In Britain, survivors dread knock of Iraq war

Left Behind

January 30, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - The worst of news in wartime almost always begins the same way, with a knock on the door.

For each soldier's death in Iraq - whether it be one of the 1,423 Americans killed as of Friday, the 75 British, the 19 Italians, the 16 Poles, the two Dutch, the single Latvian - a circle of survivors exists. Each survivor reacts differently to the knock.

The survivors know Iraq is holding elections today, and that months or years from now, it might be clear what changes the elections will have brought.

Whatever officials are saying, though, and whatever historians might say in the future, the cost of the war for those survivors is being felt now, as some of them explained in face-to-face interviews conducted this month in Great Britain.

For a mother in Scotland, the knock on the door meant she awaits the birth of a grandchild without all the pleasure she once had, because her son has been lost and the child will have no father. For a woman in England, it meant she was a widow at age 31; the death of her husband meant her becoming an activist, to make sure that every British soldier would be equipped with the body armor that might have saved his life. For a young lieutenant colonel - six of his soldiers killed under his command - it meant soldiering on.

The U.S. Department of Defense provides little information about American soldiers killed. The British Ministry of Defense writes obituaries for all soldiers lost, providing information on how they were killed, comments from commanders who knew them, who the survivors are and, in some cases, what an investigation has determined about how the deaths might have been avoided.

Examining that information from the Ministry of Defense Web site (www.mod.uk and linking to "operation tenic"), the survivors below were chosen to provide some cross section of those touched by the death of soldiers on the battlefield.

War makes for a lot of stories, grief far from the battlefields. What follows, in the form of conversations condensed with permission of the speakers, is a sampling of what the fighting in Iraq has meant.

Every survivor reacts differently to the knock on the door that follows the death of a soldier in Iraq. Here are some survivor stories from Great Britain, which has lost 75 in the war.

Man in tweed suit brings the news

SGT. STEVE ROBERTS, 33

Sgt. Steve Roberts, 33, was shot in the chest and killed near Basra on March 23, 2003. His wife, Samantha, became a widow at 31.

The body armor Roberts should have been wearing, and which might have saved his life, had been given to another soldier because there was a shortage ... and the sergeant spent most of his time fighting from inside a tank.

Sunday night I just couldn't sleep. It was really very early hours of the war and I had a terrible night, and I was due to go into work. ... It was half past 10, and I was still in my pajamas out on the sofa, and you can see from the sofa to the gate. And I could see this guy come in, and he was in a tweed suit. He wasn't in uniform. But as soon as I got to the door I knew it was a military man. I don't know how; I just did. And I said to him, "Can I help you?" He just got out his ID card and I knew.

I opened the door, and he asked and confirmed who I was. And he said, "I'm very sorry to have to tell you this, but, you know, your husband has been killed in action." He said, "Your husband has been shot. He's been killed in action," and I said, "Thank you very much for coming but I think you've made a mistake. My husband's a tank commander. He'd be in a tank. He wouldn't be around on the ground being shot."

Then he got out this kind of fax and it had Steve's name, rank, number and said "Killed in action." And that was that, really.

It was basically, bring him home. That was like the next thing. When's he going to come back? It was two weeks. ... And that just seemed like an eternity. In the Falklands war, if that's where you died, that's where you stayed. But he was, thankfully, brought home.

I remember thinking, you know, if one family could live now - a few children or even one child - could live in relative peace and freedom because Steve had lost his life - then it could have been seen as being worth it. I know as well that it's probably too early to tell. But if anything good comes out of that war, it still remains that it wasn't planned very well. It doesn't seem that there was a lot of forethought given to what would happen once we stopped dropping the bombs.

Army his goal since age 8, mother says

PVT. PAUL LOWE, 19

PVT. PAUL Lowe was killed by a suicide bomber near Fallujah on Nov. 4. He was 19. His regiment, the Black Watch, had been sent to take charge of the area while U.S. troops attacked Fallujah.

Besides fighting duties, Lowe played in the regiment's pipes and drums band. He was regarded, even at his young age, as a well-trained soldier, but part of what has been so difficult for the militaries in Iraq is that it can be next to impossible to stop an enemy willing to blow himself up.

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