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Bin Laden's death paltry comfort for families who lost loved ones

| Sunday, May 8, 2011

Nine years later, Lisa Selmon Vance keeps the folded American flag that draped her husband's casket framed on the living room coffee table.

Photos of Army Staff Sgt. Gene Arden Vance Jr., a West Virginia National Guardsman, line the walls of her Orlando home and her desk at the engineering firm where she works. She keeps a favorite shirt of his and his military uniforms among belongings tucked away.

In many ways, she says, her life stopped on May 19, 2002, when Gene Vance died in Afghanistan. On that date, she'll light candles surrounding the flag at home, and pray. Perhaps it was woman's intuition, she says, but she knew somehow she would lose her husband to the war triggered by the 9/11 terror attacks Osama bin Laden masterminded.

Bin Laden's death last week at the hands of Navy SEALs doesn't make it easier.

"I could never remarry, no," said Selmon Vance, 41. "Gene was my soulmate, the love of my life. I could never imagine sharing my life with anyone else."

Family members of those who died in the 9/11 airliner crashes and the subsequent fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq say bin Laden's death is another milestone marked in the years since their losses left deep, permanent scars.

Samantha and Kayla Rafferty are navigating their teen years without a father, says their grandmother, Sandra Hustava, 69, of Brownsville. She is redecorating a room in her Fayette County home in honor of her slain son, Army 1st Sgt. Christopher C. Rafferty, displaying his photos, medals and dog tags.

Rafferty was 37 when he died in Sharana, Afghanistan, on July 21, 2006, a day after coordinating a response to a mortar attack. His wife and daughters, now ages 18 and 15, stayed in Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was assigned to the 37th Engineer Battalion. The girls know there are momentous occasions ahead that he'll never share, Hustava said.

"He won't see them in their prom gowns, or walk them down the aisle at their weddings," she said. "They will have to live the rest of their lives without him; we all will. How fair is that?"

Following the news of bin Laden's death, calls spiked at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors in Washington, primarily from family members of troops, spokeswoman Ami Neiberger-Miller said. Knowing the man responsible for 9/11 is dead brought emotions to the surface, she said.

"It's a long road these families are walking," said Neiberger-Miller, whose brother, Army Spc. Christopher Neiberger, was killed in action in Iraq in 2007. "They need so much support for an extended period of time, and so often there is a rush of media attention and support right after the death and then, after the funeral, everyone goes away."

Selmon Vance was a newlywed when two planes struck the World Trade Center towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. Even before the second plane hit, she said, she knew Gene would be sent to war.

"I was watching it all on television in my office, and I was crying," she said. "He was special forces. He spoke Farsi. I knew he'd be among the first ones they sent over there. And I just knew in my heart he wouldn't be coming home alive. I just knew."

His unit, the Support Company, 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, was called up that day. The couple canceled honeymoon plans. Days after Gene Vance's Nov. 30, 2001, deployment, Selmon Vance learned she was pregnant. She wanted to surprise her husband with the news on Jan. 1, but on New Year's Eve, she fell down a flight of stairs while carrying a laundry basket and miscarried their baby.

"That was a piece of him, and we lost it. And then I lost him," she said. "Instead of calling to tell him I was pregnant, I had to tell him we'd lost a baby. It was awful."

Gene Vance, a 1981 graduate of Oceana High School in Wyoming County, W.Va.,was killed by enemy fire while on patrol in eastern Afghanistan. He was 38. Department of Defense records show he was the 22nd soldier to die in combat there in Operation Enduring Freedom.

Selmon Vance blames bin Laden for the way her life changed when she became a widow.

"My husband was dead, and I had no kids," she said. "I think about it every day. And it's all because of one evil man."

She was watching television when the network broke in with President Obama's announcement about bin Laden's death.

"Part of me thought I'd never hear that news," she said. "Then, I just felt such relief and vindication. They finally finished what Gene went there for. He didn't die for nothing."

Amber Nicole Vance, 27 — Gene Vance's daughter by his first wife — grew up in Florida but spent holidays and summers with her father in Morgantown. She remembers a childhood spent laughing at his jokes, or twisting on the floor as he tickled her. She named her first son after her father, who died six weeks before Hunter Gene Arden Vance's birth.

"My entire world changed when those soldiers came to the door and told me my father had been killed," Amber Vance said. "My Dad was supposed to be here for all these special moments — the big ones and the small ones. And bin Laden took all that away."

Unlike her stepmother, Amber didn't worry when her father went to war.

"I never thought my dad would go over there and not come home," she said. "I'm glad Osama bin Laden is dead, because he didn't deserve to be alive, but his death doesn't bring my father back, or any of the other soldiers who have died because of a war bin Laden started. In the end, nobody really wins here."

Hustava's grandson, Jason Charles Anderson of Carmichaels in Greene County, is stationed in Afghanistan with the Army's 101st Airborne Division. His station in Sharana is located along a road named after his fallen uncle. Anderson's wife and three small sons are awaiting his return in Fort Campbell, Ky.

"I want him home, safe and alive," Hustava said. "It's always in the back of my mind: Are we going to bring another one home in a casket• This family couldn't survive that."

Additional Information:

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The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors in Washington is gathering messages of support for the families of fallen soldiers in time for Memorial Day. To submit a message, click here .

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