The News From Iraq Hits Hard at Home
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 14, 2005; A13
COLUMBUS, Ohio, May 13 -- When the doorbell rang as they were fixing dinner, Jody Davids looked at her husband and knew. Only strangers used the front door. Everyone else went around to the back. She spotted three
U.S. Marines in dress uniforms and felt the heartbreaking flash of intuition turning into immutable fact.
"If they're wounded, they call. If they're dead, they come to the door," Davids said Friday. "That changed our lives forever, one ring of the doorbell."
Davids is the mother of Lance Cpl. Wesley G. Davids, a Marine from Lima Company killed by a roadside bomb in
Iraq on Wednesday, his 20th birthday. Other Marine delegations went to other front doors, while Chief Warrant Officer Orrin Bowman and colleagues telephoned 13 families to say their Marines had been hurt.
The Columbus-based Marine Reserve unit took two hard jolts this week during an offensive against insurgents near the Syrian border. Last Sunday, it was a firefight; on Wednesday, it was a bomb detonating beneath a crowded troop carrier. One squad from the 1st Platoon lost every member to death or injury, according to officers at the scene.
Home is where the news hits and the caskets come. It is where the mother of one Lima Company Marine wrote in an e-mail to another that her son had called from Iraq at 3 a.m. after the twin calamities: "He was crying and said 'It sucks over here' and that he was scared. (This is so out of character for him.)"
It is where another mother wrote, "I just heard on the news that Lima Company lost six Marines yesterday. Is this true? I can't stop crying. . . . What are they talking about? Please let me know what is happening."
The young warriors come from Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois. They are "white-collar, blue-collar, no collar. We have college students. We have roughneck construction guys. We have business guys who have committed themselves to the Corps," said former Marine Ken Hiltz. Among them is the son of Mayor Michael B. Coleman. A patchwork of relatives, friends and colleagues has spent the week trying to reassure one another even as they have struggled to hold themselves together.
Those who lost a son are seeking meaning.
"This mission Lima Co. has been assigned is just and is one this nation must have the guts to stand up and fight for, regardless of the cost," wrote Robert H. Derga Jr., whose 24-year-old son, Cpl. Dustin A. Derga, died in the fighting last weekend. "Our combined sacrifice will make Dustin's ultimate sacrifice have real meaning. Anything less and he died in vain."
The recipient of the e-mails was Isolde Zierk, mother of platoon Sgt. Guy Zierk and leader of the Marine-sponsored band of civilian volunteers trying to keep things stitched together. Before the 150 Marines shipped out in January, her primary role was organizing the annual picnic. When she arrived home on Thursday night after a meeting at Lima Company headquarters, 29 e-mails and a dozen phone messages awaited.
Before she could change clothes, the phone rang. One call blended into another, as relatives of Marines called to question and commiserate. Isolde Zierk stayed up until 1 a.m., listening and offering what solace she could. At 8 a.m., she was back in action at a meeting of a crisis team dispatched by higher-ups at the 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment.
"Go ahead and cry," Zierk said into the phone at one point, standing in the kitchen of her clapboard rambler, the one with the Marine Corps flag flying from the front porch. She asked if the caller had a friend nearby. "Sometimes it helps if you have a shoulder. You can just cry and it comforts you."
A wooden sign in the shape of Iraq is planted in her front yard. Hewn by her son and decorated by her, it says, "We love Sgt. Zierk and Lima Co. and pray for their safe return. Semper Fi."
Isolde Zierk's ambition had been to shepherd the families and girlfriends through a long deployment and see all the men come home alive. When she heard of Derga's death, the company's first, she went into the bathroom of her employer's computer firm and pounded the wall.
"The first was the hardest. It is a reality of war now," Zierk said.
The unexpected battle in Ubaydi that killed Cpl. Derga and a Marine from another company also left at least five wounded. It began last Sunday as the Marines fought their way through town, turning up caches of bombs, guns and ammunition about 15 miles east of the Syrian border. In the last house they intended to search, fighters ambushed them from the crawl space beneath the floor.
One Marine was killed during an assault staged to retrieve the body of the first Marine who fell.
"They came here to die," Gunnery Sgt. Chuck Hurley, referring to the insurgents, told a Washington Post reporter embedded with the unit. "They were willing to stay in place and die with no hope. All they wanted was to take us with them."
Barely two days later, the same battered and weary squad from Lima Company's 1st Platoon was packed into an Amtrac troop carrier when it rolled over a roadside bomb. The truck went up in flames when the bomb detonated, sparking a fireworks of ammunition. Four more Marines died, all but one from Lima Company, and about 10 were wounded, some severely.
With embedded reporters transmitting details -- The Post ran two front-page articles; ex-Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North was working for Fox News nearby -- the home front was soon abuzz with news and rumors. Families feared the knock and the phone call. They tried to remember what they had been told, that no news usually means good news.
"We're horrified to read it, but we can't stop reading it. It's hard not to panic," said the wife of a Lima Company sergeant and volunteer group member who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I find peace on different days in different ways. It's gut-wrenching. It's heart-pounding. But you're also very proud."
Pride in their Marine men and respect for their choices are common threads. Although Lima Company is a reserve unit, everyone seemed to know that the military is stretched thin, with the reserves and the National Guard bearing a large share of the burden and the casualties.
Wesley Davids sounded buoyant when he last spoke with his mother from Iraq. It reminded her of his passion for rowing, for which he sat in the powerhouse seven seat for the Dublin Crew, a local club.
"That defined Wesley in the boat and it defined him as a Marine. He wanted the camaraderie, the team spirit, being part of something bigger than he was. He talked about that," Jody Davids said. During that last phone call, she was surprised by his enthusiasm. She said, "Wes, you sound really great. Are you having a good time?"
"I'm having a great time," he replied. "I love the guys I'm serving with. I love what I'm doing. We're really well-trained. The mission is worth it."
Davids said her son "was a winner in everything he did. Unfortunately, not in this situation. We've had a lot of friends over to the house. They're telling us great stories about Wes. In a strange way, we're getting to know him."
Robert Derga spoke about his own son's passion for life. Dustin Derga's latest plans had been to take the savings from his active-duty assignment, buy a new Dodge pickup and join friends in running a bar. His girlfriend had sent him a computer disc full of vacation plans. Disney World in October.
Robert Derga and Dustin's mother divorced in 1998. At 10 p.m. last Sunday, Marines simultaneously appeared at their doors.
"The doorbell rang. I ran to the door. I saw through the light panel two Marine officers. I knew immediately then what had happened," Derga said. The Marines came and went, leaving him to grieve and remember.
"He was a great pitcher and could play just about any position. Loved to play catcher, which was unusual. I remember all the weekends we would go out to the ball diamonds and watch him play ball. Really enjoyed that. He loved working with his hands. He just loved doing things and getting his elbows dirty."