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The personal cost of war

From NBC's Bobby Cervantes
With her rosary, Holy Water, and mementos strewn across the grass surrounding a headstone at Arlington National Cemetery, Gina Barnhurst of Severna Park, Md., sits for hours in a lawn chair writing journals to a son who lies in front of her.

Lance Corporal Eric W. Herzberg, who died in Iraq in Oct. 2006, wanted to serve his country from a young age. Despite his mother's initial concerns, he convinced her that joining the Marines right out of high school was his calling, and he was sent to Iraq shortly after he completed boot camp in South Carolina.

"Mom, I'm so happy," Herzberg told his mother from boot camp. "This is what I want to do."

When President Obama announced last week his plan to escalate American involvement in Afghanistan, he faced an audience of cadets at the United States Military Academy who shared that same sense of contentment about their future. These cadets were the Academy's most promising juniors and seniors -- and the ones who will mostly likely face the brunt of the new 30,000-troop surge in Afghanistan.

But as they head into the middle of an eight-year-old American entanglement in that country and as the U.S. makes its last push for success in Afghanistan, the cadets will not go alone. They will be joined -- in spirit, in hopes, and in prayers -- by their loved ones who remain at home.

As Obama noted yesterday in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, war exacts a personal price. "No matter how justified, war promises human tragedy," he said.

Barnhurst understands that tragedy all too well. "It's hard to think that another parent is going to have to go through this," she said in an interview.

"When I first heard [of the troop increase to Afghanistan], my gut reaction is fear, because you don't want anyone else to be on this journey that we're on," she said. "You know when troops are sent over there, there will be people who are killed. As a mom, my heart aches for those families."

Barnhurst said a mother who has already lost one son and currently has another one stationed in Afghanistan contacted her recently for support. Describing her own journey after her son's death, Barnhurst said she could not imagine the prospect of losing two children to war.

"I just passed three years in October, and in some ways I feel like it's a cycle," she said. "You go on the best you can and you live through. You get so far and then you get thrown back by a birthday or something that you see or hear. The feelings are messy and they're all over the place. You don't know how you going feel each day."

Barnhurst said that for mothers like her -- as well as for the one who contacted her -- having a network of military families is more about supporting than it is about consulting.  

"Everybody is so new to it. Five years is the most," she said. "That's not very long when you lost a child. [It's important] to be able to say whatever to the other moms there, knowing that we will be supported and normally validated.  Nobody really tries to offer advice very much because we're all so new."

Barnhurst, who teaches young children, said her job provides some sort of temporary distraction. But after losing a son, her life will never been the same -- even if seems like it.

"You look like you're OK," she said. "You have to get up and you have to compartmentalize. [But others] are not with me on the weekends, when I can let my guard down, when I have a picture of my son in the living room. The only reason you [go on] is because you have to keep breathing."

"You don't move on," she said. "You go on."