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IRAQ West Michigan Responds

On the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, families, soldiers and citizens share poignant stories and perspectives from the home front.

By Curt Wozniak

Only 326 miles separate Grand Rapids from Bagdad … Bagdad, Ky., that is. But unless you’re from there or know someone who lives there, the small central Kentucky town, population 2,182, might as well be on the other side of the world.

Baghdad, Iraq, is more than 6,300 miles from Grand Rapids. It literally is on the other side of the world. Yet, ever since the United States invaded Iraq in the early morning of March 20, 2003, West Michigan — like the rest of the nation — has been intimately connected to this foreign capital and the nation it represents.

The personal connections are obvious. Most of us know someone who has gone “up range” or someone who is waiting to be deployed. At the time of this writing, 152,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Iraq. According to Hugh Hess, chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Military and Veterans Affairs in Lansing, there’s no way to know what portion of those troops came from West Michigan. He wouldn’t even venture a guess.

The Iraq war has many fronts, some of which are closer to home than others. With the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion coming up this month, that fact will become increasingly evident. Whether or not you have a personal connection to this conflict, you will be drawn in.

There will be local rallies in support of our troops. There will be local protests in opposition to Bush administration policies. There will be attempts made on all sides to shape your opinions about the war, its justifications, its objectives.

This is not one of them.

Grand Rapids Magazine tells West Michigan’s stories. And over the past three years, none of our stories have had so many sides, so many angles, and so many extremes as the story of West Michigan’s response to the war in Iraq. From the car ribbon magnets we display on our vehicles, to the prayers we offer at worship, to the tireless work of some individuals inspired by a love of peace, to the enormous sacrifices of some families with loved ones far from home, the conflict in Iraq touches all of us in small ways — and many of us in life-changing ways.

Here are three of those stories.

A Parent’s Heart
You know you’ve bonded with someone when a pronoun needs no attribution, when “he” sounds as specific and familiar as a nickname.

When members of the West Michigan Military Family Support group gather for their bi-monthly meetings at the Salvation Army’s Dickinson Park Corps Community Center on Grand Rapids’ southeast side, they don’t need to clarify to one another who “he” is when updating each other on what “he” is up to. In every case, “he” is their soldier or their Marine, their son (mostly sons in this group) bound for, stationed in, or recently returned from Iraq.

Such a specific connection to sentiments expressed in such general language only happens with people who share a unique experience — unique and, in this case, difficult. As the group’s motto says, “One of the toughest jobs in the military is being a military family member.”

Rena Guttrich is the group’s acting leader. Her son, Bruce, is an Army combat medic currently stationed in Germany. He’s contemplating a third tour of duty in Iraq.

“ You can talk to family, you can talk to friends, you can talk to co-workers, but they kind of get tired of it, and they don’t completely understand,” Guttrich said. “This group knows. They’ve been there. They’ve felt it. They’ve had the highs and lows, the waiting for the phone calls, the watching the news, all of that. And they know, they understand and they’re supportive.”

During the group’s Jan. 12 meeting, Army mom Barb Waalkes needed that support. She shared with the group that she was not sure exactly where her son was. “He always says, ‘That’s the life of an infantry soldier,’” Waalkes told the group.

At that point, Waalkes had not received a call or an e-mail from her son in two weeks, and the last time she spoke with him, he sounded depressed. “He said to me, ‘Tell me why I’m here,’” she said, tearing up. “I didn’t know what to tell him.”

“ Tell him that you love him and you support him,” reassured Kathi Cullen, a Marine mom whose son was, at the time, two weeks away from completing his third tour in Iraq. Cullen put her arm around Waalkes. “Cry with him if he needs it.”

They’ve all been there. Everyone questions it. And in this group, there’s always someone who can help others get through it. Soon, tears give way to laughter, as they did for Waalkes, and the group moves on to planning its ongoing project, Operation Pillow Talk.

To date, West Michigan Military Family Support, with the help of the Salvation Army, Two Men and a Truck, and several other local organizations, has shipped more than 3,500 decorated pillows to troops stationed in Iraq. “Nobody can believe it,” Guttrich explained, “but they are not issued pillows.” The pillows are a little bit of physical comfort, but the messages they bear offer emotional comfort as well: We support our troops. You are always in our prayers. Thank you for serving our country.

These expressions are not only a comfort to the recipients, but also to the senders. West Michigan Military Family Support uses Operation Pillow Talk as a way for others in the community — from local school children to Centerpointe Mall shoppers — to reach out to the soldiers.

“ Our main focus is to make sure that people do not forget our kids — the soldiers, the troops,” Guttrich explained, “and to make sure that they know they are supported.

“ It doesn’t matter whether you believe in the war or not. Our kids are there, and that’s all that matters to us. Operation Pillow Talk and the other things we do as a group are ways for families here to feel like we’re a part of it.”

The group’s major pillow drive is the first Saturday in November at Centerpointe Mall, which ensures delivery by the holidays. A spring event was being planned as this issue went to press. For more information, e-mail westmiusmcfamilysupport@netscape.com.

A Citizen’s Responsibility
Every Monday, they’re out there, a dozen strong. Three years ago, their numbers were larger. But the strength of their convictions has not diminished.

They congregate at the center of the Grand Rapids street grid on one of the most high-profile corners of the city, Division Avenue and Fulton Street. If you pass the corner during afternoon rush hour, you’ve probably seen them. You may have honked for peace, as some of their signs implore passersby to do. You may have shaken your head in disgust at a perceived lack of patriotism in a time of war. You may simply have wondered why they continue to do it week after week, in all kinds of weather, three years into a military campaign that few believe will end soon.

“ Everybody out here feels that three years of this war is three years too long already,” said Drew Stoppels of East Grand Rapids.

“ We’re out here because the war is still going on, and people are still dying over there — on both sides,” said Helene Rumney, one of the regulars at the weekly protest.

“ We’re here for peace,” agreed Betty Ford of Grand Rapids. She cites the dangerous potential of the world’s powerful nations and their growing military muscles as cause for alarm. “We have to find another way to settle things,” she added.

“ And we do support our troops!” Rumney interjected. “We’re trying to bring them home.” Not everyone sees it that way.

“ I guess I’m wondering if these people understand what our young men are going through, and not only with this war but every war,” mused Mary Wu, a veteran Grand Rapids military mom. As a corporal in the Marines, Wu’s youngest son, David Preston Hills, put in more than 15,000 miles driving convoy in Iraq. Since July 2005, he’s been back in the states and is currently stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

“ Every generation has to fight for its freedom,” Wu continued. “I don’t know if they realize the sacrifices that were made to give them the right to protest. Their protesting seems to get a lot more media coverage than the good that we do. I don’t think they realize what that does to the morale of the soldiers over there.”

But media attention has been neither the objective nor the outcome of local protests. Grand Rapids Magazine was the first local media outlet in months to pay any attention to local war protestors. They last entertained a reporter’s questions in August 2005, when their numbers swelled to 100 for a candlelight vigil in support of Cindy Sheehan. Sheehan is the California woman who made national headlines last summer when she camped outside of President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, demanding a meeting with the president so he could explain to her why her son, Casey, had to die in Iraq.

“ If it wasn’t occasionally for folks like Cindy Sheehan, who has gotten some national exposure, the anti-war perspective would be almost non-existent,” observed Jeff Smith, the director of the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy, an affiliate of the Community Media Center.

From Aug. 1 through Nov. 8, 2005, GRIID studied local TV news coverage of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The GRIID study is available online at www.griid.org.)
“ It’s easy to see that there’s not a whole lot of variety of opinion and perspective,” Smith said, but added that variety is out there — it’s just off the radar for local media outlets.

“ They haven’t been getting many folks to show up for those Mondays for a variety of reasons … so I can understand on some level not reporting on that action on a regular basis, but the fact is that there are folks who are there, and folks who are thinking about this and who have some knowledge of what’s happening,” he said. “Not to tap into those sources who have a perspective different from the administration’s or the military’s, that’s a red flag.

“ It creates this dichotomy, where it reduces people. So then when somebody does send a letter to the editor that’s critical of the administration, you see a reaction right away: ‘If you’re against the war, then you don’t support the troops.’ Whatever the heck that means.”

According to Smith, dissenting voices end up having to spend time defending whether they support the troops instead of talking about the policies and practices with which they disagree.

A Soldier’s Homecoming
Of the 14 months Staff Sergeant Andy Lytle spent away from his family, serving with the Greenville-based Army National Guard 1073rd Maintenance Co. in Iraq, the longest day was his last: Dec. 8, 2005.

“ We started out not so well in New Jersey,” Lytle remembered one month later in his home outside of Lowell. “We had two separate flights (into Grand Rapids) and our flights were delayed.”

After more than a year of providing maintenance for gun trucks and other vehicles in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, the 1073rd made it out of Iraq virtually unscathed. However, a catering glitch in New Jersey delayed the reunion of these Guardsmen and -women with their families for an extra hour and a half.
“ I can’t speak for everyone,” Lytle said, “but most of us, if not all of us, were getting a little perturbed, because we were anxious to get home.”

There was plenty of anxiety going around. After a 75-minute flight — one that felt hours longer — the 1073rd was greeted with a healthy dose of lake effect as its planes approached Grand Rapids. “I was wondering as we were coming in to land, ‘Gee, this is some bad weather to be landing in. I hope everything will be alright.’”

Fortunately, it was. But the snow did throw more time between Lytle and his wife, Amy, and their two children, Zach, 11, and Brooke, 2. They were waiting in Greenville, along with the families of each returning member of the company.

As a convoy of eight buses transported the company from Gerald R. Ford International Airport up U.S. 131 to Greenville, Lytle had time to reflect amid the celebratory chatter in which his cohorts were engaging.

“ So my buddy and I are looking at each other, and we each had this look in our eyes, this feeling … What’s going on? What’s happening? It was just all like a dream,” Lytle recalled.

“ A whole year had just passed, and it was amazing that it was over, and we were on our way home. It was just an awesome feeling; yet, your stomach was full of butterflies.”

Emotions were high with nowhere to go but up. About a mile outside Greenville, the buses were greeted by the first crowds gathering along the roadsides to welcome them home. Banners called out to individual soldiers by name. “That’s when it really started to set in that we were home,” Lytle said.
The initial plan was for the buses to pull over to let the company march through town. But due to the late hour and the snowy conditions, the buses transported the 1073rd all the way to the armory. And a little boy — lots of little boys, actually — saw his dad for the first time in more than a year.

“ The hours seemed so long,” Zach Lytle shared. “You were just sitting there waiting, ‘When are they going to be here? Are they coming right now?’ Then, all of a sudden, I ran outside of the armory, and I saw sirens, because they were getting escorted from a police car that was leading the buses, and I’m like, ‘They’re home!’
“ I ran inside and waited,” Zach said, laughing. “As soon as my dad walked in the door, I was like, ‘Dad! Over here!’ Yep. And I was just happy.”

Andy Lytle didn’t see Zach at first. The armory was packed with family members and loved ones — “It was wall-to-wall insanity,” as Amy described it. Finally, Zach got his dad’s attention by calling out to him while sitting high up on the shoulders of a family friend.

At the sound of his name, Andy made a beeline for his family. Embracing them, he felt the stress of the day, of the previous 14 months, melt away. There were still ceremonies to be conducted before he would be dismissed, but for Lytle and his family, the dream of being together again was suddenly real.

A year in the life of a young family isn’t measured in seasons or months. Andy Lytle’s deployment meant that he missed Zach’s first football season. It meant that in the midst of this family reunion, 2-year-old Brooke needed a minute to warm up to the real, live daddy she had only seen in photographs for so much of her life.

Lytle also served in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, but with a family back home in Michigan during this deployment, his two Iraq experiences were dramatically different.

“ He missed out on so much family time, you know, seeing the kids grow, and so many things happened that he wasn’t able to be involved with,” Amy said. “Coming back home, we basically had to re-start our lives again.”

Andy Lytle is back at his civilian job as an office manager with B&P Mortgage Inc. in Grand Rapids. He does not have to report to his reserve unit in Greenville again until next month.

“ It’s really, really tough to be away from your family for a year,” Andy said. “I think that’s just way too much. Now, I have no regrets, nor will I. I mean, I’ve got 17 years in and three to go to decide if I want to retire, but it’s still in the back of my mind — a year! How can anyone think that you can be away from your friends and your family for a year?

“ Now that I’m home, I think about the people who are still there, the individual soldiers, and I just feel for them.” GR

   
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