Our Three Sons

For Ken and Bonnie Bonnell, the war will not be over in Iraq until Brett, Bryon and Brad come home.

OVER HERE - Marysville, Ohio

April 23, 2003|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

One day last week, when Bonnie Bonnell was reading The Columbus Dispatch, the newspaper she saves for her three sons in Iraq, she noticed a change. The war dispatches that dominated the front page for almost a month had nearly disappeared. Soon the questions from neighboring sheep farmers and friends near Marysville, Ohio, changed, too. Instead of asking Bonnie and Ken Bonnell what it was like to have three sons at war, friends wondered aloud when the boys might come home.

But Ken, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and a Vietnam veteran who served two tours, knows from experience that danger is not over when a war ends.

He thinks of Vietnam and "the crazies," he calls them, the fanatics with guns who have nothing to lose. He sees looting in Baghdad, unrest in Karbala, and he hopes his boys have not let down their guard.

The father of Brett, Bryon and Brad knows all too well that the adrenaline of battle doesn't last. When he was shot in Vietnam, it was not the bullet racing through his abdomen that rattled him as much as the hours afterward, when he was recovering. He realized then how close he had come to being killed, and that understanding made him tremble.

He worries about Brett, his oldest at 37, a major in the Army's 101st Airborne Division and a helicopter pilot and maintenance officer who supervises mechanics. Twice Ken was shot down in a helicopter in Vietnam. The third crash was a mechanical failure. He survived each with aches and pains that still haunt him, but other soldiers were injured, and some were killed.

He worries about Bryon, 35, his middle son and a major in the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Ken remembers the stress of managing men, the weariness of fighting, the fatigue of little sleep.

He worries about Brad, who at 31 is his youngest, the baby of the family. Brad was the one closest to the fighting, the enlisted man "at the tip of the spear," as Ken says.

Ken, who is 58, worried so much when Brett and his wife, Diane, were in Desert Storm that he thought of rejoining.

What scares him now is the possibility of accidents and friendly fire. Ken lost five soldiers in Vietnam when improperly loaded artillery backfired. He lost others when lightning struck a radio tower. His middle son was hit with shrapnel during a training exercise, and his youngest was parachuting when the static line failed and slammed him into the airplane.

"All the planning in the world," he says, "and it still happens."

Bonnie, who is 60, cannot talk about her sons without crying. She understands what her three daughters-in-law are enduring. She remembers being pregnant when Ken was stationed in Germany, when a helicopter carried her to a Nuremberg hospital. She remembers giving birth to Brad while Ken was protecting a bridge from the North Vietnamese. The worrying was harder then than now, because she didn't know what Ken was doing or where he was; she tried to assure her young boys that their father would come home.

When Ken was injured, weeks passed before notification came. By the time a battle appeared on TV, the fighting was old. A friend telephoned to say she was sorry to read in the newspaper that Ken Bonnell had been killed. It wasn't him, but the scare it gave Bonnie was real enough.

Newborn democracies are messy and dangerous. So no matter how deep inside the newspaper the war stories go, Ken and Bonnie will worry.

On the 153-acre farm where the Bonnells live, about 40 miles northwest of Columbus, hope comes in the form of the American flag.

Flags wave from bird houses. They flutter atop a pole in the front yard. There are flags on the dining room table, flags on the place mats, flag-themed door mats stacked in the foyer beside the stairs.

The last time the Bonnell brothers were together was here on the farm a year and a half ago, just days before Sept. 11, when they gathered for Brad's wedding. Of all the boys, Brad is the most sentimental, and there was never any doubt that his second marriage would begin on the farm owned by his great-grandparents or that his three best men would be his father and brothers.

Brad is the orneriest among them, too, the one at the heart of a playground fight when they lived in Germany. Ken remembers the Bonnell boys, back to back in a circle, ready to take on any bully in a squabble over marbles.

Brad was the biggest eater, Brett the most persistent, and Bryon the brain with a nearly photographic memory.

Brad was the one most likely to take a dare. He shot himself in the hand with a BB gun to see how it felt, and he swallowed Brasso one day while his father was using it to polish medals.

Despite their competitive nature - all were state champion wrestlers, all Eagle Scouts, all Airborne Rangers - the three brothers are close.

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