The ripple effects of losing a son in Iraq took the Warner family on a journey into darkness.
Nearly six years after Marine Pvt. Heath D. Warner died, the family is only now beginning to heal.
“I could not come to terms with Heath’s death,” said the Marine’s father, Scott Warner, 48.
The painful story of losing a son and the toll it took on an entire family is chronicled in a self-published book, Gold Star Father — Honoring a Hero, Remembering a Son.
Written by Scott Warner, the book is to be released Sept. 11.
“The reality is when the person is killed, that is just the beginning,” Scott Warner said. “A lot of people think once you bury that loved one, you go on and things go back to normal and they don’t.”
Heath Warner was 19 and a recent graduate of McKinley High School when he was killed in a roadside bombing on Nov. 22, 2006.
For the Warners, parents of two other sons, Chandler, now 20, and Ashton, 13, the loss of their oldest son led to depression, employment problems for him and problems in their marriage, Scott and Melissa Warner said.
“I became pretty much obsessed with his death and him,” said Scott Warner.
Melissa Warner gave birth to Heath when she was 20. She later married Scott Warner and four years later, he adopted Heath.
In 2010, the Warners traveled to Arlington National Cemetery, where their son is buried, for the exhumation of his body.
The Warners requested the exhumation on the basis of conflicts in information cemetery officials had given them after news reports of mix-ups in burials at the cemetery.
Scott Warner identified the body as that of his son by a tattoo of a Chinese symbol on his arm.
Warner said he had been writing a journal for years, including the time before and after his son’s death. He decided three years ago to write a book.
“I went down a dark valley and it was hard to come out,” he said.
In the book, Warner describes the day three U.S. Marines came to his Canton home.
“I went upstairs for a moment when I heard Melissa screaming outside, I panicked,” he writes. “Sprinting down the stairs, I knew something was terribly wrong, and I thought someone was attacking her. As I reached the bottom step, Melissa was trying to tell me the Marines were at our house. I could barely understand her through her sobbing.”
The uniformed Marines informed the couple that Heath was dead, Warner writes.
“Yes, sir. He has been identified by a dog tag in his boot and by his identification card,” one Marine told the family.
Warner said the Marines then gave them a report of how Heath had died.
“As I read the report, disbelief, numbness and an unimaginable pain gripped my body, mind and spirit,” he wrote. “I slumped in a chair.”
The Warners have gone through individual counseling and counseling together.
Ultimately, Melissa Warner realized her husband had gone over the top in his grief over Heath.
But, she said, “I still had to be a mom. I had to dig deep and be strong because he fell apart and my kids needed me and that is what I had to do. I had to hold it together.”
Their home had become a shrine to their son, with photographs and other items from his life on display all around.
Only recently, the family has been putting away many of the photos.
“We ‘de-shrined’ the home,” Scott Warner said.
He said he realized that his grieving, which led to suicidal thoughts and one attempt, was having an impact on the entire family.
“Part of my growing is accepting my responsibility for what I did to my family,” he said.
“We all had to come to terms with accepting Heath’s death.”
It was a process that has taken nearly six years, he said. Ultimately, Melissa Warner said, she and her husband realized that they need to be there for their two living sons.
“They deserve that,” the 45-year old mother said.
Their marriage is now on solid ground and the family has not forgotten their son, she said.
“We remember, we love him and he will always be in our hearts,” she said.
“[But] we need to be here for Chandler and Ashton.”
A book signing will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Sept. 11 at the Arcadia Grill at 321 Court Ave. NW in Canton during the Freedom to Remember Dinner. Donations for the dinner will go to the Warner Family Foundation and reservations can be made at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at email@example.com.