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Marine's parents also on watch

Jerry and Peg Petersen patrol the airwaves and newspapers, searching for signs of their son Sean and clinging to the hope that he will come home safe and soon.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003

[Times photo: Janel Schroeder-Norton]
Peg and Jerry Petersen's home is filled with mementos of their son Sean's athletic and Marine exploits.
NEW PORT RICHEY -- The televisions, four in all, run nonstop at 10401 Piper Drive. VCRs capture what is missed, to be replayed later.

Amid the fires, gunfights and looting, Jerry and Peg Petersen strain for a sign of their son, whom they have not heard from since March 2.

"I'm waiting for him to peek out of his Humvee," Petersen said from his dining room table. "To sit there is agony. You hope they are safe. Dear God, let them make it through safely."

The Petersens' only child, Sean, is one of the 21,000 Marines fighting Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

The 1996 River Ridge High School graduate and state champion wrestler is a second lieutenant with the 1st Tank Battalion, based in Twentynine Palms, Calif.

He is a logistics officer. His job is to make sure troops in his 90-member unit are in the right spot at the right time.

Marines from his base were among the first to enter Baghdad, according to news reports, and one of their tanks was used to topple the statute of Hussein, a now-iconic scene marking the end of the regime.

The Petersens last spoke to Sean on March 2, when he was at Camp Ripper in Kuwait, 25 miles south of the border with Iraq. The call lasted five minutes.

"He said he was well-trained and prepared," Jerry Petersen said. His wife began to cry. "He said he loved us," she said, wiping a tear from her eye.

Sean has written home several times.

Jan. 31: Well, day one was ok & kind of boring. I cured my jet lag & got some sleep until the wind kicked up & tried to knock down my tent at 4 a.m. There is absolutely nothing out here but sand & wind.

Feb. 14: We are getting showers about every other day. The same with hot dinners. Tonight there was cheesecake for dessert! I couldn't stand sleeping on the hard floor any longer, so I took the hammock I brought, built a frame, & made a mattress to sleep on. My back is thanking me.

USA Today published a picture of Sean sitting on the hammock bed March 18. The headline read "USMC ingenuity marches on." He is smiling broadly, looking confident and secure, much to his parents' relief.

There have been other glimpses. On Feb. 17, the Petersens saw their son on the Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. Mrs. Petersen said she was at Mass that morning and prayed for a sign.

"It was amazing. My prayer came true."

They said they saw him at least one other time, on March 8, in a small group of soldiers. "We know Sean. I can just tell by his stature," Jerry Petersen said.

"I just know that Sean is a survivor," Peg Petersen added.

Sean Petersen celebrated his 25th birthday Feb. 24 at Camp Ripper. His mother sent him a digital camera -- "This is history, you know," she said. But she has no idea if it arrived.

Nor does Mrs. Petersen know if the care packages and cards she mails twice weekly have been received. But she continues to send them anyway.

This week's package included Rice Krispy treats, Oreo cookies, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, salt and vinegar Pringles, baby wipes, waterless soap and berry flavored Chapstick, to combat the fierce Iraqi winds.

"I figure he's got 90 people in his battalion. If and when it gets to him, he'll share it," said Peg Petersen, 56, a retired French teacher and guidance counselor.

Jerry Petersen, 59, is a former Marine who worked as a psychologist and in the Pasco school system as an occupational specialist. He considers his son his hero and inspiration -- proud, literally, to tears.

"I'm in awe of what they have done," he said of the American progress in Iraq. "But I have a lot of anxious moments. The other night it concerned me when they found a stockpile of chemical weapons."

As he spoke, Petersen grasped a bronze coin in his right hand, rubbing between his fingers. These days he does not go anywhere without the medallion, embossed with the Marine Corps symbol: a globe, eagle and anchor. "I am one of the few, the proud. I am a Marine," the back reads.

Mrs. Petersen wears a heart-shaped locket on her left collar. Inside are tiny pictures of her and Sean.

Behind them, a computer screen displayed a Marine in water up to his shoulders, squinting through the sight of his automatic rifle. The Petersen home is filled with military mementos and Ohio State banners.

More than anything, the home is a shrine of sorts to their son. Two rooms are filled with Sean's medals for wrestling and karate and plaques noting his academic achievements.

An altar boy through high school, Sean was president of his senior class and a state champion wrestler at 112 pounds in 1995. He was a St. Petersburg Times scholar athlete, Army Reserve scholar athlete and Florida Sports Medicine scholar athlete.

Pictures are everywhere. Sean at age 4 dressed in a karate uniform. Sean in high school posing with his parents. Sean wrestling for the Buckeyes. Sean in his Marine dress blues, the rare time a smile does not bisect his strong jawline.

"When Sean is around there is a presence," Jerry Petersen said. "How many people take a lifetime to make a difference? Sean has made a difference always."

-- Alex Leary can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is .

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