A simple, poignant photograph amid a complex, terrible war

May 04, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

If ever a picture was worth a thousand words, the one that ran on The Sun's front page one day last week surely was: Against the backdrop of a big American flag, a towheaded little boy was lifted off the ground in a bearhug by a camouflage-clad soldier, whose tears traced a rivulet down his cheek.

"Hunter had just said, `I love you very much, Uncle Daryl,' " the 4-year-old boy's mother, Teri McColligan, told me yesterday when I sought the thousand-word back story to the picture, " `and I'm going to miss you.' "

Ergo the tears, and not just on Staff Sgt. Daryl Cheatham's face that Wednesday, when he and some 140 Maryland National Guard soldiers bid farewell to their families and boarded buses for Fort Dix, N.J., in advance of deploying to Iraq.

The picture of Hunter and Cheatham, taken by The Sun's Jed Kirschbaum, has stuck in my head ever since, playing in bittersweet counterpoint to the drumbeat of the news about the war - the ever-rising casualty rate, the bill-and-veto, timetable-and-benchmarks funding battle between Congress and President Bush and, most of all, Tuesday's four-year anniversary of Bush's woefully premature "mission accomplished" announcement.

Hard to believe, but four years have lapsed since Bush, in full Top Gun dress-up, landed on an aircraft carrier and declared, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."

Of course, they haven't. Which only adds to the poignancy of a photograph such as the one of Hunter and Cheatham, a scene and a goodbye no doubt playing out over and over these days as the "surge" of 21,500 additional troops continues.

For Hunter, these past four years have been one goodbye after another - his father, Sgt. Robert McColligan, also with the Guard, served in Iraq in 2005, and now Cheatham is headed there as well. While the boy calls him "Uncle," they are unrelated, by blood anyway; Cheatham is his godfather.

The two National Guardsmen became friends when Robert McColligan, a former construction worker looking for a sense of direction in his life, enlisted seven years ago, and Cheatham was assigned as his sponsor to show him the ropes. They became close - McColligan says he feels like the two of them "grew up" together in the Guard - and when Hunter was born, with Cheatham in the hospital waiting room, there was no question who would be his godfather.

"Daryl for the most part is part of the family," McColligan said.

Cheatham's role grew even bigger when McColligan, who trained as an emergency medical technician, left in December 2004 for Fort Dix and then Iraq - or "the desert" as the couple told Hunter. "He's going to help people," Teri McColligan said they told their son, "and protect people."

Robert McColligan was part of a team that flew by Black Hawk helicopter to rescue injured troops in the field. He was awarded a bronze star for a particularly harrowing mission in February 2005 - shortly after he arrived in Iraq - in which his team dropped down to treat and evacuate victims of an improvised explosive device and came under fire themselves.

McColligan's unit was featured in a story later that year in the Pentagon's "Defend America" Web site that carries news about the troops. McColligan told the writer that before Iraq, he'd never seen anything worse than a car accident. "I went from sprained ankles and chipped teeth to people who were getting ready to die," McColligan told the writer.

Meanwhile, on the home front, Teri McColligan had her hands full - just before her husband deployed, they found out she was pregnant with their second child, a girl who was born in July with Cheatham again in the waiting room. Her husband wasn't able to get a leave to come home until the following month.

That might have been the hardest part of his year away. "It was extremely difficult for Hunter, especially when Rob came home for two weeks, and then had to go back," Teri McColligan said. "He had another five months to go."

Leaving his son was "probably the hardest part of going overseas," Robert McColligan said. "I felt I was putting a lot of pressure on my wife, and my son not having a father figure here. Daryl really helped, with the coping."

When Cheatham, who is single, got his deployment orders, they had to prepare Hunter again.

"That was going to be a big change too - he sees Daryl two or three times a week, he spends the night at his house sometimes," Teri McColligan said. "He asked, `Is he going to be gone as long as Daddy was gone? Because Daddy was gone a really long time.'"

She wasn't sure she was going to take him to last week's send-off, but when Cheatham told her how much it would mean to him, she brought him. (Cheatham couldn't be reached at Fort Dix; Teri McColligan said she spoke with him Wednesday night, and he told her he has heard from so many people who were touched by the picture of Hunter and him.)

During the ceremony, she and her son sat together as her husband - who is with a Guard unit that has been contracted to work for the Department of Homeland Security at Fort Meade - stood with the rest of the troops.

"During the ceremony, Hunter said, `I'm really going to miss Uncle Daryl,'" she said. "I'm already crying because I'm remembering when Rob went. So I told him, `You make sure you tell him that.'"

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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