Sisters decide not to return to Iraq

General's advice taken

one's twin was killed in Baghdad ambush

April 28, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MADISON, Wis. - Torn between family and a call to duty, two Wisconsin soldiers whose sister was killed in Iraq have decided not to return to their combat units there.

Calling it "a profoundly difficult and complex decision," Rachel and Charity Witmer said in a statement yesterday that they had accepted the advice of Maj. Gen. Al Wilkening of the Wisconsin National Guard and would take noncombat assignments outside Iraq.

"Although he said he could not order us to request reassignment, he was very clear to point out that a decision to return to Iraq might expose our fellow soldiers to increased danger. This we will not do," they said in their statement, read by family representative Joan Apt.

Wilkening was concerned not only about the Witmer family but the potential hazard the sisters' return might have posed to their units because of the notoriety of their case, he said in a statement read by Lt. Col. Tim Donovan, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Army and Air National Guard.

During a Madison news conference to make the announcement, Donovan said the Witmers' high profile had attracted attention "they neither asked for nor wanted."

The Witmer sisters did not attend the news conference. Their mother, Lori, was present but did not speak.

Military officials told Rachel and Charity Witmer that they could decide not to rejoin their units in Iraq after the death of their sister Michelle, 20, a member of a Wisconsin National Guard military police unit who was killed April 9 in an ambush in Baghdad.

Under Defense Department policy, when a soldier is killed, any member of the family who also serves in the military can request a noncombat assignment.

Rachel Witmer, 24, also serves with the 32nd Military Police Company. The unit has served a year in the Middle East and just had its service extended another four months.

Charity Witmer is Michelle's twin and a sergeant and medic with Company B of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 118th Medical Battalion, which arrived in Baghdad in February.

The sisters returned home to New Berlin, Wis., on April 12 on 15-day leaves to attend Michelle Witmer's funeral. They were granted 15 extra days to decide whether to request noncombat assignments.

The Witmer sisters said they were torn about whether to rejoin their units in the war zone or to stay behind to ease their parents' pain.

State officials and other service members urged them to stay in Wisconsin.

Gov. James E. Doyle told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Monday that he had talked with the Witmer sisters at the funeral and that, as a parent, he hoped they would opt for noncombat roles.

Sgt. David Brown, a former comrade of Michelle Witmer's in the military police unit, said upon his return to Wisconsin last week that her sisters should not return to Iraq because their family had suffered enough.

The sisters' decision is sure to receive both support and criticism.

Their father, John Witmer, has said the family received overwhelming sympathy and support by e-mail from across the country and world, but he noted that some messages have been vicious and critical.

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