On March 21st, Levi's mother, Susan Tileston, marked his 22nd birthday and prepared his favorite meal, but he was not with her on that day nor did she talk with him. She has not seen or heard from her son since February 2004.
Levi grew up in Lexington, Kentucky and graduated from Lafayette High School. When he was 16, military recruiters descended on the house, attempting to secure a commitment. Susan Tileston insisted her son postpone this until he received his diploma.
I met Susan at a peace rally last week. She told me about Levi's dreams. His intelligence and high test scores along with an expertise in sharp shooting caught the attention of West Point where he was contacted about Officer Candidate School. Levi wasn't interested. He didn't want to be an officer. For years, his goal was to train as a Chinook helicopter mechanic. "If you're smart, you're able to choose your skill specialty," Susan said.
According to his mother, Levi was reassigned as a sharp shooter to protect American contractors. After serving in Iraq almost 11 months, he called to say he was stateside, having returned home unexpectedly and without the rest of his unit. Susan Tileston drove to Cincinnati to pick him up on Christmas Eve 2003. She was thrilled to see him but recognized that something about Levi was different.
"He was too quiet," she said. "And he was shorter by about an inch and a half. I don't understand why, but it's true. He also had scars on the back of his head." Susan said her son wouldn't talk about his experience in Iraq but that he definitely wasn't the same person he'd been when he left to serve his country.
His order packet required that he report to Fort Campbell for a five-day evaluation. During this period, Levi called his mother daily to tell her there was no one on the base. So, Susan Tileston, who had moved from Lexington to Stanford, Kentucky, went to Fort Campbell to pick up her son and bring him home. Eventually, she drove him to Lexington so that he could spend time with friends. He bought a car.
It wasn't until the summer of 2004 that Susan Tileston learned from one of Levi's Lexington friends the truth that led her son to abandon the military. This is what she told me:
Ronnie said Levi didn't talk about what happened at first. You're not supposed to. They tell you not to say a word about what you did or saw. That's why they have a medical debriefing. They want to see what kind of mental shape you're in. Levi told Ronnie that he'd killed an eight-year-old boy who fired at the contractors he was protecting. Levi was 18-years-old and what he had to do disturbed him. He wasn't the same after this happened. And he couldn't go back. Levi just couldn't do this. And, now, he can't call or write because they're told if they don't come back when they're supposed to report, the military will tap their parents' phone...their friends' phones and they'll go to jail. They take a kid who's trained to repair helicopters and then assign him to combat duty where he's in firefights...that's not right.
In September 2004, Susan filed a missing person report with the Kentucky State Police. No one in the military will tell the police anything about Levi. At one point, the police notified Susan that Levi had received a traffic citation in Florida, but at the time, the National Computer Database had not yet listed him as AWOL. She is desperate to hear from her son.
Susan wants people to know that there are thousands of soldiers who have been to Iraq and, then, make a decision based on conscience not to return to duty. She's been in touch with a Quaker Network that has aided over 20,000 troops, providing shelter in both the United States and Canada.
Susan always wears a carved ivory, eagle's head pendant given to her by Levi. This treasure is in harmony with her summer job as a pre-Civil War, living history demonstrator at festivals. She also wears her son's dog tag and a diamond pendant--a gift from military sons to their mothers.
Susan hopes to send a message to Levi that he doesn't have to be afraid. She supports his actions and wants him to come home. A less than honorable discharge is perfectly fine with Susan Tileston, outspoken critic of the Bush Administration and the war, an activist who speaks at peace vigils, and the loving mother of an only child who she says is "Missing in America."
The casualties of this war are far greater than the dead and wounded.