AKRON, Ohio — Peggy Buryj might be a phone call away from answering the great mystery of her life.
But she hesitates.
Buryj thinks she knows the name of an American soldier who killed her son, Jesse, in a friendly-fire incident in Iraq on May 5, 2004.
According to a soldier who was there, the bullet came from the gun of a man who is still in the U.S. Army and living in Italy.
But knowing that has not brought her comfort. Instead, the Canton woman has concluded there’s nothing she can do about it.
So the agony and the grieving continue after eight long years. She often feels lonely, even among other Gold Star mothers, because her circumstances and pain are unusual. She doesn’t even celebrate military holidays like other survivors.
“I really can’t accept it; I have to know it for what it is,” she said while sitting in her living room, darkened by shades but filled with mementos of her son. “No, I don’t accept it. It’s hard to accept it.”
Because of a botched military investigation, we might never know what really happened to Army Spc. Jesse Buryj, 21, a Canton McKinley graduate.
At first, Peggy Buryj was told her son died in a collision of vehicles owned by the Polish and U.S. military. Later, it was concluded he was shot.
The bullet was never tested for ballistics and was destroyed.
“I didn’t want to think that I was being lied to,” Buryj said this month. “I didn’t think in this country that the mother of a fallen soldier would be lied to. That was a huge conflict for me. But it happened.”
She sees a conspiracy.
“In my mind, it was a deliberate course of events to lie to us about how he died,” she said. “And as a mother of a fallen soldier who is going through the grief of losing your son and you had the added dishonor of not being told what happened to him.”
To some extent, this is old news. In 2004, confused by conflicting information, she asked President George W. Bush on a campaign stop to help find out what really happened.
In 2006, the Army’s inspector general apologized for the conflicting information, concluding that some questions could never be answered because the bullet was gone and never tested.
Buryj says the inspector general knew about the soldier who visited her and identified the alleged shooter of her son. The former soldier, who she declined to identify, told her he was present for a meeting after the accident when soldiers got together to make up the story that Jesse Buryj died when his Humvee collided with a Polish Army vehicle. That’s what the first investigation said.
A few days later, she learned of the bullet wound.
Ever since those days, she’s lived with anger.
“It was a lie. This was not fog of war,” she said. “This was a concerted effort to lie to us. They didn’t want to admit that Jesse was killed by friendly fire.”
In addition to talking to Bush, she talked to newspaper and television reporters and even cooperated in a movie about friendly fire called A Second Knock.
She believes the media activity forced the inspector general to make his final report but it could not bring answers to all of her questions.
“In the course of the second investigation, they had thrown away the bullet that was exhumed from Jesse’s body that would have proven if indeed an American soldier had shot him,” she said. “They threw it out. So there was no proving.”
That’s why the information from the anonymous soldier was so disturbing.
“I think I know who killed my son,” she said.
The man, who by then was out of the military, literally knocked on her door to tell his account of the death.
“He had been at the briefings when basically the story was set and they were told what to say,” she said.
When she told the military about his account, she was told he was disgruntled about being passed over for promotions.
“He called me up and he asked to come to my house and he told me ‘If you were my mother, I would want you to know the truth.’ And he told me the truth. Now what would be his motive for lying to me about that? Of course, I’m not going to get that from the Army.”
So she had a name but no idea where to look until she was invited to join a Facebook page for her son’s former unit.
There was the name.
“When I saw his name on Facebook, I literally threw up,” she said.
She thinks about her son every day, and every day, she considers contacting the man she believes shot the bullet that killed Jesse.
“I haven’t reached out to him because I don’t think I’m in a place to forgive yet,” she said.
“God has probably forgiven. I’m sure Jesse has forgiven,” she said. “I just don’t know if I can forgive all the lies. And all he would have to do is say ‘Hey, Peggy, I knew your son’ and it would all be whished away. ... And if I can find him, he sure can find me.”
But she won’t call because she still has doubt.
“Oh, yeah, because what if I’m wrong?” she said. “Until I hear from the horse’s mouth, I’m not going to know.”
So she still needs time and the discipline to resist acting out and calling the man with an accusation she believes but can’t prove.
“Because if you open that can of worms, what are you going to do with it?” she said of making contact with the man. “What if he tells, me ‘Yeah, I shot Jesse,’ is it going to bring Jesse back? I think I need to be in a place where I can say ‘I forgive you for the last eight and a half years.” … I don’t know if I’m there yet.”
Because her son died by friendly fire and she has all this anger, she feels alone. The numbers demonstrate that. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans are in the military. A tiny portion of them have Gold Star mothers and only a handful of them were told their loved ones died of friendly fire.
So to some extent, she and her husband, who avoids publicity, mourn alone.
She usually volunteers to work on Memorial Day and other military holidays. Her pain is so great, she can’t relate to the glory of the day.
But on May 5, she skips work.
“That’s just too hard of a day,” she said.
She goes to the cemetery to be alone.
She knows it’s important to her recovery to be civil and control her anger, but it’s hard.
“Some days I, quite frankly, I fail at it,” she said. “You know, some days I’m just angry and I think that’s normal.”
“There’s still good things in this world. There’s still happiness and it would be so easy to let all the bad stuff take over and if I could forget all the bad I would forget the good, too.”
She warns against politicizing her experience.
“I was never against the war,” she said. “I was against being lied to. I’m an American citizen who has a dead son — that I have a little bit of a problem with, not the war. Not the president.”
And she is gradually learning to accept her fate.
“This is my walk in life,” she said. “… This is what God has given you and you just try to go. I have never wanted to be a bitter person, because Jesse won’t want me to be bitter. So I try not to become bitter. Yes, I become angry, but I don’t want to become bitter. And that’s hard to do and I fail a lot.”