Every morning, the routine is the same. Breakfast. Workout. Shower. And, on the drive in from work, a radio report on the daily count of American dead in Iraq.
Monday's news was the worst in six months. Sixteen soldiers were killed when a missile shot down the Chinook helicopter that was ferrying them back to Baghdad for the start of a trip home, a little R&R.
With every report like this, my heart sinks for the families of the dead. And my skepticism rises.
In May, the president declared victory over a despot we can't find, weapons of mass destruction we can't locate and terrorists we can't eradicate. The war we were promised is not the war that we got.
It is easier to say this in some places than others. Tampa is among the others.
The U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base is in charge of conducting the war. The Tampa Bay area is home to thousands of military families and a special place in Brandon that helps them, the MacDill Family Resource Center.
I called the center Monday. I wanted to know how the families who go there for help with everything from lawn care to wills were dealing with the daily body counts.
Talking to others often clarifies my own thinking on a subject, so I talked to Frank Suitor, the center's executive director. Were his clients worried? Discouraged?
Perhaps Suitor's answers could have been predicted.
"Most of them are in prayer every day," he said, "but they are united in terms of serving their country."
I wasn't sure what he meant. When I pressed further, Suitor said I was really asking another question _ whether the families who come in and out of the center support the administration's war policy.
Yes, he said, answering his own question. Yes, they did.
I can see where Suitor might think that was part of my question. To wonder why so many young men and women must die could lead you to question the war itself. You could ultimately decide the war is necessary, yet still manage to offend people who don't like that kind of question.
I think that's what bothers me. Since when are a few questions dangerous?
Suitor went on to talk about how he sometimes tells military families not to believe everything they read in the media. He said reporters have failed to report American accomplishments in Iraq.
"You don't hear that 95 percent of the Iraqis are not doing this and are supportive of the U.S. being there," he said.
Thus came one of those moments when I wanted to hang up the phone, put my head down on my desk, and draw a great sigh.
I had glimpsed again a great divide, one involving culture and media and, ultimately, one's definition of patriotism. It is unpatriotic to question the war, and anyone with a notebook is suspect. I couldn't possibly have sincere emotions about the fact that 16 soldiers died in a cause that seems increasingly star-crossed.
Repeatedly, Suitor used the word "heroic" to describe the people who come to him. I don't doubt their courage. While worrying about their relatives overseas, they have to keep families together, hold down jobs. It's not a life meant for rest or peace of mind.
But I also know that if any of the Brandon families are second-guessing the war, the military would not want that news out.
I called Suitor to talk about MacDill's families, not to debate the broad points of the war and the press. I was startled when he took our brief conversation in this direction, but maybe this too could have been predicted.
My notebook and I are the enemy.
If only reporters would get the story right. If only we'd look away from the pile of the dead and see events through the administration's eyes.
Sixteen more dead seems a strange way to spell victory. If we can't ask questions while we mourn, we will have found a new way to spell defeat.
_ You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelonesptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.