I drove slowly down a narrow street with typical modest Dutch houses. Juggling pieces of paper noting an address, directions, phone number, I craned my neck to better read the numbers on the houses. No, must be further. Not there. Wait! Yes, that’s the one.
My hands began to sweat. I leaned forward and placed my forehead on the steering wheel. This was no simple errand, and suddenly I doubted my credentials. I wasn’t trained to counsel grieving parents. I was no diplomat. I just happened to be a citizen of the United States who had a friend who purchased a Dutch flag in honor of the first (and at that time, only) Dutch fatality in the Iraq war. His name was Dave Steensma. Now I was delivering the tricolor flag to his parents.
My friend, Jodi, had told me about her journey to Dave’s flag. She’d been adopted and was aware of her biological Dutch heritage since early childhood. In 2002, she felt strongly that it was time to find her birth family. She purchased a Dutch flag and hung it on her office wall for inspiration to continue the quest to find her birth family. She found them nine months later. Then, in Tooele, Utah, in 2004, she came across the flag that memorialized Dave’s death; it was at a fundraiser at Soldier’s Field, in honor of those who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan, to help fund a new Veteran’s Memorial.
Jodi’s curiosity grew about this man, Dave Steensma. She went online and, to her surprise, quickly located a couple of Dave’s military buddies. They put her in touch with Dave’s parents, Oeds and Margreet, who lived in that quiet little town in Friesland. Eventually the commitment grew within her to give the flag and ribbon, pressed with Dave’s name and unit, to Dave’s family – back where it belonged. For Jodi, it was a tangible way to connect with a distant homeland. She e-mailed his parents and told them about the flag and about how this young man’s life had helped her find her own roots. She told them that this one lone Dutch flag that fluttered among the many American ones touched her in a way that she couldn’t explain. She was drawn to it, had to have it, had to honor this unique life and solitary death. Oeds expressed that, yes, it would mean much for he and Margreet to have these items.
Not long after, Jodi told me this story and I said, “I’m going back to the Netherlands in a few months. Why don’t I hand-deliver it for you?” I’d planned a war tour – first, I’d attend commemorations for World War II battles in Arnhem. Then, I was to spend time in Ypres, Belgium, learning about trench warfare in World War I. Why, sure, I could swing north to Friesland first, drop off the flag and then head south to my historical destinations. “It really wouldn’t be right to mail it; I mean, anything could happen. It could get damaged, even lost. No, it should be hand-delivered – packed in luggage, brought to the door, and handed over.” I would do it.
And so I found myself driving north from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to Friesland, across the 32 km-long Afsluitdijk. Once over the dike it was only a short drive to locate the small town, Franeker, that was my destination. I lifted my head off the steering wheel and peered right, toward the Steensma’s front door. Everything was still. I took a few deep breaths, said a quick prayer, summoned my courage and knocked on the front door.
It was in that moment, those few precious seconds between rapping my knuckles on the door and it opening, that I felt panic. The reality of the loss of this human being, someone I’d never met, was palpable. I lost my breath. Every cell jumped alive and begged me to slow down, be cautious. I was on a life and death errand. I carried the small box with tenderness. Jodi had created a nest of lovely gifts for the grieving parents. The flag and ribbon were in the box, of course, but there was more – newspaper clippings about the fundraiser where Jodi bought the flag, token gifts from Utah, lovely mementos for her faraway friends.
Oeds met me at the door. Margreet smoked by the kitchen counter and smiled weakly as I walked in. My heart sank. I had entered a grieving home and I hadn’t done my homework. I was ill prepared and at a loss for words. Oeds and Margreet were nervous to meet me. They spoke easily of this to me later in the day once they learned they could speak easily with me. They had feared that I was there on “some kind of American right-wing political or moral mission to hail the fallen hero.” What happened, instead, was a meeting of the minds on almost all topics, with lively comparisons of Dutch and American culture, attitudes, and politics. I met Dave’s sister and his beautiful, nine year old niece. I didn’t meet his wife and two boys – it was still too recent a loss for them to bear extra attention from a foreigner with a dubious Dutch last name.
There were awkward silences at first. Oeds and Margreet apologized for their terrible English skills, which, by Dutch standards, meant that they were almost fluent; at any rate more advanced than my seventeen words of Dutch. We moved our tea party to a small, immaculate garden in the back of the house, full of life – pungent, colorful flowers gave the space the air of a Japanese tea garden. Margreet smoked and smiled, but the despair in her eyes told a story of profound and unending grief. Oeds gently tended to Margreet and maintained his own private acre of grief in his heart. Their one son, their one son, who died in a war that practically no one in the Netherlands supported. What did he die for? How can parents deal with an experience like that? How can so many American families do it, when they hear a knock on the door and open to a solemn-faced military officer?
Oeds excused himself and returned with a large photo album. “Go ahead, look at it. The Dutch army made it for us. It’s Dave’s funeral service.” Initially Dave served in the Royal Dutch Marine Corps, but his duties later took him to the 12th Infantry Battalion of the Airmobile Brigade, Regiment “van Heutsz.” The Dutch army made a photo album for a family? My brow furrowed. I don’t think American families get that – too many dead, I suppose, how would the military keep up?
I turned the pages – a large church, a military funeral, all captured by a professional photographer. The service took place with Military Honors at the Algemene Cemetery in Franeker on Saturday, May 15, 2004. I started to turn the page and Margreet warned “The next pages are a bit difficult.”
Those two pages, that centerfold of photos. Four – or was it six – photos of Dave in an open coffin. His head was heavily bandaged and it was clear his head injury had been extensive. I stopped breathing. “Do you know that in the U.S. there is a Pentagon policy that we are not supposed to see even a closed coffin of a soldier killed in Iraq being returned to the U.S.?” “We know,” they said, “and we think it’s terrible. You should have to see the dead. That’s what the dead look like.” Margeet pointed to the photos of her son. “You have to see it. Everyone should have to see it. What a shame to not see for yourself the reality of war.”
There were lighter moments, of course, and even a few laughs. We went to a local steakhouse for dinner. The change of venue altered the tenor of our encounter. We walked a little more quickly. We grinned at one another, delighting in the strangeness – and wonderfulness – of our encounter. We enjoyed a lovely dinner, we really did – talking about my life in New York and time spent living in Amsterdam. They treated me as if I was a long-lost family friend.
I began to wonder if I hadn’t met Dave. Did we spend kindergarten through high school together, with countless times sleeping over or joining each other’s families on trips during school vacations? And, if we didn’t, why did I feel like I’d known him my whole life, that I’d sat and talked with his parents countless times before?
For Sergeant 1st Class Dave Steensma
Born November 20, 1967
Died May 10, 2004
This article was published in the May 2009 issue of American Cemetery Magazine.