Sisters are given more time to decide on new assignment

Sibling killed in Baghdad

reservists say they feel torn between family, duty

April 24, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CHICAGO - Rachel and Charity Witmer, members of the Wisconsin National Guard serving in Iraq, have been granted another 15 days of leave to decide whether to seek reassignment after their sister, Michelle, was killed in Baghdad.

"Everyone has an opinion on how they think my daughters should be responding," said Lori Witmer from her home in New Berlin, Wis. "We aren't making any comments right now just to protect my daughters."

Rachel, 24, and Charity, Michelle's 20-year-old twin, did not want to speak publicly about their decision. But military officials who have been working with the family since Michelle's death said the two remaining sisters feel a strong allegiance to their two families; the one in Wisconsin and their unit outside Baghdad.

"They have such a sense of duty, and they want to not only honor their sister's memory and her dedication to serve in the mission, but they also feel that they have built a family with their fellow soldiers and the units that they serve," said Lt. Col. Mark Bruns, commander of the 641st Battalion, to which the three women were assigned.

Days after their sister's death, Rachel and Charity spoke about the agony of deciding whether to return to their comrades, whom they addressed in a statement on April 13.

"Not a minute goes by that we don't think of you," they said. "We are conflicted, because we have two families and we can't be with both at the same time."

The women's parents spoke out publicly after Michelle's death, saying that their family had made a tremendous sacrifice and that their daughters should be brought home immediately.

Spc. Michelle M. Witmer, who was serving with the 32nd Military Police Company, was killed on April 9 when her Humvee was attacked in Baghdad. Her sisters returned to Wisconsin on April 12, and her body was returned on April 15.

Lt. Col. Tim Donovan said that the sisters' situation was unique in the 167-year history of the Wisconsin National Guard. What he can understand, he said, is their desire to be with their unit.

"Serving in a military unit creates very strong bonds between the soldiers who live and work together, and those bonds are further strengthened when that service is in a hostile environment with danger all around," he said.

Spc. Rachel Witmer serves with the 32nd Military Police Company, and Charity is a sergeant and medic with the 118th Medical Battalion.

Mary Kay Kulla, a mother of four whose husband, Scott, is serving in the same unit that Michelle served in, said she hoped the sisters decide to stay home.

"Things are just escalating overseas, and it's scarier and scarier by the day. Everything is becoming more and more uncertain. I don't think anyone could fault them for making a decision to stay, if that's what they chose."

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