Families Of Fallen Troops With County Ties Speak Out

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December 17th, 2006   #1
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San Diego Union-Tribune
December 16, 2006
Pg. 1

Many are conflicted, impatient over Iraq
By Alex Roth, Staff Writer
They are angry and frustrated, these families of fallen troops. Some are angry at President Bush. Others are angry at the Iraqis, at Congress or at the media.
Many of these families are also afraid – afraid of what will happen if the military pulls out of Iraq, afraid of what will happen if the military stays in Iraq, and afraid, perhaps most of all, that their sons and daughters might have died for nothing.
“We don't want Jeff to have died in vain, but we don't think we should let these young men keep dying on and on and on forever,” said Janet Rogers of Yukon, Okla., whose 21-year-old son, Marine Lance Cpl. Jeffry Rogers, was killed in Iraq in 2005. “We cannot allow our young men and young women to keep dying when we don't know what we're fighting for.”
As debate about the future of the war has intensified in recent weeks, The San Diego Union-Tribune spoke with parents, spouses and siblings of 20 fallen service members who either grew up or were based in San Diego. These families, selected at random, were asked their thoughts on the progress in Iraq, the president's handling of the situation and how the military should proceed in the months ahead.
Most were relatives of fallen Marines from Camp Pendleton, which has lost slightly more than 300 troops in Iraq, more than any other military base in the nation. Among those interviewed were a La Mesa man whose son was one of the war's first casualties, a Florida woman whose son died shielding his buddies from a suicide bomber, and a Louisiana woman whose son reportedly told her shortly before his death, “Don't watch the news and cry every time you see a casualty, because it won't be me.”
Army Pvt. Devon Jones, 19, was killed in April 2003 when his Humvee fell into a ravine in Iraq.
As a group, relatives of the men and women who volunteered to serve in the military have always been more supportive of the president and the war than the general public has. Still, as the conflict drags on with no end in sight, even some of these families are beginning to run out of patience. Of those interviewed, more than half were critical of Bush and said the war wasn't going well.
Roger Kielion of Omaha, Neb., supported the invasion at first, but has come to believe it was a mistake. His son, Marine Lance Cpl. Shane Kielion, was killed Nov. 15, 2004, the same day the 23-year-old Marine's wife gave birth to the couple's first child.
“There's way too many funerals, way too many funerals,” said Kielion, 53, an industrial painter. “It's really a dirty mess over there. I wish we'd never gone in to begin with.”
For many of the families, their reluctance to see the United States leave Iraq without a clear victory is offset by the knowledge that staying there means more American soldiers will die and more families will experience the agony and grief they have.
Christine Cappillino of Daytona Beach, Fla., thinks the military should leave Iraq immediately because “we'll never win this war.” Her brother, Marine Capt. Patrick M. Rapicault, 34, was killed when a car packed with explosives blew up next to his Humvee.
“Let's get out and let them fight each other,” said Cappillino, 55, a registered nurse. An immediate withdrawal, she added, would mean “there will be less mothers and fathers and sisters with broken hearts.”
To be sure, some relatives of the fallen adamantly oppose a quick withdrawal and think victory is still achievable. Their biggest complaint isn't with Bush, but with the media and the American public. All the criticism of Bush's war strategy, they believe, simply emboldens the terrorists.
Ken Mortenson of Flagstaff, Ariz., thinks the public and media should stop second-guessing the generals. His son, Lance Cpl. Marty Mortenson, 22, was killed in 2005 on his third tour of duty.
“I think the generals ought to be able to run it the way they see fit and leave the politics out of it,” said Mortenson, 63, who owns a machine shop. He added, “I don't like people coming in and telling me how to run my business.”
Deborah Tainsh of Midland, Ga. – whose fallen stepson, Army Sgt. Patrick Tainsh, 33, graduated from El Camino High School in Oceanside – thinks the only way to win is for the American public to show resolve and unite behind the president.
“They think we're just a bunch of wimps over here,” she said, referring to the Iraqi insurgents.
Critical juncture
The debate about Iraq comes at a critical juncture. President Bush has acknowledged the war isn't going well and said he intends to announce a new strategy some time early next year. In a report last week, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group described the situation in Iraq as “grave and deteriorating.”
Meanwhile, public support for the war continues to decline, according to several recent polls. A CBS poll released last week found that less than a quarter of Americans support Bush's handling of the war and that a majority now believes invading Iraq was a mistake.
How the troops and their families feel is harder to gauge, because few polls have been conducted this year. One of the most recent was a Zogby International poll released in February showing that 72 percent of U.S. troops serving in Iraq thought the military should pull out within a year. The poll was based on interviews with 944 U.S. military personnel in Iraq.
Of the relatives interviewed by the Union-Tribune, most were torn by conflicting emotions and opposing ideas.
Sharon McLeese of Covington, La., called the situation “just a heartbreaking mess.” Her son, 19-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Justin McLeese, was killed in 2004, reportedly after walking into a booby-trapped building.
McLeese, 52, a real-estate agent, voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004 and supported the invasion. She said she trusted the president's judgment when he declared at the time that Iraq was a central front on the war on terror.
Now, however, she finds herself thinking, “How did we get ourselves into this mess?
“You would think we learned some really tough lessons from Vietnam,” she said, adding that the U.S. government's management of the Iraq war has left her with “a general distrust of all politicians.”
Asked whether she regretted voting for Bush, she replied, “I don't know. When you lose your only son, to keep your sanity you can't go back and replay. You don't get a redo.”
Bill Lynch of Long Island, N.Y., is similarly conflicted.
He supported Bush's decision to invade in 2003 and continues to believe it was a sensible decision, given what was known at the time. Lynch's son, Marine 1st Lt. Matthew Lynch, 25, was killed by a roadside bomb on his third tour of duty.
Lynch, 67, a retired FBI agent, believes Saddam Hussein was a vicious thug who needed to be taken out because he posed a continuing threat to the United States.
But Lynch is also alarmed by what he sees when he visits the Long Island cemetery where his son is buried. More and more headstones contain names that he recognizes – names of young men who grew up with his son and have joined his son on the roster of the war's 2,900-plus casualties.
“It's like a neighborhood now and the neighborhood's growing,” he said, referring to the cemetery plots. “And these are the best America has to offer. ... We cannot be in there like Vietnam for 10 years. We just can't.”
New strategies
Those interviewed offered myriad suggestions about possible new strategies. Proposals included taking out radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, creating a New Deal-style jobs program to reduce unemployment in Iraq, and fighting more aggressively against the insurgents, with less concern for collateral damage. If children must die or a mosque must be blown up in order to kill the enemy, then so be it, some said.
“What happened in Japan when we dropped the bomb? They got serious real quick,” said Mary Gordon, 59, of Midlothian, Tex., the mother of fallen Marine Capt. Lyle Gordon, 30.
Terri Clifton of Milford, Del. – whose son, Lance Cpl. Richard Clifton, 19, was killed in a mortar attack in 2005 – says Bush needs to rethink his entire military strategy.
She called the war in Iraq “a good idea gone wrong.”
“We made such colossal mistakes from the get-go that I couldn't even tell you what this war would look like if we'd done things differently,” she said. “I blame Colin Powell for not following his gut. I blame George Bush for having an ego larger than his brain. I blame the people who didn't equip our troops. I blame everybody.”
Some parents and spouses of the fallen confess they're trying to tune out the war. The daily drumbeat of bad news is simply too painful, they say. Others have taken comfort in their religious beliefs.
“I stand on the rock that doesn't roll, my lord and savior, Jesus Christ,” Evelyn Houston of Valencia Park responded when asked how she copes with the death of her foster son, 19-year-old Army Pvt. Devon Jones.
She thinks the war was a mistake but added, “I'm a Christian, so I pray for the president.”
“He hasn't died in vain,” she said of her son. “Look, you're still talking about him. Isn't that wonderful? He died a hero.”
McLeese, the Louisiana real-estate agent, said she's given up trying to make sense of it all. She was reluctant to speak to a reporter at first, saying she was too confused about the whole situation.
On the one hand, she thinks the military should leave Iraq because too many brave young men and women are dying. On the other hand, she thinks it would be almost immoral to leave behind a country in such a state of catastrophe – a country that's “broken and bleeding.”
“We made this mess,” McLeese said. “We can't just walk away.”
The way she sees it, her opinion doesn't really matter anyway.
“Who am I? I'm somebody's mom,” she said.


 
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