Pain and patriotism

In high school, they were the Warriors of West Branch. And nine of them became warriors after high school, too. Out of a sense of duty, service. But something happened on the way to that homecoming parade.

Published September 17, 2006


They stood straight and tall, faces stoic, arms pressed to their sides.

It was June 2003, senior awards day at West Branch High School. On the stage inside the crowded auditorium stood the sons of preachers and construction workers, welders and grocery clerks.

Most of the boys had grown up together around this tiny farming community in northeast Ohio, surrounded by corn fields and grazing cows and Old Glory flapping from flagpoles in nearly every front yard.

Then came 9/11 and the wars that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nine boys from West Branch's class of 2003 decided they wanted a piece of the action. All of them signed up to become Marines.

For awards day, the recruiter put on his dress blues and drove 45 minutes to this rural crossroads, home to 1,024 people. He told the crowd how the West Branch boys had set recruiting records. He talked about "duty" and "service." He said the young men before him had demonstrated the "American qualities of patriotism and loyalty."

Except for a restless infant, the crowd listened in silence. Shawna Spaulding, 17, wept quietly as she watched her future husband, Wade Morrow, on stage. Mollie McVicker, no longer able to focus on her brother Dan through her tears, handed the video camera to her father. Mothers dabbed at their eyes, fearful of what lay ahead. Fathers felt their chests swell with pride and dread.

The boys from West Branch were like so many fresh-faced kids from one-stoplight towns across America. They would march off to battle, and just like that, a distant war would change even the smallest dot on a map.

That morning in the auditorium, the recruiter called out the boys' names.

Tyler Jordan.

Brian Morris.

Douglas Osberg.

Michael Gulley.

Jack Coldsnow.

Randy Kibler.

Timothy Hardy.

Daniel McVicker.

Wade Morrow.

He pinned a small flag on each of their collars. The hometown crowd rose for a long standing ovation. The young men stood at attention, headed for the great unknown.

* * *

Before they became Marines, they shared meals at Don Poncho's Tex-Mex Cafe on State Street and met for 25-cent chicken wings on Tuesday nights.

They helped their neighbors bale hay. They wrestled pigs at the county fair. They swam in the summers, fished with their fathers and joined Future Farmers of America. They skipped the occasional day at school, drank beers around bonfires in the corn fields and raced Chevys along the back roads, where silver silos dot the horizon.

Their high school drew more than 800 students from across sprawling farmlands -- it was long distance to call from one end of the district to the other -- and so not all nine were the closest of friends.

But they lived in a community where people know the faces in the aisles of the IGA grocery, where school doesn't start until the Canfield Fair ends and where young and old alike pack the stadium for West Branch Warriors football on Friday nights in autumn.

"If you're a burglar in Beloit," school superintendent Scott Weingart likes to say, "Friday night's the night you want to burgle."

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 came during the boys' junior year. Most of them were learning social studies or history that morning, unaware that history was unfolding several hundred miles east, in places most of them had never seen.

"It kind of woke everybody up," Tim Hardy said of that day.

In the months after the attacks, they began talking with one another and with their parents about signing up for the military. They wanted to join for the most noble and the most ordinary of reasons.

They came home speaking of duty and obligation.

"I wanted to hurry up and get into the fight," Tyler Jordan said.

For others, the military promised help for college. A few had neither the money nor the grades. A couple had wanted to join the Marines since childhood. Some just ached to escape the boredom of small-town Ohio.

Their yearnings brought anxiety to dinner tables across the West Branch community.

Cindy Morrow didn't want her son to enlist. "Do you not realize there's a war going on?" she half asked, half shouted at Wade.

Doug Osberg's mother cried when she signed permission for him to join. Brian Morris and his minister father drove the country roads in a pickup truck, debating whether life in the military would shake his Christian faith. Morris' parents offered to pay for college if he didn't sign up. He still signed up.

Wade Morrow and his father headed down to the covered bridge near Beaver Creek, where they went when they had something heavy to discuss.

In the end, despite reservations, the boys' parents offered their support. Some, like Kevin Kibler, thought the Marines made sense.

"He didn't know what to do with his life. I figured it'd be a good experience for him," Kibler said of his son, Randy. "His mother was pretty worried. I was, too. But worryin' don't help nothin'. It's just a waste of time."

They became the largest crop of recruits West Branch had ever seen. One by one, they placed the coming years of their lives in Uncle Sam's hands. They nodded knowingly to each other in the hallways. They cut their hair shorter. They started running.

They were cocky and brazen, ready to swagger away in search of adrenaline anywhere that wasn't Ohio.

Daniel McVicker picked out a tattoo for his left shoulder. "Daniel 10:6," it said, because he liked the Bible verse:

"His body was like chrysolite, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude."

Like the others, McVicker got his diploma, said goodbye to the rolling hills of West Branch and prepared to conquer the world. "You watch," he said, "when I come back home, they'll have a parade for me."

* * *

Brian Morris, the pastor's son, found himself praying in the desert on the eve of the siege of Fallujah in 2004. Rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire lit up the night sky above him, as he asked God to return him to his wife.

They couldn't have known it back on senior awards day, but all nine West Branch boys would end up fighting in Iraq. Some arrived within months of graduation; others, a year or two later. Some came home and went again.

War showed each of them ugliness they can't forget. They watched friends die beside them. They saw rockets blow off arms and legs. They saw women and children slaughtered in the crossfire and found themselves forced to kill for fear of being killed. They saw chaos and lawlessness and, occasionally, a glimmer of hope.

Osberg, whose mother had wept over his permission slip, found himself rolling down foreign roads in a Humvee, always waiting for the earth to explode beneath him.

Jordan, who had wanted to hurry up and fight, ended up south of Baghdad, part of a battalion bombarded several times a day by mortars and roadside bombs. He lost three members of his platoon and came home with shrapnel in his back and shoulder.

Back in Ohio, life also changed, but in a thousand quieter ways. Residents came to the post office on Main Street to sign Christmas cards for the boys overseas. In the aisles at the IGA, people asked family members how their sons were faring.

In the local churches - First Brethren, Emmanuel Lutheran, Atwater Methodist and others -- the congregations asked Jesus to bring the Marines home safely.

"They were on oh-so-many prayer lists," Cindy Morrow said.

Most days, Morrow sat inside her home on Rochester Road, smoked cigarettes and stayed glued to CNN, listening to reports from the war. She logged onto the Department of Defense site daily, searching for casualties in Wade's unit.

In the middle of their work days, fathers whispered prayers while driving down the road or sitting at their desks. Mothers rarely strayed out of earshot from their cell phones and checked the mailbox and e-mail with clock-like regularity.

The dangers of Iraq seemed daunting but distant.

Then one morning before dawn, two Marines came knocking, and the war crashed down amid the corn fields.

* * *

The day of the funeral turned out clear and sunny. It was the second week of October 2005, the first hint of autumn in the air, and those who came to say goodbye to Lance Cpl. Daniel McVicker bundled themselves against the chill.

McVicker had been outgoing and popular at West Branch. He wore earrings and loved fast cars. He sang in musicals - Guys and Dolls, The Wizard of Oz, Grease. He stayed active in the school concert choir, Young and Alive. During senior year, he served as one of the school's mascots, the assistant Warrior Chief.

"Everybody loved him," said classmate Shawna Morrow, Wade's wife.

His parents said he had volunteered several times for duty in Iraq. Finally, in late August 2005, the Marines sent him. Less than two months later, a roadside bomb detonated under the Humvee he was driving near al-Qaim, in western Iraq. The explosion killed McVicker and another Marine from Alabama. Both men were 20.

It happened Oct. 6.

Daniel, 10:6.

The young man, "his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches," was gone.

"So many ifs," said Mark McVicker, Daniel's father, "so many could-have-beens ..."

By coincidence, Tim Hardy returned home from Iraq the day word came of McVicker's death. He showed up to the funeral in his dress blues. Osberg had seen McVicker only a week earlier in Iraq, just by chance. They ate lunch together, said their goodbyes.

Like Hardy, Osberg had come home with his unit. But he couldn't bring himself to attend the funeral.

"I just didn't know if I could actually show up," he says. "I feel kind of bad."

At her brother's service, Mollie McVicker read a poem. "You've borne your burdens well," read one line. "Walk peacefully on heaven's streets; you've done your time in hell."

Hundreds of residents lined the road along the four-mile route to the cemetery. They wrapped themselves in green West Branch Warriors blankets and waved flags as the procession passed.

Old soldiers stood outside the VFW hall and saluted. People held homemade signs like the one that read "See U in heaven." Firefighters parked two bright red engines along the route, extended their ladders and draped a huge American flag above the road.

Stores along State Street locked their doors so employees could join in. "Thank you, Danny," read the sign outside the Rite-Aid. "God bless you, Danny," read the one outside Custom Auto World.

"We had lost somebody we knew," said Weingart, the West Branch superintendent.

Carey Meissner, McVicker's mother, remembers how moved she felt that so many people showed up. McVicker's father said he had never seen such a crowd.

Not far from the high school, the procession turned into a cemetery off U.S. 62 and stopped by a grave in the veterans section.

Daniel McVicker got his parade.

* * *

These days, West Branch has changed. And it hasn't.

The football stadium still fills up on Friday nights. The teenagers still meet for wings over in Alliance, though they cost 30 cents now. Kids still wrestle pigs at the county fair. The corn keeps growing.

But West Branch hasn't seen another group of Marines to rival the class of 2003.

"It was extremely unique for us," said Weingart, the superintendent. "It was right after 9/11, and so that feeling of patriotism and of wanting to do something for your country were heightened among that class."

The young men from 2003 say the war has changed them. They say they feel mature and experienced beyond their years.

Some continue to battle.

Mike Gulley spends his days in al-Qaim, the town where McVicker died. He serves as a squad leader in charge of nine Marines. He's due home in October and doesn't plan to re-enlist. He misses porcelain toilets and the smell of a woman, he said in an e-mail. He wants to move to Virginia Beach and become an electrician.

Wade Morrow packed his bags and left Camp Pendleton, Calif., for another deployment last week. He suspects he could be headed back to Iraq or Afghanistan. What he has seen haunts him.

"To this day, I still see my friends dying. I still hear the whiz and crack of bullets," says Morrow, who sometimes hits the ground when a car backfires. "I'm angrier a lot more. It takes a toll on you."

When his enlistment runs out in 2007, he and Shawna plan to return to Ohio and start a family.

Brian Morris already has started a family with his wife and young son. They live at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina. Morris said he has seen enough of war. He wants to return to the corn fields of Beloit, too. He hopes to re-enlist and come back to Ohio as a military recruiter.

Marine reservist Doug Osberg works the overnight shift - 8 p.m to 8 a.m. - in a plant that makes piping. He still feels uncomfortable when anyone stands behind him, and occasionally, out of habit, he steers toward the middle of the road, away from bombs that don't exist in rural Ohio.

Reservist Tim Hardy spends his days unloading trucks at a potato chip company and his nights serving beers at a roadhouse bar outside of town.

He also started night classes this semester at Kent State University. He plans to study business and stay in his hometown.

"I don't like Ohio, but there's too many people here to leave," Hardy said. "It's not really the place. It's all the people."

The people around West Branch still pray for their troops during Sunday morning services. They still fly flags from poles in their front yards and tie yellow ribbons to trees. Cindy Morrow still smokes cigarettes and spends her days glued to CNN.

A few miles to the west, a father keeps scissors in his pickup truck so he can trim the grass around his son's headstone.

And a mother down on Lexington Road keeps thinking about how life was different here before the war, when the boys swam in her pond and spent their days laughing. Now, she sits alone and replays the last voice mail her son ever left her.

"Hey, Mom," Danny says every time, "It's me ..."

Brady Dennis can be reached at dennis@sptimes.com or 813 226-3386.

Lance Cpl. Jack Coldsnow

Just began his second tour of duty in Iraq; has served in Ramadi, among other places; does not plan to re-enlist in the Marines.

Cpl. Mike Gulley

Has served in al-Qaim, Iraq, since February; squad leader in charge of nine other Marines; due home in October and doesn't plan to re-enlist; wants to move to Virginia Beach and become an electrician; his mother, a Marine, also spent time in Iraq.

Lance Cpl. Tim Hardy

Marine reservist; served in Iraq from March to September 2005; now back in Ohio, working full-time at a potato chip factory and bartending at night; taking night classes in business management at Kent State University.

Cpl. Tyler Jordan

Stationed at Camp LeJeune, N.C.; served two tours in Iraq between 2004 and 2006; awarded a Purple Heart; plans to leave the Marines at the end of his enlistment and enroll at Marshall University; hopes to study business or law enforcement.

Lance Cpl. Randy Kibler

Stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, N.C.; deployed to Iraq from February to September 2005, likely headed back to Iraq in early 2007; plans to re-enlist.

Lance Cpl. Daniel McVicker

Killed Oct. 6, 2005, by a roadside bomb in al-Qaim, Iraq, near the Syrian border; was stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, N.C.; buried in Beloit, within sight of the lights from the West Branch football stadium.

Cpl. Brian Morris

Stationed at Camp LeJeune, N.C.; married to his high school girlfriend, Nicole; they have a 6-month-old son, Porter; served two tours in Iraq between 2004 and 2006; participated in the siege on Fallujah; hopes to re-enlist and return to Ohio as a Marine recruiter.

Cpl. Wade Morrow

Stationed out of Camp Pendleton, Calif.; married to his high school girlfriend, Shawna; served one tour in Iraq, from February to September 2004; began another deployment last week; plans to move back to Ohio in 2007 and start a family.

Lance Cpl. Doug Osberg

Marine reservist; served in Iraq from March to September 2005; now back in Ohio, working nights in a plant that makes piping; plans to sign on for more duty and expects another tour in Iraq.