'Ripples' Of War

Far From Iraq

The closet poet with ambitions beyond the military died serving his country. His family and friends are left to deal with anger, sorrow and uncertainty.

July 18, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Paulette Crawford-Webb felt giddy when her daughter called her at work to say two military men were at the door. Her son, Army Staff Sgt. Morgan Kennon, was due home soon from Iraq for her 47th birthday. The "military men" had to be Morgan; her son and daughter were pulling a prank.

"My baby's home!" she sang out to her pharmacy co-workers that day last November.

Instead of his smile, she got the news every soldier's parent dreads. Her son was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in the soft light after dawn. He had just pulled up in a Humvee for shift change at a lookout post in Mosul. He was 23.

Days later, two birthday cards from him arrived in the mail.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed the lives of more than 1,000 American troops, making the anguish of mothers like her all too familiar. But as Kennon's case shows, each of those deaths has also radiated pain and anger far beyond the immediate family and others usually listed in obituaries.

"It's like taking a pebble and throwing it in a river and watching the ripples," says Tamara Washington, 28, a close family friend.

Since Kennon died Nov. 7, those ripples have touched his best friend, his best friend's parents, his first love, his last love, his sister's boyfriend, his old buddy from sergeant school - even a junior high school teacher he had not seen in years and a flight attendant from Minnesota he never met.

The Family

'Inside, I died that day'

Because Kennon is gone, some relationships have faltered, others never had a chance to flower. Still others have been strengthened in ways.

Another effect has been guilt - for failing to talk him out of enlisting, for being among those in whose name he fought and died.

For many, but not all, his death has turned a dislike of the war into something close to hatred. "I don't think it's worth these lives," says 24-year-old LaQuinta Johnson, Kennon's girlfriend since late 2002. Yet nobody wants to think he died for nothing.

His job with the 101st Airborne Division was to prepare soldiers for chemical or biological attack. In his free time, he liked to "rassle" and watch football. He reminded his mother to drink grapefruit juice for her high blood pressure.

He was a closet poet who wrote about God and love in a green spiral notebook he kept under his bunk in Iraq. He was an articulate man who never made it to college but asked for and got a pocket thesaurus as a Christmas present.

He dreamed of becoming a lawyer, and friends figured he would excel at anything using his speaking skills. But he was far from perfect - if he asked for a bite, half your sandwich was gone. Once, he wrote up a long list of his own faults and bemoaned his inability to plan.

In the Kuwaiti desert before the war, he was quiet, his nose often buried in a magazine. He was new to the 101st and had not made many friends yet. The coming war made him anxious but not outwardly worried. Asked by a reporter if he was scared, he just chuckled and said, "I don't know."

Over the months, he grew more outgoing and evolved into a bit of a ham, fellow soldiers say. More and more, that square jaw gave way to wide smiles, and a two-week trip home pegged to his mother's Nov. 20 birthday excited him.

But he would also sit and shake his head at the rising troop casualties. And then he became one.

"Inside I died that day," his mother says of the autumn afternoon the military men came. "When they buried him, they buried the best part of me. I anticipate that person will come back one day. She hasn't come back yet."

Sundays, she often stays in bed rather than go to church, and Darren Webb, her husband of two years, tries to be patient. Before Iraq, Kennon told Webb he was now the man of the house - a role Kennon long held with no father figure at home.

His mother supported his decision to enlist in 1998, at age 18. She thought the discipline would be good; besides, there wasn't money for college. But she and her daughter urged him not to re-enlist in 2002 and were disappointed when he said he wanted more out of the Army.

Washington, the family friend, has looked after Kennon's mother, sister and niece the best she can, while working through her own sorrow.

"I'm angry because what's left behind are three people trying to rebuild their lives," she says. "And they don't know how to do that, and I don't know what to do to make it better. All I can do is be there."

Washington worries most about Kennon's 27-year-old sister, Nicole Crawford, her "god sister." Though four years older than Kennon, Crawford relied on him, maybe too much, for brotherly support and guidance.

When Kennon last spoke to Washington, he said it was time to let his sister decide whether to move in with her boyfriend. Washington, no fan of the boyfriend, opposed the move.

"He told me, `You know what, you gotta let Nikki make her own choice,'" Washington says. " `You have to be there for her.'"

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