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United in their grief, mothers find sisterhood
She had to know. Had to know for sure.
And so she unwrapped the web of gauze, drenched in embalming fluid, from the head of her son's corpse, exposing his charred and mangled face, utterly unrecognizable as the boy she had brought up.
She began searching. For something. For anything that she could recognize as part of her son Brandon.
"The only way that I could connect with him was to put my hand around his foot," she said. "His foot was still intact, and I knew when I touched his foot, that this was my sweet, beautiful boy."
Among family, friends and even complete strangers, Young had found no lack of sympathy for her grief. But no one seemed able to comprehend the kind of agony she was experiencing - the kind that would drive a mother to put herself through such horror.
Consumed by heartbreak in the days that followed the death of her son in Baghdad, the Murray woman wondered whether she'd ever find anyone who would understand what she was feeling.
And then she came into possession of an e-mail address. After some deliberation, she sat at her computer and began to type.
"The bond we now have was not one of our choosing," she wrote, "but indeed cannot now be broken."
'All we had'
Debby Casida understood that her son was chancing death with each new day he spent at war, but she'd grown accustomed to the life he'd chosen.
As a Marine in the early 1990s, Todd Venette had served in Somalia. As a new conflict in Iraq appeared to near, he rejoined the Marine Corps, volunteered for combat and was sent to serve as part of the first occupation force, following the invasion in March 2003. Wanting to stay in the fight when his six-month tour ended, he hooked up with a former special forces commando who was winning multi-million dollar contracts providing security services in Iraq.
It was, of course, extremely dangerous work. At the time more than 100 non-Iraqi security workers - nearly half of them Americans - had been killed in the fight. And Casida, whose family members had taken on international security jobs before, understood those risks.
"He loved what he was doing," said Casida, who wears her son's name, embossed on a black bracelet around her wrist. "So while it was hard, as a mother, having him there, I knew that was where he wanted to be."
And then it happened.
On the morning of May 7, 2005, Venette's armored sport utility vehicle - with Brandon Thomas as passenger - was slowed for traffic at a busy intersection of Baghdad's Saadoun Street. The lead driver in the convoy steered his SUV into oncoming traffic and sped ahead, with Venette and Thomas following closely behind and a third vehicle bringing up the rear.
The explosion - a blast that initially appeared to be a car bomb driven into the convoy's path by a suicide attacker - ripped through the second truck, killing Venette, Thomas and dozens of Iraqi bystanders.
Casida - a former traffic accident investigator who lives in Pine Bluff, Ark. - thrust herself into a personal quest to learn as much about the attack as possible. But a year later, she is not even certain that it was indeed a suicide bomber that claimed the life of her son.
"We can't even get anyone to acknowledge they are dead," Casida said.
Though now frustrating, the lack of details in the immediate aftermath of the attacks was debilitating. Without knowing what happened to her son, Casida found it difficult to grieve for him.
In Carol Young - a former officer with the U.S. Marshals Service - Casida found a woman who not only shared her pain, but also her thirst for answers. Almost immediately, the women began a virtual back-and-forth fact exchange.
"And that is how it began," Casida said. "I'd ask her, 'Do you know about this? Have you spoken to this person or that person?' We'd share whatever small piece of information we had, because at the time, that was all we had."
have been close'
The phone calls began shortly thereafter.
At first, they spoke only of their shared anguish and mutual desire for answers.
"We found out that we had so much in common and that our sons had so much in common," Young said. "I'd say, Brandon always did this, and she would say, 'That's just like Todd.' "
Their boys were athletes and fighters. They were Christians, adventurers and caring brothers. Venette served his community as a firefighter. Thomas had aspirations to be a police officer. Each had a penchant for mischief and a palate for beautiful women.
It's unclear how well the two security contractors knew each other. Between his military tour and private contracting work, the 35-year-old Venette had spent nearly two years in Iraq. Thomas, a 27-year-old National Guardsman who had recently graduated from special forces training, had been in the country only a few months.
"But they would have been close," Casida said. "Todd had this way about him, he would make friends so quickly."
"That," Young said, "was just like Brandon - he never met a person he couldn't charm."
Young was encouraged by having found someone who not only understood her pain but was living it alongside of her - though hundreds of miles away.
"I can't even begin to explain how important she is, for me, because she knows," said Young, who wears a silver bracelet etched with her dead son's name. "I can call her up and just cry."
As time went by, the mothers found less need to speak only of their loss.
Talk of the attack led to discussions about faith. Those conversations led to chats about family.
Family led to friends. Friends led to work. Sometimes the phone conversations would last hours.
And sometimes, Saadoun Street wouldn't even come up in their conversations.
'The very moment
of their deaths'
There are so many unanswered questions.
Both young security contractors had told family and friends that their company, CTU Security Consulting, Inc., had purchased life insurance for all of its employees in Iraq. After their deaths, the policies never materialized.
Also gone were tens of thousands of dollars both men had earned for their services - most likely burned up in the explosion, CTU officials told the skeptical parents.
For details about the attack, military investigators refer the mothers to federal authorities. The feds say the women should speak with the company that hired their sons.
And CTU executives are no longer answering their phone calls and e-mails.
Young has written the White House. Casida has written her state's congressional members. They've found plenty of sympathy.
But no help.
"I spend a lot of nights awake, just wondering whether there's a question I haven't asked, or whether there is a place I haven't searched," Young said.
The week of her son's birthday - he would have turned 28 on March 21 - Young lay awake in her bed, wondering whether she'd left any stone unturned.
So many months after the attack, she was still finding bits of information about what happened on the Internet - on one recent night, she'd discovered that her son had kept a personal diary on a password-protected Web site. She broke in using a code he'd often used.
On this sleepless night, hoping to discover a similar cache of information about her son and the attack that claimed his life, Young crawled out of bed, turned on her computer and began another search.
Within minutes, she had come upon a blurred photo of a man, cradling a bloodied Iraqi schoolgirl in his arms, running for help. The photo was dated May 7, 2005.
"I immediately knew that she was involved in the bombing," Young said.
Soon she was sifting through dozens of images taken within moments of the attack in which Thomas and Venette were killed.
"I focused in on the burning SUVs and reality kicked me in the gut because I knew that Brandon and Todd were still in this burning vehicle," Young said. "Here was a moment, caught by the shutter of a camera, that could have been the very moment of their deaths."
The images tore at her gut and burned at her heart.
But she searched on.
And she knew of someone who would wish to do the same.
She wiped the tears from her eyes, copied the Web address and forwarded it to Casida's e-mail.
'Like seeing a sister'
They had been speaking of meeting almost since the moment they realized their mutual grief had evolved into friendship. But as the months went by, and their lives moved on, neither had been able to find the time to travel the 1,500 miles that separates Murray and Pine Bluff.
But as the first anniversary of their sons' deaths approached, Young and Casida understood they might need one another more than ever before.
Perhaps, the women reasoned, they might take a vacation in a place far from either of their homes, where neither would have to prepare meals or clean house - where nothing would distract them from each other.
A cruise, they decided, out of Galveston Harbor in southeast Texas. To Key West. To the Grand Caymans.
Away from reality - if only for seven days.
They would find each other in Houston. Meet face to face for the first time at the airport. Cry, for sure, and then set sail for paradise.
On April 23, in the passenger pickup lane of Houston Hobby Airport, Young and Casida fell into each other's arms.
They sobbed, laughed and sobbed again.
"It was like seeing a sister who I haven't seen for a long time," Casida said.
To passengers bussling by and parking attendants looking on, they very well may have been sisters - or perhaps long-separated friends.
Maybe they'd grown up together, lost touch and were finally reuniting.
"In a way," Casida's husband, Dennis, would later observe, "I think they really have grown up together. They've been through so much. They've had to change so much and not because they wanted to.
"But they've had each other to lean on and so now, yes, they are closer than anyone would ever wish to be."