Grief mixes with uncertainty near Washington state base

Military has yet to release names of some casualties

Fort Lewis

December 24, 2004|By Matthew Dolan and Gail Gibson | Matthew Dolan and Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT LEWIS, Wash. - In Vietnam, Larry Wickline blew up enemy bridges as a combat engineer. But on a foggy, frigid afternoon here yesterday, he stood on an overpass across Interstate 5 to memorialize those fallen in Iraq this week.

"I'm supposed to be Christmas shopping, but today I feel like I needed to do this," said Wickline, 56, of Tacoma, wearing a Vietnam Veterans cap and brown camouflage jacket and waving a giant American flag in the bone-chilling wind. "I'm still not sure what happened over there."

Wickline's grief remained tinged with uncertainty after the suspected suicide bombing near Mosul, Iraq, killed 22 this week. That's because Defense Department officials have yet to release an official list of all fatalities.

Still, Wickline and others around this sprawling Army base in southwestern Washington expect that explosion's fallout will hit here hard. The bombing took place at Forward Operating Base Maraz, home to about 3,500 soldiers, most of them attached to the Stryker Brigade Combat Team, based in Fort Lewis.

Early figures back up his fears. Most of the 75 wounded in the lunchtime attack on a military chow hall were from Fort Lewis, Pentagon sources confirmed yesterday.

Forty-two soldiers and three civilian contractors from Fort Lewis are among the wounded, according to sources. Among the most seriously injured were 24 Fort Lewis soldiers and the three contractors. Military medical officials described their wounds as life-threatening.

Three others from Fort Lewis had serious wounds requiring hospitalization either in Iraq or Germany. Another 15 sustained injuries mild enough to allow them to be treated in Iraq and return to duty.

In total, the dead include 14 military and four U.S. civilian contractors as well as three members of Iraqi security forces and an unidentified person from outside the United States. Some have already been identified as National Guard members from Maine and Virginia.

But at Fort Lewis, most people could only speculate how many died from the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division deployed two months ago. Since June 2003, at least 31 soldiers from Fort Lewis have been killed in Iraq.

"We don't have any update today," said a Fort Lewis spokesman, He did add a bit of welcome news - 195 soldiers assigned to the 201st Military Intelligence Brigade were due to arrive back at Fort Lewis from Iraq yesterday evening.

The search for information about the attack bought families and loved ones onto the Internet. The Web administrator for strykernews.com wrote in an e-mail that traffic on the site jumped from an average day of 4,000 hits a day to 26,000 on Tuesday, the day of the attack, and remained high all week. That's where Molly Baker found herself yesterday.

The 28-year-old school teacher from Gig Harbor, Wash., said her boyfriend, Spc. Ryan Brooks, 28, was a member of the Stryker brigade in Mosul. But his company usually stays far away from Maraz, patrolling a region closer to the Syrian border, she said.

"I was worried; I haven't heard from him since Friday," Brooks said in a telephone interview after she was contacted by e-mail. "But since I haven't heard anything by now, I have to believe he's OK."

She was joined online by Holly Bromley, 44, of Reno, Nev., whose son left to join the brigade on the same day of the suspected bombing.

"He should have been at the base already, actually last week," said Bromley, whose son, Spc. Matt Bromley, 21, deployed Tuesday. "I'm relieved. Now I have to put him in God's hands. He really believed in his principles and infighting for his country."

The waiting game still centers on Fort Lewis, named for famed explorer Meriwether Lewis and opened in 1917. Spanning 87,000 acres of wooded forest and open plains, the base's main gate was made from field stone and squared logs to replicate the style of an old Northwest blockhouse.

With more than 25,000 soldiers and civilian workers, Fort Lewis also serves as the hub for about 120,000 retirees and more than 29,000 family members living on and off post.

In recent years, Fort Lewis has also become a home for two Stryker Brigades, high-tech Army units equipped with modern eight-wheeled armored vehicles. The Strykers are having their wartime deployment in Iraq as part of Task Force Olympia, which has been operating in the Mosul area under Brig. Gen. Carter F. Ham, who is from Fort Lewis.

Outside the base, on the interstate bridge where Wickline stood, a candlelight vigil will be held tomorrow to honor those killed near Mosul. Already it has been covered with flags and festooned with yellow ribbons.

Others in town are donating their frequent-flyer miles so that military families can reunite. The nearby city of Puyallup is collecting phone cards to send to soldiers overseas.

"We're a close community," said Rod Mason, who runs Galloping Gertie's diner and bar near Fort Lewis. "I get to recognize a lot of the faces of these boys."

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