Casualties of War

A memorial service for Michael McClaren Kashkoush, a Chagrin Falls Marine killed in Iraq, recalls what we’ve lost since Vietnam, but also reflects what we can be as a country.
I sought the most remote seat in the auditorium. There was a good chance I would be in tears before this was over. It had been a long time since I had attended a service honoring a soldier killed in battle, though the sorrowful event used to occur regularly. Maybe that is why a familiar sadness gripped me.

On this day, Michael McClaren Kash-koush, who was killed in Al Anbar province in Iraq in January 2007, was being honored by having the post office building in Chagrin Falls named after him.

Gathered at the ceremony were politicians, family members, friends and a Marine Corps brass quintet. In total, several hundred gathered at the Chagrin Falls High School Performing Arts Center.

I found a seat in the back row for my sad reflection. Forty years ago, when I was a newspaper reporter, we were burying young men like Michael on such a regular basis that reporters hated to go to work on the days the weekly casualty lists came across the wire from Vietnam.

The reporting routine was the same. First came the call to the family, that squeamish feeling of intruding upon sorrow, the inquiry as to how and where the loved one was killed in action and finally, the request for a photograph that would be retrieved by a copy boy.

The big difference between then and now was that most of those killed then were draftees. They were the kid next door, someone you went to school with, maybe even a relative. Almost everyone knew someone in the war.

At first, these stories were lengthy. But as the war progressed, and weekly casualty lists reached into the hundreds, the stories were shorter, more perfunctory and all too frequent.

You generally read something like this:

A 19-year-old Marine from Bedford was reported killed in action in fighting near Khe Sanh last week when Communist forces engaged elements of the 26th Marines in hill fighting not far from the besieged combat base.

He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. ...

One day, a friend, a schoolteacher in North Olmsted, called in tears to tell me that she had seen two Marines walk into the school and go into the principal’s office. Did it mean what she thought it did? The principal’s son had been killed in Vietnam.

When I covered funerals, I would interview at least one family member — the mother was always the most wrenching to talk to — and maybe a friend or two. A military escort (a soldier or Marine) always accompanied the body home. They were tight-lipped and polite, but you could see the resentment in their eyes when you asked the dreaded question of how it happened.

The escort presented the folded flag of a grateful nation at the funeral’s conclusion as “Taps” played. Their job was worse than mine.

The growing opposition to the war became another factor in covering it. Late in the conflict, protestors sometimes attended the funerals. The mourners, already uneasy, carried the additional burden of the nation’s guilt.

There were a few ceremonies like the one in Chagrin Falls for Michael Kash-koush, where full Marine colonels, politicians and civic leaders attended. In those days, just wearing a uniform in public took courage. Politicians were either hawks or doves, and either position carried political peril.

There were no parades.

I would not have gone to this ceremony had it not been a request from Michael’s mother, Mary Jane. I met her one afternoon with her friend, Ron, and we spent a while talking about Cleveland and life. It was not until our third or fourth meeting that Ron told me about Michael’s death.

He had been killed by a sniper, Ron said. He thought Michael had been targeted because he was an interpreter. Snipers seek
out leaders and communicators on the battlefield.

The next time I saw Mary Jane, I offered my condolences. She began to cry and offered the lament I had heard so often: “I can’t believe he is gone.”

This war is so different than those we fought in the last century. It is remote, because the people fighting it for us are not a citizen army of draftees. The professional army was created partially with that in mind.

During a year as a correspondent in Vietnam, I witnessed death on the battlefield. It was different than experiencing death at home. Beforehand, an ominous feeling of expectation haunted the troops. They responded with a pervasive black humor that taunted death itself.

A death in combat only increased the sense of danger and the instinct for survival. Afterward, there was hardly time to mourn. Often, there was more anger than sadness.

The nature of the war and the advent of the helicopter as used in war meant that casualties were often whisked away in a deus ex machinaact. The rush of emotion and loss came later, sometimes resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder. (Interestingly, in January 1977, Cleveland Magazine published one of the first articles on PTSD. One of its discoverers was a Cleveland State University professor, John Wilson.)

At the ceremony, as I listened to the politicians read their resolutions and eulogize Michael, I recalled a long-ago afternoon at a forlorn Marine landing zone in Vietnam. I was a tired, dirty, thirsty reporter waiting for hours for a ride out of that miserable place. So when I saw the helicopter approach, I felt a rush of elation.

It set down with an awful roar and flung dust in a storm so fierce that I hid my face from the pocking particles. I moved toward the helicopter, and as I did, a Marine lieutenant leapt out. In all that noisy fury, I could not hear what he was saying, but his face was a rage. He was gesturing at me furiously.

Finally, I heard him above the noise.

“Damn you,” he said. “You are not getting into that helicopter. Only Marines are riding in it.”

I looked into the helicopter and saw three bodies wrapped in ponchos. Dead Marines. I’ll never forget the look on the lieutenant’s face. I understood that soulful ride was a matter of respect.

I remembered waiting for another ride, this time at Ton Son Nhut, the airport at Saigon. On the runway sat a big, silver C-141, a jet transport that was flying to the U.S. In a wistful moment, I wished I was aboard the plane and going home.

A line of forklifts appeared, carrying aluminum cases, and they began to stack them inside the jet’s open cargo bay. Each was draped with an American flag. There were dozens of these caskets, and the stacks grew enormously.

Those of us waiting in the terminal looked on in silence. It was an eerie and heart-rending sight. It was also a compelling and symbolic picture.

Standing next to me was an Army master sergeant in faded battle dress, with a two-star combat infantryman’s badge, signifying that he had seen combat in three wars. His eyes were slits from squinting into the sun, searching for the enemy and simply surviving.

I raised my camera to photograph the metal coffins glistening in the tropic sun, and he spoke in a soft, commanding voice.

“Son, why don’t you let the boys rest?”

I never took the picture. I didn’t have to. The scene is indelible in my mind.

As I sat in that auditorium, faces came back to me, faces like Michael’s there on the program before me.

The faces are but one. Young, hopeful men laden with war’s accoutrements, eyes expectant, faces smeared by battle’s grime, mindful that they carry the burden of a nation — a mission not of their making. Somehow, amid the danger, they manage a sense of humor and a secret spirit that the rest of us will never know. They do not make the policy that leads to war. They fight for those who do.

Leaving the auditorium was like stepping from another world. This was a celebration of duty, honor and country. For a few minutes there, it was the way America is supposed to be. The 58,000 killed in Vietnam never had that moment.
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