On Service and Loss: Reflections of a Mother and Trial Lawyer

by Pamela Levin Cameron

It finally sank in when I watched President Obama speak from the podium of the Arlington National Cemetery Amphitheater on Veteran’s Day.  I spoke from the very same place only six weeks earlier.  I addressed 5,000 people sitting in the amphitheater at our national cemetery – a place with such history and honor.  It was intimidating.  It was daunting.  But mostly, it was one of the proudest moments of my life. 

The Peace Corps had a week-long celebration for its 50thanniversary.  I was asked to represent the families of the 280 fallen volunteers at the culmination of the week’s events – a program at Arlington National Cemetery where I would be speaking alongside Sen. Chris Dodd (a former volunteer), Maureen Orth (Vanity Fair writer and Tim Russert’s widow), Joseph Kennedy III (also a former volunteer), and the Vice President of Liberia.  The program was to honor the fallen volunteers as well as the legacy of John F. Kennedy, Jr., who founded the Peace Corps, and R. Sargent Shriver, its first director.  

Having been a litigator and/or a manager for my entire career, public speaking is nothing new to me.  I am usually not phased by it.  But this was different.  It was personal.  The audience of 5,000 was more than I’ve seen in all the courtrooms put together during my years as a litigator.  And I was standing just steps from JFK’s grave and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  For the first time in my public speaking career, I was nervous.  The most unnerving part of all was that I knew I could handle representing my clients, arguing on their behalf and fighting for justice.  This time, though, I was representing other families just like my own, families who had lost a child, sibling or grandchild.  I felt I had to honor the fallen volunteers properly, and let their families know that I understand.  We share a bond that can never be broken.  Our loved ones died while serving our country by volunteering in the Peace Corps.  I wanted to remind the others that although our hearts would always be broken, we share a pride and honor that no one else does: our loved ones died trying to make the world a better place.  They died in faraway lands and came home in caskets, but their work would live on, their love would live on and they would remain alive in all of our hearts.  This was my message. The tears amidst the standing ovation convinced me that I had delivered it well.

The following is the text of my speech:

My son, Matt Costa, is a fallen Peace Corps volunteer.  He was 5 feet 5 ½ - about 130 pounds soaking wet, wiry and athletic with curly brown hair and sparkling brown eyes –  two weeks shy of his 25thbirthday on September 3, 2006 when he and fellow volunteer, Justin Brady, died in Mali when the mast of their homemade boat hit a power line as they sailed the Niger River.  This is how Matt’s college fraternity brother described him a few days after his death, and I quote:  “He was a risk taker, an adventurer – an example I followed.  He was fierce and fearless, with a heart and perspective that did not match his size. His outlook led him to places few are brave enough to venture – he strived to be exceptional.  He was a novel person with a mind that was always working.”

I don’t think this description is unique to Matt.  It probably describes most volunteers.  They are fierce, fearless, brave, novel, and big-hearted.  That is what it takes to travel thousands of miles from home, from one’s family and friends, into a foreign land where they may be no plumbing, electricity, running water – where the amenities we take for granted don’t exist.  They become ambassadors for America by venturing into underdeveloped countries and following the cultural mores of the people with whom they live and work.  Most volunteers come home as changed people.  They are forever defined by their experiences in the Peace Corps.  A small number, like my son and the other fallen volunteers, aren’t so lucky.  The Peace Corps became their final chapter.  But I think most of them died doing what they wanted – what they chose – what they loved.

My son, Matt, wanted to join the Peace Corps since he was about 12 or 13.  He was always globally engaged and had a relentless thirst to experience other cultures and to help those less fortunate.  I remember the night before he left for Chad.  It was September 21, 2003 – his 22ndbirthday – a Sunday.  He savored every second of watching his beloved Washington Redskins – in what he knew would be the last football game he’d watch on TV for a long time.  They lost to the Giants in overtime.  He was frustrated.  He thought fate would smile upon him and remove the Giants jinx from the Redskins because after all it was his birthday and he was heading for staging and then Chad the next morning.  I remember thinking how much I take watching TV for granted.  Yet, here was my brave and selfless son volunteering to give up not just TV, but electricity, bathroom facilities, running water, and I felt so very proud. 

The Peace Corps is unique as are its volunteers.  It changes others’ views about Americans.  They live and work among the people in their villages.  They do more than their official Peace Corps duties.  They engage their neighbors and students and co-workers one conversation, one soccer game, one song, one friendship at a time.  They leave legacies when they leave their countries.

I’d like to share with you one of Matt’s legacies from Chad.  Matt loved music and he played a mean guitar and harmonica.  He was a huge Bob Dylan fan.  One of his goals was to use music to bridge the cultural and language gaps between himself and the Chadians.  He would gather the Chadian kids from his village, Mani, and play and sing Bob Dylan songs with them.  One particular song, “Who killed Davey Moore,”  a social commentary about a world champion prizefighter killed by an opponent in 1963, was a favorite of the kids.  Matt would sing the verses, and the Chadian children would sing the chorus, which goes “Who killed Davey Moore…Why and what’s the reason for?”  The kids didn’t even know what these words meant, but they were catchy and the kids remembered them.  Every time they saw Matt at the market or in the village, they would get big smiles on their faces and start chanting the chorus as they pointed at Matt….and I would imagine to this day there are Chadian kids in a village called Mani who still song “Who Killed Davey Moore…Why and what’s the reason for” – from a Dylan song that most people in the U.S. have never even heard.    

Matt loved the Peace Corps so much that he decided to extend his service to Mali after 2 years in Chad.  We traveled to Mali on the one-year anniversary of Matt’s death to dedicate a soccer field in his memory.  We raised money to build bleachers and a children’s garden at the field in his village.  While there, we heard from many Malians and Peace Corps volunteers about the legacies Matt left in Mali as well.  One volunteer told us about how Matt and Justin planned to use their boat to teach the Malian women, who wash their clothes along the banks of the Niger River, how to build soap. 

This same gentleman described Matt and Justin as follows, and I quote:  “The kind of people who make you glad to be alive, who make you proud to live and love life, who give and renew your hope in all of humanity.  With their inspirationally indefatigable attitudes, energy, adventurous spirit and good humor, they truly made the world a better place.” 

I believe this describes every volunteer – current, returned, fallen, or future. 

The fallen volunteers leave a special legacy.  Many of them were young – with almost an entire lifetime remaining to grow, experience, and make a difference.  That is why it’s so important that we remember them and what they stood for.  For us, after we dedicated the soccer field in Mali, we started a scholarship in Matt’s memory at his alma mater, Tulane University, given to a service oriented student to carry on Matt’s legacy.  We also hold a benefit concert called “Music for Matt” every year in New Orleans.  All the proceeds from Music for Matt go to his scholarship and to support Peace Corps volunteer projects in Mali.

I’d now like to quote Matt  – this is from the last email he wrote before he died.  He was planning to go to law school and talking about what he wanted to do after graduation.  “I think I want to do something with international law, or with asylum or immigrant type stuff.  I like Africa, but not as much as I love the world.  I want to be able to move around in it.”  My heart aches for the future Matt lost 2 days after writing this e-mail.  It aches for the loss of all the fallen volunteers and, collectively, the good they would have done in this world.  But my heart also swells with pride when I read that e-mail -  because of the difference Matt and the other fallen volunteers made in their time here on earth – however long or short it may have been.  I honor the 280 fallen volunteers.  They represent the best of America and they have left their indelible spirit all around the world.    

*If you are interested in making a tax deductible contribution to the Costa Memorial Scholarship in Memory of Pam Cameron’s son, Matthew Costa, you may do so at https://www.sigepfoundation.org/donations/donate.asp?id=718.  In the “Donor Comments” section, you MUST specify “Tulane University, Louisiana Alpha Chapter, Matt Costa Memorial Scholarship.” Alternatively, you can donate to “Music for Matt,” the annual New Orleans benefit concert to celebrate Matthew’s life, at www.musicformatt.org.   

Pamela Levin Cameron is a trial attorney who practices with Sinoway, McEnery, Messey & Sullivan, P.C. in North Haven.  She is a member of the CTLA Women’s Caucus, and can be reached at. pamelalcameron@yahoo.com