Wednesday, February 22, 2006
A war comes home
Message: Governor sttends all state citizen military funeralsArticle Title: A war comes home
Oregon's governor, a devoted father who was raised as an orphan,wants Oregon citizens to feel the loss of other families' children Governor: Attends to honor those who died, and the returning
In a kinder world, a man who attends the funeral of a young man he's never met would be appreciated for showing support to a grief-stricken family.
But when the visiting mourner is the governor of Oregon, and he does it more than 45 times in three years, people grow ambivalent. While military families say they're grateful for Ted Kulongoski's attention to their sacrifices, politicians and policy wonks are less impressed. Some dismiss his attendance as a ceremonial function, the kind vice presidents or staffers should handle. The most important thing the governor can do, they say, is to show leadership in Salem.
Former Gov. John Kitzhaber, when pressed recently to praise any aspect of Kulongoski's performance as governor, noted only that he has attended a lot of funerals.
What critics don't know is that the governor -- raised as an orphan and now a devoted father, as well as a former Marine -- feels a very personal pull to each graveside. It's a connection mourning families see, but the public may miss.
When the governor placed a condolence call to Michelle DeFord, whose son, Oregon National Guard Sgt. David Johnson, was killed near Baghdad in the fall of 2004, he was concerned that her husband hadn't yet heard the news. Steve DeFord was on his regular camping trip in remote southeastern Oregon when the casualty assistance officers showed up at their house. Kulongoski offered to send a helicopter to find him.
"I thought it was amazing," Michelle said.
Kulongoski has become "a war governor," reaching out to stricken families far more often than he contemplated when he took office three years ago, before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. While unanticipated, it was a role he was born for.
When Kulongoski was born in 1940 in rural Missouri, southwest of St. Louis, his father was dying of cancer. After he was gone, his mother made a hard choice: she and her daughter, Kulongoski's sister, would try to make a life together. Raising a little boy, though, was more than she could handle. She turned him over to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who ran the St. Joseph's Home for Boys in St. Louis.
His mother re-entered his life during his high school years, but it was the nuns who taught Kulongoski what it meant to work and to contribute to a community. Later on, when he was a Marine recruit, a drill instructor pulled him aside during a formation and said, "We think you're the first guy we've ever brought through here who actually likes this."
In the governor's office, Kulongoski still laughs when he recounts his reply: "Sir, compared to the nuns, you guys are a piece of cake."
Kulongoski didn't know his father and wasn't close to his mother. He got a sense of belonging from the nuns and a sense of patriotism from the Marines, who sent him to Thailand when Laos was simmering in 1962. But he says today he is most defined by his role as a father. And it's why he so keenly feels the loss of other families' children.
"Nothing in my life means more to me than my kids," he says, shifting his gaze to the photo of the three smiling adults in their 30s, arm in arm. One son is in Australia, another is in southern California and a daughter is in Portland. The governor is fiercely protective of them, declaring them out of bounds for the press that trails him through his public life.
"I grew up and I said, if I ever get married, I would never, ever not tell my kids every night I love them," he says. As he spoke, the water in his eye broke, and a tear ran to the collar of his crisp white shirt.
So when the governor calls an Oregon family that just heard the worst possible news from a casualty assistance officer, he says their loss pierces his heart. "What would I think if the governor was calling me about my sons?" he wonders.
At every funeral, Kulongoski says he learns something about each of the victims of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says Oregon was robbed of the vast potential displayed in the brief life of Erik McCrae, who finished college with perfect grades in less than three years, joined the National Guard, was sent to Baghdad and was killed by a roadside bomb in 2004.
The state also suffers when a young man dies before he can use his military service to get a college degree and leave the family trade, Kulongoski says, remembering a hug from a mourner whose new suit coat still had a tag on its cuff.
Kulongoski himself used the G.I. Bill to escape a laborer's job at an Alton, Ill., steel mill, get two college degrees from the University of Missouri and become a lawyer. He knows carrying a rifle can be the ticket to a better life. But some kids don't get to punch that ticket.
"They don't all have to be scientists. They can just be good citizens," the governor said. "These kids never got the chance. That's what bothers me the most."
As the deaths mounted and the funerals continued, Kulongoski's view of them has grown more complicated. As he watches the ebbing of the state's vitality against a backdrop of a distant, confusing war, his search for meaning has grown more bitter.
The war doesn't touch all Oregonians equally. It punctures some families and reaches deep into some communities, but at the same time, it's possible to live in Oregon in 2006 and feel completely unaffected by the war in Iraq. And that bothers Kulongoski, who admits he is angered by criticisms of his decision to attend the funerals.
Charles Moskos, military scholar, sociologist and Northwestern University professor emeritus, says much of the public has already tuned out the war. Because there is no draft that cuts across all segments of society, most citizens aren't being asked to sacrifice.
So when Kulongoski is criticized for attending military funerals, Moskos says, "I think it's because people don't want to be reminded that some are sacrificing."
That's what's missing today, Kulongoski says: a sense of shared sacrifice.
"The dilemma for us today is that 99.9 percent of the public is detached from this conflict because it's not their children. As much as I want the parents to know that I care as the governor of the state, I want the citizens to see this is important. I'm hoping that . . . if the public knows their governor attends, maybe they will think this is important and I should pay attention to what's happening."
For the families who lose a soldier, a Marine, an airman or a sailor, Kulongoski's attention is welcome. Family members interviewed for this story say they're grateful the governor showed concern for them. They say he's absolutely sincere.
"My family appreciated it greatly," said Kimberly Bemiss of Banks, whose brother, Army Sgt. Jacob Simpson, was killed in northern Iraq last spring. "His job did not and does not require him to honor my brother or show so much care for my family, but he did." She says her mother was touched when the governor gave her a state flag that was flown in her son's honor over the Capitol.
The governor says he attends funerals not just to honor the young people who have died, but also the ones who survive. "You have to realize these kids are coming home." But if the public doesn't recognize the importance of their service, veterans can become just another discretionary line item in an agency budget.
"When do you stand up and be outraged?" Kulongoski asks. "We've got to make sure there's more than enough money to take care of these kids who have fought these wars and are coming back. To me, it should be the top of the list."
The governor wishes the funerals would stop. But as a commander in chief at a time of war, he knows he has no more important duty.
Associate editor Mike Francis was embedded in Iraq with the Oregon National Guard in July 2004 and January-March 2005. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please visit Veterans for Common Sense at http://www.veteransforcommonsense.org