The tighter she ties, the straighter they stand.
She stares at them a long time, her shoulders hunched over as her slight body heaves up and down in rhythm to the sobs. One of her sons stands behind her and puts a hand on her shoulder.
The boots are unremarkable: black, midcalf, Army surplus, used -- somebody else's boots.
They look just like the other 1,546 pairs of boots at the Seattle Center's Fisher Pavilion. They're lined up and spaced in neat rows, like soldiers at parade rest. Some are adorned with flags and photographs, some with flowers.
But it's the pair with the rosary and the silver bracelet that will bring together two women who each found a new life amid so much death.
One woman, Patricia, is a mother, a family doctor, a documentary filmmaker and a Quaker. In two decades of practice, she has seen how passionately children are protected and nurtured into adulthood. She cannot understand why they are sent off to war to be killed.
The other, Doris, is a military wife and mother whose eldest son enlisted in the U.S. Army three months before Sept. 11, 2001, the day mother and son realized the world had become a dangerous place.
"Son, you be careful," the woman told him.
I've got to get this down
Medicine is Patricia Boiko's calling. Stories are in her blood -- true stories.
"As a child, I read non-fiction books, mostly people's stories," said the Seattle physician, a petite, gregarious woman of 51. "Then what do I go into? Family medicine. I hear people's stories all day long."
Six years ago, she began taking classes at the University of Washington to become certified in documentary filmmaking. It was a natural fit.
"I have been doing some type of documentary filmmaking since I was in my teens," Patricia said. "I was the annoying aunt who always had the video camera in everyone's face."
In April 2005, she was working on a full-length documentary about her parents -- quiz show contestants who used their earnings to bring their New York-based family out of poverty -- when she heard a story at a local Quaker meeting that put her quiz show project on pause.
A woman stood up and described seeing a mother breaking down over a pair of boots at an exhibit at the Seattle Center. Her words stopped all conversation.
She was at "Eyes Wide Open," a touring exhibit organized by the American Friends Service Committee with rows of combat boots and civilian shoes to represent military and civilian losses in Iraq.
Each pair of boots symbolizes a life lost. "People all around me were crying at her story, and I was so choked up, I could hardly speak to her," said the filmmaker.
Patricia thought: I've got to get this down, this is important in some way, although I don't know how.
That same afternoon, Patricia went to the exhibit at the Seattle Center with her camera. At the time -- a little more than two years after the war in Iraq started -- 1,546 U.S. soldiers had been killed.
Patricia found the boots that had been so carefully laced up with a silver rosary and metal bracelet.
Then she went on the Internet and found the name of the Washington state soldier memorialized by the Army-issue boots, Googling her way to his mother, Doris Kent.
A stubborn first-born
Doris Kent grew up on Guam, the daughter of a Navy man and sister of a Vietnam vet. She married Leslie Santos, an Army man, and raised three boys. She divorced the boys' father in 1995 and married Chris Kent in 1996.
Kent is also a retired Navy man. The couple met in Guam and moved to Bellingham in December 1996. They found a house in a quiet cul-de-sac with a clear view of the Canadian Rockies.
Doris had big dreams for the boys. As the only one of 10 children who went to college, she made it clear to her sons that they would go to college. But her first-born was stubborn.
He signed up for delayed entry into the Army.
"His junior year, a recruiter got hold of him, and he said, 'Mom, I'm going to earn my own college money.' I said, 'No. I'm going to pay for it.' We argued about it for three months."
He won. "He wasn't asking my permission to get into the military," said Doris. "He wanted my support."
Doris Kent, 45, has a streak of Martha Stewart. She keeps an immaculate house, loves to decorate and is an avid scrap-booker. Born into the military, she is a lifelong ID card holder, thanks to the active duty service members in her family.
"They're the ones that took the oath," Doris said. "We're the ones that took the life."
Until recently, she worked as a health educator in Prevention and Wellness Services at Western Washington University.
And until Oct. 15, 2004, her life was intact.
'Heard the heart breaking'
On Oct. 16, 2004, Jared Santos woke to the screams and cries of his mother, Doris Kent. His first thought: Mom has fallen down the stairs.
The 14-year-old ran down the hall to see what had happened.
His stepfather, Chris Kent, stopped him and ushered him back to his room. While he waited, Jared thought about his big brother: OK, he might be captured by insurgents or wounded. He's my brother. He isn't dead.
His stepdad came back for him a few minutes later.
Jared saw his mom crying in the living room. Two soldiers sat on the couch.
"I want you to tell them what you told me! I want them to hear it too!" Doris said, as Jared stood close by.
He'd never heard his mother scream like that.
"That was from the core of my heart, and what he heard was my heart being ripped out of my body. He heard the heart breaking," Doris said.
One of the strangers in uniform spoke up. "Corporal Jonathan Santos was killed in action yesterday while serving in Iraq."
Jared sat there with his head down. He let the tears stream down his face. I won't see you for the longest time, he thought, not until I am dead.
Doris had followed the daily death toll numbers from Iraq. Her son was now No. 1,096. "I thought, 'Oh no! They won't remember him. They'll just remember the numbers.' "
'Mom, I don't get it'
Before he was killed in Karabilah, Iraq, Jonathan Santos was a son, a brother, a friend, an athlete and a soldier.
At Sehome High School in Bellingham, he played football and wrestled. He owned every book Stephen King ever wrote, but he also loved Calvin & Hobbes. He loved fireworks and fast cars. His dark blue 2002 Toyota Celica GT still sits in the Kents' driveway.
Born at Fort Knox, Ky., on Sept. 23, 1982, he was old enough to know firsthand the nomadic life of a military family.
Jonathan never thought of the military as a place where he could get killed. Sure, one of his uncles had died from exposure to Agent Orange, but his dad, Leslie Santos, had enlisted and served during peacetime.
Jonathan's plan: serve four years and earn enough money to go to college in Southern California, where he'd join his best friend from high school. Then Sept. 11 happened.
Jonathan had scored high on the Army's language aptitude test and wanted to learn Chinese. Instead, the Army chose Arabic for him. He became a linguist with the 9th Psychological Operations Battalion.
He was stationed first in Haiti, in March 2004. That's where he received his orders to go to Iraq. "He told me, 'Mom, I don't get it. They're taking us and making us leave a country that desperately needs us and wants us and sending us to a country that desperately wants to kill us.' After I hung up with him, all I could do was cry," Doris said.
When her son went to Iraq, he had only seven months left to serve. He was a good soldier, but he looked forward to getting out. Two weeks before his death, he wrote in his daily journal: "Today is my 22nd birthday. Great. I guess I'll throw a kick-ass kegger. I'll have a keg of Killians and one of Yuengling."What a bangin party, right? Well it aint gonna happen because I'm in Iraq. But I make this vow here and now. This is the last ... THE LAST BIRTHDAY THE ARMY WILL STEAL FROM ME!"
Doris Kent didn't find her son's journal until his tough box -- a soldier's chest of his most valuable items that returns to families after their death -- came back. When he was home on leave, he never mentioned his fears or doubts. She found out about them in the diary.
"He didn't talk down about anything," she said. "He talked about his future. It's all you can do. You can't think about death. You just can't."
Doris also found something else in the tough box -- videocassettes. Her son bought a video camera just before he left for Iraq and had taped everything.
Doris sat down and watched them by herself, pausing when she cried too hard. There's Jon talking and laughing with his friends and family. There's his cousin's wedding he attended while he was home. There are his brothers at Six Flags. Those are his Army buddies. Oh, and that's his dog Roxy in North Carolina. He loved that dog.
One of the last videos Jonathan made shows him making what he called his "Grim Reaper" -- a lucky charm of a skeletal scythe-bearer made from electrical tape. He kept it in his Humvee.
It was hanging from the roof as he and his two-man team made their way back from a mission on the Syrian border. A Marine journalist and an Iraqi translator accompanied them. All five men were in the third vehicle in a convoy of three. A car that had pulled off to the side of the road revved up and rammed into them.
The Humvee exploded. Jonathan was thrown from the vehicle. Only one person survived. Jonathan died in a Blackhawk helicopter en route to the hospital.
Weeks after shooting the "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit at The Seattle Center, Patricia e-mailed Doris for permission to use the footage of the Army-issue boots laced up with a rosary and bracelet.
Within the hour, Doris called her. "Of course," Doris told her. "But I'd really like to tell you my story, and Jonathan's story."
The two met in Bellingham, about seven months after the explosion that took Jonathan's life.
"At the time I was still so raw, still enmeshed in unbelievable grief," Doris said. "She was so gentle and kind with me, so generous. She reached out to me without knowing me."
Their two worlds were about to change. A mother found her voice. And a physician found another way of healing -- as a filmmaker.
The documentary Patricia made is only eight minutes -- the first of a three-part work in progress. Part one is called "The Corporal's Boots," which will screen Sunday at the Northwest Film Forum.
It begins with the fresh recruit saying "Hi" to his mom in his green camos. Then it fades to soldiers marching. In the next scene, the words of the Quaker who stood up at the April meeting are overlaid on images of the exhibit -- first one boot, then another and another until they fill the screen. There are more boots than people walking around them.
Patricia and filmmaker Laurel Spellman Smith are now editing the second in the series, "The Corporal's Diary," which focuses on Jonathan's videos and diary excerpts, read by his brother Jared.
The final segment will be "The Corporal's Memory," which follows Doris as she meets the mother of the one surviving member of Jonathan's team.
For Patricia, the filming has been difficult, psychologically and emotionally. She has a son who is about the same age Jonathan was when he died.
"I was able to keep it together to interview Doris. But editing Doris and watching Jonathan's tapes, I couldn't do it at first for more than an hour or two," Patricia said. "Also, I would become very angry. No one seemed to care about the war. They forget there's a war going on."
Some mothers of fallen soldiers who have seen the film view it as anti-war. Some see it as a memorial to the cost of war. She supports any way a mother needs to grieve and deal with her son or daughter's death in this war.
"Nobody could tell us how to hurt, how to miss them," she said. "You do whatever you have to do to get through this."
What Doris did was find a mission in her mourning.
Once the military mom hesitated to speak out against the war. She no longer holds her tongue -- even though at times she wonders if she's doing the right thing.
"I know the sacrifices that we as military families make in supporting a family member who is active duty. It's a political decision to send them to war. But it's a patriotic decision to serve in the military.
"Unfortunately, serving in the military right now is serving a political agenda, and my son was killed for that."
Jonathan Santos' gravesite at Bayview Cemetery is about five minutes from his family home.
There are two headstones for Jonathan in the veteran's portion of the cemetery.
One, from the Army, is flush with the ground. It shows he earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. The other is upright and made of marble. It shows a sketch of a soldier at attention.
Doris visits at least three days a week, wiping the markers free of dust and grass, firming up the flags that line the small plot of grass behind the stones and decorating the site on holidays.
Her mantel at home also memorializes Jonathan. On it is an assembly of photos that show how the boy became the young man, the young man the soldier in the black boots.
She found them in his tough box. They're small boots: size 7 1/2. Jonathan was compact: 5-foot-7, about 160 pounds, mostly muscle.
Years of pulling the laces tight have made the tongues soft as butter. The heels are worn, the rounded toes scuffed.
On May 8, Doris carefully packed the boots in a carry-on suitcase, along with Jonathan's dog tags.
She headed to Washington, D.C., for the Mother’s Day March, and the last day of the “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit in the capital’s National Mall.
On May 13, the day of the march, she rode the escalator up into the Mall, carrying the boots in a shopping bag.
There were now 2,439 pairs of boots. A thousand more soldiers gone since she first saw the exhibit in Seattle.
Doris took out Jonathan's dog tags and put them around her neck, then walked to the rows of boots honoring Washington state's soldiers. She found the used black boots with her son's name on them.
She bent down, unlaced the boots, and painstakingly transferred her son's rosary and bracelet to the boots he'd first worn in basic training.
Doris tied the boots so tight they stood straight up. It looked as if her son was standing in them.
"Now I know Jonathan will be traveling with this exhibit," she said.
"First it was a pair of boots with his name on it, now it's Jonathan's boots -- not somebody else's boots, but his boots."
Excerpts from the daily diary entries of Army Cpl. Jonathan Santos in Iraq:
Sept. 13, 2004
It was smooth sailing to Al Qaim after that. We downloaded our gear once here. Our new pad is awesome. It's air conditioned and we all have beds. Before we came here, people were saying we have the worst living conditions. But I'd say this place is pretty sweet.
Sept. 18, 2004
Today there was a big Iraqi Police meeting at the IP training grounds. SPC (P) and I stayed outside and guarded the perimeter. The sun was blazin hot. Especially up in the turret in my Kevlar body armor, long sleeve and my dust mask insulating around my neck.
I also got these new shoulder guards that attach to the body armor. They're good for cutting off the circulation to my arms.
Sept. 28, 2004
I got mail from my youngest bro, Justin and my Mom. ... I watched some video footage I took of my friends (T) and Justin. They were talking about how they want me to return safely from Iraq. And I promised them I would. I never lie.
But is sure is dangerous here what with the rockets, mortars, IEDs and sniper attacks. I wanted to be an ATL and now that I am one, I'm up in the turret exposed to all of the hazards Iraqi insurgents put out there. Be careful what you wish for. You just may get it. I made the Angel of Death.
Sept. 29, 2004
A couple of days ago a marine killed himself and today I talked to one of the guys that cleaned up part of the mess. The guy who committed suicide shot himself in the head, and his buddies had to clean it up. That's (expletive) up.
Oct. 11, 2004
It's Columbus Day. Wonderful. So we honored this holiday by taking the day off. Good for us. I think we're going to honor it again tomorrow with another day off. Why? Because there isn't (expletive) for us to do here in Iraq.
But I'm alright with that. Sometimes I feel that way because I'm lazy. Other times I just want to live to see another day. I don't want to become just some picture on the wall to my younger brothers. I want to live ... like Quato lives.
Oct. 14, 2004
I once again enjoyed the splendors of Driver 3. I am an ace at that game. Missions have been on hold lately because Crypto (aka communications) was compromised. Some unit lost a radio when they hit a mine. The new fill comes out tomorrow, so we'll be going out.
Santos was killed the next day.
BUY THE FILM
You can buy "The Corporal's Boots," the eight-minute film by Patricia Boiko, for $2.95 through indieflix.com. (It's currently No. 2 on the site's list of all-time top sellers.)
GO TO THE SCREENINGS
The film is being shown on Capitol Hill at Northwest Film Forum, located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine, on Sunday at 3 and 4 p.m. The suggested donation is $5. Both Doris Kent, the mother of the soldier featured in the documentary, and Boiko, the filmmaker, will be in attendance. The film also is being shown at the Seattle True Independent Film Festival at the Central Cinema, 1411 21st Ave., on Saturday, June 3, at 3:30 p.m.
WATCH FOR FUTURE FILMS
Santos, who had been in Iraq for only five weeks before he was killed, left behind daily written entries and a video diary from Iraq. Boiko and filmmaker Laurel Spellman Smith are turning his words and footage into "The Corporal's Diary," the second piece of "The Corporal" trilogy. The final film will be called "The Corporal's Memory."
FIND OUT MORE
Boiko's Web site: www.winningpicturesllc.com (where you can find links to "The Corporal's Boots" information and to Jonathan's journal)
"Eyes Wide Open" exhibit: www.afsc.org/eyes/
P-I reporter Athima Chansanchai can be reached at 206-448-8041 or email@example.com.
Last updated June 13, 2008 5:35 p.m. PT
A fallen soldier lives on in 'Diary'
But his brother gives up his own military dreams
Jared Santos assumed from an early age that his life and career would be tied to military service. After all, the Armed Forces ran in the Bellingham teen's blood: his grandfather, father, stepfather, uncle, mother and, most recently, his role model, older brother Jonathan.
That changed in October 2004, when Jonathan was killed 38 days after he and his Army unit arrived in Iraq.
"It's not an option, for my mom's sake, for my family. I don't want to put that burden on them," 18-year-old Jared Santos said Tuesday after a Jewelbox Theater (Rendezvous) screening of "The Corporal's Diary."
This one-hour documentary builds upon "The Corporal's Boots," a shorter doc released two years ago. And it signals the completion of a three-year labor of love by Jared, his mother and two filmmakers to document the life (and death) of Jonathan and the survival of Matthew Drake, the one soldier in his unit who came home after the fatal attack. The message rings clear: The victims of the Iraq War go beyond casualties on the field, and we can't forget that. Thanks to Jonathan's candid diary and videos, we won't. Made by local filmmakers Patricia Boiko and Laurel Spellman Smith, it is part of the Seattle True Independent Film Festival (STIFF) and will be screened again Sunday night at 7 at the Capitol Hill Arts Center.
Two years ago, "The Corporal's Boots" wove together the chance circumstances that brought together two mothers: a Quaker exhibit using pairs of boots that correspond with every soldier killed in the war. Doris Kent, Santos' mother, grieved for her fallen son, and Boiko used her filmmaking skills so others could understand the war's toll on a personal level.
"In the beginning, I was so scared Jonathan would be forgotten and that he'd just be No. 1,096 and that America wouldn't care," said Kent at the screening, referring to Santos' order in the U.S. casualty list. When she speaks, the whole room quiets. Her tears flow freely, choking her voice at times. "And now I want the message to be, when you see those numbers, they have a name and a life. Someone out there loves them as much as I love Jonathan."
In the Tuff box that came back with his belongings, Jonathan Santos left his family lasting memories: five videocassettes filled with candid moments from his deployments in Haiti and Iraq (as well as scenes from home and in Fort Bragg, N.C.) and a journal filled with sometimes daily observations of his life. Kent even received a last letter from him -- two days after she was told he was dead. Many times, the videos and photos correspond with the diary entries.
His voice dominates the tapes, a natural narrator full of the kind of comments that makes it feel as if he's the funny, smart, kind kid next door.
"This is every soldier's story," Boiko said.
Both of them became so familiar with Jonathan Santos through his own words that each felt as though they had interviewed him.
Hearing his voice in the film brings him to life. Jared Santos channels his brother as he reads his brother's diary entries that accompany video footage of barracks life and photos of his evolution from a boy to a man.
"It's so Jonathan," said Boiko, who is a family practice physician three days a week. "You get to see, hear and know him. You're in the head of a 22-year-old."
This 22-year-old wrote and talked about close calls while in Iraq, happiness in receiving packages from home (including mom's home-baked biscotti), and goofing off with his buddies, including Drake, the only survivor of the car attack that rammed into Jonathan's Humvee. Drake suffered a traumatic brain injury, leaving the once-robust, quick-witted Ohio man barely recognizable. He now resides in an assisted living facility.
The film is distributed through Typecast , the company that handled the Oscar-winning "Iraq in Fragments." It will go through a limited theatrical release this summer and be available as a DVD as early as September.
"I lost hope that we were going to finish this, because I didn't think people cared," Kent said, referring to "The Corporal's Diary." But Boiko and Smith wouldn't let it go, working for two more years on this and other projects. "I lost hope, but Patricia didn't."
The two mothers hugged after the screening and Kent told Boiko she had done well.
"I'm always inspired and impressed with what Patricia and the team have done with Jonathan's life. It really honors him," Kent said. "Some parents didn't even get a last letter. He gave us so many gifts. To not share it would seem more of a travesty than to think people would forget him."
The P-I's story, photo gallery and video about "The Corporal's Boots" can be found at goto.seattlepi.com/270761
P-I reporter Athima Chansanchai can be reached at 206-448-8041 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last updated: 09/10/2009
Questions or comments? Contact Lisa Schuster (a.k.a., Matthew's mom): email@example.com