Rural Pennsylvania Copes with Five Iraq Casualties
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
Today in Montrose, Pennyslvania, Staff Sergeant Daniel Arnold will be laid to rest. He was 27 years old, a father of two, and he was securing a bridge in Iraq last month when his unit came under fire. That attack killed five soldiers from the 109th National Guard unit based in northeastern Pennsylvania. NPR's Luke Burbank reports.
LUKE BURBANK reporting:
Driving through towns like Hallstead, Great Bend, and New Milford, Pennsylvania, you're immediately struck by the contrasts: rolling hills and fall colors serve as a backdrop to sagging porches and bare lawns. A slow erosion of jobs has led more and more young men from around here to sign up for military service. And signs of patriotic pride--flags, bumper stickers, yellow ribbons--are everywhere. But these days that pride is offset by a profound sense of loss. Two weeks ago, the community was gathering for the funeral of Billy Evans, a specialist with the 109th National Guard Unit who died in Iraq, when word spread that five more men from the 109th had been killed in yet another attack.
Mrs. JANET ARNOLD (Mother of Daniel Arnold): As far as ever, ever actually coming to terms with the fact that our youngest son is gone, I don't think that will ever happen.
BURBANK: Janet and Kendall Arnold sit in the living room of their tidy split-level home in Montrose. The living room walls are covered with Kendall Arnold's collection of grandfather clocks, all of which go off at slightly different times, and pictures of the family's four children. It was a Thursday, Arnold's 62nd birthday, when military personnel showed up at the house to tell him their son Dan had been killed.
Mr. KENDALL ARNOLD (Father of Daniel Arnold): When we took him to the airport, his mother says, `I don't want you to go.' He says, `But, Ma, I got to go.'
BURBANK: If you looked up all-American kid in the dictionary, you'd probably find a picture of Dan Arnold. He was a football star who married his sweetheart and had two children. Janet Arnold wears a small gold Pittsburgh Steelers helmet on a necklace. It was a gift to her son on his 16th birthday. He gave it to her when he left for Iraq.
Mrs. ARNOLD: It's hard not to be bitter. The--even though Dan was a good soldier and Dan totally believed in what he was doing, that war took my son from me.
Sergeant 1st Class JAMES DICHEY(ph) (109th National Guard): They tell me I shouldn't feel responsible, but in a way you still do, you know?
BURBANK: Sergeant 1st Class James Dichey sits in his office at the National Guard's new Milford Readiness Center. He recruited four of the five soldiers who died during the attack.
Sgt. DICHEY: The younger guys, they were all my babies because, you know, a new kid coming in, you--some people call them rookies, some call them babes. It's just devastating to have to bury, you know--they're my kids.
BURBANK: They had different reasons for enlisting. Some wanted the money, some the adventure. Sergeant Eric Slebodnik was 21 years old, a history major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Specialist Oliver Brown, age 19, from Athens, Pennsylvania, joined the guard while still in high school. At age 39, Staff Sergeant George Pugilese was the oldest of the men who died. He was married and a father who worked as a corrections officer at a state prison. Specialist Lee Wiegand was 20, also married with a child. He was a talented artist whose friends said he could draw anything. Their deaths have touched off a debate in the region which locals say was once overwhelmingly supportive of the war. Dave Price(ph) is a local barber.
Mr. DAVE PRICE (Barber): One guy was in here yesterday. He said, `If I had a son, I don't if I'd let him go over there, only because of--he's against the war. And then another guy came in right after him and says, `Why you saying that?'
BURBANK: Price knew most of the soldiers who died that day in Ramadi and four of the men who died in the attack got their last trim here before shipping out. Price was closest to Specialist Lee Wiegand, who grew up just around the corner. He remembers their last conversation.
Mr. PRICE: Matter of fact, he said, `I'll see you around Christmastime when I get home.' And then, next thing you know, you pick up the paper and--yeah.
BURBANK: Luke Burbank, NPR News.