The latest military widows in our longest war include a pregnant 19-year-old who first suffered tragic loss as a toddler, when she watched her father beat and strangle her mother with a winter scarf before speeding away, leaving the child alone with the body.
Two and a half hours later, the police arrived at the house in West Toledo, Ohio, to notify the family that George Ream had died after deliberately driving head on into a tractor trailer. Two-year-old Grace Ream answered the door and led them to the body of Susan Ream in the dining room. The police understood that a murder had preceded the suicide.
“The little girl told us,” a police supervisor was later quoted as saying. “She was there when it happened.”
Her brother and sister were older and at school. One blessing was that the three siblings stayed together. Another was the kindness and support shown by their neighbors.
“Lots of caring people helped us through it,” recalls her brother, Aaron Ream, who was 8 at the time.
Grace proved to be just as caring and compassionate despite the early horror.
“She has a big heart,” her sister, Ashley Ream Brown, told The Daily Beast. “She has a lot to give.”
And Grace seemed on her way to a happy life when she met a gallant young paratrooper, PFC Brandon Jay Kreischer of the 82nd Airborne. They were married on Jan. 28 of this year, six days after the 16th anniversary of the murder-suicide she did not allow to define her.
But there was a war that was approaching its 18th anniversary, dating back to 9/11, when she was just 1 and her husband-to-be was just 2.
On March 28, the Department of the Army announced that Brandon’s unit would be deployed to Afghanistan in the summer. March was also the month when Grace Kreischer became pregnant. The due date was Dec. 26, 2019, the day after Christmas.
On June 8, the couple joined family members at the Ohio home of Brandon's mother for a combination 20th birthday celebration for Brandon, a baby shower for Grace, and a ”gender reveal.” They would be having a son. They already had a name.
The gathering was also a goodbye party. Brandon departed with his unit for Afghanistan in early July. Grace chose to stay with family in Ohio rather than remain in the suddenly empty apartment where they had been living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the home of Fort Bragg and the 82nd Airborne. She posted on Facebook a photo of their two hands clasped together, his right and her left, the fingers intertwined.
“Brings back memories,” he wrote in a comment. “Can’t wait to come home and see you and Callum after all of this.”
She would later post on Facebook some of the messages they exchanged.
“You matter more to me than I matter to me,” Brandon wrote. “You and that baby make me who I am now. If I don’t have you two, I swear I would never be able to pull myself out of any sorrow ever again. If you’re not here, I’m not here. You two complete me. Family is everything. Fatherhood and being a husband is everything. If I don’t have that, I have nothing.”
He also wrote, “I can’t even begin to explain how much life I was missing out on before we were married and expecting our son. I had thought I was all that, but I wasn’t anything.”
He said he would be home in March and in the meantime would be doing his duty.
“I am just so grateful that I’m doing what I’ve always wanted and that I have the best family I could ever ask for. You being my wife and Callum on the way is the biggest blessing I’ve ever received. I couldn’t be more thankful for what I have now.”
At another moment, he wrote, “We are going to be great parents.”
Grace replied, “For sure.”
He wrote, “It’s going to be the best thing I’ll ever do. Be a father to that boy and a husband for my Gracie.”
She wrote, “I’m glad God had me wait for you.”
He responded, “I can say the exact same thing Gracie.💗💗”
On July 23, Grace updated her profile picture on Facebook with a tender selfie of her standing with her shirt partly raised, her right hand spread on her bared tummy.
That same day, Brandon posted a photo of President John F. Kennedy walking with his daughter, Caroline, when she was he was a toddler. The accompanying JFK quote read:
“Let us not seek the Republican answer, or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”
Also that day, Brandon also posted a 1989 photo of the last Soviet division leaving Afghanistan in defeat.
Three days later, on July 26, he posted a new article headlined, “Taliban says deal on US troop pullout from Afghanistan is near.”
Brandon added a comment.
“We’ll see about that,” he wrote. “Not looking too promising over here.”
On July 29 back in Ohio, Grace went with Ashley and her sister’s kids to an animal shelter. Grace saw an impossibly cute gray and white tabby kitten, and she took a picture that she sent to Brandon. He did not respond.
“She said, ‘Something isn’t right. Brandon would have gotten hold of me. He goes to bed in about an hour,’” Ashley recalled.
Two hours later, somebody sent Grace a screenshot of a posting on the 82nd Airborne Facebook page saying two soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan.
“We just kind of knew in the bottom of our hearts what happened,” Ashley recalled.
Grace then got a call from her landlord in North Carolina reporting that the police had been to her apartment.
“She knew what that meant,” Ashley later said.
A casualty officer and a chaplain had made an official notification in person to Brandon’s mother. Grace was told via a phone call: Brandon had been shot to death along with 24-year-old Spc. Michael Isaiah Nance of Chicago in an “insider attack” by an Afghan soldier who was a supposed ally. Brandon had been in Afghanistan for less than a month.
Brandon’s funeral was held on Aug. 10, in Bryan, Ohio, at the gymnasium of the local high school. He had attended there in the class of 2018 and made an entry in his Senior Memory Book.
“Throughout my life, I have had one huge goal. That one was to enlist in the Army as an infantryman, and I achieved that goal on April 25, 2017. It was without a doubt the proudest day of my life,” he had written. “I am very proud to be an American. I believe that whatever cause America believes in, I have an obligation to believe in, because I am a patriot. If I die in a combat zone for America, I do not call it a tragedy, I call it a glory.”
He was buried in in Evansport Cemetery. The 82nd Airborne’s Honor Guard accorded him full military honors.
On the day her husband was killed, Grace had undergone a sonogram. She posted a photo of it as her new profile picture the day Brandon’s flag-covered coffin was carried off a plane at the military mortuary in Dover, Delaware. The sonogram was labeled “Kreischer, Grace.” The image was of life fiercely challenging death.
The Afghan soldier who had killed her husband and a fellow paratrooper was in custody, his fate one question to consider as the talks that Brandon mentioned on Facebook continued uninterrupted by these American deaths.
Two Green Berets, 31-year-old Master Sgt. Luis F. Deleon-Figueroa and 35-year-d Master Sgt. Jose J. Gonzalez, were killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 21. The talks went on and a secret meeting was set for last weekend at Camp David, perhaps with the hope of making a dramatic announcement just before the 18th anniversary of 9/11.
But then 34-year-old Sgt. 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz was killed by a suicide bomb on Thursday. The Taliban claimed credit for the attack, and President Trump suddenly reconsidered whether he should meet with the avowed killers at a presidential retreat so close to the day those of us who promise to never forget will always remember.
Meanwhile, Brandon doesn’t seem to have officially listed Grace as the beneficiary of his life insurance. And her siblings say she has not received any financial support from the government. She wants her family around her as the birth of the baby nears, and she has remained in Ohio, living in a doorless computer room in her sister’s ex-husband’s home.
“She really is hoping to get her own place when she gets the financial help she needs,” her sister said.
The sister has set up a GoFundMe page for Grace and Callum.
And just as in the aftermath of that long ago murder-suicide, the community has been helpful and supportive. Ashley says Grace remains her uncommonly strong and decent self, thoughtful and aware of other people’s problems, not just her own. She arrives at the 18th anniversary of 9/11 as proof that not all the heroes of this longest war wear a uniform.
“Because of what she’s been through, you’d think she’d be a little hardened,” Ashley said. “But she’s fine.”
And the baby seen on that sonogram taken the day his father died is still scheduled to arrive the day after Christmas, a challenge to us all to accept our responsibility for the future.