Families across nation struggle with war losses

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 23, 2003

They were from every corner of America, these young men, and from every corner of America they are now being mourned.

A helicopter pilot who dreamed of flying the president on Marine One; a dean's list student whose family joked that he was so wedded to the Marines and his surfboard he didn't have time to find a wife; a father of two young children; a man whose great escape was fishing with his 10-year-old son.

They perished on the battlefield in the service of their country, fighters, who might have remained anonymous but for their deaths in the desert dust. They are among the first casualties of war.

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In the tiny town of St. Anne, Ill., it seemed that all 1,300 residents flocked to a Friday memorial Mass for Capt. Ryan Beaupre, remembered for his unruly red hair and easy smile, and for the generous way he surrendered his turn on the phone lines in Kuwait to others who had wives and children. They needed the contact more, he reasoned, and so he wrote letters home instead.

That is the way the 30-year-old Beaupre is being eulogized: the kind of guy who always did the right thing, in the nicest possible way.

And so they held a Mass in his honor. And they joked about his love of surfing, and flying. And they tried not to visualize his CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter as it crashed nine miles from the Iraqi border, killing Beaupre and his fellow crew members.

Instead they lowered flags in his honor and reminisced about him at the local coffee shop. And they talked of how it brought the war home.

''I can't believe that out of 300,000 people over there, it would be someone local,'' said Jim Sprimont, a neighbor.

The same was being said of other local heroes in other hometowns around the country.

Maj. Jay Thomas Aubin of Waterville, Maine. Cpl. Brian Matthew Kennedy of Houston. Staff Sgt. Kendall Damon Waters-Bey of Baltimore. They died with Beaupre and eight British Marines as their helicopter crashed, apparently due to an accident.

The crash occurred as allied Army and Marine units surged across the Kuwaiti border into southern Iraq on Thursday and Friday, working at first to secure the region's oil wells.

Their deaths were followed, hours later, by the news that two more Marines, members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, had been lost in ground combat: 2nd Lt. Therrel S. Childers of Mississippi and Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez of Los Angeles.

The message of death came to families in all sorts of ways -- in the sight of a government car pulling into a drive, in a phone call or even a premonition.

In Winslow, Maine, Nancy Chamberlain felt a sense of foreboding Thursday night watching television reports that a chopper had gone down. She thought of her 36-year-old son, Jay, who fell in love with flying as a small boy, who joined the Marines and went to college purely to become a pilot. He was bursting with pride when told he was in line to fly the presidential helicopter, when he returned to his Yuma, Ariz., base.

Watching the relentless television images, Chamberlain said, ''We just knew.''

Chamberlain got the official word on Friday morning when Marines showed up at her door.

Now she struggles with trying to find the right words to describe her son, and to preserve his memory for his two children, Alicia, 10, and Nathan. 7, who live in Yuma with their mother, Rhonda, a former Marine.

''He went with bells on,'' his mother said. ''He's a Corps man through and through.''

They were all true Corps men, these first fallen warriors -- young, proud, sure of their mission. Their families draw strength from that.

And they draw strength from the accolades that pour in from the highest level.

The president offered his condolences. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, ''The world will be a safer place because of their dedicated service.''

Even some families offered patriotic statements about the meaning of their loved ones' deaths.

''He gave his life in an effort to contribute to the freedom of the Iraqi people,'' Mark Kennedy of Houston wrote in a statement about his 25-year-old son, Brian. ''We are so very proud of him and his service to his country.''

But sitting at home, staring at a photograph of his handsome, athletic son in his Marine dress uniform, reminiscing about Brian's love of football and lacrosse, patriotism and pride seems overwhelmed by a father's pain.

''We just miss him terribly already,'' the father said. ''He was a wonderful man.''

In Baltimore another father mourned another son, smiling through tears at how much 29-year-old Kendall Waters-Bey loved barbecued ribs -- and fishing with his 10-year-old son, Kenneth.

But for this father, anger mixed with pain. Michael Waters-Bey believes his son, a staff sergeant specialist in helicopter maintenance, died needlessly in a war that does not make sense.

Holding up a photograph of his son, Michael Waters-Bey, who described himself as a ''naturalized Muslim,'' said he wished he could speak directly to the dead Marine's commander-in-chief.

Asked what he would tell President Bush, he said: ''This was not your son or daughter. That chair he sat in at Thanksgiving will be empty forever.''

Little Kenneth had a less complicated sense of loss.

''I'm feeling sad now because my father is gone and I won't see him again,'' the fifth-grader said.