Relatives, friends unfurl 42-foot U.S. flag in Marine's Phoenix yard for video salute WAR IN THE GULF

March 10, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

The idea came to Michael Wirtanen out of the blue.

Flying over his cousin's home in northern Baltimore County on a pleasure trip six weeks ago, he imagined photographing llTC massive flag spread upon the yard as a postcard salute for the cousin, Robert Wirtanen Jr., who is serving with a Marine Reserve infantry unit in the Persian Gulf.

Yesterday the dream became reality, as family and friends of the 100 men serving in Bravo Company, 4th Light Armored Infantry Battalion, gathered at the home in Phoenix to unfurl a 42-foot star-spangled banner on loan from Fort McHenry as a circling helicopter captured the event on film to send to the gulf.

"I think it's a wonderful way to tell them how much we care about them and how much we miss them," said Glena Wirtanen, Robert's mother, who was host to nearly 100 supporters of the Marine unit in a combination photo session, support group gathering and family picnic.

Yellow balloons flew everywhere and the mood was decidedly upbeat. Two days earlier, they had learned from the Marines that the unit could begin returning to the United States around the first week of April.

"We're already talking homecoming plans, a big party and maybe a Fourth of July parade," said Donna Tilley of Frederick, the "head mom" and telephone-tree coordinator for the families of the Bravo Company reservists.

"Someone asked me if I was happy when the cease-fire came and I said that I'd be happy when they were out of Kuwait and ecstatic when they are finally home," said Mrs. Tilley, whose son, Mark, is a lance corporal.

The Frederick-based armored vehicle group, whose members come from five states, is one of the few reserve units that saw front-line combat during the conflict.

Since January, they have been making reconnaissance missions into Kuwait, seeking out snipers and taking Iraqi prisoners, their families said.

The action was not without casualties. Four men sustained injuries in the war and last week came word of the first fatality: Lance Cpl. James M. Lang of Oxon Hill was killed while handling an enemy grenade that exploded.

The Lang family was absent yesterday, but the Rev. Neil Wirtanen -- another cousin of Robert Wirtanen -- led the gathering in a silent meditation for the young man and his family and prayed to "hasten the day of reunion for all."

The reserve unit, based at Fort Detrick, was activated Nov. 19 and left for Saudi Arabia Dec. 27.

Family members recalled how they had visited the men at Camp Lejeune, N.C., during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Then the separation became more painful.

"He wanted to go, he was ready to do the job, a gung-ho Marine," Terry Roach said of her husband, Staff Sgt. Shaun Roach. He had served with the Marines in Beirut, Lebanon, and works as a policeman in the District of Columbia, so he was aware of the dangers involved, she added.

Caring for their two small daughters and working for a veterinarian has helped to keep her mind off the worries, said Mrs. Roach of Luray, Va. The unit's support group meetings "have also helped me a whole lot, knowing that I'm not alone in this."

Diana Sudbrink, of Chase, admitted to feeling moody, scared and depressed at times, but has drawn strength from the other families. Her two daughters were also worried.

"The kids were afraid that Daddy wouldn't be coming back," she said, and the television news report of Corporal Lang's death frightened one child into believing her father, Sgt. Michael Sudbrink, had been killed.

"We're just happy that they're coming back and I hope it's before [daughter] Shannon's birthday in April," Mrs. Sudbrink said.

While the Bravo Company families prepared their video greeting to send to the Middle East, they got to see a report on the unit in a short news video that aired recently on a Washington television station.

"We wanted to do something different to show them that we support their mission," said Michael Wirtanen. "This was special for us and I'm sure for them."

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