Flags of Our Brothers
“After my brother was killed, it was easy for me to think that the world was an awful place,” says singer-songwriter Kristy Kruger. “I needed to know that the world is full of wonderful people, and that’s what I’m finding out.”
Kruger, who grew up in Dallas but now resides in Los Angeles, is in the midst of a 50-state memorial tour for her brother, Lt. Col. Eric Kruger, who was killed in Iraq in November. He was one of the highest ranking officers to perish in the war, and his death devastated his younger sister. She knew she had to do something other than wallow in grief.
“When I stayed in my apartment, it just got worse,” says Kristy, “so it made sense just to get rid of the apartment.”
At Eric’s funeral, Kristy was moved by her brother’s patriotism. “If he loved this country that much,” she figures, “the best way that I could honor him would be to see and appreciate the whole thing, all of America.”
Kruger decided to undertake a solo tour of every state in the union, with each show’s proceeds going to Eric’s family (his wife and their four young children). So far, she has already made it to eight states, with several more slated throughout the summer and into the fall, including a stop in Alaska in September.
“I put my things in storage and I don’t know when I’ll stop,” she says. “I want to spend a lot of time in California since they have lost more soldiers than any other state.” One show planned for July is in the northern California town of Modesto, where she will play a concert in memory of Staff Sgt. Joseph Gage, a soldier who was killed with the same roadside bomb that took her brother.
“I can’t wait to meet his family,” says Kruger. “We will dedicate the show to his family and friends, to share stories about him and celebrate his life.”
Kruger’s dedication to the families of those who have died in Iraq mirrors her commitment to her own music. Before leaving Dallas, she was named the city’s best female vocalist by the Dallas Observer. Her songs mix the rural pleasures of Lucinda Williams with elements of folk, jazz and even classical.
Kruger’s latest album, Songs From A Dead Man’s Couch, was released in 2006, many months before her brother’s death. “I wrote most of the songs on a secondhand couch whose previous owner passed away,” she explains. “Then my brother dies less than a year later and it’s such a sad, strange coincidence.”
Kristy had made the move to Los Angeles in the summer of 2006, hoping to pursue her musical career. When her brother was killed a few months later, music instead became a vital means by which she managed to cope with the loss.
“My brother would want me to keep playing my music,” she says. “I know this tour is something he would have loved to have done himself.”
The memorial shows have become cathartic experiences for all involved. Some shows have attracted hundreds, others only a handful. Kristy plays songs and shares memories of her brother. Afterward the performance, others who have lost loved ones frequently seek her out.
“People come up to talk to me about their losses, and not just from the war,” she says. “I consider it an honor that we are talking about something real.”
Several organizations such as TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) have come to the aid of the Kruger family. Kristy’s parents also receive free counseling from the Veterans’ Center. And people from both sides of the political spectrum have attended the concerts.
“I have found that the audiences are totally shocked that the shows are non-partisan,” says Kristy, whose father is a decorated veteran of Vietnam and has expressed support for the conflict even after his son’s death.
Kristy doesn’t view her tribute to her brother as being bound to any ideological viewpoint. “I really don’t care if someone is liberal or conservative,” she says. “I want a soldier to feel as welcome as a war protester.”
Kristy has found time to write songs and essays about her experiences on the road, yet each stop spurs a bittersweet flood of emotions. “When I come across a part of the country that I know my brother would have loved to see, I stop and cry and think of him,” she says. “I know this journey is part of my grieving process.”
So she drives on, her guitars in the back seat, searching for answers to the biggest question of all. “I can’t change the fact that Eric is dead,” Kristy concludes, “but I can choose how my life will be after his death.”