Seaford: A Town Bears the Burden of War Across the nation, small towns are feeling the personal cost of war. Seaford, Del., with a population under 7,000, has lost three young men to the war in Iraq. Marine Lance Cpl. Rick James was one of them.
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Seaford: A Town Bears the Burden of War

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Seaford: A Town Bears the Burden of War

Seaford: A Town Bears the Burden of War

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Seaford, Delaware is a small town with a population under 7,000. Like many small towns on the Eastern Shore, there's a quaint downtown area surrounded by a sprawl of big-box stores and chain restaurants. We drove there for a visit this past week.

(Soundbite of highway)

HANSEN: The Stein Highway is one of the main roads in Seaford, Delaware. It pretty much bisects the town. And as you drive in from the west, you can't help but notice a memorial, one that's dedicated to the memory of Seaford community veterans. There are names from World War I etched in the granite, from Korea, Vietnam, World War II, Beirut. But three new plaques have been added recently to this memorial. They are the names of three young men who died in Iraq - Ryan P. Long, Cory L. Palmer and Rick C. James. This is a memorial that Rick's mother, Carol, has to drive by every day. In fact, her house is not that far away.

(Soundbite of knocking)

HANSEN: Hi. Carol?

Ms. CAROL JAMES (Seaford Resident): Yes.

HANSEN: Hi, I'm Liane. Thank you for inviting us to your home.

Ms. JAMES: Oh yeah. Yeah, come on in.

HANSEN: Carol James lives in a modest ranch house near the railroad tracks. There's a gold star flag in the front window, a sign she has lost a child in the war. The living room is testament to that. Pictures of her son Rick dominate every surface. A huge quilt with Marine insignia is draped over the small couch. And in the corner is a pile of newspaper clippings and letters from friends, relatives, neighbors and strangers. She's opened the windows to let the warm spring air in. We find a place to sit and immediately Carol starts to talk about her son. He was a rambunctious child, never able to sit still, like his mom, no doubt, who's always getting up and darting around the room to show us more things. Carol says that Rick knew early on that college wasn't his thing, and he desperately wanted to follow his friends into the Marine Corps.

Ms. JAMES: He actually wanted us to sign him up the summer before, when he was 17, and my husband and I both said no. You know, I didn't want him to, but once he did I supported it. I thought, I'm not going to fight him on it because - and he was a broken record, you know, can I, huh, huh - can I huh - can I, can I. It was finally like, duh, you know, I'd look at my husband and I'd say, I think we should let the Marines have a turn with him, you know.

HANSEN: Rick James enlisted the day after his 18th birthday and left for boot camp on Father's Day, 2004. His first tour was uneventful, much to his disappointment.

Ms JAMES: You know, that boring old patrol and sitting and watching, and you know, that really wasn't his thing. You know, he wanted the action and excitement, and I think he pretty much got it every day the second time. It was definitely different this time. You know, I knew it was a lot more dangerous.

HANSEN: Carol James was doing some planting in her garden when Marines arrived to inform her that her son had died. The first anniversary of his death this year falls on Mother's Day, but she's trying not to think about that. Carol says she takes a lot of comfort from knowing exactly how Rick died and from a memento that the Marines gave to her.

Ms. JAMES: Well, let me show you. I have a picture that was taken literally minutes before, so I don't feel like there's any mystery. I know exactly what happened. I've met with the guys that was with him. He got shot right there doing that.

HANSEN: The photograph shows Rick in full battle gear, aiming his gun out a window. He's in the Governor's Center in Ramadi. The picture is dated the day he died, May 13th, 2006. It was taken by a military photographer who just happened to be there. Moments after the photo was taken, Rick was shot. Carol says it's difficult to deal with her own grief; she keeps it at bay by keeping very, very busy. But she worries about the rest of her family.

Ms. JAMES: That's probably been the harder, or at least as hard, going through my own grief is watching your children go through this, and you're helpless. I mean watching, oh, that, that was really - you know, I felt like I was going through double, just watching the torture my children were going through.

HANSEN: In addition to his mother and father, Rick left a sister, two brothers, a niece and a nephew behind. The weekend Rick died, more than 150 people came by the house to pay their respects and bring necessities - food, chairs, ice, sodas. Most of the people the James family had never met.

Ms. JAMES: For months I don't think I could go anywhere without a hug from somebody. You know, you'd see somebody in Wal-Mart, just everywhere you went, like the bank. I mean, people would come out around the bank and just hug me, you know. You know, just if they see me walk in, they would just come from their post and just walk up and hug me.

HANSEN: At the beginning of the war in 2003, a local Army ranger, Ryan Long, lost his life. Just one week before Rick James died the town of Seaford had lost another solider, 21-year-old Marine Cory Palmer. He was killed when the Humvee he was riding in was hit by an IED. It was the third war casualty for the town. Everywhere in town, signs popped up in front of local businesses offering their prayers and thoughts to the families of the dead. At the Applebee's restaurant in Seaford, there is now a permanent memorial for the fallen. Rob Joseph is the general manager.

Mr. ROB JOSEPH (General Manager, Applebee's): I was out walking the restaurant one day, talking to the guests, and the guests asked me, you know, have you ever thought about hanging pictures of the last three young men who were killed over in the wars. And I said, you know, that's a great idea. And we created our own hometown wall of heroes.

HANSEN: Although the display is near the back of the restaurant, you can see it from the front door. It takes up most of the wall. On the right, there's a vertical line of official photographs of the men looking very serious in their full dress uniforms. On the left, the photographs are informal, more personal, and the faces look relaxed. Between the photographs, poems and personal reflections written by friends and family are beautifully framed. Everyone who passes by stops, even for just a second, to look at it. Dolores Slatcher is the city manager of Seaford. She says despite the loss of its young soldiers, the town remains extremely supportive of the war and the president.

Ms. DOLORES SLATCHER (City Manager, Seaford): They may not like everything that is going on, but they still, you know, it's God, country, flag. It's still the basis of this community that they are going to stand up for those symbols and support the decision that's made.

HANSEN: And the loss of three of its sons hasn't changed any of that opinion.

Ms. SLATCHER: Not from what I see, you know, and not from what anybody has said to us as a city.

HANSEN: Seaford's mayor, Edward Butler, Jr., says he thinks Ryan, Cory and Rick's deaths have left a hole in the fabric of the town.

Mayor EDWARD BUTLER, JR. (Seaford, Delaware): You read about the war, and you hear it on TV, and it doesn't really bring it home until you're touched by it, and Seaford has really supported the war, and it makes you proud that we did have three to give their lives for a good cause.

HANSEN: Carol James is a woman of faith and firmly believes her son died for a reason. She doesn't watch the news anymore and just concentrates on getting through the day, one day at a time, and almost every day she has to drive by the veterans memorial.

Ms. CAROL JAMES (Mother of Iraq War Casualty): For months it was very hard; I couldn't look at it. I mean, even probably a month ago - I've been out of work a few weeks, so it's been at least a month. But I know one day coming home, I said, I'm going to look there because you can see - you can read the name from the road, it's so big. I said, I'm going to read his name today.

HANSEN: In the history of American wars, small towns have always borne the brunt of loss. Bedford, Virginia lost 19 in the first hour of the Normandy landing in World War II. During the Vietnam War, five young men from Bardstown, Kentucky died in one night when their fire base was overrun. Seaford is a small town in a small state. Delaware has 644 men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, the death toll stands at 15.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: To see the photograph of Rick James that brought his mother closure, visit npr.org. Our Seaford story was produced by Jesse Baker and recorded by R.J. Hutchens(ph).

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