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Legacies of War Dead Endure

At dawn a mother gazes not at the sun rising over the High Plains, nor the purplish snows of Pikes Peak. She sits in her study staring at a laptop, because the place on earth she feels closest to her fallen soldier is cyberspace.

Dane was her first-born, the boy who always wanted to follow his dad into the Army. Even after she tried to talk him out of it. Even after - especially after - his nation went to war. He left for Iraq in July 2007. Less than two months later, he was killed by a roadside bomb. He was 19.

This morning his mother, Carla Sizer, logs on to Legacy.com's "In Remembrance" section. Spc. Dane Balcon, like thousands of other servicemembers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, has his own memorial page. There are several obituaries, a musical tribute, 176 photos and a "guest book" with almost 1,200 messages posted by relatives, friends, neighbors, schoolmates, comrades and total strangers.

Carla visits the site first thing every morning, coffee in hand, and last thing at night, in her pajamas. She visits during the day (the site is bookmarked on her iPhone). She leaves a message or reads those posted by others. She calls up a photo of Dane and touches it on the screen with her fingers. At times like these, she says, "I know he's smiling down. It keeps me going in the right direction."

The Internet is changing how Americans remember the war dead. This Memorial Day, Carla and tens of thousands of others will turn to such memorial websites to mourn, honor and recall departed members of the military services.

In 2005, Legacy.com, the world's largest commercial provider of online memorials, inaugurated the In Remembrance site, promising to create and maintain a page for every servicemember who died in Iraq or Afghanistan, free of charge. Last month, In Remembrance logged 21,669 unique visitors to its pages; over the past four years more than 325,000 messages have been submitted to its guest books.

Such websites - including "Honor the Fallen" at Military Times.com, Fallenherosmemorial .com and a growing number of personal sites - complement and sometimes supplant the tangible rituals of death, says John Metzler, superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery.

Memorial services and cemeteries won't disappear. But "how you remember someone, how you tell the story of a life, that's changing fast," he says, and needn't be limited by what can be carved on a gravestone or inked on newsprint.

Carla Sizer understands. When she posts a message, she says, "I feel like I'm talking to Dane."

Dec. 14, 2007

"It has been three months today that you have been laid to rest. The pain still persists and has not eased one bit. ... I have cried and cried until my eyes have dried. But because of our loving God and the Grace he provides us, I am able to get out of bed and care for your brothers. I am able, by his Grace, to lift my head high and be PROUD of my son, Dane, for he IS a HERO in the minds and hearts of so many. Love, Mom"

The Web makes every day Memorial Day, for several reasons:

-- Accessibility. People anywhere can visit a site at no cost, even if they can't attend a funeral or visit a grave. Dane Balcon, for instance, is buried in a military cemetery in Denver, more than an hour from here. "That's a long drive when you're crying," Carla says. Karianne Golemme, sister of Army National Guard Sgt. Michael Kelley, who died in Iraq in 2005, says that although she regularly visits his grave in Massachusetts, "I can't leave a note on his grave. I can leave it online."

-- Immediacy. People can visit whenever they want. Julie Scott, mother of Dane's best high school friend, checks his site several times a day and gets automatic e-mail alerts when a new message is posted. She says posting is therapeutic: "It always brings a smile. Sometimes it brings a tear. But afterward, you feel better."

-- Individuality. Traditionally, visitors beheld a memorial. Now they can interact with it or help create it by posting video, audio, photos and text, notes Kathleen Gilbert, an Indiana University professor who has studied online tributes. Several of Dane's friends have posted photos of tattoos they got in his honor.

-- Community. Dane's site has "brought people together. A community has been created," says Julie Scott, who struck up a correspondence with the relative of another slain soldier who left a message on the site. Carla has been contacted by people she hadn't seen in years, including an old friend whose son was born the same day as Dane.

-- Intimacy. Instead of waiting in line at a funeral home to mumble a few words or scribble something in a guest book, online mourners are able to visit or post at their own time and pace. Gilbert says some reticent mourners are more comfortable expressing themselves in writing, even if their posts can be read by anyone online. Linda Macone, aunt of Marine Capt. Jennifer Harris, whose helicopter was shot down in Iraq in 2007, says she's surprised when people comment on her posts: "I've always felt that they were just between me and Jen."

Always sought to be a soldier

The online memorial has been a revelation to Carla Sizer, a 42-year-old retired Air Force captain who until last year taught management at the Air Force Academy. She lives in a subdivision just east of Colorado Springs with her husband and their sons, ages 7 and 3.

She's ordered two bound collections of the messages on Dane's site, one for each boy: "I want them to know that, hey, we had a hero in the family!"

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May 25, 2008

"Dane - tomorrow is Memorial Day ... it is bittersweet. Bittersweet in that we miss you and love you ... but so proud that you died in an honorable manner. It is my mission to ensure that you and others like you are never forgotten. ... Your legacy will live on forever ... I promise ... they won't forget! - Ma"

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Ever since he was 3, according to the family story, Dane Balcon wanted to be a soldier.

His father, John Balcon, served in the Persian Gulf War and later joined the 82nd Airborne division. After his parents divorced, the boy spent vacations with his father at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he got to sit in an Apache helicopter and a Humvee turret. When he returned to his mother he'd sing, "I want to be an airborne Ranger!"

By high school, the Army was Dane's passion. He commanded the Junior ROTC drill team - leading practices, choreographing routines, making sure the uniforms were pressed. He was indifferent to academics and did just well enough to stay in ROTC.

For a teen, he was unusually gung-ho. He made his bed ("and it was tight," recalls his mother); starched and ironed his uniforms (and his mother's); and practiced about-face maneuvers around the house.

He carried Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" in his pocket and wrote slogans under the brim of his baseball cap, including, "Death before Dishonor." Even his pastimes - paintball, target practice, drums - tied in to the military.

"When I go, I hope that they remember me and what I did," he wrote in an essay for an ROTC class that later was posted by his instructor on his memorial site. "My greatest fear, the thing I fear most, is being forgotten."

Determined to serve

His stepfather, Larry Sizer - a former Air Force medic - used that fear to try to dissuade him from joining the wartime Army. If those killed are really heroes, he asked Dane, "Can you name one?" Except for Pat Tillman, the football star-turned-soldier who was killed in Afghanistan, Dane couldn't; he didn't know anyone who'd ever died in war.

But the boy was adamant. "I think they're heroes, and I'm not afraid to die for my country." He told his mother, "I was born to do this."

Seven months after leaving for basic training, he was in Iraq.

It did not fit his image of a spit-and-polish Army. Instead, he found weary veterans of two or three tours, worried about spouses and kids and mortgages back home. The last time she talked to Dane on the phone, Carla recalls, "his voice sounded edgy, shaky. He was scared."

On Sept. 5, 2007, he was driving the second Humvee in a convoy near Balad. A bomb exploded, throwing Dane from the vehicle. A helicopter flew him back to the base, where he died on the operating table.

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Nov. 24, 2008

"I can't touch you or see you, but I feel you and know that you are always with me. I'm still very angry ... but I'm not sure at who. What I am sure of is that you were and always will be the apple of my eye. I put everything I had into you. ... You used to tell me all the time, "Ma - one day you'll read about me"! I never thought that it would be this way. ... Sweetie - I'll see you on the high ground ... HOOAH! - Ma"

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A week after Dane's death, Carla - sleepless, gaunt, distracted - was shocked when someone told her Dane had a website on Legacy.com. "What's that?" she asked.

Now when Carla goes to the site, the posts trigger a range of intense feelings. She's comforted by those that come on his birthday (April 27) or the anniversary of his death, days on which she's asked that Dane be featured on the In Remembrance home page.

Sometimes posts addressed to Dane offer her a glimpse of otherwise hidden emotions. Like this, from her husband, Larry:

"Call me greedy or selfish, but oh how I wish you were here,
Because now I sit on the porch and talk to an empty chair
Hoping you can hear each and every word that I speak,
Being strong for the family means that I cry when they sleep."

And this, from Dane's cousin, Devon Thomas, 16, of York, Pa.:

"yo cuz i was really missin you today 4 some reason. it really is gettin to me i am cryin as im writin dis to you i have so much to say and so little words to explain it man yo i love you to death and i really wish you was still here your my life idol real talk"

Carla, the former professor, winces at the syntax, punctuation and spelling. "But he's not talking to me," she concedes.

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Jan. 1, 2009

"My sweetness ... I have finally come to one realization: Your loss to me is beyond human understanding. No matter how many times I replay life in my mind, I still come back to the same place and that is that the Lord knows the plans he has for us. His plans are not our plans. But the Lord does give us hope and a future. ... I'll see you on the high ground. HOOAH!

Love, Ma "

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Carla's day ends as it begins, at her laptop. Today there has been a new post, from a young woman who went to junior high in Ohio with Dane and who just now has learned of his death.

Carla says that after 20 months of reading such messages, she knows she and Larry were wrong about whether soldiers are remembered. Each post is a vote against death.

That's why she keeps coming back to the site, despite how much it hurts. "People really do remember," she says. "They're keeping him alive."

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