View Full Version : Town hit hard by non-combat unit's deaths in Iraq

01-16-2005, 07:20 AM
Town hit hard by non-combat unit's deaths in Iraq

'This will be with us for a long time'

Sunday, January 16, 2005 Posted: 7:29 AM EST (1229 GMT)

PARIS, Illinois (AP) -- They lined the streets around the stately stone courthouse that winter day, waving tiny American flags, holding "Go! USA" signs and cheering the convoy of trucks filled with fresh-faced kids rumbling off to war.

It was just about a year ago when the people of Paris gathered for a rousing goodbye.

Nine months later, they filled the same streets once again.

That sad September day, hands were over hearts, tears rolled down cheeks and bagpipes wailed as the crowd bid a solemn goodbye to one of their own, Sgt. Shawna Morrison, as her funeral procession crawled through town.

The war in Iraq has bound this town together in pride and sorrow as it has followed the travails of its 1544th Transportation Company, an Army National Guard unit that has suffered enormous losses: Five deaths -- two of them women -- and about two dozen serious injuries.

"Sadness isn't really the proper word," says Mayor Craig Smith. "There has been this feeling of foreboding -- wondering when the other shoe will drop."

That tension won't subside until the soldiers return -- possibly as early as March -- and even then, the mayor says, the legacy of loss will haunt this town.

"This," he says, "is going to be remembered for a long time."

No one knows that better than the soldiers of the 1544th.

Within 24 hours of arrival in Iraq last March, the 170-member company lost its first member when a mortar struck the group's compound.

Weeks later, the company's first commander broke both legs and a hip in a collision with another truck. One soldier nearly died in a mortar attack that left him with collapsed lungs and shrapnel ripping into his body -- even his heart wall. One sergeant, Scott Johnson, needed a roadside tracheotomy after a bomb hit his convoy.

"It's something that no one anticipated even though it's a given -- war is a dangerous thing," says Johnson, who is recovering back home. "We're not a combat unit. Nothing like this has ever happened."

But as a transportation unit, the 1544th came under repeated attack as it delivered supplies and mail in a treacherous, 50-kilometer circle around Baghdad. After the fifth soldier was killed in October, the number of missions was reduced, but they have picked up since then.

Those dangers are more than 6,500 miles away and yet the war is a constant, sobering presence here. Paris is a place that cherishes its history (Abe Lincoln argued cases here as a lawyer) and pays homage to its veterans with a glass-encased honor roll on the courthouse lawn.

Tributes all around

Though the 1544th is composed of soldiers from towns across east-central Illinois -- along with a few from Missouri, Kentucky, Indiana and Florida -- the company trains here and is part of the fabric of this community.

Tributes to the soldiers are all around: The light poles have signs with their names and yellow ribbons. The high school has a bulletin board with a white star for every graduate serving in the military. The football team this past season wore helmets emblazoned with 1544th decals. The local paper, the Paris Beacon-News, added a daily front-page banner saluting the company.

And five white crosses dot the lawn of the red-brick armory.

In a community of just 9,000, the men and women of the 1544th are not anonymous soldiers, but the factory worker who lives next door, the farmer down the road, the teens who donned orange and black uniforms for the Paris Tigers just a few years ago.

"They carried our newspapers, they played with our children. Everybody in town feels like they're our kids, our soldiers," says Jim Cooper, head of a family support group for the 1544th -- a unit that includes his 21-year-old son, Mathew.

Over the past year, townspeople have raised tens of thousands of dollars to buy the unit everything from CB radios for their trucks and global positioning systems to baby wipes, toilet paper, pens and paper. There were even plans to buy steel to reinforce the unit's trucks, but that idea was scrapped at the urging of government officials.

"If they (the soldiers) need five of anything, they will get 10," says Lt. Col. Robert Mayberry, peacetime commander of the 1544th. "I have never been to a town that gives so much support."

Many supporters have children in the 1544th. Though the soldiers range from their teens to their mid 50s, several are recent high school graduates and about a third are college students, many of whom joined the Guard to pay for their education.

That weighs heavily on high school football coach Mick Roberts who sometimes wonders if his well-intentioned advice landed his former players in the heart of a war zone.

"I probably talked some of the kids into joining the Guard," he says, pausing as if to defend his decision. "It was a pretty good deal going if you wanted to go to school (college.) ... Then they got sent to war."

Over the months, Roberts has been a phone and e-mail pal to several former players and the young woman who kept statistics for his team. He is both confidant and cheerleader.

"Glad you survived the mortar attacks last Monday," he wrote in a recent e-mail. "... You guys just have a couple more months and you can get the hell out of there. Take care of each other and come home safe."

Roberts also keeps a photo in his office of four young men lined up in desert fatigues, holding rifles above a sign, "1544th Football Tigers in Iraq" -- all former members of a recent team, two of them co-captains.

"All of these kids have stayed the course, probably better than the people back here," Roberts says, smiling as he studies the photo. "You have to admire them."

Loss has profound impact

High school principal Dave Meister feels the same way as he scans a bulletin board titled "Hometown Heroes," pointing out the names of a recent homecoming king, a young woman who ran track and a favorite former student who worked on the school newspaper, Shawna Morrison.

"She always had a smile on her face, she always had a question to ask ... she always was a bright spot in the classroom," he recalls.

For the others killed, there also are personal, poignant memories.

Spc. Jessica Cawvey, a 21-year-old college student, was the devoted mother of a 6-year-old daughter. She died in an explosion near her convoy, traveling in Falluja, Iraq.

Sgt. Ivory Phipps, detached from another unit, joined the military at age 18 to avoid the gang-ridden Chicago streets. The 44-year-old had recently re-enlisted to provide for his family, including a 5-month-old son. A mortar killed him on his first full day in Iraq.

Spc. Charles Lamb was a 23-year-old newlywed, easygoing with a quick joke and a presence that could light up a room. He, too, was killed by a mortar.

Spc. Jeremy Ridlen, 23, was inseparable from his twin brother, Jason. They both played on the church softball team and both headed to Iraq as members of the 1544th. A truck bomb killed Jeremy.

Each loss has a profound impact on the folks back home who depend on their support group to report the latest news, defuse the most recent rumor, or sometimes just offer a soothing word in the darkest moments.

"We're all kind of a family," says Cooper. "We call each other when we're scared. ... When things do happen, we're all in the same boat. We talk it out until we feel better or find out it's not our group."

"None of these parents or wives get much sleep," he adds. "You're on pins and needles all the time. Until they're out of there, none of us will rest easy."

Steve Wirth, a fire captain whose 20-year-old daughter, Staci, is in the 1544th says on those nerve-racking days when word trickles in of an injury or death, he sorts through a jumble of emotions.

"You're relieved that it wasn't yours," Wirth says. "Then you feel guilty being happy that your soldier is OK."

Wirth says each time he goes on an errand, it's a 45-minute expedition because everyone stops him to ask about the soldiers. The merits of the war are not discussed.

"Our unit has a job to do," he says. "Politics is not talked about."

But inevitably, talk about the pros and the cons does surface in this town where the war has shaped the fate of so many.

Aaron Wernz, for instance, remains a firm supporter.

The 26-year-old Guard specialist lives with the memories -- and metal fragments in his body -- from that September day when he was critically wounded in a mortar attack that killed Lamb and Morrison.

A bright red mark near Wernz' left eye is one of the more visible reminders of where shrapnel pierced his body. Metal bits also lodged in his arms, leg, colon, his lungs -- and, he says, doctors have told him there's a piece in his heart wall. His injuries left him with reduced breathing power but Wernz plans to resume farming -- a family tradition for more than a century.

And he says he has no regrets about his time in Iraq.

"The only wars worth fighting are to defend people who can't defend themselves," he says. "That's pretty much what we're doing. ... I believe it was a just war then and I still do today."

Rick Morrison, who lost his 26-year-old daughter, Shawna, sees it much differently.

"I don't think the Guard unit should have been called up," he says. "It's not just Paris. It's all over the country. It's a shame what happened. We should have never been over in Iraq. ... There's no way we're going to change that culture. We'll never see it in our lifetimes."

Like so many others here, Morrison is looking forward to the day the 1544th rolls into Paris again.

"They can't get home soon enough," he says. "I'll be so grateful. We won't be jealous at all."

Mayor Smith thinks once the soldiers are back on home soil, there may be more frank talk about the war.

"Some people are a little leery about saying anything detrimental for fear it will be misinterpreted by family members," he says. "There's a tendency to hold back. I think once this group is home, people will be more willing to say what's in their hearts."

For now, though, the wait continues.

"The sad thing about this is when ours come home, another group will have to take their place," says Wirth, the fire captain. "Another group of families will live with the fear of not knowing what's going on."

Already, plans are being made for the homecoming. It probably will include a parade with people lining the streets once again.

Coach Roberts will be there, seeing so many familiar young faces, but knowing they are forever changed.

"I tell them I consider them kids," he says. "But when they come home after the things they've seen and the things they've had to do, it's going to be hard to call them kids anymore."

Link (http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/01/16/war.town.ap/index.html)