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Published: Thursday, 4/21/2011

COMMENTARY

Castalia casualty brings war home

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COMMENTARY WRITER

In A small ranch house at the end of a long stretch of driveway, an Ohio family hoped beyond hope that the information was wrong. Last Saturday, Charles Adkins, of Milan Township in Erie County, got a call from his daughter-in-law saying his son had been killed in Afghanistan.

It couldn't be true. Not "Chucky." Not Army Sgt. 1st Class Charles Adkins, who grew up in Castalia, graduated from Margaretta High School, and was a fanatical Cleveland Browns fan.

Not the 36-year-old veteran who survived two dicey Iraq tours and was deployed to Afghanistan last November. Not the beefy career soldier who was stationed for almost a decade at Ft. Campbell, Ky., and couldn't wait to get home to his wife and five kids, ages 2 to 13.

But the desperate wish of his disbelieving family vanished when Chuck's stepmother, Velvet Adkins, spied 1st. Sgt. Craig Murray walking up the road.

The appearance of the notification officer in dress uniform from the Ohio National Guard Armory near Sandusky was confirmation of the worst: Sergeant Adkins had been killed in a suicide bombing.

Eddie Adkins told the Sandusky Register that his cousin had been assigned to train members of the Afghan army at a military base in eastern Afghanistan. One of those soldiers reportedly showed up for duty with a hidden bomb strapped to his chest that he detonated, killing five NATO trainers, including Sergeant Adkins.

According to the Associated Press, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the suicide bomber, who apparently trained with the Afghan troops for a month before carrying out his attack. The U.S. Army is investigating the incident. Details about Sergeant Adkins' death have not been released.

But the family released pictures that show a smiling soldier at home a month before he was deployed -- at a Browns game, of course -- and a grim-faced sergeant on the job in Army fatigues who was far too familiar with close calls. The son was the spitting image of his father, a grizzled Vietnam veteran in a world of pain.

On the elder Mr. Adkins' front lawn, an American flag has been lowered to half staff on a landscaped island that also features a 3-foot-tall yellow ribbon. Mrs. Adkins answered the door when I tentatively approached to learn more about the family's loss and offer a stranger's condolences.

Mrs. Adkins demurred, politely begging off more inquiries and making hasty excuses for her husband. But from behind her he moved toward me, looking lost and haggard, with eyes swollen from grief.

The news had spread quickly. Mr. Adkins had fielded numerous calls, sat through interviews, and cried. He spoke haltingly to me about his boy, his only child, and then grew quiet.

Impulsively, I hugged him, expressed my sorrow for his unimaginable anguish, and left with a promise to call again. On the way home, I thought about another occasion, many years ago, when I had intruded on a family in a daze over a soldier's death.

When the suicide bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut claimed the lives of 241 American servicemen in 1983, local news media got word that one of the dead soldiers was from the Cleveland area. Reporters and camera people descended on the humble bungalow of an area family whose son was believed, and later confirmed, to be among the casualties.

The parents sat on a sofa, shell-shocked. Reporters trooped through, scrutinized a framed picture of a young man who will never grow old, and moved on.

I lingered in that small living room for a moment, studying the drained faces of the distraught parents. The mother wore a sweater that was buttoned all wrong.

Nervously, I cast about for conversation and asked about her family's background. When it turned out we shared the same ethnicity, she spoke a little Slovak and smiled through tears.

That was almost 30 years ago, but the faces and feelings of that day are easily recalled. Since then, I've become a mom myself, which could explain why it was so difficult to keep my emotions in check as I stood next to a father crumbling over a lost son.

Each addition to the death toll in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has a name, a face, and a family. This week, it is Charles Adkins from northwest Ohio. Honor him and pray for his family.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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