There’s an awkward silence when Erica Mundell tells people that her father died in war.
Calm and poised, she acts quickly to fill the void — not for her own benefit but for the comfort of those who are often visibly shaken when they hear the story she has to tell, for those who struggle to come up with the right things to say.
“I never mind talking about it,” said the 22-year-old Transylvania University graduate. “I just don’t like to make people feel badly. I tell them it’s OK.”
For the most part it is OK; time has a way of making it so.
It was a little more than five years ago when Mundell’s father, Army Maj. Michael Lewis Mundell, 47, was killed by an improvised explosive device while serving in Iraq. His death marked the 3,007th casualty of the then five-year-old war.
Mundell, 17 at the time, learned about his death after returning home from an otherwise normal day at Meade County High School in her hometown of Brandenburg.
“When I came home, I saw a white car in my driveway,” she said. “I thought it was my uncle, who drove a white car. I didn’t notice the U.S. government plates on the back.
“There were two of them (military officials) standing there, one of them a chaplain,” Mundell said. “My mom said, ‘Put down your stuff. We need to talk.’ I ran to my room and kept chanting, ‘Please don’t let it be Dad. Please don’t let it be Dad.’”
But it was, and for Mundell, her mother, Audrey, and three younger brothers, life took a sudden detour.
“For a while, I wouldn’t go to school. I stayed in my room. I moped around. Then one day I said, ‘I’m tired of feeling sorry for myself.’ So I went back to school.”
Soon after, Mundell also returned to the search for a college — a process she’d talked to her father about via satellite phone from Iraq.
After a visit to Transylvania in Lexington, she “fell in love” with the small liberal arts school. And with the financial assistance of the organization Children of Fallen Patriots, she was able to enroll.
It wasn’t until her sophomore year at Transylvania, however, that Mundell began sharing her story with people other than her closest friends.
It was the awkwardness in the telling, she said. Plus, “I didn’t want people to think I’m telling this for the wrong reasons. I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me.”
Former classmate H.B. Elam, who considers Mundell one of his closest friends from Transylvania, recalled some of those awkward moments. But, he said, Mundell always handled it with the grace and maturity of someone much older and wiser.
“I honestly wish (her father) could be here to see all the wonderful things she has done,” Elam said.
During her junior year, Mundell agreed to let the student newspaper, The Rambler, write a story about her experience. She also began talking about it more openly, in the classroom and beyond.
“I just feel like if I can talk about it I should because I love my father. I still do. And I feel like I should honor his memory by sharing that,” she told The Rambler.
Mundell continued to honor her father’s memory by doing her graduate work in rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., near his hometown. With the help of a full scholarship from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, she graduated earlier this month.
“My dad’s good friend, who I call Uncle Joe, told me that when I was a little girl, he would take me to Carnegie Mellon and tell me, ‘This is where you’re going to go to school one day,’” she said.
Despite all of the good things, Mundell can’t help but struggle with the sadness of her father’s death, which creeps up on her at the “silliest” times — like the night she realized her father would never see her graduate from either Transylvania or Carnegie Mellon.
There was also the time when she was watching one of her favorite Disney films, “The Little Mermaid,” when Ariel, the main character, says goodbye to her father at the end. “That hit me really hard,” she said.
But that, too, is OK, she is quick to say.
“It’s so much a part of who I am now,” she said. “I mean, I don’t want to be defined by the fact that my father died in war. But it’s part of who I am.”
Photo: Erica Mundell holds up the dog tags that once belonged to her father, Army Maj. Michael Lewis Mundell, who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq five years ago. Photo by Jodi Brashear.