Grief grips a hometown in America's heartland

April 23, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

GODFREY, Ill. -- It's the same striped flag Americans display everywhere, except this one is draped in black. It hangs from the eaves in front of the garage of Judy and Jack Orrill, who lost a son in Iraq last week.

Sgt. Michael Robinson, 23 -- Mrs. Orrill's son and Mr. Orrill's stepson -- was a mechanic and gunner aboard one of the two U.S. helicopters shot down by U.S. fighter jets. A fun-loving young man who was Army through and through, he will be buried in a small country cemetery Monday.

The reaction of residents in this town of 16,085 people in America's heartland resonates into living rooms across state lines. Now that the initial shock of the tragic incident has diminished, they struggle to understand why young men and women from communities like theirs continue to die in foreign lands.

Asking why

"We're asking ourselves questions we usually don't sit around and discuss, like: What in the world are we doing over there?" says Pam Whisler, the town clerk who's lived all her 42 years here.

"We've had torrential downpours that caused flooding in local homes. We were without water for 22 days last August when the water plant flooded. Sidewalks and sewers. Those are the kinds of things we're usually concerned with here."

The questions now relate to obscure, oversized issues, hard to grasp, harder to contain.

"Every time there's a problem in the world, we're the front-runner," says George Leone, 47, a resident of Godfrey and sergeant in the county sheriff's department. "I know many countries need help, but I keep wondering when our people are going to enjoy peace and not keep getting involved in every country's problems."

Mrs. Orrill would like to know that, too. Her son, Michael, fought as a paratrooper in Panama and in the Persian Gulf. When he was sent as part of Operation Desert Storm to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, she wrote a letter to President George Bush.

"I didn't see why we had to go over there and protect people who were so different from us," she says, sitting at her dining room table. "All they probably wanted back was their wealth.

"I told Mike what I did, and he threw a fit. He told me that was his commander-in-chief and I shouldn't object to anything he did."

Mr. Orrill listens to his wife, and then says: "I'm basically like Mike. The commander-in-chief, if he makes a decision, I stand behind him whether he's Democrat or Republican. You've got to support your president. You've got to."

As the Orrills prepare to bury their son, they confront the question troubling all Americans: How could two U.S. fighter jets blow up two U.S. helicopters, killing 26 people, including 15 Americans?

The one Maryland resident killed, Spc. Jeffrey Colbert, 22, who grew up in Taneytown and went to high school in Middletown, was buried yesterday.

"It won't bring our son or any of them back," Mr. Orrill says, "but we'd like some answers. If something went wrong, let's admit it ** and then make sure it never happens again. I wouldn't want anybody else to go through what we've gone through."

Sergeant Robinson was married to a 22-year-old woman from North Carolina named Tangela. They had two sons, ages 2 and 3. Mrs. Robinson, who requested privacy, arrived here Thursday from Germany.

The Orrills are well-known in Godfrey, a quiet town across the Missouri and Mississippi rivers from St. Louis. Flat and spread out like a pancake in an iron skillet, it is a civilized place to live for people who work someplace else. Most residents work in nearby Alton, which has twice the population of Godfrey, or drive 30 to 45 minutes to work in St. Louis.

'They are Godfrey'

But not the Orrills.

"They are Godfrey," says Mrs. Whisler, the town clerk. "They established a business here. All their children stayed here."

Mr. Orrill, 53, manages the family-owned Godfrey Bus Lines, a fleet of school and charter buses. He is also one of 29 elected members of the Madison County Board, which governs the county. Mrs. Orrill, 47, has driven one of the family's school buses for 16 years.

She married Mr. Orrill when Michael was 9. She also brought a daughter to the marriage, and Mr. Orrill brought three children. Then they had a son of their own. The eight of them settled into a nice house on a corner lot in Godfrey.

There was a flagpole in the front yard. Mr. Orrill ran a flag up to the top right away. It flapped there in the breeze for years.

When the children played in the yard, Michael always seemed to have the most fun. In high school, his mother says, his best subject was girl-chasing. "There was never a dull moment when he was around," Mrs. Orrill says.

Always impressed by older relatives who had been in the service, he joined the Army after graduating

from Alton High School and became a paratrooper. He served with the 82nd Airborne Division in Panama and the Middle East, and then signed up for four more years. He planned on making the Army his career.

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