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A NATION AT WAR: AMERICAN CASUALTIES; Mourning Families Ponder What Information Is Enough

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Published: April 20, 2003

Even when his family knew for sure, after days of uncertainty, that Lt. Nathan D. White of the Navy had died when his fighter jet fell from the sky over Iraq, they wrestled with what more they needed to know.

Some relatives wanted to understand every detail. Had Lieutenant White's parachute opened? Had he lived for hours after the jet was hit? Had he known what was happening? His mother, meanwhile, did not want all the answers, said Lieutenant White's sister, Ana Mitchell. Painful details might only intensify the hurt.

''It's been a divided reaction in our family,'' Ms. Mitchell said. ''Some want all the information, to put all of the pieces together in our own heads. For others, he's gone, so why rehash all of it? For me, I want to know enough about what happened to know that it was fast, that he didn't suffer for a long time. I do need to know. But then, at the same time, I was afraid to find out.''

Perhaps the most stunning news they were told -- that his jet might have been brought down by a United States Patriot missile -- distressed Ms. Mitchell at first, she said, until her father and other family members convinced her that she could not fully understand the stress and difficulty and chaos of fighting a war.

She has found herself imagining her brother's last minutes. ''It's hard,'' she said, ''not to think about those moments and of different scenarios. They keep coming back to you. So you try to push them away, and to think of him in happier times.''

The war wound down in its fourth week, but that was no solace for the American service members' families who found military officers waiting at their doorsteps. The timing made death all the harder to take. Buoyed by reports of units headed home, relatives said they had just begun to dare to think beyond Iraq, to picture first embraces, plan homecoming suppers.

Instead, some learned last week that their soldier or marine had been killed a few days earlier in the firefights for control of the capital city. Other families were told that the bodies of their marines had been identified, weeks after the men were classified as missing after a March 23 ambush that has turned out to be among the war's deadliest assaults on American forces. Several others found out that their loved ones had perished in accidents or what the military calls friendly fire incidents -- a vehicle crash, a grenade explosion, a mistaken shooting by one of their own.

The military officers who brought the news often came with only basic information about deaths that took place 6,000 miles away, in a blur of sand or darkness, and in circumstances that, in some cases, were still being sorted out.

That was enough for some families, who said they did not want to know more. But many others said they were puzzled, hurt or frustrated that the military had not told them more. And some complained that the gaps and conflicting information only added to their confusion and grief.

Conflicting Accounts

One father said he had been told that his son was killed by ''friendly fire,'' the military's term for deaths from weapons fired by coalition forces. But the families of other marines believed to have died in the same incident said they had been told no such thing. One mother said she had heard so many contradictory versions from the military of the death of her son, an Army specialist, that she had no idea what to believe.

A Department of Defense official last week defended the way the military has delivered the grim news to families. Casualty assistance officers try to tell families everything they know about a death, the official said, except in cases where the facts are not clear and a military investigation is continuing.

The casualty officers are trying hard, a Marine Corps spokesman said, but sometimes details of a death are not known or have not made their way back through the layers of reporting from a field in Iraq to an officer in an American hometown.

''They give as much information as they can,'' Maj. Mike Neumann, the spokesman, said, ''as long as it is accurate and confirmed.''

The downing of Lieutenant White's jet is one of the deaths under investigation. On April 2, his F/A-18C Hornet vanished from radar as he was flying a bombing mission near Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad. For the next 10 days, the family knew only that he was missing. They talked to Navy officials every day.

''We were full of questions,'' Ms. Mitchell said. ''It was disturbing to think that he might already be dead. But it was also disturbing to think that he might be in the hands of terrible people.''

On April 12, officials told the family that searchers had found his body. More questions emerged. But Navy officials have told the family that they believe Lieutenant White died instantly when the missile struck his jet. ''It is comforting, I guess, for me to know now that there was not suffering,'' Ms. Mitchell said.

Lieutenant White, 30, who grew up in Abilene, Tex., had always told tales about his flights. His descriptions of the wild sky and the crashing waves were so keen, relatives said, that their own hearts would race.

Lieutenant White was forever searching out information, his sister said. He was fluent in Japanese, but had been reading a book on learning Chinese. He made a habit of studying graduate admissions test manuals just to see how he would do. ''He had a huge need to know everything about everything,'' Ms. Mitchell said.

Ms. Mitchell said she has learned enough about Lieutenant White's death for now. When the military investigation is finished, she wants to read the report on his death. But for the moment, she will work on a remembrance book about him for his three children, who are 3, 6 and 7.

''I guess it's a shift of energy,'' Ms. Mitchell said. ''Our hearts are broken, but he is not coming back.''

'Did He Suffer?'

Of the Americans killed in combat in the final battles of the war, most perished in Baghdad. The location, Staff Sgt. Riayan A. Tejeda's relatives said, was one of the few bits of information they learned when two marines came to say that Sergeant Tejeda, a 26-year-old marine, had been killed.

''That's literally all they said -- that he died in combat in the city,'' said Andre Tejeda, his brother. ''That's all they could tell us.''

Mr. Tejeda said he still wants to know everything -- what his brother's unit was doing in the fight on April 11, what precisely killed him, how the battle played out.

''We ask for an investigation and for more information,'' Mr. Tejeda said from his family's home in the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York. ''We want to know if he was fighting, or if he was attacked. All we want to know is if he died in peace.''

Sergeant Tejeda's father, Julio Cesar Tejeda, said he may eventually seek out other members of his son's unit to ask them what happened.

In Tulsa, Okla., Sergeant Tejeda's former wife, Dena Harrison, said that she too needed to know more about what had happened to the father of her two young daughters. The casualty officers who talked to her told her that he was killed by a gunshot wound.

''I don't know if he was in Baghdad,'' Ms. Harrison said. ''I don't know if he was in combat even. They didn't say much.''

''I want to know how soon he died and that he didn't suffer,'' she said, starting to cry. ''Did he suffer? Do you know?''

Sergeant Tejeda came from the Dominican Republic and had dreamed of being a marine, his family said. He loved shouting orders. He had U.S.M.C. tattooed on his chest.

Three days before he died, he called his mother. He told her that his mission was almost accomplished, that he would be home soon.

Sergeant Tejeda's mother has been unable to eat since she learned the news, Andre Tejeda said. ''She says she cannot swallow.''

In Indio, Calif., the family of Cpl. Jesus A. Gonzalez of the Marines expressed similar frustration about the information the military has given them. Corporal Gonzalez, 22, was killed on April 12 while manning a military checkpoint in Baghdad. But his step-grandfather, Leopoldo Trevino, said that beyond that, his family knows almost nothing.

Mr. Trevino said he still did not know whether Corporal Gonzalez -- who had joined the Marines in part to support his young family -- was killed by a gunman, an accident, a suicide bombing or something else altogether.

''The family is confused because they haven't told them exactly everything,'' Mr. Trevino said. ''My son, Jesus's stepdad, says that every day they tell him something different, or something that's not quite put together.''

Other families said the military had told them all they needed to know. Some said casualty assistance officers had given them any information they requested, including answers to follow-up questions. Others, like the family of Sgt. First Class John W. Marshall, said they preferred not to focus on such details in the first place.

Sergeant Marshall, 50, was killed in Baghdad on April 8, when he was struck by an Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade.

''How he died is tragic,'' said his sister, Denise Marshall-Mills. ''It is not a nice picture. But for us, there's greater pride and comfort in how he lived. What's important for us is that he died doing what he wanted to do -- defending his country.''

Sergeant Marshall, of Los Angeles, was the oldest American service member killed in Iraq. He had been enlisted for 30 years and could have retired long ago. He chose to be right where he was, his sister said, in battle.

In a January e-mail message to another sister, Doris, Sergeant Marshall had steered away from discussing the administration's take on Iraq. ''It is really not an issue with me,'' he wrote. ''I'm not a politician or a policy maker, just an old soldier.''

In Iraq, he was leading a platoon, a group he described to his sister in the message as ''a good bunch of guys.'' His job, he went on, was to make certain all his men got home safely.

''And that's what I intend to do,'' he wrote.

'He's Not Coming Back'

Staff Sgt. Terry Hemingway's family did not have to learn many details of his death from the military officials who came to their home in Willingboro, N.J. His mother, Eva Hemingway Shannon, had already seen much of what had happened on television a day earlier.

The one detail that she had not known, as she watched live television reports on a car that had exploded beside a Bradley fighting vehicle in Baghdad on April 10, was that her son had been the soldier inside.

''I watched it on television for a while,'' Ms. Shannon said. ''I hoped it wasn't Terry. Of course I knew it was somebody's son. I knew that, and I worried for that person. I felt for that family. I just didn't think it would be Terry.''

Ms. Shannon said she does not intend to seek more specifics from the military about the suicide bombing.

''All that stuff won't bring him back,'' she said. ''All I know is, he's gone. And he's not coming back.''

In the days just before the bombing, Ms. Shannon had seen other images from Iraq on television. She said she watched as Iraqi citizens celebrated, with waves and chants, in the capital. ''My husband said right then and there, 'The boys will be home soon, the boys will be home soon,' '' recalled Ms. Shannon, who had two sons in the military. ''It didn't happen like that though.''

Sergeant Hemingway, 39, was a father of three with 19 years in the Army. He had been thinking about retiring soon. His brother, Sgt. Gary Hemingway, 35, escorted his brother's body home from Baghdad.

Another brother, from a different grieving family, will travel the opposite course in search of his own peace.

Richard Bohr, whose own military deployment to the region is expected in a month, said he planned to stop first outside a mosque in Baghdad to see where his older brother, Gunnery Sgt. Jeffrey E. Bohr, was killed. Sergeant Bohr had been in a gun battle outside the mosque that lasted for seven hours on April 10, military officials have told the family. Twenty-two other marines were injured in the firefight.

Richard Bohr said he is not seeking clues about his older brother's death as much as a chance, simply, to be near him.

''I don't want him to die over there alone,'' said Richard Bohr, who grew up with his brother in tiny Ossian, Iowa. ''I think I know what happened. I know my brother, and I know he would have been leading the way. But I just need to go over and see where he died. I need to see where he was killed for myself.''

Sergeant Bohr served first as an Army paratrooper, then switched to the Marines. He served in Grenada, Panama and the 1991 Persian Gulf war, his brother said.

Richard Bohr, who is a sergeant first class in the Army Reserves, said he would take two items with him: a plaque in his brother's honor and a small silver cross. He said he plans to leave them at the spot where his brother's body was found.

The Chaos of Nasiriya

For American forces, one long chaotic night in Nasiriya at the start of the war proved to be among the costliest, leaving at least 27 soldiers and marines dead. It took three weeks to sort out who was captured, who was missing, who was dead.

In the end, six soldiers who had been captured in an ambush, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch and five other members of her Army maintenance unit, were freed.

Among those who perished, the bodies of six more marines who had been considered missing since March 23 were identified last week.

But for families of the six, other questions remain unanswered.

Military officials told several of the families this broad outline, the families said: the marines, who were in the area to rescue wounded soldiers from the ambushed maintenance unit and to secure bridges, came under attack as they tried to secure a crucial bridge over the Euphrates River. At least some of the six were in or near an amphibious assault vehicle when a rocket-propelled grenade or some other explosive killed them.

Beyond that, though, details remained murky. The parents of one of those killed, Pvt. Nolen R. Hutchings, said they had been told by their casualty assistance officers that the blast that struck the vehicle was believed to have been fired by Americans. Parents of others in the attack said they had never been told that.

''I'm telling you, they said it was friendly fire and if they hadn't known that, they would not have said it to us,'' said Larry Hutchings, Private Hutchings's father. ''They would not have said anything.''

Mr. Hutchings said that he was told that an errant strike from an American force providing air support had caused the mass explosion.

But a military official cautioned last week against drawing any conclusions about causes. The deaths of the six marines -- and all the others in Nasiriya -- are under investigation, said Lt. Cmdr. Charles L. Owens, a spokesman for the United States Central Command in Qatar. ''The best way is to let the process work and don't go on rumors,'' he said.

Several of the families of the six marines said they simply have not sought details, nor do they intend to.

''They just said that the vehicle got hit with an R.P.G., and you can figure the rest,'' said Vicky Langley, whose son, Pvt. Jonathan Lee Gifford, was killed.

''I don't want to know the graphic details. What good is it going to do me? Why do I need to know?''

Lance Cpl. Donald Cline's mother, Cynthia Fulton, said military officials used DNA testing to identify her son's remains. ''He went instantly from what I understand,'' Ms. Fulton said. ''I'm just glad he didn't feel pain.''

Ms. Fulton said she did not feel compelled to learn more because she had talked with her son, who was 21 and married, about all the what-if's before he went.

''We were open and we were realistic,'' Ms. Fulton said. ''The way I see it is he went out doing something he believed in. To me, he was doing that, whatever happened in battle. Thank God we had that talk.''

Other marines who had been missing and whose bodies were identified last week were Cpl. Kemaphoom Chanawongse, 22, of Waterford, Conn.; Pfc. Tamario D. Burkett, 21, of Buffalo; and Sgt. Brendon Reiss, 23, of Casper, Wyo.

The waiting -- those endless weeks when the marines were considered missing -- was the most anxious period of all in some homes. Every time a car appeared in Ms. Fulton's driveway, she feared it was the military coming with the worst news. ''It was heart-wrenching,'' she said.

Private Hutchings's father criticized the military for listing the men as missing, when someone, he said, must have known that they had vanished in a huge explosion. ''I know that they didn't know what happened, but they had to have suspected, and the way I see it they could have at least given us something,'' Mr. Hutchings said. ''My family was torn up with tension, thinking that he was out there somewhere. We wouldn't have spent 20 days hoping.''

Mistakes and Accidents

For the families of service members mistakenly killed by their own side or in accidents, the details of death could be the hardest to take.

Last week, a marine was shot to death after being mistaken for the enemy, the Pentagon said. A soldier died when he rear-ended a vehicle in a dust storm. A marine, Cpl. Armando Ariel González, 25, of Hialeah, Fla., was crushed beneath his refueling truck.

With military investigations under way in many of the cases, families said they had a particularly difficult time finding out exactly what had occurred. ''They gave me a brief description of what happened and told me there would be an investigation,'' said Corporal González's wife, Liudmila. ''I try to believe they're not withholding information.''

The couple, who married six months ago, had spoken on the telephone last Sunday, the night before Corporal González died, Ms. González said. He sounded upbeat. ''He had a baby coming,'' she said. ''He was young and had a future, and so many hopes and dreams.''

In 1995, he had come on a boat to the United States from Cuba, along with his father and brother.

Ms. González said she would wait, now, for results of the investigation. ''But at this point, it doesn't really matter,'' she said. ''He's dead. You've lost somebody. Who cares how? He's not here anymore.''

Last Monday, the same day as Corporal González's accident, Specialist Thomas A. Foley III and Pfc. John Eli Brown of the Army died when a grenade detonated while they were performing maintenance on a vehicle in a checkpoint south of Baghdad, military officials said.

But in Dresden, Tenn., Specialist Foley's hometown, and in Troy, Ala., where Private Brown lived, relatives seemed unsure about what exactly happened, and some said they were frustrated by how little they knew.

In Troy, Private Brown's father, Ed, said he understood that his son had been inside a Humvee and three others, including Specialist Foley, were standing beside it. They were looking at a ''cone-shaped'' object someone had found, and began to pass it around. Then, suddenly, it exploded, he said.

Private Brown, 21, had been talking about making the Army his career. ''He felt like there was more out in the world he could do than what he could find here,'' Mr. Brown said. He said his son had sent an e-mail message not long ago to say that the war seemed to be ''winding down a bit'' and that he was tired and had been traveling a lot, but that things were getting better.

In Dresden, Specialist Foley's mother, Emily Darden, said she had been given different, even conflicting, versions of events.

''At first we were told it was friendly fire,'' Ms. Darden said. ''Now we've heard that there was some shooting and a grenade was accidentally thrown in the vehicle.''

Specialist Foley, 23, joined the military to see the world -- and save up for college, his family said. He was married with a 6-month-old.

His death devastated his mother. The various stories about it have left her torn.

''We don't know what to believe,'' she said. ''We can't find out anything. The first night they came and told us he was killed by friendly fire. I want to know if my son was murdered, if it was an accident, or he was killed by one of his people. How could a grenade accidentally go off?''

With so little solid information, Ms. Darden said she even had fears that the attack might even have been deliberate. How, she wondered, would she ever know? ''I just want to know why my son died.''

Correction: April 22, 2003, Tuesday A list of American military deaths on Saturday misidentified the Army unit of Cpl. John T. Rivero of Gainesville, Fla. (The error was repeated on Sunday in a picture caption and in a cumulative list of war deaths.) The corporal was a member of the Second Battalion, 124th Infantry, not the 124th Infantry Division.