Those home `can't help but worry'

Death of son's sergeant adds to mother's fears

War in Iraq

April 03, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins and Mary Gail Hare | Jamie Smith Hopkins and Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The Sun is following several families with loved ones in the armed forces. This is one in a series of occasional articles.

It's the little things that offer comfort when you're the mother of a Marine in Iraq, so just knowing that her son was backed up by a seasoned gunnery sergeant made Deb Hooper feel better.

The gunny sarge was killed last week. Hooper's sense of security is shattered.

"They were so close. They worked hand in hand. Randy really admired him," said Hooper, a Westminster resident whose 24-year-old son, 1st Lt. Randy D. Hooper, leads a platoon of about 30 Marines.

Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa, 33, was the voice of experience, a man on whom the young lieutenant relied. "Randy believes in what he is doing, and he believes in his men, but this shows that my son is truly in harm's way," Hooper said yesterday.

Long on worry and short on solid information, military families find solace where they can, knowing all the while that it could be ripped away. Good news - such as the rescue of the 19-year-old POW from West Virginia - can give them a huge boost. Bad news can hit like a punch to the stomach.

"You can't help but worry about every person that's out there when you have someone in the military," said Tricia Lettich, a Howard County resident whose 20-year-old son is on a Navy aircraft carrier. "Sometimes you think, `There but for the grace of God goes my son.' I think that's what's really hard. You place yourself in that situation."

Catonsville resident Peter La Count, whose wife is an Army reservist serving in a medical logistics battalion, avoids the never-ending stream of televised reports and tries hard to focus on positive things. He wants to keep life as normal as possible for their 2-year-old daughter, Grace.

"It's really a little bit like the grieving process, I think," La Count said. "You're sort of stunned; then you're in denial about the whole thing - `I can't believe this is happening, it's not happening to me' - and then you get angry about your loved one leaving, [about] the risks. And now it's sort of acceptance."

He's happy that Susan Sancilio La Count, 41, sounds better over the telephone than before, and less homesick. La Count, 42, has settled himself into a routine of single parenthood, concentrating on the pleasant, reassuring thoughts of how he'll welcome her home.

Still, life was better when the front line was unambiguous. Then, he could take consolation in the knowledge that she wasn't with the advance troops.

Now he knows danger is everywhere.

"The problem with the suicide bombers is, where is the front?" La Count said. "You can be unsuspecting and all of a sudden something terrible happens."

For Deb Hooper, that terrible thing was the death of Menusa, a veteran of the first gulf war who was killed last Thursday while guarding an oil field in southern Iraq. She sent flowers to his home near Camp Pendleton, Calif., and asked the dozens of people on her e-mail list to send cards. She plans to call his widow, Stacy Menusa, but needs more time to compose herself.

Menusa and Randy Hooper became good friends in the months before they were deployed to Kuwait. The Marines had dinners together and played ball with Menusa's 3-year-old-son, Joshua. Hooper's car is parked in the Menusas' driveway; Stacy Menusa had promised to start it frequently to keep the battery alive.

Hooper's most recent letter to his mother - written four days before the war broke out - described how he and Menusa were cleaning their M-16s after a sandstorm and planning work events "to keep the guys pumped and motivated."

"I know my son is really grieving, but I know he has the courage to proceed," Deb Hooper said.

Pat Soares of Baltimore County took some comfort praying for her 34-year-old son, a Navy trauma nurse - but now she has something even better: Steven Soares is home, recovering from injuries but otherwise well.

He was sent back to the United States this week after the truck he was in fell 30 feet into a ditch in the dead of night.

Stacie Whitaker, 18, an Essex resident whose father is a master sergeant in the Air Force, would love to have her dad home again. She's on edge and is upset anytime she hears a reporter giving the location of a unit, since she fears that Iraqi forces might find Teddy Whitaker and attack.

But some things soothe her. Knowing that he's doing the same work he would do here, managing supplies. Learning that he finally got the care package she sent three weeks ago, with snacks, cigarettes and much-needed nasal spray. Finding out that he's getting time to himself tomorrow - "his first day off in 57 days."

For La Count, the most comforting thought of all is his wife walking in their front door. When, no one knows. She hears rumors, but he hasn't let her tell him.

"I didn't want to get my hopes up," he said.

Sun staff writer Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.

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