Gulf deaths already hurting families War has not begun, but casualties have

December 24, 1990|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

CHICAGO -- Bill Hurley was forever exasperated that his mother worried about him flying the big Huey helicopters for the Marine Corps.

"Oh, Mom, don't worry until you see two Marines at the door," he gently scolded her.

The two Marines came to her door.

"As soon as I saw them, I knew he was dead," said Dorothy Hurley.

Capt. William J. Hurley, 27, was presumed dead in the Arabian Sea Oct. 8 while flying his Huey helicopter in exercises for Operation Desert Shield. On that day, 10 names were added to the growing list of servicemen who have died in accidents or from natural causes in the Persian Gulf buildup -- a list that swelled dramatically Saturday when a ferry carrying U.S. sailors on shore leave sank off the coast of Israel.

The Pentagon notes that accidents happen in peacetime, too, that, regardless of the Persian Gulf buildup, helicopters crash, and soldiers die in various ways all the time. That is little consolation to the Hurleys.

"They talk about numbers, and talk about how we haven't gone into combat yet. The fact is people over there are real and are dying, without any reason I can see," Mrs. Hurley said. Regardless of the cause, her son is gone: "It's really the end for us."

Captain Hurley's aircraft was on a training flight at night with another UH-1N Huey helicopter from their base ship, the USS Okinawa. Something went wrong. At 5:13 a.m. both helicopters vanished from the radar screen. It apparently was an accident, says the Marine Corps, though the investigation is continuing.

It was a waste of lives, said the Hurley family.

"Of course I feel he died needlessly," said Mrs. Hurley. "The boys that have died so far are not even in a war. It's like a drive-by shooting. Is there any sense in that?"

"We hate to see young people like our son be wasted because we have a misguided domestic policy on fuel," added William E. Hurley, her husband. "Our men and women should not be involved in this, should not be over there."

*

"I ordered Christmas presents for you, Mom and Dad, this week from catalogs," Captain Hurley wrote Oct. 7, the day before he died. "If boxes come from Land's End or AAFES Catalog Sales, they are not to be opened until Christmas. OK?"

*

He grew up in a large and lively family in Beverly, a white-collar, Irish-Catholic enclave on the south side of Chicago. He was a good student, a smart kid, people said. Got along with everybody. His father worked for food-service companies, and his mother was a bookkeeper. But with five brothers and sisters, Bill Hurley figured he ought to earn his way through college. He applied for and won a full scholarship in the Reserve Officers Training Corps at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

His friends still debate why he chose that route to finance college. Bill did not seem to them the military type, certainly not a gung-ho Marine.

"He belied the stereotype," said Martin D. Kelly, a friend. "He read tons and tons, from philosophy to Stephen King. He majored in English." Said David Collins, another in a trio of childhood friends who remained close to Bill: "He was a 'thinking man's Marine.' If someone ordered him to run through a brick wall, he wouldn't just do it without thinking."

But there was a streak of patriotism. He opted to enroll in Marine flight training, which added two years to his four-year enlistment.

"I asked him, 'Why the Marines?' " recalled his father. "He said, 'Pop, I felt my country has been good to me, and I owe something to my country.' "

He loved to fly, said his friends and family. He did not grouse much about the strains of military life. In 1987 he married a woman he met while stationed in Pensacola, Fla. The union did not last. They separated early this year, and their divorce was pending. Friends say the breakup was a blow to Captain Hurley, and he seemed ready to leave the Marines next December, when his enlistment was scheduled to end.

"I think he wanted to come home and be near friends and family for a while," said Ken Hohl, a school friend who visited him last April.

In June, he left on the amphibious assault ship USS Okinawa for what was expected to be a routine six-month cruise. On board, he was awarded his captain's bars. A snapshot taken by a buddy reveals the new captain's delighted grin. Shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Okinawa's return was canceled, and she was ordered to the Gulf.

* "The other day we were discussing things uniquely Chicago, like hot-dogs-with-everything, pizza, Old Style beer," Captain Hurley mused in his letter to his parents Oct. 7. "I wonder if you could lay your hands on some Maurice Lenell cookies?"

To Ken Hohl, he wrote on Sept. 21: "We're just kind of waiting around for something to happen. . . . The whole thing brings out a mixture of fear and a perverse anticipation of actual battle. It is, after all, what we spend every damned day preparing for. But then again, I'm not in a hurry to sacrifice my life for the right to drive a gasoline-powered car."

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