An American Hero

Troops looked up to him. His mother loved him.



There was no ceremonial viewing of the body of Pfc. Raheen Tyson Heighter on July 28th. His remains have not arrived here from Iraq. He was a spectacular 21-year-old who was killed when a convoy in which he was riding was attacked early in the morning outside of Baghdad.

His mother, Cathy Heighter, spent yesterday afternoon sitting with relatives in her mother's house on Long Island. She expects the body back next week. Then there will be a public viewing.

"I want to let people know he died for this country," the mother was saying. "He died an American hero."

"He was supposed to be home in June," one of the women in the living room said.

"Been there too long," an aunt, Barbara Adams, said.

"They wanted to come home," one of the others said.

Cathy Heighter is a pretty woman of 45. She wore a cream blouse and blue pants and sat on a living-room couch underneath front windows. "The field commander called me," she was saying. "He talked so very highly of Raheen. He said the troops looked up to him. He fought to the end. He emptied his gun.

"I loved him," she said.

"He loved you," one of the women said.

Her son has written moving, memorable lines of the war. They were in a letter sent on June 20th that arrived at his mother's house on July 2nd: "Today is a blissful day ... . Today is the first time I realized you have tried your hardest to bring the bestowed, hidden, optimistic, and spontaneous qualities out of me ... . As I sit here in tears, I thank you."

His mother never liked the idea of the Army from the start. He was 17, and she was in her beauty shop, "Beyond Images of Beauty" on Main Street in Bay Shore, when an Army recruiting officer came in. He said that he had seen Raheen in high school and the young man told him that he wanted to join.

"The recruiter said he just needed my signature," she said. "I told him, 'Don't even ask. Get out of here.'"

Her son, however, saw his life ahead as something that he had to run right up to like a train on the tracks outside. At 14, he came home from school and took a number-two pencil and drew a father holding his son. Holding the child to his chest with a powerful left arm protecting the child from a world that the father, his face strong and simultaneously haunted by pain, could see ahead for the son.

It is a wonderful drawing.

He and his mother, who sells art out of her beauty shop, made prints of the drawing and sold them. He thought that was a good enough start, but he was going to go so much higher. He was going to pierce the sky. When he graduated from high school, he worked in a brokerage and he studied for a license exam, but he saw so much more dancing on the horizon. He wanted to go to college outside of New York. He would use such a place, with its walks through trees, with its professors, as an exciting studio for his art.

The combined income of his mother and father, who was in construction, wasn't spectacular, but it was over the limit for scholarships and loans.

There was one way. Out there in the high school halls were the military recruiters with their dark bargains. You put your body up and if nothing happens you get college paid for. Raheen took the Army. That is the contract signed by so many. The Army buys them for a college degree. It works unless you wind up in Iraq and come home in a box.

On August 7, 2001, he walked into his mother's shop and said he was leaving for the Army the next day. He had sold himself. He was now old enough to enlist without her written permission. "He put me in shock," she said. "We got up at 5:30 the next morning. He had three big duffel bags packed. They told him to bring only one. I hugged him. I told him I loved him. I told him be a man."

The other day at 10 a.m., she was on the phone in her beauty shop with a customer. Her oldest son, Glynn, and two Army officers walked in and stood nervously. "You think you're seeing ghosts," she said. "I'm standing there on the phone and I know they are there to tell me that my son is dead. How can this be happening? They are ghosts."

"Why do we stay there?" an aunt said. "They don't want us there."

"Shooting at us. They don't want us there."

"Do they know why they're there?"

"No. They don't know. They're there for their country. That's what they know," the soldier's mother said.

"Do you know?" one aunt was asked.


"Oil," Cathy Heighter said, softly and so sadly.

Jimmy Breslin writes for Newsday, where this column first appeared.

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