Whenever she reads an online notice that another American has died in Iraq or Afghanistan, Donna Faye Caudill posts the same response:

“Praying for the soldier’s family.”

Every time I read her response, I know that she is thinking about her son Army Spc. Ben Caudill.

This ritual began soon after I signed up for the Department of Defense “casualty” alerts. I did this to force myself to be mindful of the sacrifices of the men and women serving in the Middle East and their families left behind.

The relentlessness of the bad news haunts. Each time the BlackBerry buzzes with a DOD e-mail, I open it and read aloud another name, another hometown. You can go days without a single alert, and then suddenly several names come through in a single message. Or the alerts arrive every couple of hours, bearing names attached to ages that mirror those of our own four kids.

My great-grandmother always said a burden shared is a burden halved, so I decided to start posting the DOD announcements on my Facebook page, where real-friend Donna regularly visits.

Donna is a retired hairdresser and office clerk in Mansfield, Ohio, where she raised three kids with her husband, Jim, who works full time delivering fuel oil in central Ohio. Their middle boy, 30-year-old Ben, joined the Army Reserve when he was 18. He left for Iraq last November.

Donna and I started out as small-town girls who grew into big opinions, which we enjoy sharing. Since Ben was deployed, many of her e-mails and Facebook posts have been updates letting everyone know he’s OK.

Last week, she sent a different e-mail:

“I’m online with Ben,” her note began. “He is in Kuwait.”

He was on his way home, but he had bad news from Iraq.

The central housing next to where Ben had been staying was hit by “indirect fire.” One of his fellow soldiers was killed.

“I’m shaking and crying and I have to believe Ben has a purpose on this earth that he needs to fulfill,” she wrote. “Be blessed today.”

Two days later, the DOD alert arrived:

“Spc. Paul E. Andersen, 49, of Dowagiac, Mich., died Oct. 1 in Baghdad, Iraq, of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his camp using indirect fire. He was assigned to the 855th Quartermaster Company, South Bend, Ind.”

“Praying for the soldier’s family,” Donna wrote in response, adding something else this time: “… and for Ben’s safe return.”

Andersen’s hometown paper, the Kalamazoo Gazette, answered some of the questions that always hover after these DOD announcements.

He gave nearly 25 years of his life to the Army Reserve and was on his second tour in Iraq.

He had three daughters, three stepchildren and a wife, named Linda, who made him repeat the question three times after he asked her to marry him, in 2004. They lived in South Bend, Ind., and shared a love for country music, old movies and strawberry milkshakes. Known for his childlike enthusiasm, Andersen went overboard with the Christmas lights every year.

As I write this, Donna believes her Ben is on his way home. She’s not sure when he’ll arrive or whether he’ll land in Cleveland or Columbus. What she does know — with the certainty of a mother who knows her boy — is what his first home-cooked meal will be: fried chicken with Stove Top dressing, made just the way he likes it.

“I put it in a 9-by-13 pan, put fried chicken on top, pour cream of mushroom soup over the whole thing, and put it in the oven for a half-hour at 350 degrees,” she said, giggling. “He’ll scoop the pan clean.”

Until that moment comes, Donna will continue to pray for Ben’s safety. It’s worked so far, she said.

“I always say I pray to God in Ohio, but he answers my prayers in Iraq,” she said.

And what of those who pray yet lose their loved ones?

“I don’t have an answer for that,” she said softly, “and I wish I did.”

She hopes to ask God about that someday.

Connie Schultz is a columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books.

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