Joe Kapraun opened his wallet and showed me the frayed card that explains who he was, who he is, and who he forever will be. The card shows that he was honorably discharged from the Army Nov. 3, 1945, from Fort Sheridan, Ill.
Every day of his life since his service during World War II, his perspective has been shaped by those years when he served as a surgical technician on the European battlefront. A staff sergeant, he was elbow-deep in the blood of war, stitching up the wounded and providing final moments of dignity to the dying.
We met at the Brandon Veterans Hall, a long, low white building alongside railroad tracks. Joe oversees it for the VFW, American Legion and Disabled American Veterans. I had come by to talk about the politics of war. You should hear the observations of this 83-year-old decorated veteran and former Wisconsin farmer.
Kapraun was not raised to openly criticize his president. Criticizing is too easy. So he was careful about what he said.
To him, America is in the business of doing good for the rest of the world. We're always on the right side. Hitler taught him a thing or two about despots. He considers Hussein no different.
He believes there still might be weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. No matter what, our troops should get our undying support. They are, after all, following orders.
You'd think then that Kapraun would be foursquare behind Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Instead, doubts and uncertainties about the war percolate through his gentle speech.
"I want to believe my country has the best intentions of doing what's best for humanity. Whether it works, I don't know."
He wondered if the president is getting bad advice.
"They may have information we don't know anything about," Kapraun said. "I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt."
Then he added, "It makes you wonder sometimes how many times they're going to stumble."
I asked what he thought of the charges of prisoner abuse. When and if the abuse is verified, those responsible should be punished, he said. "If it hurts the president or the lowest soldier on guard, so be it."
I asked Kapraun how long he thinks we'll be in Iraq. He laughed.
"Do I look like Mohammed the prophet? I don't know. I don't think anybody does."
Later, when I pressed him, Kapraun predicted that even after the ground troops leave, American ships and planes will be keeping an eye on Iraq for another 15 years.
If George W. Bush wants to know whether he's in trouble over Iraq, he should talk to a man like Joe Kapraun, who has been a Republican for most of his life. Kapraun feels he has no choice but to vote for Bush. Still, his faith is being slowly eroded. He owns up to being discouraged by both parties, so much so that he has joined the fledgling Veterans Party. He wants, he said, to shake things up.
As you may have guessed, my own faith eroded long ago. The war has been a misplaced search for a consolation prize, once it became clear that capturing Osama bin Laden would not be easy. (If we had mounted a full-scale war to find him, I'd be beating my drum.)
It's impossible to imagine worse missteps than those the United States has already taken.
No weapons of mass destruction.
Iraqis turning their guns on us, their supposed liberators.
Bush happily plodding forward, blinders snugly in place.
And alternative voices blasted for being unpatriotic.
Make no mistake. Joe Kapraun is not lacking in patriotism. This is a man who earned a Silver Star. But if he questions the progress of the war, it's a sign that - no matter what happens in Iraq - the battle for the hearts and minds of the rest of us is slowly being lost.
- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3402.