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The whole tooth

  • Jon Kelly
  • 6 Oct 08, 01:12 AM GMT

CLARKESVILLE, TN: Dusty Flynn still vividly recalls the worst day of her life. Early one morning in August 2007, two soldiers appeared at her door. They didn't have to tell her that her ex-husband, Josh, who had been serving in Iraq, was dead.

"They don't come to your house just to let you know that he's injured," the 27-year-old said evenly.

"I made them tell me outside, right there."

morgan203.jpgJosh's Black Hawk helicopter had crashed following a mechanical failure, they informed her. It had been his first tour of Iraq.

The news was devastating for Dusty. She had begun dating Josh when she was 16. Although the couple had divorced, she still considered him her best friend.

But hardest part of all was breaking the news to their son Morgan, who was then six. The little boy had adored his father. "He found it really hard that he couldn't reach out and touch his dad any more," Dusty recalled. He would ask her if Josh was safe in heaven.

After Josh's funeral - which was attended by hundreds of mourners - Dusty felt numb. But she found a way to channel her grief a few weeks later when Morgan lost his first tooth.

It had been a long-standing tradition in her family to make their children tooth-shaped pillows, with a pouch to tuck in the denture for the tooth fairy. Dusty asked her sister Amy to sew one for Morgan.

Amy agreed. When she presented it, though, Dusty felt as though she had been knocked sideways. Amy had made it from one of Josh's military uniforms. It carried his name tape across the front.

"I just felt all this emotion," Dusty remembered. "It was as though now Morgan could feel Josh, he could smell him."

Morgan joined us in the living room. He was clutching the pillow under his arm. I asked him why he treasured it so much.

"It reminds me of my dad," he smiled. "It makes me feel close to him."

dusty203.jpgDusty resolved to help other bereaved children feel the same. She and her family set up a project called Operation: Snaggletooth, making tooth pillows from the uniforms of deceased personnel for those they had left behind.

The response was overwhelming. She was inundated with offers of help and supplies. So far, Dusty estimates that she has shipped 200 pillows.

She told me that it helped her cope, poring through lists of military casualties and their families. Sometimes, she said, she would spend hours talking to their loved ones on the phone.

"I don't want any of them to just be names," she added. "I know what they're going through."

After hearing her story, it seemed almost trite to start talking about party politics and elections.

Both of the main candidates for the presidency have very different ideas about how the American military should be deployed, I said. Which one was Dusty most likely to vote for?

"You know, I think that they're both strong leaders," she answered. "I'll leave that one up to God. I believe that he'll take care of us."

I looked over at Morgan, and hoped that she was right.

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