A Patriot's Place

Was it Joe Darby's role to expose the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by his fellow soldiers? In his Pennsylvania hometown, a place that prides itself on its heroes, the answer isn't always clear.

May 11, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

JENNERS, Pa. -- On the other side of the Allegheny Mountains, in that distant place called Washington, politicians are branding Joe Darby a hero. He told the truth, they say, standing alone while others hid, and they want to see him get a medal for the bravery it took to report the abuse at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. As the story builds and TV cameras track every development, Darby assumes a wartime role -- the fine character in the ugly story, the soldier whose compass didn't waver, the moral man in the middle.

But there's a problem. Washington is three hours away from here, and so are the cameras. In the closest thing to a hometown that Joe Darby ever knew, the story line is not so clear, and not everyone is following the script.

"If I were him," says Bob Mathias, 69, hunkering down over his hot roast beef sandwich, "I'd change my name."

It's lunchtime at Our Coal Miners Cafe in nearby Jennerstown, just down Route 30 from Darby's home when he was in high school. Photos from the Quecreek Mine disaster line the walls of the restaurant, which renamed itself in honor of the nine men who survived three days inside a flooded mine shaft a few miles from here. Tourists in red, white and blue T-shirts stop in for sandwiches and cream-filled desserts known as Gob Cakes before visiting the site of that dramatic 2002 rescue. And then they keep going, driving less than 10 miles to Shanksville, their tour ending at the windswept field where Flight 93 went down in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Heroes are part of the scenery here, rooted in the landscape like the farm fields and exhausted mines.

But this rural enclave in western Pennsylvania is also a place where the definition of heroism is shifting and debated. It is a place like others in America, where the war does not always offer clear answers about right and wrong. When news of Army Spc. Joseph M. Darby reached these hill towns, it wasn't apparent where he would fit on the tourist map.

At his table, his roast beef nearly gone, Mathias questions the actions of the 24-year-old soldier who tracked down photographs of naked prisoners being mistreated, slipped an anonymous note under the door of Army investigators and later delivered a sworn statement about what he knew. Mathias wonders if U.S. troops now are at even greater risk than before. Prisoners will be shot, he believes, when they wouldn't have been if this news hadn't broken. By exposing the abuses, he says, Darby has opened his fellow soldiers to condemnation by outsiders in no position to judge what happens in a war zone.

"What'd they do, undress them?" the barrel-chested former insurance salesman asks his wife, his voice rising with sarcasm. The graphic pictures chronicle prisoners forced into homoerotic poses, chained to bars, one with a dog collar around his neck, many with U.S. soldiers smiling on. Even so, Mathias doesn't see profound shame here. "What'd they do? Parade a couple of them around and look at them? Nothing more than that. Nothing more than embarrass them. They're killing our people and we're embarrassing them."

His wife, Ruth Ann, tells him quietly that if Joe Darby were one of their kids, she'd be proud.

"We need to show integrity in everything we do," she says, "in all walks of life."

But valor isn't the label her husband pins on this hometown boy.

"I think," he says, "they call that a fink."

This is one of Joe Darby's first lessons about war:

It's 10th grade. North Star High School. Darby's American history instructor tells the students to close their books. They do. The lesson is Vietnam. The teacher is Bob Ewing, a Vietnam vet with searing blue eyes and haunting memories.

For two days, he talks only about his war.

Ewing tells Darby and the other students about how soldiers survive when they're in a conflict, how Vietnam was like a one-year jail sentence, how the war changed them all, forever. He tells the class about the My Lai massacre -- the 1968 slaughter of Vietnamese civilians by American troops -- and how enlisted soldiers from the same division eventually exposed it. He tells his students about the disillusionment those killings caused in America.

Ewing, who entered the Army after the massacre was revealed, tells the class about one of his drill instructors at Fort Ord in California who had been involved in My Lai.

"I asked him, `What did you guys do over there?' He told me, `You won't understand unless you go there.' "

And he tells the class it was true. When he got to Vietnam, he understood.

Now, on a sunny afternoon at the school, Ewing sees that lesson in a new light. His former student was always opinionated, tough, headstrong. But, Ewing believes, there was a soldier in Joe Darby, too. And he was listening.

"I was in combat, and I know what it's like," he says. "And I'm proud of Joe. There are some people saying he squealed on fellow soldiers, he was a narc, and I'm saying, no. As a former veteran, I'm very proud of what he did."

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