Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Mom asks that wrenching war story end

Des Moines Register
Mom asks that wrenching war story end
By John Carlson

Norwalk, Ia. - You'd have to be the mother of a Marine or soldier to have any real idea what's going through Kimberly Downing's head.

She's spent too many months dreading a knock on the door from a military officer bringing the worst possible news. Or a phone call from a sympathetic sergeant telling her of another explosion - and another injury - to another child.

"My family has given enough to this war," said the 44-year-old Norwalk woman. "No more. They can't ask any more of us. I'll do whatever it takes to make sure my son isn't sent back over there again."

You've heard and read the stories of soldiers and Marines. This is a mom's war story.

In 2004, Kimberly's husband, Jeff, a member of the Marine Reserves, and her sons, Ryan and Justen, active-duty Marines, all were in Iraq at the same time.

Jeff, a Des Moines firefighter, made it home from that deployment without injury. Ryan, now 23, was caught in a hellish firefight in Ramadi in April of that year and wasn't so lucky.

"Ryan was shot in the leg," she said. "He still has shrapnel in the arm, neck and shoulder. He had a hearing loss. He recovered as much as he could, I guess. Now he's back over there. And he's been wounded again."

Justen, now 21, was injured by an improvised explosive device attack in that first deployment.

"He said he thought he was dead after that one," Kimberly said. "He was back over there in 2005, and was in a Humvee accident. He had a head injury and was hospitalized for three days."

Then came word Justen has been ordered on a third seven-month deployment to Iraq and is scheduled to leave with his unit early next year.

This woman, who describes herself as a "pissed-off mom," vows to make sure it doesn't happen.

She's just one woman trying to influence a sprawling military bureaucracy to do what she believes is the right thing for her family. The way Kimberly sees it, she has no choice.

"This is something I have to do," she said, sitting on the edge of a couch in the family's comfortable new home south of Norwalk. "I'm not anti-military, and I'm proud of my husband and sons and their service. I'm not political. I'm not going to stand in front of the White House with a sign, screaming at the president. I just know that sending Justen back over there is morally wrong."

She also knows that her sons enlisted together of their own free will, without coercion, in July 2003. Yes, it was over her objections - the truth is, she begged them not to go - but they wouldn't listen. They'd played football and wrestled in school. They had jobs. And the way they saw it, they had a duty.

"They both said, 'Mom, this is something we have to do.' They knew they'd be sent to Iraq, but they were ready to go. They'd been obsessed with the Marine Corps since they were little boys. I thought they'd outgrown it, until that master gunnery sergeant sat in my living room and they signed the papers. A year later, my sons and Jeff were all in Iraq."

Kimberly met Jeff in her native California when Jeff was stationed there as an active-duty Marine. He adopted Ryan and Justen after their marriage 13 years ago. He became a Marine Corps reservist, but left the service when his enlistment ended after returning from Iraq.

"He knew I couldn't deal with three of them in Iraq again," said Kimberly. "... People ask me how I function. Sometimes I don't function. I don't sleep. I don't like to leave the house. Then I think I can't sit here anymore."

Not that she expects most people to understand what it's like, sitting at home with her husband and their 11-year-old daughter, Megan, worrying about her boys.

It may even be worse when she hears the details.

"You want to know what it's like? Here's the report I got last week from a sergeant who called to tell me Ryan had been wounded again and was in a military hospital. His unit was under heavy attack. He was shooting out the top of a Humvee. A tank (American) was behind them. The tank fired a round over the Humvee and he was injured. Two days before that he was shot in the head. The helmet kept it from killing him, but he was knocked out. He's had two head traumas in a week's time. He only got back over there a month ago."

Kimberly talked to Ryan on the phone, and he said he's doing OK.

"He told me, 'Hey, at least I'm talking to you, Mom.' He should be back with his unit now. He already had two Purple Hearts before this last thing. I asked the sergeant who called to tell me Ryan was hurt, 'How many times do you have to get hurt to get out of that place?' He said, 'A lot.' "

The family has no word on when Ryan will be home. He originally was told his unit would do a "quick in and out" stay of a just few weeks. There's talk now it will be an open-ended deployment.

Justen is another matter. He and Ryan are both due for discharge from active duty in July, but his scheduled third deployment is to begin in February. Which would leave him in Iraq until September if he is required to stay for the full tour.

"Justen has been injured twice. He has a Purple Heart. He knows I don't want him to go back. They both know it. ... Look, I don't want them out of the Marines before their enlistment is up. I know I can't get Ryan home, and I don't know what chance I have to keep Justen from going. But I'm not going to stop trying. Every male in this family has been to Iraq. ... How much are we supposed to give for this war?"

She has written to Iowa's Sen. Tom Harkin for help, and a staffer in his office has asked for more information.

Kimberly is hopeful, but she knows the Marine Corps doesn't base its duty assignments on the outrage of a mom in Iowa.

"I'm just a little person saying what I think needs to be said. I'll get down on my knees and beg somebody if that's what it takes. I just want somebody to do the right thing. My family has given way more than it's share."