His face stared out me from the photo album. Dark hair with straight bangs falling across huge green eyes. A goofy grin and a Nintendo controller clutched in his hands.
Taking a sharp breath, I blinked rapidly as my eyes filled with tears. He looked so much like my son Alex they could have been twins.
Not all stories can be told in 1,000 words or less. Sometimes the nuances don’t match allowable column inches. Every once in awhile, the rest of the story stays with me – an unwritten, but ever-present ghost.
Today’s story about Matt Stiltz, for example.
When a local credit union decided to name one of its scholarships after the Shadle Park grad who was killed while serving in Afghanistan, I called his parents, Mark and Terri Stiltz, to see if they’d be willing to be interviewed.
They agreed, but during the course of our conversation I learned that it wasn’t an easy decision for them. After Matt’s 2012 death, he was featured in a flurry of newspaper and television news stories.
Strangers reached out to Mark and Terri, sending mementos, cards, even memorial dog tags. Military specialists shepherded them through the process of retrieving Matt’s body and funeral arrangements. Gold Star families sent a beautiful quilt. “We were embraced by a new family,” Mark said.
All the attention proved both comforting and unsettling. While thankful for the interest in their son, they know he’s just one soldier out of thousands who’ve lost their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Are those stories being told, they wondered?
Having their picture in the newspaper made them feel uncomfortable. Mark said, “We haven’t done anything special.”
Sometimes reporters are accused of journalistic voyeurism – of peering into private moments and broadcasting them to the world. And sometimes it feels that way as I sit with grieving parents or spouses, carefully documenting their heartbreak. But I believe the death of a bright 26-year-old man isn’t just a loss for his friends and family – it’s a loss for the community and for the country he loved and served.
Mark and Terri were so transparent with me that I wanted to be equally frank. I explained the short shelf life of media interest. “Honestly, five years from now it’s unlikely anyone from the newspaper will be calling,” I said. “And the only people who will remember Matt are those who knew and loved him.”
So, we sat at their kitchen table with photo albums and Matt’s baby book in front of us. Stories and memories tumbled out. Some made us laugh. One of Matt’s chores was cleaning up after the dog in the backyard. He developed a special outfit to deal with this task.
Terri said, “He’d put on his scuba mask and snorkel and attach two empty two-liter pop bottles to his back.” That’s right. He’d developed a dog clean-up breathing apparatus.
She continued, “He’d put on gloves and off he’d go. He wore this every time! I wish we’d got a picture of him in it.”
Turning a page, I came to the photo that took my breath away. “He looks so much like my second son,” I said.
The photo blurred as I gazed at it. That grin. That game controller. That glint in his green eyes.
Taking a breath, I quickly turned the pages to see pictures of Matt playing his trumpet or celebrating birthdays. I began to get a sense of the boy he’d been.
A lasting sadness for his parents is that since he joined the military immediately after graduation, they never really got to know the man he’d become. “The military grew him up,” Mark said.
Soon it was time to go. I thanked them for allowing our readers a glimpse of the person behind the Matthew Stiltz Scholarship.
As I drove away the tears I’d blinked back returned. I realized I hadn’t been truthful when I’d said five years from now, the only people who would remember Matt were the people who knew and loved him.
I never met him. But I know I’ll never forget him.
Staff Sergeant Matthew Henrick Stiltz
B. August 5, 1986
D. November 12, 2012
Contact Cindy Hval at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her previous columns are available online at spokesman.com/ columnists. Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.
This column first ran in the Spokesman Review, April 3, 2014