Trae's Town

As war hits home in Mardela Springs, a tight-knit community shows its true colors.

February 17, 2002|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

In January, a faraway war in Afghanistan came home to Mardela Springs.

The death of Trae Cohee rippled down Main Street and shook the place to its core.

But in grieving and remembering and comforting each other, the people of Mardela Springs learned something about themselves.

The boy they raised had dedicated himself completely and wholly to values they held dear.

He had become a man.

He had become a Marine.

He had served them with honor.

To a traveler barreling down Highway 50 on the way to Ocean City, Mardela Springs looks like nothing but a stoplight and a produce stand. Wander off the highway, turn right at the light, slip down Main Street - you'll find nothing too boastful or clever about a place named for two states and an abundance of groundwater. There's no grocery, no hardware store, not even a gas station. Bridge Street is where the bridge is. Church Street is where the church was. Drive down Railroad Street, pass School Street, stop at the sign for Imaginary Lane, where there is no street at all. You can say you've seen Mardela, population 360.

But to visit the fire station, on Station Street, especially on a Saturday night when the town holds a regular fund-raiser with bingo or an oyster roast or chicken 'n' dumpling dinners, is to enter the heart of a fervent place. In the big bays where firefighters set their boots, farmers labor alongside housewives, neighbors meet neighbors and the most eccentric butt up against the most down-to-earth. For years, people in Mardela have worked to maintain a family-oriented town with grade-A American values and moderate aspirations. The town may look like a dull crossroads, but people around here boast that they have a kind of Shangri-la, self-sufficient, hardy and resilient to the core.

Which is why on Saturday night, Jan. 19, even with a son plunged into a shadowy war in Afghanistan, Walt and Jeanne Cohee would think nothing of leaving their cozy blue bungalow on Main Street to work at the annual Pig Roast and Casino Night at the town's Volunteer Fire Department. As long as people like the Cohees made an appearance, despite the obvious strain, it could be said that all must be right in the world of Mardela Springs.

The Cohees often had some critical role to play in town. Their older son, Kris, drove the department's ambulance. Dad commanded a firetruck. Mom cut hair and once served on the town council. They were an indispensable part of a lively civic life. Of course, the fact is, in a little place like this, everyone is indispensable.

Naturally, friends asked about 26-year-old Trae - Staff Sgt. Walter F. Cohee III - who had shipped out to Afghanistan in November with a Marine Corps helicopter crew. His precise whereabouts remained a secret, and the family did not expect to hear from him for a while. Although his "Flying Tigers" squadron would be delivering supplies, not gearing up for combat, it did sometimes seem like he had disappeared into hell itself. Trae had begged them not to worry. Even if he was not in direct contact, he said, "If you want to see me, keep your eyes on CNN."

The best a parent could do was just that - stay tuned, and go about life as usual.

By 10 o'clock, Jeanne had finished stamping hands at the firehouse door, and Walt settled into dealing blackjack. They had a good night ahead.

About that time, a world away, a Marine Corps CH-53E helicopter cruising over the snow-covered Bandi Ghazi region of Afghanistan radioed for help. It had mechanical trouble. Nearby residents later told reporters they watched two helicopters, one flying "strangely," disappear over the mountains. Then, an explosion.

The next morning, a few uniformed Marines arrived in Mardela and found their way to the blue house on Main Street. Jeanne saw them coming from her kitchen window. Within hours, nearly everybody in Mardela felt the same sickening wrench.

When tragedy struck, it surprised no one that the Cohee family went into shock. Walt got sick and someone had to call an ambulance; Jeanne knelt on the floor and asked the chaplain to tell God to give her strength to cry.

But it was startling how a wave of grief spread over the entire town. From house to house, as news exploded beyond Main Street - reaching an old teacher in Baltimore, getting to a resident on vacation in Nashville, finding a childhood friend waiting for a plane in Philadelphia - it was as if the sure foundation of Mardela Springs cracked.

Around the world people learned of Trae's death on CNN. But what the world would see as an accident in Afghanistan, citizens of Mardela experienced as the darkest, most personal consequence of war. While they searched for ways to help the Cohee family, people kept asking themselves the same question: How could it happen here?

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