'Get my son home'
By SUZANNE SATALINE
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 13, 2003
Even if they blocked out Fox News, stopped devouring the newspapers, and shut off the Internet, the mothers of this war would still know the toll of the desert. They would hear it in their children's voices.
Kathy Carter's son Brian, of Bluefield, W.Va., left for Kuwait in March. From the start the machine gunner brayed: "America's gonna kick butt and take names!"
He thought he'd be back for summer. But after the statues tumbled and the desert switched to broil, once the water bottles grew scarce and the body bags mounted, her 21-year-old son called a few weeks ago from Kuwait to say he didn't know when he'd be heading back. His voice was worn and flat and it scared his mother to tears.
Carter served in the Army and considers herself a loyal, patriotic Republican. But at that moment she transformed into an angry, defensive mom who realized that postwar Iraq is as terrifying and chaotic and endless for her boy as it seems from the states.
"Of course I'm conflicted," she says, her voice trailing off in frustration. "I'm a mother. I'm a veteran. I want to support what our country does, but I want to do right by my son.
"These poor guys have seen it. They've done it and they want to come home," Carter said. "I want to get my son home."
Many mothers have joined her cry. They're writing senators. Giving interviews. Marching in protests. Families that backed their president at the war's start now say their children have been tossed into a thorny conflict they have no business in.
"I'll get my son back - I pray to God," said Deborah Britto of Hollywood, Fla., a Vietnam-era veteran, who opposed the war in Iraq from the start. "But it won't be the son I sent."Support shifts
President Bush's decision to invade Iraq has created doubters in the gung-ho world of the military. Some soldiers' families were fervent believers in Bush's plan to root out Saddam Hussein's hidden trove of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons until the mission turned up dry. Others immediately dismissed that rationale, but trusted that America was helping people under a repressive, vindictive regime.
The war's toll in recent weeks has altered those views. Parents and relatives wonder whether Iraq ever wanted America's help. They find themselves fretting that the United States has embroiled itself in a tendentious and endless conflict.
All the while, military families dance a careful minuet: Some would like to throttle the politicians who led the military into battle, but don't want to offend or discourage their children who have chosen the military life.
"You're in two different emotional worlds," said Ron Shell, of Richmond, Va., a former Marine and retired Secret Service agent who has a son in Iraq. "He has no idea what's going on. He has no idea what the reaction is. ... Our goal is to make sure he feels as good as possible.
"However you hang the phone up, you have to realize he could be killed any day."
A Gallup poll conducted at the end of June found that 42 percent of Americans thought the war in Iraq was going badly or very badly. Two months earlier, Americans who thought that totaled just 13 percent.
Lately, Americans also appear more divided by their country's decision to go to war. Another Gallup poll released July 1 found that 56 percent of Americans said the situation in Iraq was "worth going to war over," while 42 percent disagreed. (In mid April, 73 percent found the mission worthwhile.)
Public opinion has shifted as the media reports the rising number of soldier fatalities since Bush declared major combat over on May 1. The Department of Defense as of Friday tallied the toll in the Iraqi conflict as 216 dead. One-third of those soldiers, or 78, were killed since May 1.
Many of those 78 died in accidents such as discharging weapons and truck rollovers. In recent weeks, though, Iraqi militants have struck back at Americans. Thirty soldiers have died in hostilities.
Two soldiers were kidnapped and found dead. A Gainesville National Guard soldier was shot at close range July 6 while buying a soda. A television cameraman was executed in similar fashion, worrying some Americans that all Westerners could be targets.
Gen. Tommy Franks did little to reassure a nervous public on Wednesday when he told a Senate committee that it was unlikely the administration would cut the contingent of 145,000 troops "for the foreseeable future," an effort costing the United States $3.9-billion per month.
A Defense Department spokesman said soldiers are being rotated out when their commanding officer deems it safe for new troops to move in. Overall the country is stable but there is a dangerous triangle, inside the area of Tikrit, Baghdad and Aramadi.
"Iraq, in certain areas, is a dangerous place. ... These attacks are at the local level and concentrated in North Central Iraq. They don't seem to be organized beyond the local level. For every convoy attacked, a lot more convoys move without incident."Venting to Capitol Hill
"We are either embroiled in something compared with the Israel-Palestinian conflict," said Donna Shell, Ron's wife, "or we are in a Vietnam."
It's a difficult admission. Her son, First Lt. Brandon Shell, graduated from West Point Academy and is the fifth generation of American fighters in their family. Before Brandon's Marine Corps dad, Brandon's grandfather served in the Philippines during World War II and a great-grandfather marched into France in WWI. One of Brandon's great-great-grandfathers fought along with Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox.
But those earlier generations of soldiers didn't have to contend with two parents who disagreed with their child's marching orders.
Ron Shell worries about what's being asked of his son. Here's a young man, he said, who has been living in the desert, then in combat and then is asked to flip a switch and become a peacekeeper.
"You've got to consider after 10 months there's got to be emotional fatigue, physical fatigue," Ron Shell said.
"You feel they've been abandoned," Donna Shell said.
"Abandoned's not the right word," her husband cut in.
"Used," she offered.
"Abused," he decided.
To vent, Donna Shell has sent 40 letters to members of congress. To keep up her son's spirits and weight, she and a company of friends ship packages of sustenance. Yoo-hoo drinks and Gatorade, canned mandarins and baby wipes. And anything to make him laugh. Shell packed orange-and-black-striped tights and a flaming wig for Halloween.
Her son sent back his thanks: a snapshot of himself, wig on, tights sagging toward his knees, posing with his semiautomatic weapon in his Kuwaiti tent. That cracked her up.
With no cause to rally around, other parents take comfort in odd victories.
"He hasn't had to shoot anybody and he hasn't been shot at," said Dan Withers of Dade City. His enlisted son Josh, 22, is working in transport support with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force.
His wife, Emma, admits she feels snookered by the whole international venture.
"I gave (Bush) the benefit of the doubt," she said. "Because I felt they might have intelligence information that was not available to me. I guess I hoped if they were going to make the leap, they would base it on something I didn't have knowledge of. I'm not sure of that anymore.
"You just don't want to think you're being led down the garden path by the president and Colin Powell. ... I think I'm tired of being lied to."
It's hard for her to admit, because she's a registered Republican. Dan Withers voted for Bush in 2000 "to my regret."
Both say the war is pushing them left in their politics, but around their neighbors they keep such thoughts to themselves.
Like the other families struggling with this conflict, they both come with a military pedigree, but with a tragic cast; her brother was a POW in Korea for nearly two years.
The couple think this wartime experience might discourage their son from becoming career military. But they haven't heard from him in three weeks to ask. When he does get home, perhaps this fall, they'll all have a long talk.
Recently, after letters sent to Capitol Hill yielded no response, Carter, the West Virginia mom, enlisted her stepson to help draw attention to her family's concerns. Henry Wolfgang Carter, a Palo Alto, Calif., lawyer who made his riches as a dot-com entrepreneur, is showing up at Democratic conferences and fundraisers, buttonholing presidential contenders for help.
"I feel embarrassed," he said he told Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts at a Los Angeles fundraiser at the Getty mansion. "I've got the money to meet you. I'll ask you point-blank for a family that needs help."
Those with less clout are resorting to faxing their members of Congress, joining antiwar efforts, or logging on to the Web site Military Families Speak Out (www.mfso.org) a forum for peaceniks and newly agitated relatives that claims to have 500 members.
The group is diverse and has grown since May 1, said Charley Richardson of Jamaica Plain, Mass., father of a Marine and one of the co-founders.
"We have pacifists and those who are trying to figure out why their kids are in the military and people who supported the war and then said, "There were no weapons of mass destruction. This is not going to make the country safer and it's not going to bring stability to the Middle East.' "
With all this talk, word will no doubt trickle back to the Middle East. Some parents fear what effect all this antiwar sentiment will have on their children's morale.
Britto, of Hollywood, has a 23-year-old son, Ashley, who is with the 82nd Airborne. "He jumps out of perfectly good airplanes," she likes to crack. Ashley liked to reassure his mom that jumping at night wasn't that dangerous. "The bombs will light up the sky for us."
But in recent weeks she's detected a change in the tone of his letters. He seemed sensitive to the opinions the American public had of their work.
"We don't want to come back like in Vietnam and be told we're baby killers," she remembers him writing.
In another letter he mentioned he was living in a house without doors or windows and the sand clogged their throats in the 105-degree heat. He told her a lot of the guys were getting discouraged because they had been told they would be shipped home, only to be told later those plans were on hold.
The main idea now is keeping our sanity. ... I'm here taking it one day at a time. I can't wait to get home.
Your baby is doing good. I love you, Mom.
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