Dana Holmes' family Christmas dinner had all the trappings of a traditional holiday meal: Delicious food, sparkling decorations and family time.
But an empty plate marked the place where her son normally would sit. In the family room, his stocking remained filled with Christmas goodies.
While his family plods through the holidays, Pfc. Andrew Holmes sits in a detention block, one of five soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord charged in the deaths of three civilians in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province this year.
His parents, sisters, brother and new baby niece are waiting at home as complicated legal wrangling plays out to determine whether he’ll face a court-martial.
An appeals court must decide whether Holmes’ attorney can use controversial photos of a dead Afghan man that his defense team says will clear his name.
His family is paying an emotional and financial toll.
“We are just in a holding pattern,” Dana Holmes said. “If we just knew what was going to happen, it would be better.”
Dana Holmes lost her county job earlier this year after a flurry of media calls to her office and a blitz of news reports about her son. It’s just as well, she said, because she needs to focus on her son right now.
The family is living on the wages of Dana’s partner, Wendy Vanderford.
Even Andrew Holmes’ weekly phone calls cost the family about $400 a month.
Dana Holmes said she was forced to decide, after a family vote, whether to fix her furnace or take the family to JBLM for her son’s hearing in November. This winter, space heaters are keeping the house warm.
They’ve tried to take monthly trips to JBLM for short visits to keep Holmes’ spirits up.
‘A NORMAL FAMILY’
The family has received some donations and scraped together enough money to pay for private attorney Daniel Conway, who works with national law firm Gary Myers & Associates.
“We are just a normal family,” Dana Holmes said. “It’s not like we have money in the bank. And a capital murder case is not cheap.”
These types of cases are “exhausting” for the family – emotionally and spiritually, Conway said.
“Any toll taken on the family is magnified 10 times on the young man sitting in pre-trial confinement,” he said. “What affects them most is the uncertainty.”
And there are other sacrifices. Andrew Holmes made his mom promise they’d keep his elderly, ailing German shepherd, Tucker, going until he could get home from Afghanistan.
That might not happen.
Andrew Holmes is accused of horrific crimes.
Military prosecutors say that on Jan. 15, Holmes and his commander threw a grenade at and shot an unarmed civilian.
They say a giddy Holmes posed for grisly photos with the body. They say he smoked hash and bragged about having a gruesome war trophy: a severed human finger.
But Holmes’ family and lawyer say the young soldier didn’t know what was being planned and acted under orders and out of fear.
“Wait until all the evidence is released, and you will see,” Dana Holmes said. “The people that know Andy know the charges are not true. And if you don’t know Andy, wait until all the evidence is out.”
Andrew Holmes could be cleared, Conway said, if photos showing the corpse are allowed into legal proceedings. That decision could be a long way off.
“I have never seen anything like this in terms of the manner it has been prosecuted,” Conway said. “My gut doesn’t tell me anything. I’m just fighting as hard as I can for this kid.”
Dana Holmes and Vanderford, Andrew’s stepmom, said they knew something was wrong when he came home on leave in April. He’d picked up some kind of bug and was down 50 pounds he could scarcely afford to lose.
He showed his mom little plastic baggies of sleeping pills, stimulants and other medications given to the soldiers to deal with the stress and insomnia from twice-daily missions and fallen comrades.
He also was suffering from head trauma – he had been injured by the grenade thrown by Spc. Jeremy Morlock on Jan. 15. Further proof, Dana Holmes says, that her son didn’t realize what was happening that day.
On leave, it took Holmes two days to eat a sandwich, Dana Holmes said. She got him medical treatment.
On family trips out, Andrew Holmes “micromanaged” the family, Dana Holmes said. He wouldn’t let his parents or sisters leave the house without him.
But he wouldn’t open up.
Everyone cried when he left again for Afghanistan.
“When he went back, he did not think he was coming home,” Dana Holmes said. “He told me, when the guys in the dress uniforms show up, they are just doing their job. He was afraid” of retaliation.
As Holmes arrived back with his platoon, an investigation was already under way. He was detained and brought back to Lewis-McChord.
He’s been confined there since June 14. He was charged with murder the next day.
Dana Holmes learned about the accusations while watching local television.
“We had no idea the significance of the charges,” Dana Holmes said. “We felt like we’d been shot. We wondered, ‘What do we do first?’”
A slight, dark-haired man who adores golf and loves baseball, Holmes always had a hard time lying to his mother and stepmom if he’d broken rules.
“We called him our little confessor,” Vanderford said.
In high school, he worked at a local coffee shop. At times, he’d have no paycheck after buying his buddies coffee.
He didn’t get in much trouble – breaking a neighbor’s window with a snowball, getting a traffic citation for driving without a license.
His younger sister Kate Holmes describes her brother as tenacious.
“He gives the best hugs,” she said. “When he finds something he loves, he steps to it. He loves the Army.”
Andrew Holmes had planned a public service career, either as a firefighter or a police officer.
“He figured in the Army he would get the training he needed,” his mother said.
He enlisted in September 2008 when he was just 18 years old. He turned 19 in Afghanistan and 20 while in detention.
Vanderford said she’s asked him point-blank if he’s guilty. She believed him when he said no.
“It’s not Andy,” Vanderford said. “For one thing, you know when your kid is lying to you.”
Dana Holmes said she’s never had a moment’s doubt about her son’s innocence.
“As moms, that’s what we do,” Dana Holmes said. “We fight the battle. I’m absolutely scared to death my son will go to jail for something he didn’t do.”
Dana Holmes fights the battle every day by wearing a yellow rubber bracelet with her son’s name and website, www.pfcandrewholmes.com, along with a photo of him on her lapel.
She’ll talk to anyone who asks about his situation. She said the Army wants her to “shut up.”
“We still have a lot of support, especially the people who know him,” Dana Holmes said. “He’s gotten cards and letters from all over the world.”
This Christmas season, he’s getting other support from home. Little sister Kate videotaped all of Christmas so her brother can see the family celebration.
His mother saved his place at the table.