Cover Story

Lives of service

The sacrifices military members and their families make in fighting the war on terror cut deeper than many Americans realize

Issue: "Paying the price," Feb. 9, 2002

in San Diego-On a small square of emerald grass outside the base chapel at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, seven Marines with seven rifles stand shoulder to shoulder. Their commander, an honor sergeant holding a glistening saber, stands a step away at attention. The rifle-bearers grip their M-16s at parade rest, peering grimly forward under black-brimmed white hats. For an hour, they stand arrow-straight, steel-jawed, white-gloved, and stock-still-save the wind-ruffled coattails of their crisp, dark tunics. On a signal from inside the chapel, the honor sergeant raises his saber, barks a command, and the seven rifle-bearers snap to attention. "Port ARMS!" Seven snap a right face, and raise their rifles belt-high, muzzles up at 45 degrees. "Ready!" Rifles shouldered in firing position, muzzles angled skyward. "Aim ... fire!" The air cracks as with a single shot; rifles snap to port arms. "Ready! Aim ... fire!" Crack! "Ready! Aim ... fire!" Crack! Inside the chapel, a lone bugler blows the mournful strains of "Taps." Outside, the rifle-bearers hold their guns before them in a silent salute. It is the second time in two weeks this same rifle detail has rendered honors for fallen comrades. On Jan. 17, they saluted the aircrew of Raider 04, the C-130 that smashed into a Pakistani mountainside in early January. This day, they honor two Marines who perished on Jan. 20, when their CH-53 helicopter fell from the sky over Afghanistan. Since Sept. 11, many Americans are according more honor to a group they might previously have taken for granted: U.S. military service members. Flag-waving crowds cheer soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines at football stadiums and parades, and even in celebrity-studded television ads. President Bush, in his State of the Union address, called attention to the widow of Micheal Spann, the CIA operative and former Marine killed in Afghanistan putting down a prisoner rebellion. To Shannon Spann, seated in the VIP box during the speech, Mr. Bush said, "Shannon, I assure you and all who have lost a loved one that our cause is just and our country will never forget the debt we owe Micheal and all who gave their lives for freedom." But even with this fresh and genuine respect, the sacrifices service members and their families make to secure our liberty cut deeper than many realize. In addition to Mr. Spann, 18 service members have given the ultimate sacrifice: their lives in the war on terrorism. Seven died in the Raider 04 crash; all volunteered for the mission. When the children of Raider 04 commander Capt. Matt Bancroft asked him why before he departed, he answered that it was their rights he'd sworn to defend. It wasn't the first time Mr. Bancroft had risked his life for his country. During the late 1990s, missions in the Middle East required him to steer his 30-year-old workhorse cargo plane smack down the center of a skinny navigational corridor bisecting the Red Sea. The missions, called "due regard" flights, were international lightning rods, said his friend and fellow pilot Capt. Kent Kroeker: Were Mr. Bancroft to deviate even slightly from his flight path, "unfriendlies on either side of the water had license to blow him out of the sky." Capts. Bancroft and Kroeker regularly served together in sweaty, austere conditions. In 1998, the countries of Ethiopia and Eritrea were locked in one of those messy Third World wars Americans don't hear much about. With zero fanfare, the captains packed out for an "NEO," or Noncombatant Evacuation Operation-a common mission in which Marines swoop in to evacuate American citizens from foreign danger zones. At a base of operations in Mombassa, "we had 16 guys living in one room, sleeping under mosquito nets, and eating malaria pills and MREs," Mr. Kroeker remembered. "If you didn't sleep under the nets, the mosquitoes were so bad you'd wake up with bites covering your whole body." MREs are meals ready to eat, the shrink-wrapped, freeze-dried, dehydrated meals military members enjoy in the field. A Marine Corps guard force of 150 infantry quartered nearby also dined on MREs and malaria pills, a combination that shriveled their skin and wreaked digestive havoc. And despite the medication, 14 guys contracted malaria anyway. Funny, though, Mr. Kroeker said, "the guys who went on that mission remember it fondly because the people were so good, people like Matt Bancroft. He laughed all the time," Mr. Kroeker remembered, "and he loved to play practical jokes." Like the time he and a band of pranksters invented the "Kuwaiti Gray," a "lethal" snake that, according to the conspirators' freshly hatched legend, slithered by night into the beds of its victims to deliver deadly venom. Mr. Bancroft and company constructed a Kuwaiti Gray from a length of rubber, using the tines of a plastic fork for fangs, then coiled their creation under the cot pillow of a ophidiophobic squadron flight surgeon. When the flight surgeon met the fake snake, "he squealed like a little girl," Mr. Kroeker laughed. "We all fell around the place cracking up." "Those are good memories," Mr. Kroeker said. "Sometimes, there's so much pressure on missions, so much discomfort. But adversity brings out the best in the best people. I wouldn't trade having done any of it." Still, such Band of Brothers bonding sometimes comes at a price. Participants in the Ethiopia-Eritrea NEO had prepared for a two-week mission. But they wound up sweating out three months in their sweltering African camp. Some of the Marines-particularly unmarried ones-had no way to pay bills and mortgages, and no way to reach or mollify creditors. Cars were repossessed, utilities shut off, credit records ruined, Mr. Kroeker said. Financial stresses are common to about 90 percent of the counseling clients who visit Marine Corps Family Services at Miramar, reports Tim Stanton, who heads the base's Family Advocacy program. Like their civilian counterparts, service members often suffer self-inflicted financial troubles, Mr. Stanton said, stemming from poor management skills or overextension of credit. But he estimates that about half the financial struggles junior military families face spring from low-paid enlisted members being ordered to high-cost areas. In San Diego, for example, a married corporal earning about $2,200 a month after taxes will pay nearly half his salary for a low-end two-bedroom apartment. Meanwhile, the waiting list for rent-free military housing can stretch into years. Other troubles facing military families: Protracted and repeated family separation. Babies conceived while Dad's at home, but born while he's overseas. Missed first words, first steps, first Little League at-bats. An empty seat at birthdays, holidays, graduations. Children suffer most when Dad-or increasingly, Mom-"ships out," military spouses say. But spouses, who become instant single parents when service members deploy, struggle too. Paula Castera's two children sometimes "act out" at school during their Air Force dad's frequent deployments. Mrs. Castera, 36, said her kids also sense her own stress when "I'm not as patient as I could be." Then there are the logistical Catch-22s: Last year, Mrs. Castera once had to choose between staying home with her 8-year-old son when he had strep throat, or showing up at the San Antonio dental hygiene school whose program she'd nearly completed. "I had a limit on absences and couldn't miss any more classes. But at the same time, I needed to be with my son," she said. In the end, she was able to place her son with a neighbor-who also happened to be a friend dear enough to risk strep herself. Friends like that are hard to make and keep, Mrs. Castera said, since military families have to haul stakes and move across the country-or the world-as often as every 18 months. Not that she's complaining: The Air Force has sent her family as far afield as Panama; Mrs. Castera enjoys the travel and security of military life. Army Special Forces Sgt. Nathan Chapman, 31, had traveled, too, but to even less hospitable places. Mr. Chapman, the first U.S. military service member killed by enemy fire, died Jan. 4 in an ambush in the Khost region near the Pakistan border. "Nate had been places in the world where he saw women and children being beaten with sticks, simply for walking down the street," said his wife Renae from the couple's home in Ft. Lewis, Wash. "He wanted to stop that. He wanted to prevent that from coming here." Mr. Chapman understood the risks. His wife remembers when he volunteered for the mission in Afghanistan. "He said he could call it off if I said. I asked him if it was important. He said, 'Yes, it is to me, I have to go.'" "Well, that's OK, you'll be OK," Mrs. Chapman replied. "You'll come home." But Mr. Chapman told his wife he wasn't that certain. Before he left, he bought her a gold heart. "We broke the heart in half," Mrs. Chapman said. "He kept one piece and I the other." After Afghan fighters ambushed Mr. Chapman, killing him and wounding a CIA agent, Army family support services rallied around Mrs. Chapman and the couple's small children. His death also turned many younger soldiers suddenly serious about their families-and about God. "Many of the soldiers now have a renewed sense of urgency in making things right with God," said Michael T. Klein, a chaplain with the 25th Infantry Division at Ft. Lewis. "Most of the soldiers I counsel have a heightened sensitivity to spiritual issues and are more likely to seek God's intervention in problems they face." Navy wife Shannon Lazar sought God's intervention when her husband flew some of the first combat missions in Afghanistan. After terrorists leveled the World Trade Center on 9/11, her husband, Lt. Cmdr. Dennis Lazar, became one of the first American pilots to fly attack missions against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets last October. Mr. and Mrs. Lazar, who attend Great Bridge Presbyterian in Chesapeake, Va., both said they relied on their faith during his combat deployment. "Once I woke up in the middle of the night with this tense, gripping feeling of fear," Mrs. Lazar remembered. "After I was awake I realized, 'It's OK, it's just a dream: Denny's not here, but I can reach out to the Lord and ask for comfort, guidance, and peace.'" Meanwhile, Mr. Lazar, his F-18 Hornet streaking over the North Arabian Sea at 30,000 feet, asked God for similar graces. For Navy pilots launching off aircraft carriers, current targets in the war on terror are 600 to 800 miles away. Mr. Lazar remembers navigating vast stretches of star-spangled darkness, one ear tuned to the faint radio chatter of Air Force AWACS, reflecting on where God had placed him. "There's a lot of quiet time.... It's kind of serene in a surreal type of way, because you're going to war. You know you're going to go attack this target, but you're still a couple of hours away and nothing's happening yet." In those quiet moments, Mr. Lazar said, "I just talked to God." He prayed, he said, that God's will would be done, that the Lord would keep him safe and-if he didn't make it back-take care of his wife and two sons. He laughed about his prayer not to mess up: "It's the other guys who work on the airplane, getting it ready, who ... carry the ball the other 90 yards. You don't want to be the guy that carries it the last 10 yards, then fumbles at the goal line." One night last October, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise dispatched Mr. Lazar-callsign "Laser"-and his wingman, Lt. "Pogie" Alden, with an American gift for the Taliban: A pair of 2000-pound satellite-guided fragmentation bombs. Nearing their target, an airfield in Kabul, the Hornets cut their exterior lights and flew "dark-horse" through the night sky high over the city. It looked peaceful down there, Mr. Lazar remembers. From the perspective of enemy resistance, the pilots agreed it would probably be a quiet night. At the appointed attack time, Mr. Lazar released his bomb. Moments later, green light flooded his cockpit as a silent flash bloomed up from the ground far below. "Good hit, good hit," he radioed Pogie. "Good hit from two," Pogie replied, reporting his own dead-on strike. The tandem came off-target in a climbing left-hand turn. "We were looking down over our wings at the fires burning from our bombs," recalled Mr. Lazar, "when all of a sudden the whole place lit up underneath us." Taliban fighters peppered the sky with anti-aircraft artillery fire, but too low to pose much danger. Then: "SAM launch!" Pogie barked. At least eight surface-to-air missiles needled up through the sky, sniffing for jet-engine heat. Thirty thousand feet should have been well above SAM range. But the enemy had gotten smart, launching their missiles from the mountains to gain range. Suddenly, the aerial sanctuary the Hornet pilots had thought they had disappeared. They accelerated, still climbing, but avoided premature evasive action that would attract the heat-seeking weapons. It seemed an eternity, Mr. Lazar says, before the first missile blew up. "Watching these little fingers of light, all pointed at you, reaching their way up toward you was the longest wait," Mr. Lazar now says. When the first missile burst at its apex, the shower of fireworks was still well below the Hornets. Mr. Lazar now sees God at work that night: Had he and Pogie carried laser-guided weapons as they often did, they might have attacked from lower altitudes and fallen into the Taliban's upgraded SAM envelope. Instead, the SAMs exploded short of their prey and the Hornets escaped. Eighteen service members have not escaped with their lives since the war began four months ago. More than half died in air mishaps, including the single largest loss of life when Marine Corps C-130 Raider 04 crashed into the Pakistan mountains. But as American military deaths mount, so does American military resolve. The Raider 04 crash makes surviving squadron members "want to go and fly missions even more," Capt. Kent Kroeker said: "We're not afraid. If anything, this just spurs us on."

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