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Published: Friday, 9/17/2004

Time can't ease pain of lives lost in the desert sand

AT HIS funeral his children clutched American flags and cried. Seven months later, family grief over the death of an Ohio soldier in Iraq has turned to anger against the government that put him in harm's way for no good reason. A sign of their rising indignation is planted in their front yard. The large placard reads, "Thanks Mr. Bush for the death of our son."

In April I wrote about Army Staff Sgt. Sean Landrus from Geauga County. He was driving a truck about 60 miles west of Baghdad when a roadside bomb exploded near his convoy. On Jan. 29, the 31-year-old father of three succumbed to his injuries. He left behind a 12-year-old daughter, a spitting-image 4-year-old towhead son, and a baby girl born just before Sgt. Landrus left to serve in Iraq.

A family photo taken a year before he was deployed shows Chris, his high school sweetheart, smiling broadly with her young children alongside her more serious-looking blond husband with a crew cut. Over Christmas the Landrus clan sent a video to Sean in Iraq full of words about missing him. It included an admonition to daddy from 4-year-old Kenneth not to get killed.

The poignant, haunting tragedy stayed with me long after the soldier I never knew was buried. Those who did know Sean remembered him as a star athlete in high school, excelling in football, basketball, and track. Betty Landrus said the youngest of her six children had a competitive streak that wouldn't quit. "He hated to be taken out of a game or anything when he was playing sports. If he got an injury or anything, he'd bug the coach to send him back out there," his mother recalled.

Multiply her pain by over a thousand similar heartaches throughout the country, heartaches that time has not healed. The suffering is compounded daily with the chaotic, violent news from Iraq. Lives full of plans and potential end abruptly and far too often in a world light years from home. Miss a day or two of the posted casualty tolls and the number of U.S. deaths in Iraq jumps alarmingly.

Read some of the personal stories of the fallen. Look at the expanding roster of dead Ohioans. Most were in their early 20s, a couple were only 19, a few were 30-something like Sean, and one was a 42-year-old. Account after account blames their deaths on a homemade device that exploded during transport or combat. Death also came regularly by rocket-propelled grenades, mortar attacks, insurgent ambushes, missile attacks on helicopters, or wartime accidents unrelated to hostile action.

Get used to it. More lives will be wasted in the hot desert sand over the next few years. Face it. The pre-emptive war President Bush started in Iraq has awful shades of Vietnam. The military mission in Iraq is increasingly murky. There is no exit strategy. The principle reasons the Bush Administration gave for going to war against the sovereign nation have been exposed as baseless.

Iraqi militants, dancing around charred vehicles or body parts strewn about after the latest surge of violence, don't welcome American troops as liberators. They hate them as imperialist/occupiers set on nation-building with a democratic bent. "Bush is a dog," chanted angry crowds after a bombing in Baghdad this week killed at least 59 people and wounded some 114. The same day insurgents left three American soldiers dead and blew up a junction where multiple oil pipelines cross the Tigris River.

We are not winning this war begun on the nonexistent threat of weapons of mass destruction. We are not winning the hearts and minds of anyone in the region as Iraqi deaths rise, security collapses, parts of Iraq are abandoned to reigning militias, and a puppet government in Baghdad struggles to survive assassination attempts.

Any wonder that Sean Landrus' family and others who mourn the irreplaceable loss of a son or daughter in Operation Iraqi Freedom now sense they were used to fight a war not worth fighting? Afghanistan harbored terrorists with direct links to 9/11. Iraq had a thug president whose reviled regime was largely contained by United Nations sanctions and allied flight surveillance.

It's possible that after Mr. Bush finishes his second term, assuming his re-election, Americans will remain bogged down in his war of choice, fighting and dying for who knows what - indefinitely. But in small towns across the country where the sacrifice is greatest and allegiance to country unshakable, the fault lines are beginning to show.

Proud military families, loyal supporters of the President, are wondering out loud whether their young soldier died for nothing. They feel lied to about the reasons for invading Iraq and some are even angry enough to pin the deaths of their loved ones on the commander in chief himself.


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