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‘‘The war is now passé,’’ said Sue Boule of Dracut, whose son was Massachusetts’ first military casualty of the war in Iraq.
‘‘The war is now passé,’’ said Sue Boule of Dracut, whose son was Massachusetts’ first military casualty of the war in Iraq. (Dina Rudick/ Globe Staff)

Grieving families find little peace

(Clarification: A Page One story yesterday about deaths in the war in Iraq used the phrase ''2,000 Purple Hearts" to describe the loss of the 2,000 US military personnel who had died in Iraq as of Tuesday. The phrase was not intended as a literal tally. Not all US personnel who have died in Iraq would be eligible for the medal, which honors those killed or wounded in action, a Pentagon spokesman said. The Pentagon said it does not have a ready count of how many of the medals have been awarded to those killed in Iraq.)

There are 2,000 of them now.

Two thousand Purple Hearts. Two thousand knocks on the door. Two thousand flags folded smartly into triangles.

Modern warfare is waged with laser-guided weapons and the sophistication of satellites, but its symbols of loss endure.

And as the toll of US military deaths in Iraq reached the 2,000 mark yesterday, six of the families who cherish those symbols -- medals and ribbons and tokens of condolence -- say they are resolved to preserve the legacy, and memory, of the men and women who died in a war that most Americans, polls say, have turned against.

Across the months and years, their sense of loss still aches and echoes. Sometimes it is as inescapable as the picture on the mantel. Sometimes it creeps in, catching them unawares.

In Westbrook, Maine, a little boy, just 2 when his father was killed, suddenly looks up from his plate of spaghetti and Parmesan cheese and asks his mother: ''How did Daddy die?"

In North Kingstown, R.I., two mothers wonder why they still scan an Internet list of the victims of the war. ''We don't want to see our sons there," Donna August finally concludes. ''We want to wake up from a bad dream."

In Albany, Vt., where Marine Sergeant Jesse Strong's Purple Heart sits atop a dresser in his boyhood bedroom, his parents gaze outside his window to rolling green hayfields and recall the bright-eyed boy who used to stare through binoculars at deer in the near distance and at the stars in the midnight sky.

''He didn't even want to kill a deer," Vicki Strong says of her son. ''He just would go out in the woods."

The families interviewed by the Globe -- one from each New England state -- voice a range of feelings about the war: bewilderment, anger, acceptance, pride. But they agree that the public's growing antipathy for the war concerns them less than their sense that this conflict has become, for many of their neighbors and countrymen, an abstraction, its casualties obscured by worries closer to home -- the monster storms, the rising fuel prices, the exigencies of everyday life.

A war fought by volunteers in a strange, far-off place seems, they say, especially hard for the nation to keep in mind.

''That's the worst fear," says August, whose son Matthew was killed in Iraq last year. ''If you ask all 2,000 families, that's the thing that you fear the most. That your son died in vain."

Waterford, Conn.
Cpl. Kemaphoom Chanawongse

Kemaphoom ''Ahn" Chanawongse was among the first to die.

Shortly after his 18th birthday, he returned to his home in Waterford, after a visit to Boston, and announced to his stunned mother and stepfather that he had signed up to be a Marine.

A native of Thailand, he had immigrated to the United States with his family at age 9, leaving behind a country where military service was a proud family tradition. His grandfather served in the Thai Air Force. And now Chanawongse would serve, too.

''I told him, 'I'm very proud of [you], but this is not a small decision,' " his stepfather, Paul Patchem, recalled at his home along the Niantic River.

Chanawongse's nickname, ''Ahn," is a Thai term of endearment for a chubby child. In short order, the Marine Corps trimmed the fat from the young man, who saw military service as his entree to college and a career.

''Mom, you don't know how handsome I am," Tan Patchem recalled her son saying in his first call home from boot camp.

On March 23, 2003, in the opening days of the United States' attack on Iraq, Marine Corporal Chanawongse, 22, was killed in an intense firefight in Nasiriyah. His amphibious vehicle was reduced to twisted metal.

In the bindings of her son's journal, shipped back from Iraq with other personal belongings, Tan Patchem can still feel the grit of sand from the desert. The small book contains elaborate drawings, sketched in ink by the young man who was frequently warned, as a boy, not to write on the walls of his bedroom. He did it anyway.

Inside, he had tucked a picture of his grandfather in his military uniform. Also Arabic translations of battlefield commands he never had to issue: ''Do you have weapons?" and ''I am going to search you." In the language of his native country, he had inscribed a prayer about the teachings of Buddha.

The book has become a mother's treasure, a mother whose pride in her adopted country is as strong as her desire for peace. When news of another war death arrives, she lowers her flag to half-staff. If the funeral is nearby, she and her husband pay their respects.

''He finished his job," Tan Patchem said of her youngest of two sons. ''The rest is for another person's son or daughter. . . . I wish there was no more war."

As a soft rain fell outside their small home in southeastern Connecticut, Tan Patchem said the war has changed significantly since her son died fighting it.

What was briefly a war fought against trained, uniformed soldiers, fighting under the command of a dictator, is now a battle with a chronic insurgency, driven by forces she struggles to understand.

''I think there is hate," she said.

Dracut, Mass.
Specialist Mathew Boule

Ten days after Patchem's son was killed, Sue Boule lost her son, too.

Like Chanawongse, Mathew Boule of Dracut was 22 years old. He, too, saw military service as a way to gain skills that could help him launch his career. The Army specialist was the crew chief on a Black Hawk helicopter that went down near the city of Karbala on April 2, 2003. When a military notification team showed up at Boule's door at 11:35 p.m. the next day, she collapsed in her entryway.

''I was on the floor screaming," she said. ''I told the military guy -- I'm sure he's a very nice person, but I'm sorry, I didn't want to talk to him -- 'At this point, I hate you.' "

The funeral for the first Massachusetts military casualty of the war was one of the largest in the city's history. More than 100 cars lined up for a procession more than 2 miles long. At Oakland Cemetery, Sue and Leo Boule were presented with the Bronze Star and Purple Heart awarded to their son. Little kids waved flags. One held a sign that said, ''Thank you, Matt, Rest in Peace."

The crowds are gone now.

Sue Boule, who works part time as a waitress at the Dracut Family Diner, said she rarely hears the war discussed over bacon and eggs in the morning or across the luncheon counter at noon.

''It went on for a week that people remembered him," she said last week, nursing a cup of coffee at the diner. ''And then the next one was killed and it goes on to something else. It's just like anything else, the war is now passe."

In 2003, the story of her son's death was front-page news.

Today, she said, she's more likely to learn about fatalities from items tucked into the back pages of the newspaper, or through words crawling across the bottom of a television screen.

''They don't want to hear about this war," she said.

Two weeks after Mat Boule was buried, President Bush stood on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier returning from the Persian Gulf. ''We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide," the president said. A banner in the background read, ''Mission Accomplished."

''The war is over as far as Bush is concerned," Boule said. ''We're just over there sustaining things. . . . People don't realize that there's still a war."

North Kingstown, R.I.
Captain Matthew August

Richard August sometimes plays a quiet game with himself.

In it, his son still lives.

Matthew August is still leading his men into combat, still the proud professional soldier who graduated from West Point, met his future wife, Maureen, there, and began to build a family and a service career.

In his pocket, he still carries a poem entitled ''A Soldier."

''I sometimes pretend that he's still alive and that we just haven't heard from him for a while," his father said. Then something will intrude, some object or encounter that returns him to his flattened world: ''He's not coming back."

On a recent rain-swept morning, that reminder came during a formal ceremony hosted by US Representative Jim Langevin. August and his wife, Donna, visited Langevin's office in Warwick, R.I., to accept three medals to honor the 28-year-old Army captain. The North Kingstown native died when a roadside bomb exploded next to his convoy in Khalidiyah, Iraq, on Jan. 27, 2004.

The ceremony was short and somber. Donna August spoke briefly and barely beyond a whisper before her husband wrapped his arm around her and escorted her from the room.

''The pain," Donna August explained. ''It's reliving that day all over again."

If there is any salve, the Augusts agree later, it comes from the memory of their son's confident military credo.

''His attitude was, 'This is what we're trained to do,' " Richard August said. '' 'We're professional soldiers and this is what I signed up for.' "

Before Matthew August left for Iraq in September 2003, his father helped him tie up loose ends and then bade him farewell.

''Don't come home with a chest full of medals," he remembers telling his son. ''Just come home."

Like his son, August does not question the decision to invade Iraq. But as a student of military history, he questions the prosecution of the war.

''Yeah, mission was accomplished. We got to Baghdad," he said. ''But I think it's been demonstrated that the follow-on planning was not in place."

He bristles against the short attention span of the American people. And he criticizes the Bush administration for not requiring sacrifices from everyone.

''We're not going to raise taxes. We're not going to inconvenience anyone. We're not going to ask anyone except the military and their families to make a sacrifice," he said. ''That's what I fault this administration for."

As her husband speaks, Donna August sits quietly on a nearby couch, poring over an old photo album, spotting a picture of Matthew as a little boy lying under the family Christmas tree and beaming at a favorite present: G.I. Joe.

Her son's death has changed her in a fundamental way that she cannot adequately describe.

''I'll never be the same person," she said. ''He's part of me."

She said the public's indifference to the war rankles her. Sometimes, she said, she wants to take people by the shoulders and shake them. ''They're not [talking about it] because it's not affecting them personally," she said. ''It hurts. It hurts a lot."

But people who make the war their cause can anger her, too.

On a recent flight from Maryland, her seatmate expressed support for Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in the war and who became a symbol for the antiwar movement after she camped in front of Bush's ranch in Texas. It was a shame, the woman said, that Sheehan, who erected crosses to symbolize the war dead, had been arrested at another protest.

''I said to her, 'Who gave her the right to put those crosses up?' And she said, 'Well, they were soldiers who died in Iraq.' I said, 'My son was one of them. I didn't give her permission to put my son's name up there. If she chooses to grieve her son that way, I don't choose to grieve my son that way.' "

Mostly, Donna August said, she stays home and grieves in private.

''I cry here," she said, her voice again a whisper. ''At home. By myself. With my husband."

Westbrook, Maine
Sergeant Lawrence Roukey

The pain sneaks up on Ryann Roukey.

Suddenly she is a single mother, and there are schedules to maintain and routines to preserve. With a 4-year-old in day care, and a teenage daughter newly licensed to drive a car, there is little time for self-pity.

Still, 18 months after her husband, Sergeant Lawrence Roukey, was killed in an explosion in a Baghdad warehouse, the simplest thing can break her heart all over again: A happy couple walking hand in hand. A person laughing on a street corner.

''How do I get that in my life again?" she wondered. ''Does my life ever feel like it's going to go back on again? Am I ever going to find another true love that I had with Larry? I hope so. Maybe some day. But I don't really foresee that because, like I said, he was my true love. He was my hero. And I don't have that hero anymore."

Larry Roukey made things easy. He doted on his newborn son, Nicholas. He and his stepdaughter Sonya had their clashes, but he wrote her a tender note from Iraq telling her how much he loved her, how proud he was to call her his daughter.

Ryann Roukey had figured that the man who got down on his knees near a Martha's Vineyard beach to propose to her, the man who mowed the lawn on Saturdays, took out the trash, and made sure the mortgage was paid would be around forever.

''I just felt like he was my protector, my strength," she said.

When the World Trade Towers fell in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, Larry Roukey turned to his wife, crying in their living room in Westbrook, and told her that if there was ever a time to serve his country, this was it. He was ready to go to war. And his wife never feared for his safety, even when she could hear the sounds of bombing in the distance when he called home.

In the days before Larry Roukey was buried from the same church in which he was baptized, confirmed, and married, his widow shook the hands of 1,200 mourners and was given a folded American flag on behalf of a grateful nation. And soon she was back home, raising two children by herself.

If he had lived, Larry Roukey would have taken his family to Disney World last year when he came home on leave. Ryann decided to make the trip herself. During a layover at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, she disciplined a rambunctious Nicholas for wandering off. A woman nearby scolded her for being too tough on the little boy, threatening to call security.

''I said, 'I'm doing the best that I can under the circumstances,' " she recalled. ''And then I looked right at her. I said, 'Let me tell you something. If my husband hadn't died in the war, he'd be sitting right here next to me helping me.' "

She finds herself wondering whether people have forgotten about her and her husband's sacrifice. But there's no time to dwell on it.

As the shadows lengthen across her backyard, Nicholas bounces in from day care and dashes straight for a laptop computer and a favorite video game.

Ryann focuses on the keyboard and her son. There are meals to be cooked, pumpkins to be decorated, lives to live.

''Nicholas always says to me, 'You know, Mom, you're the bestest Mom ever in the world.' . . . It's everything to me," she said.

Littleton, N.H.
Specialist Jeremy Regnier

Kevin Regnier's relationship with his son Jeremy was combustive. When they were in the same room together, sparks flew.

''Two peas in a pod, that's why," Kevin's wife, Shawn, explained.

At 17, Jeremy had joined the National Guard, a part-time commitment that brought in $120 a month. But the father saw the son drifting. Jeremy dropped out of school, got a third-shift job, and seemed without direction.

''I said, 'You've got two choices: You're going to join [the Army] full time or get out.' So he went in and joined full time," Kevin Regnier said.

When he returned home from training, the aimless boy had become a man -- a grown-up with drive, ambition, and skills. ''He said it was the best thing I ever did for him," Kevin Regnier recalled from his home in Littleton.

Before he left for Iraq, Jeremy Regnier hiked with his father through the mountains of nearby Franconia. He said that the Army was his career now and that if something happened to him, he wanted his ashes spread atop Mount Washington. He wanted his savings used to pay for his sister's education. He did not want people to make a fuss.

When it was time to leave, Kevin Regnier saw the fear in his son's face. ''I just looked him in the eyes and said, 'If you don't want to go back, I understand. I'll help you out. You're going to face the consequences. But I'll stand behind you,' " Regnier recalled. ''And he looked right back at me and said, 'I have to. It's my job.' "

When Specialist Jeremy Regnier, 22, died outside Baghdad on Oct. 13, 2004, he fell into the arms of Sergeant Andrew M. Wilson, his superior officer. The armored vehicle they rode in was rocked by a roadside bomb.

''We turned a corner and it just went black," Wilson recalled. ''I didn't know what the hell happened. . . . I'm talking to Jeremy at the same time. I'm like, 'What the hell was that, dude? Hey, what do you see? What do you see?' I didn't realize it until I slapped him to see if he was all right that he was gone."

Two days before the first anniversary of that mortal attack, Staff Sergeant Wilson -- retired and suffering from post-traumatic stress -- sat at the dining room table in Littleton with Regnier's parents and tried to make sense of this war. He can't.

''When you have Iraqis, [whose] job is to get up in the morning, kiss their kids, have their breakfast, and go blow themselves up -- I don't know how to fight that," said Wilson. ''That's why I'm here and not there anymore."

Kevin Regnier supports the troops but doesn't understand the war either. He has come to believe that the assault on Baghdad was driven by the president's desire to finish a job that his father, the first President Bush, began in 1991.

''He's a warmonger," Regnier said of the current president. ''If . . . we must do this, then why isn't he sending any of his family? Why [aren't] the politicians' families over there?"

When a co-worker recently announced that her daughter had joined the Army, Shawn Regnier couldn't bring herself to speak to her.

''If I knew half of what was going on over there, I don't think I would have let Jeremy go back," she said, blinking away tears. ''I don't think I would have let him go on the plane. I wouldn't have driven him to the frickin' airport."

Albany, Vt.
Sergeant Jesse Strong

He wrote lyrical letters and typed out e-mail messages from the desert.

''I'm very excited about life in general and I'm looking forward to seeing what the future may hold for me," Marine Sergeant Jesse Strong scrawled on his last postcard from Iraq.

But Strong loved the sounds of his Vermont home, too, so he stood in long lines for the 30 minutes he was allowed to use the phone.

He collected local gossip and caught up on family matters, but in a call earlier this year he turned to a harder question. There was talk in camp about the war -- how it was being fought, and why. So Strong asked his father, a pastor at the local Methodist church, for guidance.

''He valued my opinion so he called up and said, 'What do you think?' So I told him that good people that we know say it's important for us to be there," Nathan Strong recalled. ''So that's a good start. People that I don't trust say that we shouldn't be there and to me that says we should be there. Well, that settled it."

On the night he was killed, on Jan. 26 in an ambush northwest of Baghdad, Jesse Strong, 24, a former seminary student who was proud to serve his country, led his unit in prayer. Hours later, a rocket-propelled grenade killed him instantly.

And in the eight months since two Marines in dress blue uniforms stood ramrod straight in their living room to deliver the terrible news, Nathan and Vicki Strong have leaned on prayer, too.

In the quiet of the morning, Vicki Strong reads her Bible in her bedroom, and struggles. She fingers her son's watchband, sent home from Iraq with his belongings.

''We never lost peace. There was never despair. And never any darkness," Vicki Strong said. ''I know for sure that Jesse's life wasn't in vain and that his sacrifice will show in history that it was worth something for them to be there."

Nathan Strong said he no longer worries or cares about the fading public support for the war. His son is gone and that makes almost everything else meaningless. He feels, he said, like ''the guy who swallowed a live toad every morning so that nothing worse could happen to him all day."

On Memorial Day, after the frost had released its grip on nearby Chamberlin Hill, the Strongs buried their son in a historic cemetery alongside Civil War veterans and 19th-century ministers.

When friends tell Nathan Strong that their children, too, are considering military service, he advises them to head up Chamberlin Hill and look at his son's gleaming white gravestone.

If they want to serve after that, he said, they're ready to go.

''You pray for your kids," Nathan Strong said. ''You want good things for them. And you want their life to be worthwhile and accomplish something and be fulfilling. And in all that we have seen in the past six months, that was the case with Jesse.

''So our prayers have been answered."

Thomas Farragher can be reached at

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