeslink, in Iraq for a year has been hard on Susan Teeslink.
Her oldest son, John, was a senior at Lodi High when he died in a car crash in 2005. So when her youngest son, James, said he wanted to join the military, she was worried.
“He’s my youngest son. I didn’t want to lose him. I already lost one,” Susan Teeslink said.
James Teeslink deployed to Iraq for a year as an Army medic and returned home in August.
His mom at first said she was not worried about him being in Iraq, but as his return date approached and violence escalated, she became more and more concerned.
“At first I wasn’t that worried, because I was under the impression that there wasn’t much going on over there,” Teeslink said. “But the last few months have been really hard because people are getting shot a lot.”
She said that overall, the experience turned out to be good for her son, who struggled after his brother died. His older brother had planned to go into the military.
“He left a young kid. He came back a man. ... James just felt like that was his only option. It was a growing up thing that he needed to do,” she said.
When Sept. 11 happened, her two sons were going to Victor Elementary School and Houston Middle School. Susan Teeslink was working part-time at the San Joaquin Sheriff’s Department, and her boss told her to not come in.
“It was really odd, the whole day. ... I stayed home and watched it over and over again,” Teeslink said.
When the United States announced it was going to war in Iraq, she supported it. But now she sees parallels with Vietnam.
“This many years later, this is ridiculous as far as I’m concerned. People are dying, and there is no reason now. I don’t see what we are really accomplishing,” Teeslink said.
She also has noticed that people have forgotten that servicemen and women are risking their lives daily. When her son was coming back from Iraq, she asked to take off work. Another co-worker who had plans to go to San Francisco with her child asked why Teeslink thought her trip was more important.
“After what he did, I think he deserves to have his parent be there when he comes home. I haven’t done anything personally, but he has done something,” Teeslink said.
Watching two children go off to war
Arlene Farley knew right away that it was not a small plane that ran into the Twin Towers.
As a small plane pilot, she knew that size of plane could not cause that much damage. Plus, the sky was so clear, she did not believe a plane would accidentally run into a building that large.
She found out about the terrorist attack while she was at home getting out of the shower, and then went to her job teaching fourth grade at Oakview Elementary.
“The kids were devastated and panicked. They weren’t sure if something was going to hit their school. ... There was not a whole lot of learning that day. I did a lot of teaching, but I knew there wasn’t a lot of learning,” Farley said.
Farley has watched two of her stepchildren go off to war in Afghanistan.
Her oldest stepson, Scott, graduated from Tokay High School, and served as a naval aviator. He retired about three years ago. Now, he works for a private defense contractor flying three- to six-month missions. She does not know where he flies or what he does.
“The only thing he could tell me is that he is over there and he goes out and looks for the bad guys and tells us where they are,” Farley said.
Her other stepson, Milton Farley, was in Afghanistan for a year, and returned home in early July.
He served as an Army air traffic controller and was awarded a Bronze Star. He spent most of his time at a small forward operating base in eastern Afghanistan that the U.S. took over from Romania. When he arrived, he had to create all of the maps and charts because there were none.
When soldiers were flown in by helicopter with injuries, they were dying because it took them a half-hour to unload them and get them to the mobile army surgical hospital.
Milton Farley modified two Hummers so they would be able to load wounded troops more easily and quickly carry them to the MASH unit in about 30 seconds.
“He did that in the first month that he got there. They awarded him the Bronze Star for how many lives he saved,” Arlene Farley said.
When she visited her daughter-in-law in Germany last summer, Arlene Farley said she noticed her grandchildren were always concerned about their dad every time they heard about a death in Afghanistan. Milton Farley has a 12-year-old and 3-year-old triplets.
“They were torn up by it. They were scared. I witnessed my grandchildren just panic, especially the 12-year-old,” she said.
Arlene Farley still worries when Scott goes to Afghanistan as a civilian pilot. She spends a lot of time working for Project Thank You, a nonprofit in Lodi that sends boxes to the troops. One of the shipments to her son Milton was distributed to 200 soldiers, including a Navy SEAL unit.
“It just takes you and pulls you apart. You just have to not think about it,” she said.
‘He loved his country’
Greg Coumas was driving his son, Kyle, to school at St. Mary’s when they found out about Sept. 11.
“He was very quiet about it. He looked quite startled,” Greg Coumas remembers.
That night, he remembers trying to describe to his son what had happened.
“I couldn’t explain it. From my perspective, I had no idea why someone would do that, at least someone rational,” he said.
Greg Coumas said he felt a similar type of loss as when John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated.
“Every time something like this happens, it is impossible to try and understand why,” Greg Coumas said.
Kyle Coumas always had aspirations to go into the military, but after Sept. 11, he started talking about them openly. He helped his mom, Lori, adopt a platoon in Iraq in 2003 and send care packages.
“He felt strongly about being a soldier. That is what he always wanted to do. He felt patriotic, and he loved his country,” Greg Coumas said.
At first, his son was scheduled to be deployed to Iraq, and was not happy about it. He wanted to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
But that changed and he was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, and was deployed to Afghanistan in July 2009.
Since his son died in October 2009, Greg Coumas said he has formed a special bond with the members of Kyle Coumas’ platoon.
Many of them have visited Greg and Lori. They have visited Kyle Coumas’ grave in Wilseyville coming from as far away as Virginia. Several have even visited by themselves, which is surprising because the grave is tough to find even with the address and a GPS.
“It’s not easy. It’s very emotional. These guys are devoted to each other,” Greg Coumas said.
Since January this year, Greg Coumas has found therapy in carving plaques for the 45 platoon members. He is finishing up the 44th. The 45th is for Kyle.
Greg Coumas’ brother-in-law is carving pens out of a branch from a large tree near Kyle Coumas’ grave.
Connecting with Kyle’s platoon members has been an amazinf experience, and Greg and Lori Coumas expect be in touch with the 44 men throughout their lives.
Having never served in the military, Greg Coumas said he has learned so much from them.
“Maybe that’s why I’m so in awe of these guys and the devotion they have. There must be something about a soldier in combat that changes how they look out for people,” he said.
Greg Coumas, Susan Teeslink and Arlene Farley said they are all frustrated that people are not talking about the fact that the U.S. is still involved in two wars. Coumas said he did not hear the Republican presidential candidates talk about national security during the debate Wednesday night.
“The ambivalence is stifling. I really am annoyed with people who don’t want to be bothered by it when the freedom that they enjoy is provided by the people who are risking it all,” Greg Coumas said.