The Funeral Of Pfc. Kristian Menchaca

By: Grey Eagle | 29 Jun 06

By LYNN BREZOSKY, Associated Press Writer

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) - A Roman Catholic priest urged mourners Wednesday at the funeral of a Texas soldier who was captured and mutilated in Iraq to avoid “unholy rage'’ and work for peace to honor his memory.
Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, was one of two 101st Airborne Division soldiers whose booby-trapped remains were found June 19, three days after they disappeared following an insurgent attack.

Diocese of Brownsville Bishop Raymundo Pena spoke of Menchaca’s valor and sacrifice.

“News reports about the circumstances of Kris’ death in Iraq could lead us to an unholy rage and anger, but that would only dishonor Kristian’s very name and Kristian himself,'’ Pena said.

“We must, as he did, reach for the ideal: to work for peace and an end to conflict wherever we may find it,'’ he added.

Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed it killed Menchaca and Pfc. Thomas Tucker of Madras, Ore., saying the successor to slain leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had “slaughtered'’ them, according to a Web statement that could not be authenticated.

A third soldier, Spc. David J. Babineau of Springfield, Mass., died in the attack.

Local residents carrying U.S. flags lined the route of the funeral procession Wednesday, and workers emerged from area businesses, some in fast food uniforms or nursing scrubs, to join them.

Menchaca, who was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and a Prisoner of War medal, was remembered as a quiet young man who was newly married and devoted to the Army. He hoped his military experience would qualify him for a career with the U.S. Border Patrol.

Border Patrol agents joined police and uniformed veterans lined up at the cemetery as a Fort Campbell, Ky., honor guard carried the flag-covered coffin to the grave during his burial.

Christina Menchaca, Menchaca’s 18-year-old wife, shook with sobs during a gun salute and trumpets playing taps. She pressed her face to the coffin and cried with Menchaca’s mother, Maria Vasquez, who leaned on the shoulder of her older son, Julio.

“My little boy,'’ Vasquez said. “He was only 23.'’

kristian menchaca
Pfc. Kristian Menchaca Funeral

Tearful goodbye to a slain soldier Video

‘Madly in love’ couple planned to have kids

By: Grey Eagle | 23 Jun 06

They were love letters above all.

There was the usual clutter of Army deployment — assignments, frustrations and war — that filled the pages of lined paper that Staff Sgt. Joseph P. Bellavia, 28, of Clarksville, Tenn., wrote in longhand to his wife, Christine. She was the “Princess” in every salutation.

But almost out of nowhere in the narrative, Bellavia would suddenly write “I love you,” as if everything else was just a distraction.

March 30, 2003: “I can’t wait to see your beautiful face again. I miss you a lot.”

May 4: “I showed the interpreters your pictures and they think you’re beautiful. I told them of course she’s beautiful. She’s my wife.”

June 30: “I can’t be without you for another year. I can’t go through that again.”

On Oct. 2: “I’m the luckiest man alive to have such a wonderful and beautiful woman as my wife, friend and supporter.”

Sometimes she would find an envelope in the mail with a piece of paper containing the phrase, “I love you” and nothing else. “Every breath that he took was for me, and every breath I took was for him,” Christine says. “We may have only been married for three and a half years, but people who are married for 30 years don’t have what we had.”

“He was madly in love,” says his father, Joseph F. Bellavia
His son was in a military police unit from the 101st Airborne Division, working to provide security in the months after the successful invasion of Iraq when there was relative calm. That was before the emergence of a violent insurgency.

“I’m disgustingly skinny and ugly,” Bellavia wrote to his wife five months into his deployment. “Hell, I’d walk a mile out of my way to avoid a mirror. I don’t know how you could be attracted to me. I love you.”

On Oct. 16, during a tense standoff with Shiite militia in Karbala, firing broke out. A battalion commander, Lt. Col. Kim Orlando, 43, of Tennessee, was fatally shot. As Bellavia tried to provide covering fire for soldiers pulling Orlando to safety, he was struck by grenade shrapnel and bullet rounds.

His death came a few months before he was scheduled to go home.

He and Christine were childless. She had miscarried a baby two weeks after Joe deployed to Iraq and sent him an image from the ultrasound, which he conceded in his letters was difficult to see. “It really depressed me,” he wrote. But Bellavia remained eternally optimistic.

“Now I know what I have to look forward to when I get home. We will be pregnant again. I really want to father your children. When I get home, I want us to go on a vacation, for us to spend time together and keep the sparks flying. I just wanna make you happy any way possible. I love you so much. Well, I must get back to the soldiers …

Love Always,




The Story Of: Pfc. Kristian Menchaca

By: Balding Eagle | 20 Jun 06

“Air Assault!” May You Rest In Peace Young Warriors
Pfc. Kristian Menchaca and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker
1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division

When his younger brother enlisted in the U.S. Army late last year, Cesar Vasquez advised him to try for a posting other than infantry, which would certainly land him in Iraq.

But Kristian Menchaca, 23, didn’t share those reservations. He soon was a member of the 101st Airborne Division.

“I guess it didn’t seem real to him that anything would happen to him,” Vasquez said Monday.

Vasquez learned this weekend that his brother and another private first class, Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Madras, Ore., are the soldiers believed to have been taken hostage Friday in Baghdad after coming under small-arms fire at a checkpoint. Spc. David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass., was killed in the attack.

“It doesn’t look good,” said Vasquez, standing in the dining room of his aunt’s home in Houston’s near northside, where he and his brother were raised. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s not looking good right now. I would be surprised if he were released. I don’t expect that to happen.”

A group with ties to al-Qaida, the Mujaheddin al-Shura Council, claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, but the U.S. military had not confirmed that claim Monday. A Defense Department release describes the missing soldiers’ status as “whereabouts unknown.”

All were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), based at Fort Campbell, Ky.

Vasquez, 25, said the apparent captors probably want “payback” for the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida leader in Iraq, who was killed in a U.S. bomb attack this month.

“Sometimes they like to use soldiers as an example,” he said. “The one soldier I saw on the news that got kidnapped back in ‘04, they never found him.”

(Sgt. Keith “Matt” Maupin of Batavia, Ohio, went unaccounted for after his fuel-truck convoy was ambushed April 9, 2004, in a western suburb of Baghdad. The Army has vowed to keep searching for him.)

Menchaca, who completed his general equivalency diploma at the Alternative Learning & Transition Academy in Houston, was deployed to Iraq in January. Menchaca married his wife, Christina, of Big Spring, before shipping out.

“He just liked the military, the military lifestyle,” his brother said. “He just wanted to go through the special training that they go through.”

Vasquez said his mother has had trouble sleeping since she received word about her son. But Guadalupe Vasquez said by telephone from her home in Brownsville on Monday that she has faith that her son will return safely to his family. Until then, she said, she will continue to pray and patiently wait.

Mariaelena Garcia, an aunt who raised him as an infant until he was about 14, recalled telling him during a brief visit to Houston in May to take care of himself back in Iraq.

“Ya tía. Ya tía. No me pasaba nada,” he told her. Nothing would happen to him.

“It’s hard for me,” she said Monday. “It’s very hard.”

Menchaca told his family during the same visit that he was having trouble sleeping because he had become accustomed to lack of sleep during his tour in Iraq, she said. He spent long evenings with friends and family. His uncle Mario Vasquez recalled that one night his nephew pestered him for hot wings for dinner — he’d had enough Mexican food.

After his military duty, Menchaca told his brother, he planned to pursue a career in law enforcement, maybe with the U.S. Border Patrol.

‘It doesn’t look good,’ says brother of missing soldier
Sibling thinks apparent captors want ‘payback’ for al-Zarqawi’s death
June 20, 2006

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

In Sports, a Sisterhood

By: Grey Eagle | 08 Jun 06

By the time Carla Best awakened from surgery, the Iraq war’s first female amputees had long moved on. Best had been injured in 2004, but for months, doctors had been trying to save what was left of her disfigured leg. In June, they finally amputated it.

Not long after her surgery, a nurse pointed out an envelope on bedside table. Best opened it to find a get-well card with a note that promised an understanding friend. “We female AKs have to stick together,” the card said.

Best understood that “AK” is part of the parlance of the amputee world — it stands for “above knee” — and she recognized the name of the card’s sender: Melissa Stockwell, a young lieutenant who was the Iraq war’s first female combat amputee.

To Best, Stockwell was the very picture of can-do determination. Injured at 24, she endured 15 surgeries on her amputated leg, and then took up skiing, biking and most of all swimming — a sport she had never before embraced but now pursued with ardor. Stockwell aspired to compete as a swimmer in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. In the meantime, she and her husband had moved to Minnesota, where Stockwell had thrown herself into a new career — in prosthetics.

As Stockwell put it: “You don’t sit in a room crying. You get up in the morning and put your leg on.”

For Best, the example was heartening.

At 29, Best was a mechanic by training who had made rank as a sergeant and embraced Army life. She had been in Iraq four months when she got her wish to be part of a mission away from her base in Baghdad. The mission had barely started when her vehicle was blasted by a roadside bomb. Both her legs were severely injured, one almost severed.

The night before her leg was amputated, Best took photos of it as a kind of goodbye, knowing she would never see herself with four limbs again. “There was a lot of fear in not knowing what was going to happen,” she said.

Months later, she found herself alongside her role model — first at a triathlon event in San Diego, then at the New York City Marathon.

On a hand-cranked bike, Best muscled her way along the 26.2-mile marathon course. It was not easy. Her tire went flat three times. A rim nearly fell off. But she was exhilarated to be out in the sun and to feel the wind of her own forward movement.

She whirred across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, through all five boroughs of New York, in the shadow of skyscrapers, toward Central Park. At the finish line, she saw Stockwell, done with her own race.

“You did it,” Stockwell cheered.

Best hopped up on one leg and hugged her, giddy.

– Donna St. George

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

The Final Goodbye

By: Grey Eagle | 12 May 06

The Final Goodbye“The night before the burial of her husband’s body, Katherine Cathey refused to leave the casket, asking to sleep next to his body for the last time. The Marines made a bed for her, tucking in the sheets below the flag. Before she fell asleep, she opened her laptop computer and played songs that reminded her of “Cat,” and one of the Marines asked if she wanted them to continue standing watch as she slept. “I think it would be kind of nice if you kept doing it,” she said. “I think that’s what he would have wanted.”

Jim CatheyFinal Salute The flag never left Jim Cathey.

From the moment his body departed Iraq, the sturdy, heavyweight cotton flag remained nearby, following him from the desert to Dover Air Force Base, Del., where a mortuary affairs team received his body.

According to the Department of Defense, Cathey was killed in Al Karmah, Iraq, on Aug. 21. Members of his unit later told family members that Cathey was leading the search of an abandoned building when a booby-trapped door exploded. The explosion was so fierce it blew off an arm and leg of the Marine directly behind Cathey. That man, now in recovery, credits his lieutenant with saving his life.

Once Cathey’s remains arrived at Dover, the mortuary affairs team began the delicate task of readying his body for the final trip home. When possible, military morticians prepare a body for viewing by the family. In Cathey’s case, that wasn’t an option.

Specialists at Dover wrapped his body in a white shroud and covered it with a satin body-length pillow and his dress blue uniform before closing the casket lid and securing the flag nearby.

When the plane landed in Reno, the same flag was draped over the casket, which was loaded into the hearse to continue its journey to the funeral home.

After all the noise at the airport - the screaming, the crying, the whining of jet engines - inside the funeral home each footstep echoed.

The pallbearers carried their friend’s body to the front of an enormous empty room, then faded into the background. Beck posted himself at the head of the casket, his face frozen in the Marine stare.

His eyes trained forward, he still saw everything.

Inside the room, Cathey’s mother, Caroline, bent down to hug Katherine. They squeezed each other for a long time.

“You give me strength,” the young widow said.

Other family members sat on couches and some sat on the floor - hugging, holding hands, their eyes locked on the casket, for nearly half an hour.

Finally, Beck broke the silence.

“I’m sorry,” he said, excusing the family from the room. “There are some things I need to do.”

Last watch

Beck motioned to the pallbearers and began the instructions that would hold for the next three days.

Although the Marines are required to stand watch over a comrade’s body, once the casket is safely inside a locked mortuary or church, they usually leave at night and return when the mortuary reopens.

This time, however, the watch would not end.

“Katherine and Caroline have both expressed concerns about Jim being left alone,” Beck told the Marines. “So we won’t leave him alone.”

He then explained how to guard the casket. They all had posted watch before. They had stood at attention for hours as part of basic training, but nothing like this.

They were to take shifts of about an hour at a time, Beck instructed, standing watch 24 hours a day. When changing the guard, they were to salute Cathey’s casket first, then relieve the other Marine the same way.

He showed them the slow salute - the one they aren’t taught in basic training - three seconds up, hold for three seconds and three seconds down.

“A salute to your fallen comrade should take time,” he said.

For Beck, that salute embodies more than the movement itself. Earlier in the day, someone had asked him about the arrival of “the body.” He held up his hand with a firm correction.

“‘The body’ has a name.” he said. “His name is Jim.”

In the room, he walked up to the casket and paused.

“Now, this is important, too,” he said. “If a family member wants you to break, you can break. They may want to hug you or kiss you. That’s OK. Hug them. If someone wants to shake your hand, shake their hand. I’ll take my glove off when I shake their hand - you don’t have to, it’s up to you. But then go back to position.

“Everyone understand?”

“Yes, sir,” they responded. “Roger that.”

“This is a serious business,” he said. “Jim is watching you.”

As the other Marines filed into the hallway, closing the door behind them, Beck walked back to the casket. For the first time, he and Jim Cathey were alone.

It was time for the final inspection.

No detail too small

Beck walked up to the casket and lifted the flag back, tucking it into neat pleats and leaving just enough room to open the heavy wooden lid. He walked around the flag several times, making sure each stripe lined up straight, smoothing the thick stitching with his soft white gloves.

Then he lifted the lid.

For the past five days, Beck had spent hours looking at pictures of Jim Cathey, listening to the family’s stories, dabbing their tears. When he looked inside, they were no longer strangers.

For the next 10 minutes, Beck leaned over the open casket, checking the empty uniform that lay atop the tightly-shrouded body, making sure every ribbon and medal was in place. Occasionally, he pulled off a piece of lint or a stray thread and flicked it away.

Although casualty assistance officers receive an advisory from military morticians about whether a body is “viewable,” some families insist on looking. The casualty assistance officer is often the one to make last-minute recommendations, since by then he knows the family and - after the final inspection - knows exactly what the family will see.

Whether or not the family decides on a viewing, Beck said, the procedure is no less meticulous.

In Cathey’s case, the family decided not to look under the shroud. But Katherine wanted a few minutes alone with the open casket, to give her husband a few of the things they had shared - and one he never got to see.

Beck ran his hand alongside the shroud, taking one last look at the uniform.

He closed the lid and turned toward the door.

‘I’m always kissing you, baby’

Katherine draped her body over the smooth wood, pressing her pregnant belly to the casket, as close to a hug as she could get.

Beck placed a hand on her back.

“Tell me when you’re ready,” he said. “Take your time.”

He stepped back.

The air conditioner clicked on, filling the room with a low hum. Ten minutes passed. It clicked off, leaving the room to her soft moans.

She moved only to adjust her feet, continuing to rub her belly against the wood. She closed her eyes and whispered something.

Then she looked up at Beck.

“OK,” she said.

As she stood at his arm, he opened the casket.

She didn’t cry. She didn’t speak. He gave her a few seconds, then took her hand and brought it to the middle of the empty uniform. He held her hand there and pressed down.

“He’s here,” he told her. “Feel right here.”

She held her hand on the spot, pressing the uniform into the shrouded body beneath. She dragged her hand the length of all that was there.

Beck walked back to get the personal belongings Katherine had brought with her from Colorado.

“Where do you want to start?” he asked.

“With the picture of us kissing,” she said.

She placed the picture at the top of the casket, above the neck of the uniform. She bent down and pressed her lips to it.

“I’m always kissing you, baby,” she whispered.

She took several other photos of their lives together and placed them around the uniform. She gently added a bottle of her perfume, then picked up the dried, fragile flowers of her wedding bouquet.

Before Jim Cathey had left for officer training, they were married by a justice of the peace in Denver, planning a big wedding on his return from Iraq. Her wedding dress still hangs in her closet at home, unworn.

She placed the flowers alongside the uniform, then turned again to the major.

“The ultrasound,” she said.

The fuzzy image was taken two days after her husband’s death. Katherine had scheduled the appointment for a day when Jim was supposed to call, so they could both learn the baby’s gender together. He had a feeling it was a boy, he had told her. If it was, she suggested they name the child after him.

She stood cradling the ultrasound, then moved forward and placed it on the pillow at the head of the casket. She stood there, watching for several minutes, then removed it.

She walked the length of the casket, then stepped back, still holding the only image of James J. Cathey Jr.

She leaned in and placed it over her husband’s heart.

Copyright 2006, Rocky Mountain News

Photo By: Todd Heisler © News

When A Picture Says It All

By: Grey Eagle | 11 May 06


These Photo’s were emailed to me and says it all. It puts a face to the sacrifices made by our Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, & Saliors. Next time someone says our troops died for nothing, have them tell it to this Marine’s sons.

Staff Sgt. Donald C. May JrMarine Staff Sgt. Donald C. May Jr., 31, of Richmond, Va.; assigned to 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division, Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif.; killed in action while conducting convoy operations near the Euphrates River, Iraq.

Donald C. May Jr. followed his parents into the military, joining the Marines the year his father, a former tank commander, died in a fishing accident.

“He was a clean-cut American boy,” said his mother, Brenda Reese May. “When he decided to go into the military, I was proud. Always scared, but proud.” He died March 25 when his tank fell off a bridge into the Euphrates River.

May took an interest in the military at an early age. His parents had both served in the Marines, and May became a Naval Sea Cadet at age 12 and, later, a police Explorer. After high school, he joined the military police and guarded Iraqi prisoners during the 1991 Gulf War. He left the service for two years, then rejoined as a tank commander “just like his dad,” his mother said.

His wife, Deborah, is expecting their second child. (pictured in the second photo)

A Sister’s Tribute

By: Grey Eagle | 02 May 06

Jordan LeighJordan Leigh has written a beautiful and moving song for our fallen soldiers and dedicated it to her brother Kenneth Schall who died while serving in Iraq. Listen to her song:

Soldier, I Thank You

Jordan Leigh is trying to have her song played on Memorial Day. I think one way to help her get exposure for her song is to encourage the other websites and blogs to link back, trackback, or use (/songs/soldier_thank_you.html) as a link or pop-up on your site. I will absorb the bandwidth in order to help her get her song out there. She lost her brother, a soldier, it is the least we can do to help the family and to honor him.

(update: there was a glitch in the link that has now been corrected and should work fine now. If you attempted to use this link before you may need to update this- Thanks, Grey Eagle)

In addition to her song she has shared her feeling and written the following words:

As American citizens, we have to admire the spirit and patriotism that was felt by our service men and women when they made the decision to defend this nation. They are America’s finest, and we, as American citizens, are the benefactors of their decisions to protect us. We must continue to support and pray for them as we did when the war began. These men and women took an oath to be the guardians of some of the greatest words ever written on paper, The Constitution of the United States of America. In this civilized society, which is governed under a democracy, if we want to bring about change, we simply go to the voting booth. We live in a nation where we can enjoy the freedom and the right to have our voices be heard. This comes at a high price, which so many of our fellow Americans have paid.

My hero, and brother, Sergeant Kenneth John Schall, and over 2,300 men and women in uniform, have died in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom, honoring the oath that they made to this great nation. As the war continues, there will be many more of our armed forces who will make the ultimate sacrifice, and thousands more who will return to their families injured or disabled. We must stand behind them while they are on the front lines and continue to support our heroes when they return home. My mother and I,” Terri Schall “ have personally visited Brooke Army Medical Center to say,” Soldier, I Thank You for your commitment and service to this country.” We owe our troops our deepest gratitude and full support.

This is a time of great concern for all Americans. The thoughts and opinions of the American people differ about this war. The fact remains that we are at war, and our armed forces are the men and women who have answered the call. Remember, we are able to pursue our endeavors in the land of the free and the home of the brave because our military is watching over the land, sea and sky. Our troops don’t have the luxury of choosing the wars they will fight in,. We must never take for granted or misuse the American spirit that lives in them, because it is the same American spirit that lives in all of us

In addition you can contact Mark Mays, President & CEO of Clear Channel Communications at to support her and her song.

FOB McHenry Benefits from ‘Sniff Support’

By: Grey Eagle | 30 Mar 06

zekoKIRKUK, Iraq (Army News Service, March 14, 2006) — With a modified ballistic vest, a Screaming Eagle combat patch and a Combat Action Badge, Zeko still may not look like the average Soldier, but he has become a valuable asset to the troops of Forward Operating Base McHenry.

The explosive detection dog has found improvised bombs buried several feet in the hard desert ground.

Zeko has brought new meaning to the phrase “man’s best friend,” said Bastogne Soldiers of 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, stationed at FOB McHenry.

“He’s got a good rapport with the Soldiers,” said Staff Sgt. David Silberman, Zeko’s kennel master and partner for nearly two and a half years now.

“Our missions are really broad; we support everything,” Silberman reflected. “Every day we are learning something different for us to do.”

When it comes to his job, Zeko may be at the top of his game, but Silberman says he trains on a regular basis, just like Soldiers.

Silberman said it takes on average two and a half years to get an explosive dog certified, but it does not end there; each dog must also go through an annual certification. Each dog must have a minimum 95-percent success rate on explosive detection or the dog is decertified.

“Explosive dogs are trained in nine different explosive odors,” Silberman stated confidently, while petting his partner. “He’s got to find every single one; he can’t miss them.”

Although Zeko is currently tested at 98.7 percent, and trained in desert warfare, Silberman takes it upon himself to keep their team up to the task by training everyday.

Using a newly built training course, Zeko practices many different obstacles.

Zeko warms up, walking through a small jump, followed by stairs and tunnels.

The real workout starts when shouts echo through the air, followed by yelping. Silberman holds Zeko tightly, while a volunteer Soldier wearing a protective sleeve runs. Then, at the right moment, Silberman releases the now vicious dog. Zeko sprints after the man, leaping into the air and locking his jaw on the Soldier’s protected arm.

Attempts to shake him off fail as Zeko just bites harder. Then with a single command from his handler, Zeko releases the Soldier and returns to sit next to Silberman. A few seconds later, Zeko is rewarded with playful hugs and praises.

Not only does this furry four-legged Soldier pull his weight in the fight against improvised explosive devices, he has become very protective of his new Bastogne comrades.

“We get to spend a lot of time with [Soldiers], he’s really close, and really protective of them,” Silberman said. “When we are taking rounds, he’s watching and really alert of his Soldiers, so he’s got a pretty good rapport with those guys.”

AR NEWS - Army News Service

(Editor’s note: Spc. Barbara Ospina serves with 1st BCT Public Affairs, 101st Airborne Division.)

No soldier stands alone in a battlefield

By: Grey Eagle | 30 Mar 06

If I could, I’d begin this with my son’s account of what happened to him and the men of his Bravo Company unit at 14:30 on Dec. 22, 2005. Roman and his squad were on foot patrol somewhere in the south of Baghdad. An insurgents’ bomb exploded. That much I know. But I can only tell my side of this story right now. And it begins with a call from an Army captain.

“Is this Susan Diaz?” a man’s voice said when I answered the phone in my office here at home the day before Christmas Eve.

I’d just finished feeding Roman’s pet turtle in the guest bedroom down the hall. When he joined the Army three years ago after high school, Roman entrusted “SpongeBob” to our care. Now every morning before my workday begins, I drop several handfuls of arugula and baby lettuce leaves into the wooden enclosure Roman built for his old buddy.

The voice on the other end sounded like a telemarketer. I answered with a wary, “Y-y-e-ss.”

“Is your husband there?”

“He’s not available at the moment,” I said, rather than offer that he’d left for work an hour earlier and that I was home alone.

The man, all business, introduced himself - Captain Candrian, 101st Airborne - then went on to say that our son had “sustained injuries caused by an IED.”

I sat down. Slowly.

“That’s an ‘improvised explosive device,’ Ma’am.”

No need for that extra bit of information. These days those three letters are as familiar as PTA used to be.

Above the thumping of my heart I heard Captain Candrian relate details of what he called “the incident.” I switched the phone to my left hand, reached for the yellow legal pad I always keep handy, fumbled for a pen, and wrote down these words: Perforated eardrum. Peppered face. Treated at the aid station at Mamuhdiyah.

“Could you spell that, please?” I heard myself say. In everyday circumstances, I can be as ditzy as anyone. Ask my husband how many times he’s heard, “Seen my glasses anywhere?” But in this situation, my mind was surprisingly focused, almost as if spelling the aid station’s name correctly could somehow make right the rest of the story Captain Candrian was telling me.

“Does this mean Roman will get to come home?” I asked, hoping.

“No, Ma’am. His injuries are listed here as ‘not serious.’”

I wrote down “NOT SERIOUSLY INJURED” in big block letters. I underlined those words three times and drew a box around them.

“Your son should be back with his unit soon. But you might not hear from him for a few days, because of the, uh, news blackout over there.”

He rushed through the last part of that sentence.

“News blackout? What do you mean?”

The captain explained - reluctantly - that when soldiers from a unit have been killed, no one from that group is allowed to phone or e-mail until the next of kin have been notified.

“Oh,” I murmured as that sunk in. “Some soldiers died in the attack?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Do you know their names?”

“Yes, Ma’am. But I can’t tell you that.”

Roman had been promoted to sergeant - and squad leader - just before his second deployment began. When he was home on his last leave, I’d heard him talk with an almost paternal affection about the guys in his group. While stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., in the months before being deployed, he’d shared dinner at the homes of some of them, played cards with their parents, met their wives, high-fived their kids.

“It’s up to me now to make sure they all come home,” Roman had said of the eight men he’d been assigned to lead.

We eventually learned from the newspaper that the attack claimed two soldiers: Spc. William Lopez-Feliciano from Roman’s squad, and platoon leader, 1st Lt. Benjamin T. Britt.

The news blackout from within the unit ended on Christmas Eve with this e-mail from our son.

“Just wanted to send you guys a quick note and wish you Merry Christmas,” he wrote. “I love you both so much and rarely get a chance to tell you these days…. I really wish I could be back there to celebrate with you. If I concentrate real hard I can almost taste the shrimp you cook every year, Mom, even though it isn’t my favorite.”

I smiled at the wise-guy honesty of that last statement. It was so Roman.

He signed off with “Sgt. Diaz” and added this: “P.S. If you guys make it to church, say a prayer for the men of Bravo Company. It’s been a rough deployment so far. Any prayers are appreciated.”

That was it. No mention of “the incident.” Not a word about his injuries. And a telling silence on the subject of the fallen.

He doesn’t know we know, I realized.

We’ve since talked with him on the phone. “I can’t believe they did that!” he said when he heard - with his good ear - that the Army had called us. As far as he’s concerned right now, the less said, the better. It’s a matter of protection, I think. Ours certainly. And maybe his own, too.

My son has learned much about life the hard way lately. But it seems to me there’s something he doesn’t as yet completely comprehend or perhaps has come to understand far too well. It is this: When he and his men are out on a mission, they are not alone. Whether we agree with this war or not, those of us who love them are out there, too, moms and dads, kids and cousins, sisters and brothers, neighbors and friends.

Every time an insurgent bomb blows apart a Humvee or a squad on foot patrol, the shock waves from the blast reverberate in small towns like Wheeler, Texas, and big cities like San Diego. A young private takes a bullet; back at home his father’s heart bleeds. A soldier loses a leg; his wife struggles in the days that follow to simply keep putting one foot in front of the other. A sergeant’s eardrum is perforated; his mother hears the explosion in her dreams, time and time again. Truth is, the casualties of war go far beyond the numbers from the Pentagon. Love gives us no choice.

In a later e-mail Roman wrote, “I’m fine, functioning, and back at work with my men. Right where I belong.”

We are there too, Sgt. Diaz. We are there, too.

• Sue Diaz is a freelance writer. She has written a series of articles for the Monitor about her son’s military service.


Copyright © 2006 The Christian Science Monitor

Father No Longer Out for Revenge in Iraq

By: Grey Eagle | 25 Mar 06

Justin JohnsonJustin Johnson, 22 (KIA April 2004)

In the desert chill, on the lonely nighttime roads of Iraq, Joe Johnson looks out over his machine gun and thinks of Justin. It was on Easter morning 2004 that a chaplain and a colonel appeared on Joe and Jan Johnson’s Georgia doorstep with the news. Justin, the boy Joe had fished and hunted with, the soldier son who’d gone off to Iraq a month earlier, was suddenly dead at 22, killed by a roadside bomb planted in a Baghdad slum.

Today it’s Joe who mans the M-240 atop a Humvee, warily watching the sides of the road, an unlikely Army corporal at 48, a father who came here for revenge, a Christian missionary on a crusade against Islam, and a man who, after six months at war, is ready to go home.

“I shouldn’t even have come,” he now says. And if he leaves bloody Iraq with no blood on his hands, he says, that’s fine, too.

The Johnson family story is unique, even strange. But in a war where soldiers have heard an ever-changing medley of reasons for fighting, Joe Johnson’s may be as simple and direct as any — and to many, as troubling.

He wasn’t there that day the tragic news arrived in Rome, Ga. Instead, the self-employed house-builder was in Fort Lewis, Wash., trying to qualify for a place in a Washington National Guard unit ticketed for Iraq.

With six years of long-ago Army and Navy service, Johnson had joined the National Guard in 2003, wanting to serve his country again, this time in combat, and to go to Iraq while his son was there. A year with both husband and son at war would be easier on Jan than two years separately, he reasoned.

The death of Justin, a 1st Cavalry Division machine gunner, stunned his parents with a shock that lingers still.

“What were the odds, of thousands of people here, that somebody in my family would get killed?” the grieving father asked.

At that point, Johnson said, “I decided it was too soon to leave home.” Jan was too distraught.

But last April 11, a year and a day after his son was killed, Johnson told his Iraq-bound Georgia National Guard unit, the 48th Infantry Brigade, he was ready to join them. They ended up at this dustblown base in Iraq’s far west, pulling escort duty for fuel convoys on the bomb-pocked desert highways from Jordan.

Why did he do it? The wiry lean Georgian, an easy-talking man with a boyish, sunburned face, tried to answer the question that won’t go away.

“It’s a lot of things combined,” he said. “One, a sense of duty. I was pissed off at the terrorists for 9/11 and other atrocities. Second, I’d only trained. I wanted combat.” And then, he said, “there’s some revenge involved. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t.”

But there was more on the mind of this man who has done Church of God missionary work as far afield as Peru and the Arctic.

“I don’t really have love for Muslim people,” Johnson said. “I’m sure there are good Muslims. I try not to be racist.” Although he hasn’t read the Quran, or spoken with Muslims, he has “heard” the Islamic holy book “teaches to kill Jews and infidels. And it’s hard to love people who hate you.”

He could love Iraqi children, though, and said he’d hoped “to see them grow up to know right and wrong.”

Somewhere along the way, however, the righteous passion cooled, as the over-aged corporal, like tens of thousands of other American soldiers here, faced the reality of Iraq.

Was it last Christmas morning, when roadside bombs rocked his convoy one after another, and Johnson thought he was next? Or was it when speeding civilian cars passed the Americans’ Humvees and Johnson failed to level his gun and open fire, which “I think anyone else,” fearing car bombs, “would have done.”

“I really don’t want to kill innocent people,” he now says. “I don’t want to live with that the rest of my life.”

Most of all, it might have been the telephone calls home to Jan, who was dealing not only with depression and other health problems, but also with the prospect that their elder soldier son, Josh, 26, might be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan.

“I don’t like that Joe’s there,” Jan Johnson said when called by satellite telephone from al-Asad. “But it’s something he felt he had to do. People heal in different ways. This is how he heals after Justin’s death.”

“She’s ready for me to come home,” Joe Johnson concludes.

He will. His battalion exits Iraq in early May, when Johnson’s own enlistment term, coincidentally, expires. “That’s it,” he said, no re-enlistment for him.

But what about revenge?

“If I go home and didn’t kill a terrorist, it’s not going to ruin my life,” he said. “Maybe I’d just as soon not. I don’t know what it would do to my head.”

Once back home among the northwest Georgia pines, he has one last ceremonial act in mind, removing the silver-toned bracelet he’s worn on his right wrist throughout his deployment, bearing Justin’s name and date of death. Joe Johnson’s mission will have been accomplished.

Whatever it was, he said, “I got it out of my system.”

By CHARLES J. HANLEY, AP Special Correspondent