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
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
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
Here are three of those stories.
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
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.
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every Monday, they’re out there, a dozen
strong. Three years ago, their numbers were larger.
But the strength of their convictions has not
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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