December 15, 2004

Burying war dead--the PC way

I know this is a long one, but trust me, it is worth reading. It saddens me to no end that we have to satisfy the PC crowd when honoring our fallen heroes.

(On a side note, does anyone know how to do that "click here for more" code where it compresses the post but then instantly expands it when you click? Ahem. Patrick. Ahem.)

Divisions over Iraq war delay a soldier's tribute
By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY

The young soldier tried to sound brave, but his mother could hear the fear in his voice all the way from Iraq (news - web sites). Before the satellite phone cut out, he made a request - the prayer of every soldier in peril: "Just don't forget me."

Those were the last words Regina Gilbert ever heard spoken by her only child. Three weeks later, Pfc. Kyle Gilbert was killed in Baghdad, leaving his parents and community the sad but seemingly simple task of granting his final wish.

In a town divided by the war, there was a symbolic solution: Name a bridge - a span between opposite sides - for Kyle Charles Gilbert (1983-2003).

It seemed an idea everyone could embrace. But not, as it turned out, if Kyle's marker bore the likeness of an American eagle. Or the slogan "Freedom isn't free." Or the name "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

In the end, it took a year to honor Kyle Gilbert. "We just wanted to remember Kyle," his mother says. "But things got politicized."

Brattleboro's struggle to remember its fallen son illustrates how the Iraq war can divide people, even when they're merely trying to honor the dead, even when they try to do so without offending anyone.

The U.S. military death toll in Iraq has risen from about 255 when Kyle Gilbert was shot to 1,286 as of Sunday. More and more communities face the same challenge: To remember the warriors without necessarily endorsing the war.

Kyle Gilbert's parents never imagined that memorializing their son could be such an ordeal. But he had never asked for much, besides pizza, and so they resolved to do whatever it took to grant his last wish.

Gilbert joined a peacetime military with no intention of killing or dying. When he enlisted shortly after graduation from high school in 2001, he wanted to develop his interest in electronics, earn money for college and learn to jump out of airplanes as his father had in Army Special Forces a quarter-century earlier.

He was in jump school at Fort Benning, Ga., with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division on Sept. 11, 2001. "Kyle knew what that meant," his mother says. "He knew there was going to be a war."

At jump school graduation, according to tradition, father and son exchanged their silver wings pins, and Bob pinned his to Kyle's chest.

Eighteen months later, the 82nd Airborne marched into Baghdad. Saddam Hussein (news - web sites)'s statue fell, and President Bush (news - web sites) flew onto an aircraft carrier in the Pacific and declared major combat over. Kyle and his buddies made friends with local kids and went swimming at one of Saddam's palaces.

A town's twin cultures

In Brattleboro, which has been called a college town without the college, the war was more complicated. The community has two cultures: One traces its origins to communes that sprouted here in the 1960s; the other is rooted in traditional, conservative, rural Vermont. The first group was most concerned with opposing the war, the second with supporting the troops.

The town commons was the site of many anti-war demonstrations. One attracted about 1,000 people. Given Brattleboro's population of 12,000, it was one of the nation's largest demonstrations per capita.

There also were demonstrations in support of the troops, some of which coincided with war protests. The Gilberts sent Kyle photos of the former.

Early on, he mailed them a makeshift postcard on a piece of ripped cardboard with Arabic lettering at the edges. "I'm OK," he wrote. "You might have seen the 82nd Airborne on TV. ... Don't worry about me. I'll keep my head lower than my ass. ... I should be home by Halloween."

But as the months passed, the fighting never really stopped. Dates for coming home were pushed back. He was lonely, and increasingly he was scared.

"I could kinda tell, just from his voice, that things were changing," Regina says. "You just know your own son's voice."

Later, someone in Kyle's unit sent the Gilberts photos taken during the summer of 2003. In them he looks, his mother thinks, "like a different person" - thinner, older. "He doesn't look 20," she says.

When Kyle called home July 18, Regina greeted him by his baby name: "Hey, Bud-Bud!"

That seemed to get to him. After they'd talked for a while, he said, "Just don't forget me."

"You're my only baby!" she cried. "That's not gonna happen." Then the satellite phone connection, always delayed and tenuous, was cut off.

Hit by a sniper

On Aug. 5, one of Kyle's buddies in the 82nd Airborne called his mother, who also lived in Brattleboro. The next morning, the mother called Regina and told her "they're doing fine."

There had been no U.S. military deaths in Iraq for four days. Commanders had begun to hope that their campaign against guerrilla leaders had worked and that U.S. troops could begin to concentrate more on building goodwill among the Iraqi people.

That night Kyle was riding in a Humvee at the front of a patrol convoy in west Baghdad when a sniper opened fire. One shot hit a soldier in the back of the vehicle, knocking him out onto the road. Kyle and a sergeant leapt out to get him. There was more sniper fire, and both men were hit.

In Kyle's pocket was his last will and testament and a handwritten note. It began, "Dear Mom and Dad, By the time you read this I will have died for my country. Please don't be sad."

On Aug. 8, Regina was sitting at her desk at a food wholesaler reading USA TODAY, which she'd begun to buy for the war news. Two soldiers had been killed Aug. 6 in Baghdad. One was identified as Staff Sgt Brian Hellerman of C Company, 2nd Battalion, 235th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Kyle's unit.

"The name of the other solider had not been released," the article said.

"I don't feel so good about this," she told a co-worker. Then the phone rang. It was Bob. An Army officer was in town, looking for them. Bob didn't know any officers, so he had an idea what he wanted.

Kyle Gilbert was the first person from Brattleboro to die in Iraq. On Aug. 12, five months after he went to Iraq, he came home to a welcome unlike any the town had seen in many years. When the hearse got off Interstate 91, people had been waiting at the exit for hours. Unbidden, they lined the route into town, often four and five deep. Some followed the hearse on foot toward the funeral home.

The procession moved slowly through Brattleboro, past Kyle's high school, the hospital where he was born, the neighborhood where he grew up. Past the alignment shop and the car wash where he earned the $4,000 for big rims and tires for his souped-up red 1969 Chevelle.

Everyone was struck by the silence, broken only by the slow pounding of a single bass drum. Waiting at the funeral home, Regina heard the drum get louder and louder, and knew her son was coming.

Sam Haskins, a local Vietnam veteran, wondered how members of the 82nd Airborne who came to town for the funeral would react to anti-war demonstrators. A sergeant told him not to worry: "We're fighting so they have the right to do that."

Honoring sacrifice

On Veterans Day 2003, a local writer named Judy Gorman saw President Bush laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. It prompted her to write an op-ed column for the Brattleboro Reformer in which she argued that Bush had been "remarkably reticent in honoring the sacrifices made by the known soldiers" in Iraq. (Story: Memorial efforts across the U.S.)

"Let's do it for him," she wrote. Gilbert was Brattleboro's "hometown hero," so why not give his name to the newly reconstructed bridge that carries Main Street over Whetstone Brook?

She didn't expect anything to come of it. But a reader sent a $100 check to the newspaper. Other donations followed. In January, the town council voted to name the bridge for Gilbert. Residents, many of them moved by memories of his homecoming, raised more than $10,000 for a memorial at the bridge.

Choice of words

As devised by the town manager, the Gilberts and a group of veterans, the design called for a granite monument 4 feet high. The face bore the likeness of an American eagle with a scroll in its talons. On the scroll was "FREEDOM IS NOT FREE" and below it: "BRATTLEBORO SUPPORTS ALL THE BRAVE MEN AND WOMEN WHO SERVED OUR NATION OR MADE THE SUPREME SACRIFICE DURING OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM."

But after the design was circulated among town officials, Sam Haskins, the Vietnam vet, got a call from Jerry Remillard, the town manager. "He said, 'We have to change this to make people happy,' " Haskins says.

Some people considered the eagle to be jingoistic, "Freedom isn't free" to be a pro-war slogan, and "Operation Iraqi Freedom" to be Pentagon (news - web sites) propaganda. Even the word "supports" was seen by some as condoning the war.

Pat DeAngelo, a council member, threatened to disclaim responsibility for the memorial unless the language was changed. "This was supposed to be an apolitical statement," she told the Reformer." 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' definitely is not."

Gorman, the writer who'd started it all, called the wording "bellicose."

Regina Gilbert was stunned. Freedom wasn't free. Didn't everyone support the troops, if not the war? She wasn't political; at 41, she'd never even voted.

"They said they didn't want a war memorial, but we weren't promoting a war," Bob says.

But the Gilberts agreed to change the wording. "We couldn't let people forget Kyle," Regina says. "We kept going for Kyle."

The bridge was named on a cold Veterans Day morning last month. The memorial reads: BRATTLEBORO REMEMBERS ALL THE BRAVE MEN AND WOMEN WHO SERVED OUR COUNTRY OR MADE THE SUPREME SACRIFICE IN IRAQ.

Above those words is the inscription: AS KYLE SAID, 'JUST DON'T FORGET ME.'

"Now I know we'll never forget him," Bob Gilbert told a crowd of several hundred, "and I think you won't, either."

Five anti-war protesters stood silently across the street, holding signs: "We Mourn All Victims of War" and "Honor Vets by Ending the War." One protester was Bob Bady, who took an hour off from work to be there. He felt the memorial's presence glorified the war, however inadvertently, and ignored Iraqi victims.

"We did something that needed to be out there," he later said of the protest. "I don't think we caused a whole lot of discomfort."

Pain persists

Sixteen months after Kyle's death, the Gilberts have not been able to bring themselves to go through the five containers of his personal items shipped from Fort Bragg. "You send off your son," Regina muses, "and everything comes back in a box."

She's bitter about the war - on Nov. 2, she voted for the first time - but not about how the memorial turned out.

"No matter how divided the community, we couldn't have done it without them," she says. "We can't hate the protesters. We need to keep that freedom of speech."

The Reformer concluded that the compromise wording seemed "palatable to all." Remillard, the town manager, says that although the Gilberts "would have preferred something more direct," even the substitution of "remembers" for "supports" made sense: "It speaks to the future more than the present."

In the days after the memorial's dedication, pedestrians frequently would stop and touch the fine, smooth Vermont granite. But now more and more pass by. It is becoming part of the landscape.

Will Kyle Gilbert's simplest, most urgent wish - "Don't forget me" - ultimately be the hardest to grant?


Pfc. Kyle Gilbert, you will not be forgotten.

Posted by Kyer at December 15, 2004 07:54 PM