17th April 13:01
For soldiers' families, the war is not over
From The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 7/26/03:
For soldiers' families, the war is not over
By Ron Harris Post-Dispatch
Across thousands of miles, they cling to the other American families
who still share their personal nightmare.
They anxiously trade even the smallest bits of information gleaned
from their infrequent correspondence with their sons, husbands,
What Mike told them in his two-minute satellite phone call.
The message Bob was able to leave on the answering machine when they
It's a lot harder now.
After Baghdad fell, the hundreds of embedded reporters left en masse,
the story all but over for them.
These days, there are no more daily reports and photographs about 3rd
Battalion, 7th Marines, no more close-ups of India, Kilo, Lima and
When President Bush declared in May that major combat operations in
Iraq had ended, it only meant more frustration for the families.
The rest of the nation breathed a sigh of relief.
Their friends and co-workers offered up consolation.
"I bet you're glad it's over," they would say.
But it wasn't over -- not for the troops overseas, not for their
families back home.
Nearly every day the body count has continued to climb; it's now
higher than during Desert Storm in 1991.
So in thousands of homes across America, in Mesa, Ariz., in Boston, in
Wautoma, Wisc., in St. Louis, they still worry.
They still can't sleep.
Their first task every morning is still to search the television, the
newspaper, the Internet, anything, for any news about the war.
They still ache with uncertainty with each report of an anonymous
And at the strangest times, they still cry.
All of them.
"I am more worried now than I was before," said Brenda Bouvatte, 53,
of Arnold, whose son, Mike Stivers, is a heavy machine gunner with 3rd
Battalion, 7th Marines.
Like everyone else, the families of Marines and soldiers still in Iraq
watch and question.
Will the deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons Odai and Qusai bring a
quicker end to the war?
Where are the weapons of mass destruction, the major plank upon which
the premise for war rested?
Does it really matter?
Did the president mislead the nation?
Did he, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and British Prime
Minister Tony Blair exaggerate the case for war to promote their own
But maybe more importantly for families of those in Iraq are the
continued reports of new American casualties, another American soldier
or Marine killed every other day on average in a conflict that most in
the nation had assumed was over three months ago.
In some cases, the changes in Iraq and the United States have caused
family members to reassess their view of the war and question some of
President Bush's actions.
In many cases, it has caused them to unite more strongly behind the
But for nearly all of the families, recent events in Iraq and here
have sharpened the sense that they are alone, a select group of
Americans focused most intensely on a conflict for which they and
their families will pay more dearly than others.
While the news media and many Americans have tended to lessen their
attention and concern for the troops in Iraq, most of the families
interviewed for this story say now is an even more frightening time
than the heavier fighting earlier in the war.
"Now there are fewer troops there than there were before," said
Bouvatte of Arnold.
"So, there's less support. And I'm also afraid, because they're
getting tired. They don't sleep much; they don't eat much. Before,
they were all pumped up and gung-ho"
Ginny Fowler's son, Jeff, is in the same company with Stivers.
The 42-year-old national park ranger said she also is more nervous
about her son.
"Before it was clearer cut who the enemy was," said Fowler, of
"And now you don't know. But what's really frustrating is I think a
lot of people think the war is over."
Debbie Callies, whose son Robert Bautzmann is with Headquarters and
Supply, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, was so aggravated by what she
perceived as a growing national indifference, that on the Fourth of
July, she went out of her way to remind people that her son and others
were still being shot at, still being killed.
"I put two huge signs in the front of my yard," said Callies, of
"One said, 'Still There, Still in Our Prayers.' The other was a huge
poster of him that said, 'Our Hero, God Bless America.' I kept them up
for three weeks."
Mike Stivers father, Mike Stivers Sr., has a simple rule of thumb
about the subject.
"They can say the war is over all they want," said Stivers of
"But as long as our sons are over there, it ain't over.
"I won't rest until I'm at a barbecue and my son is sitting beside
Families say making concern about their loved ones even more difficult
is the relative dearth of information compared to before, when
hundreds of reporters ate, slept and followed the soldiers and Marines
24 hours a day.
"When the media was over there, day to day, you knew everything," said
Melissa Marek, a wedding photographer and college student in Mesa,
Ariz., whose brother, John Cruz, and fiancé, Andrew Weable of
Columbia, Mo., are with India Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines.
"We knew what city they were in, how the guys felt, what they were
doing. Now, we're kind of in the dark."
Still, scouring the news is part of their daily routine.
"I used to listen to rock 'n' roll in my truck," said Jack Sandahl,
whose son, Jacob, is also with India Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th
"But I listen to the news stations now. When you've got a kid over
there, it's always on your mind."
Concerns about motives
Most have stood firmly behind the president and the war.
"All this discussion has made me mad more than anything," said
Callies, an eighth-grade science teacher.
"This regime was totally evil. I'm glad my son had courage enough to
go over there and do something about it. . . .
"To me, it doesn't matter if they find weapons of mass destruction.
They have found mass graves and that's proof to me that this needed to
Richard Hulburd-Brehme, father of Marine T.C. Brehme, who is with
Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, echoed her response.
"As an American, I support whatever our president and his advisers
feel," he said.
"I'm extremely proud of my son."
But others have more mixed emotions.
"Do I think the president oversold it? Yeah," said D.J. Stewart, whose
son, Mike Stewart is with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines.
"I think he was looking for any excuse to go in. . . .
"I'm not saying this didn't have to be done. I just don't know if I
can believe half of what I hear off the news or what the government
says. Whether they had good reason or not, we'll probably never know."
Thomas Bautzmann, father of Marine Robert Bautzmann, has similar
"Are we there to actually free the Iraqis, or are we there to finish
something in 1991, or are we there for the terrorists or are we there
for the oil, or are we there for Iran?" he asked.
"I don't know. I've heard everything. I don't necessarily believe what
the president is saying. I think he's over there to finish something
his dad couldn't finish."
Mike Stivers Sr., whose daughter is engaged to an Iraqi who was once
tortured by Saddam Hussein, said he's tried not to dwell on the debate
about what America should or shouldn't be doing in Iraq.
"We've got Congress, and the generals know what they're doing," he
"There's no sense in trying to second-guess them now. I hope we're
right being there."
But what all of the families are most concerned about is that nobody
in a military uniform comes late in the night to knock at the door.
"Couple of times, it caused me to wake up crying because I was having
a dream about my son," Bautzmann said.
"I haven't slept over three to four hours in the last four to five
And with each report of a U.S. casualty, it gets that much harder,
said Bouvatte, Stiver's mother and a nurse at St. John's Mercy Medical
Center in Creve Coeur.
"The first thing you say is, 'Please God, don't let it be Mike, but
you don't want it to be anybody else either. Then you turn on the
news, to see if it's your son's company or an area where he is. You
listen to hear if it was Marine, Army or Air Force and you start doing
processes of elimination until you get a name."
Eventually, for most families there is the relief that the latest
casualty is not their loved one, followed quickly by a brief blush of
shame, because they know that while they are feeling some temporary
comfort, another family is enduring painful heartache.
"So, you cry a lot," Bouvatte said.
"I'm crying now. The pride in my son makes me cry, the fear of the
unknown and the fear of the known makes you cry. Not knowing if I'll
ever see my son again. Knowing what he's going through over there and
I can't do a doggone thing to help him. I have to have faith and trust
that the United States Marine Corps will do that and his buddies will
guard his back."
Reporter Ron Harris and photographer Andrew Cutraro spent three months
with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines in Kuwait and Iraq before
returning to the United States in late April.