Two sons, brothers lost in Iraq, two views of war that took them

October 06, 2004|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The vases of flowers on the dining room table are many days past their prime, the pink roses now hanging their heads. But still they sit. Red, white and blue ribbons that once adorned them are saved in a basket on the floor.

It is hard to let go of anything.

In Natalie Wilkins' brick, ranch-style home, where the bookshelves are filled with family photos instead of books, a wood-encased flag - the one that draped her son's coffin - now sits next to a photo of Lt. Charles L. Wilkins III along with his Bronze Star and Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Awards.

Natalie's son was a 38-year-old transportation planner, law student and Ohio National Guardsman. Unmarried, he was devoted to his family, the kind of man who took his mother to church and sent money to his sisters. He mentored younger students, volunteered for Habitat for Humanity - and he volunteered to go to war in Iraq, even though he had misgivings about the mission.

In notes and cards, the 53-year-old divorcee hears from Chuck's friends, co-workers and classmates about what a fine man he was. She is filled with a mother's pride and only wishes she could tell him so.

But she is also filled with bitterness and pain - layer upon layer of pain.

And this, too, is hard to let go of.

There is the pain of losing one's only son. The pain of opening the newspaper every morning and reading about more losses, and crying all over again.

And then there is another whole universe of pain and anger that the Wilkins family is grappling with: losing a son to a war they didn't support and don't understand, a cause they grow more skeptical about with each day and each casualty and each evaporating explanation - and a commander in chief they feel doesn't truly understand the price American families are paying for his decision, a president who sent this grieving mother a seven-sentence letter after Chuck was killed Friday, August 20, as the death toll of American soldiers neared 1,000.

"I hate this war," Natalie Wilkins says quietly, her eyes red, sad and wet, her voice thin and tremulous. "It's something I won't ever understand. Chuck did what he thought was right. Everyone over there is doing what they think is right - but is it? God bless the troops, but I hate the war. I hate anything that would take a life."

The triangle-folded flag. The medals and photos. The tears that show no sign of letting up.

They are all part of Eddie Wright's home too, hours away in the working-class neighborhood of Delhi Township outside Cincinnati.

It's been about a year since Eddie's younger brother, Spc. James C. Wright, was killed in Iraq at age 27. A year of missing him, creating memorials to him, looking up at his picture and talking to him, and holding fund-raisers to help out his widow, Alina, and the now 8-month-old son, Jameson, whom Jimmy saw only in an ultrasound image his wife sent to him in Iraq.

But while the Wilkins family, of Columbus, finds its grief compounded by the uncertainties of the war in Iraq, the Wright family is comforted by their belief that Jimmy - or "Dawg," as he was known to his friends - died for a noble cause, one he believed in. "He was doing good," Eddie Wright says.

Eddie, a 30-year-old automotive painter and father of two young children, has two Bush/Cheney lawn signs outside his dark brick Tudor-style house. He attended a Bush rally in May, hoping to shake hands with the president, and had T-shirts made a week after his brother's death with a Bush quote that begins, "We will not waver."

His parents - Ed, a school bus mechanic, and Barbara, a saleswoman at Big Lots - live next door. They say they support the president and the war effort "1,000 percent."

"I believe we're doing the right thing, at least for the Iraqi people and the global war on terrorism," says Eddie, who surrounds himself with his brother's memory.

He still believes weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq. And he dismisses the bipartisan 9/11 Commission's finding that there was no link between the Sept. 11 attacks and Saddam Hussein. "Quite obviously, I don't want to look at it that way," he says. "It seems like these are just jabs at President Bush."

But even if nothing he once believed about the threat of Iraq holds true, he feels deep in his gut that his brother died for a worthwhile cause - helping to take down a dictator, plant the seeds of democracy and bring a better life to the Iraqi people.

"We've already succeeded in that," says Eddie, the oldest of the three Wright boys, whose father spent 20 years in the Army. "Jimmy believed in what he was doing. I know he did."

Nothing has energized or seized the attention of voters in this presidential election year as fiercely as the war in Iraq. And nothing has split the electorate this year as much as the war in Iraq.

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