March 19, 2008

The Toll of War: Iraq, five years later

War wears many faces. After exactly five years of U.S. military involvement in Iraq, the Northern San Joaquin Valley reflects them all.

War wears many faces. After exactly five years of U.S. military involvement in Iraq, the Northern San Joaquin Valley reflects them all.

Triumph, tragedy, laughter, fear, futility and courage all have crossed the stage in a drama that seems to have no closing curtain. And in a score no one wants to keep, 21 men and women from Modesto and surrounding communities have been killed.

The shadows of war arose with the smoke from 9-11, which primed a nation for battle.

The only question was who would pay. Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden would take a back seat beginning in March 2003. The White House identified its new villain-in-chief as Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, one of the least sympathetic characters in the world.

When the bombs burst and the guns fired in Iraq, the early voices of war echoed the bravado of the first days of the American Civil War.

First Lt. Andy Riise of Oakdale wrote his parents just days after the war began about how he felt en route to Iraq: "I received word that the ground war had started in the middle of the flight and my stomach dropped the thousands of feet to the earth. It's a weird feeling knowing you are entering a war zone in the middle of the fight. It's even more frustrating now that the 'Super Bowl' is half over and you're still stuck on the sidelines."

That first week, America learned that justice was a two-edged sword. Victory came with a price. But in the early days of the ground war, grief kept a safe distance in places such as Bloomington, Ill., Harrison County, Miss., and Waterville, Maine. Soon, the casualty list included names from Los Angeles and other California communities.

The sound of cannons was inching ever closer to home.

Dread and worry seized the hearts of many on the homefront. In an age of instant communication, no word at all would shred family nerves. Harried by four little ones at home, Linda Serrato of Modesto couldn't keep her mind off the one in harm's way. She sought help from the men who recruited her son.

Master Sgt. Gilbert Diaz of the Modesto Marine Corps recruiting station advised anxious parents to watch the television news; maybe an embedded reporter would give them a glimpse of loved ones. A few valley parents were sure they had spotted a son or daughter among the desert camouflage uniforms and grimy faces.

Around the Serrato dinner table, the family prayed for Linda's son, Daniel Wongtouwan. Brothers and sisters, ages 5 to 10, would plead in turn for Daniel's safety, good food and protection from lizards. Desert lizards and spiders had frightened them on television and they worried for Daniel.

Modestan George Rezendes, with darkening bags under his eyes, spoke for many parents in the opening weeks of the war. He was looking for news about his son, Thomas Perez, a 1998 graduate of Modesto High. "I haven't slept properly since the war started," Rezendes said. "Last night, I was up until 2 and then up at 7. Then it's war news again. God keep 'em safe."

Divided families and parents of married service personnel dreaded the telephone. A chaplain and bereavement officer visit the closest listed relative, usually the wife or mother. Beyond that circle, families and friends held their breath.

Jim Watts of Modesto knew his son Corey's mother would get the personal visit. Once, the phone rang at an unusual time for Watts, at 10:40 a.m. on a Tuesday. His heart sank and his blood froze. It was a call from Iraq — from Corey.

"I just cried," Watts recalled. "He said, 'Call (Mom). I'm all right. Everything is going according to plan and I should be home soon.' "

A choked up Watts said all he could manage in 60 seconds was, "I'm glad you're all right. Keep your powder dry."

On March 27, 2003, the full weight of war fell upon the Central Valley. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa of Tracy was killed in an Iraqi ambush. The first blood shed from the valley would hardly be the last.

On May 1 that year, President Bush declared victory in the war with a "mission accomplished" speech aboard a Navy ship. But the fighting and dying went on. The valley learned a new war vocabulary. Opponents of allied forces became "terrorists" and "insurgents." Land mines became IEDs, or improvised explosive devices.

From teenagers to men

With the war grinding on, a pipeline of the brave had to be refilled continually.

Military recruiters, especially the Marines, found fertile ground in the valley. Month after month, year after year, the young and strong of heart in and around Modesto joined the Marines. In many years, more than 120 enlisted.

At the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego, the moldable clay that is teenagers is formed into hardened men and war machines. The Marines want to get educators on their side, or at least keep them in a neutral corner. So, periodically, they bring teachers and counselors to San Diego to witness the process firsthand.

In a production not unlike a cooking show, the Marines offer a condensed view, in stages, of how they produce the goods.

The 12-week transformation is remarkable. The names and faces don't really matter. One process fits all.

The first night after recruits walk through the gates, they literally forget where their thumbs are and what their mothers look like. There is a haunted, hunted look in their eyes. The recruits are taught to joust with pugil (fighting) sticks and learn the value of teamwork when they carry logs larger than telephone poles. In a short time, self-centered teens look out for others first.

They look and act exactly like what you want standing between you and heavy metal.

At the end of the week, most educators stand in awe of the Marine Corps. Teacher Cynthia Harburg of Sacramento paid high tribute. "I want my 14-year-old son to turn out like these men."

Keeping a vow

Sometimes death is too futile for words.

Marine Lance Cpl. Aaron Simons of Modesto and his best friend, Ian Kutner of Wisconsin, were standing next to one another on their base in Anbar province when a rocket hit their group on April 24, 2006. The day before, the friends had pledged to take care of an ailing 12-year-old Iraqi girl they often visited if something happened to either one. Kutner was hit in the back by shrapnel. Not knowing Simons had been killed, or his own condition, Kutner grabbed his commanding officer and made him swear to carry out the pledge for Hamade Hadael.

Kutner would recover and return to duty, but the shrapnel was too near his spine to be removed. Kutner, his commanding officer and the Corps tried to make good on the pledge made with Simons. Calling U.S. reporters from Iraq, they mustered help from a congressman, an international children's group and top medical specialists. Healing help was arranged that same summer.

There was no happy ending. Hamade died. Her father refused to let her leave the country and get the needed kidney transplant.

Changing of the Guard

While the Marines restocked with valley men and women, the military as a whole could not keep up with the recruitment demands of Afghanistan and Iraq. Extending the deployment of serving GIs worked like a Band-Aid on a deep wound.

More and more National Guard units from across the country would be called to active duty in 2004. War reached beyond the professionals and into the heart of the valley.

These citizen-soldiers were ambulance drivers, police officers, firefighters, bankers and mechanics. The California National Guard's 184th Battalion learned it would be deployed after Jan. 1, 2005. The company headquarters is based in Modesto; other elements train in Turlock and Oakdale. The all-male combat unit numbering 700 came from across California. They were headed into the eye of the storm. Active training began in August 2004.

Even before the 184th would deploy, an anonymous soldier's allegations suggest inadequate training and substandard armor put the soldiers at risk. Poor command and misconduct charges in Iraq would crop up early in the deployment. A false report was published that Guard members of the 184th had run a protection racket on Baghdad merchants. And soldier after soldier would fall.

Medic James Ferguson of Oakdale was critically wounded in March 2005 by an IED that exploded 15 feet from him while he took a turn in the turret. Word of his wounds spread through his high school daughter's friends on the Internet. Ferguson survived, but when he returned to the valley eight months later he still was in a wheelchair.

Capt. Raymond Hill II, 39, of Turlock came home on leave in the summer of 2005 and asked The Bee to please send a reporter to Iraq with the 184th. He was confident an eyewitness would redeem the unit's reputation. It was Hill's personality, more than his broad shoulders, that made people take notice. His easy, outgoing manner lit up a room.

Hill was killed on Oct. 29, 2005. He always was trying to mend fences with Iraqis through the children. In a long Baghdad convoy that October, he was carrying school supplies and goodies for kids when an IED blew up his Humvee.

If kindness was no shield, neither was bravery. When the battalion's commanding officer, Lt. Col. William Wood, ran to aid his friend, a second roadside bomb killed him. Wood's words at an earlier memorial would echo at his own services: "A soldier falls, the line holds steady."

By the end of the deployment, the 184th was highly esteemed by its regular Army commanding officer, Col. Ed Carlson. But 17 of its soldiers were dead and about 100 others were wounded.

Those at home were reeling. Joyce Barber of Oakdale said she suffered from "Baghdad brain." She couldn't remember things at work or home. She named the malady while her son Lowell was in Iraq. "I think part of my brain and heart are subconsciously focused on my son," she explained.

Cheerleaders and mourners

Barber was a member of the Central Valley chapter of Blue Star Mothers and Families, which became the unofficial cheerleader of all things military. They kept the home fires burning and sometimes acted as the conscience of the military and government.

They organized phone card drives, care packages, video greetings and Christmas presents. Whenever soldiers departed or came home, a contingent of Blue Stars would be on hand.

So would members of the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle club of Modesto-Stockton, which includes many Vietnam veterans trying to do what no one had done for them. They marched in every parade and attended all pro-troop rallies, as well as every funeral. The distinctive sound of their Harleys proclaimed their arrival.

The funerals from late 2004 through 2006 seemed to stack up. The tears would barely dry from one eulogy to the next. Time after time, an escort of police, California Highway Patrol or sheriff's units with flashing lights would usher a fallen hero home. Even in the dead of night, a couple of dozen hearty souls, usually strangers, joined with families to greet a lost loved one at a local mortuary.

Reunited feels so good

The rapid pace of casualties made troop homecomings so much sweeter.

The 184th came home to a red-carpet welcome in Fort Bliss, Texas, and Sacramento when its deployment ended in January 2006.

A handful of California wives joined the unit's recuperating Purple Heart recipients on the tarmac just outside of El Paso, Texas. The women ignored military protocol thanks to an understanding master sergeant who bent the rules for love. The wives squealed at the sight of their husbands and pasted themselves to bodies in enduring embraces. The bear hugs between comrades in arms drew outsiders into a vortex of love and gratitude.

One wife couldn't contain herself and climbed the plane's exit ramp to greet her husband halfway down.

Maj. Jeff Kerns of Sacramento looked over the Texas landscape that January morning and sighed. "It's good to be in America," he said. "I didn't worry about my own mortality, but I worried about my kids growing up without a dad."

Kerns knew the price one child paid. "My wife told me my 4-year-old daughter had a problem at a birthday party. The kids voted to watch 'Lion King' and Jordan wouldn't watch. My wife asked, 'Why not?' Jordan said, 'Because the daddy dies.' "

Kerns wasn't the only one crying.

At the Sacramento homecoming a week later, a 7-year-old sobbed while his dad talked with family and friends. "What's wrong?" the boy was asked.

"Nothing," came the stout reply as his tears watered the sidewalk. "It's a perfect day. My daddy came home."

Baptism of fire

Ira Myrick, 32, of Turlock served with the 184th reconnaissance platoon, often acting as a gunner in an exposed turret. Two years after his service, he recently took stock of what he did and what war did to him. At 5 foot 6, if he stretches the point, the round-faced ex-soldier is nobody's idea of a man of steel. But that's exactly what he is.

"I'm the most impatient person in the world. My wife, Janell, says I'm more rude. People ask why we get so worked up over little things," Myrick said. "That's the way we were trained."

He said he has few friends and feels like a different person than when he left. He has been given disability ratings of "30 percent for (post-traumatic stress disorder), 20 percent for my back and 10 percent for my shoulder."

His 8-month-old son, Anthony, is his world, his relief and his rehabilitation.

"I stop and reflect a lot," he said. "Sometimes I cry."

Still, Myrick wouldn't change a thing.

Being shot at is "certainly a test of a man," he admitted. "If you live through a firefight ... you're a whole different level of a man."

Myrick is concerned about the United States.

"The country is losing its history and what it means to be an American," he said. "The pride we have in America, to keep that flag flying free, that's what I pray for, that's what every single soldier fights for. I didn't take an oath to uphold Bush. I took an oath to uphold the Constitution."

Tears fill his eyes as talks about what is dearest to him. "Someday, when I take my grandson on my knee ... when my grandson cracks open a history book, I can say, 'I was there.' "

Sacrifice endures

For Larry and Marsha Gonsalves of rural Turlock, their world went off its axis Feb. 13, 2006. Their son, Green Beret Sgt. 1st Class Chad Gonsalves, 31, was killed when an IED detonated near his Humvee in Afghanistan.

Larry Gonsalves' feelings about the war on terrorism are set in stone. His confidence in his country's leaders is not.

"I don't think I've changed how I felt (since Chad died)," he said. "Those people hit us on our ground. We can't pull out (before victory). They've attacked us once, they will do it again."

Marsha Gonsalves wonders if things would be different if her country's priorities had been in order. She noted the world was with the United States when it attacked Afghanistan but abandoned it after the Iraq invasion.

"But they didn't finish what they started (in Afghanistan)," she said. "Maybe if they had, I'd still have my son."

Beatriz Lopez cries whenever she thinks of her sister, Marine Lance Cpl. Juana Navarro, 24, of Ceres, who was killed in April 2006 in Iraq. Lopez said "the pain is never going away."

She said Mike Anderson, father of fallen Marine Michael D. Anderson Jr. of Modesto, described it best. "He came over to my mom's when Juana was killed. He called it 'the scar that never heals.' I wish it was a nightmare and I could wake up."

Lopez separates the war and the troops waging it.

"I'm afraid I'm one of those people who has 100 percent support for our troops but not the war," she said. She believes all Americans should love the soldiers the same way she loves her four sons: "Unconditionally."

Her twin brothers, Raul and Lorenzo Navarro, both of Ceres, serve in the Marine Corps. Like her family, Lopez's love for the United States runs deep.

"I was born in Mexico. My mother brought us to this country when I was 4. My mother did a damn good job as a single mother of six," she said. "But I know she had the right support because she was here."

Lopez passed on her patriotism. Her son, Jose, 11, brings tears to his mother's eyes when he asks when Tia (Aunt) Juana is coming home.

Then he shares his own dream.

"For two years," she said, "he's been telling me that when he grows up he wants to be a Marine."

She shakes her head when asked if she would discourage her son from military service. "If that's what's in his heart, I have to support him."

If and when Jose Lopez joins the men and women defending the United States, he will become part of a tradition that crosses the centuries and all ethnic boundaries. No one has described it better than a Guardsman called to active duty not long after 9-11.

At the Modesto airport, Sgt. Joe Bick of Modesto held his uniform sleeve between his right thumb and forefinger. He described what was behind the men and women who join the active military or reserves.

"I'll tell you what it means to put on this uniform," Bick said. "The fabric is made up of everyone who ever went before us, from the Revolutionary War to today. It's every death, every wound, every suicide, every divorce, every sacrifice ever made in the name of this country. That's what this uniform is made of."

Bee staff writer Roger W. Hoskins can be reached at rhoskins@modbee.com or 578-2311.

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