'I'm hurting right now, mom' Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/13/03
Spc. Shaun Cunningham always prided himself on his mental toughness. As a chemical operations specialist with an Army field hospital near Baghdad, Cunningham saw the horrific realities of the war, helping retrieve bodies of fallen comrades from the field, shooting several enemy fighters in gunbattles, trying his best not to be shocked at the level of violence he witnessed.
But this was too much to bear.
At his feet were three U.S. soldiers who had been killed when their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed into the Tigris River. One body was nearly decapitated. It was Cunningham's job to clean them up and put them in body bags so they could be shipped back to the United States for proper funerals.
As Cunningham searched their pockets, looking for IDs, he realized he'd met the men; they were flight medics he had helped outfit with protective gear. A knot formed in his throat. Then, he came upon pictures of their children and tears welled in his eyes.
"That's when the war really hit home with him," said his father, Richard Cunningham.
"I had blood all over me, and all I could think about was this guy's wife and kids who were in his wallet staring at me," Cunningham wrote. "I'm hurting right now, mom, and I just needed to write and vent my feelings. The war is over? Yeh, tell that to these guys' families."
Kathleen Cunningham said she can stomach the graphic detail of her son's letters; it's the uncertainty of his future that gnaws at her insides.
"My heart breaks that my son has to see and endure things like that," Cunningham said. "I keep thinking: Will he be able to put all he has seen aside when he comes home and live a normal life? These soldiers are seeing so much, experiencing so much, I just don't know if they will be able to go forward. I sincerely hope the Army helps them with therapy because they certainly will need it."
Shannon Cunningham said she feels "beyond proud" when she reads her brother's letters.