Sgt. `Grandpa' Romero's lessons to a young soldier

January 16, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE TWO of them, Romero and Hancox, ready themselves to head back to the war. The final preparations seem like some traditional military ritual, or a kind of prayer. Standing there in their desert fatigues, talking about explosives hidden in the dusty Iraqi roadways, talking about the soldier shot in the stomach, talking about wives urging them to come back home in one piece, they're buying stuffed animals as forget-me-nots.

Sgt. Neil Hancox, 22, saw his daughter, Miley, for the first two days of her life. That was nine months ago. Then he shipped out with the U.S. Army Reserves 2632nd Transportation Company out of Fresno, Calif. Nine months in Iraq, two weeks back home, and now back to the desert again.

"The giraffe," Sgt. Frank Romero tells him.

"The giraffe?" says Hancox.

"And the monkey that sucks its thumb," says Romero. "Trust me, all right?"

Hancox nods to the woman at the cash register at Baltimore-Washington International Airport's Elements Souvenir Shop. Add the giraffe and the monkey to the other stuffed animal and ship them all to Hancox's wife, Janet, and Miley.

The veteran Romero knows about these things. He is 56 years old and has children of his own. He served in Vietnam 35 years ago, and came home, where civilians spit at him to express their loathing for that misguided war, and down the line he signed up for the Army Reserves, never fully imagining he would be called up again.

His wife and two children are in San Francisco. His son, Philip, 15, wanted Romero to watch him play ball next week. Ballgames will have to wait. His daughter, Muriah, 18, will graduate from high school in June. Romero promised her he'd be home in time. While he was away for nine months, he missed his wedding anniversary and his children's birthdays.

He says the young men and women in his Army outfit call him Grandpa. Pleased at the title, he recites it aloud: "Grandpa Romero." The young ones in his outfit know he's been through this before. He's a steadying paternal presence to them.

They're all over the airport these days. BWI is one of three U.S. airports where returning military personnel grab connecting flights to hometowns across the country -- and then head back again. So you see these soldiers with the thousand-yard stares through airport windows. You see them huddled over final civilian meals at the airport Burger Kings. Some of them look barely old enough for prom night. You see them on the telephones for last-minute calls home. Sometimes you see them with a loved one.

Outside Gate C, you see the girlfriend run a thumb under her eye so her mascara won't run. The boyfriend, in his desert fatigues, wraps his arms around her and whispers in her ear. They pull back from each other, and the girl runs a hand over the front of his shirt. They seem utterly oblivious to every other human being in this busy place.

And you see them in the souvenir shops, where Romero and Hancox are looking over more stuffed animals before heading back to the war. In civilian life, Romero worked for the U.S. Mint in San Francisco and Hancox was a Budweiser beer salesman in Fresno.

"I make the money, and he sells the beer," Romero says.

"What about the war?" he is asked.

"It's a little scary," he replies after a moment. "But you get used to it, and we'll be fine. I think it's pretty safe right now." For the past nine months, he and Hancox were 30 miles outside Baghdad.

"We didn't lose anybody," Hancox says, "but the one ..."

"He got sent home," Romero says. "Shot in the stomach. He'll be home, he'll be all right."

"Some of our vehicles got some pretty bad damage," Hancox says. "They've got these IEVs -- Improvised Explosive Devices -- that the locals make and they stick 'em in the road. A couple of our guys got hurt."

"What was it like seeing your daughter?" he is asked.

"I seen her two days and not since," Hancox says. "We left two days after she was born. Then they were waiting when we came home." He pauses a moment to clear the fog out of his vocal cords.

"It was the most heaviest thing of my whole life," he says.

The politics of this war are beyond their immediate concern. Former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill now tells us George W. Bush was ready to attack Iraq from the first days of his administration. The connection has never been made between Sept. 11 and Saddam Hussein. No weapons of mass destruction have ever been found. The Army War College says the war in Iraq is a "detour" that undermines the fight against terror.

"The Army doesn't talk politics," Romero says. "The family wants to talk about it, but I change the subject. I don't want them getting upset. My wife tells me, `I don't want to see you get shipped out no more.' She's crying on the telephone, you know?

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