LCpl. Gregory MacDonald, U.S.M.C (NCD)
Anxieties of War Remain
Eight weeks after major hostilities officially ended in Iraq, Matt MacDonald could not stop thinking about his little brother. Every time he heard a report about sniper fire or a deadly ambush, he would tense up and search online from his home computer in the Chicago suburbs, praying his brother was safe. "It's an anxious time," he said last week.
For MacDonald and thousands of other military family members, the end of major combat has not converged with the end of human risk and worry. Instead, they have watched as Iraq has become a blur of misery and violence, with U.S. casualties slowly adding up, one random incident at a time.
This week, the little brother that Matt MacDonald could not forget -- Lance Cpl. Gregory MacDonald, who lived and worked in the District and dreamed of a peacemaking career in Middle Eastern policy -- became another Marine among the dead.
The 29-year-old gunner and reservist was killed Wednesday in the central Iraq city of Hilla as he and six other Marines sped in a light-armored reconnaissance vehicle to help a U.S. unit under ambush. The soft shoulder of the road gave out as they made their way across difficult terrain. Two Marines were injured in the accident, and three others were hurt in the ambush.
"You try to prepare yourself, but you always hope this isn't going to happen," Matt MacDonald said in a breaking voice yesterday when his brother's death was made public. "You reassure yourself by telling yourself that pretty much everybody comes home." He paused. "This is the worst sadness and grief I've ever felt."
The deadly mishap came in a week of growing casualties. Six British soldiers were slain Tuesday in the deadliest single incident for U.S. and British forces since Iraqi president Saddam Hussein fell from power. And yesterday, the fierce clashes continued, with ambushes leaving one U.S. soldier dead and eight other troops injured.
For many relatives, the tick of day-by-day casualties has meant a rising anxiety, making these postwar weeks seem like a second wave of combat. Since May 1, when President Bush declared the end of major hostilities, at least 19 U.S. troops have been killed in attacks and more than three dozen in war-zone accidents.
"I think it's gotten scarier since the war ended," said Nancy Fish, mother of a Marine helicopter mechanic. "You're not fighting armies now, you're fighting pockets of nuts and extremists."
The early relief that came with the war's end is long gone, said Maxine Erlanger, mother of Capt. Craig Erlanger, a Marine platoon commander. "Now we're just as frightened and just as frustrated as we were before." Especially disturbing, she said, are reports of money being paid by Hussein loyalists to Iraqis who kill U.S. troops.
On the phone, her son has told her: "Mom, I'm safe, I'm all right," she said. But, she concluded, "I won't believe it until I see it."
The mood was especially tense and somber yesterday for the friends and relatives of Marines in the Bravo Company of the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, based in Frederick. Gregory MacDonald was the unit's first casualty -- 55 days after the war's end.
"I feel very bad that this has happened to anyone over there, but especially when it's this close," said Paige Fasci, whose husband, Walt, is part of MacDonald's platoon and helped dig out MacDonald's vehicle. "It affects all of us. You become a family."
Like so many military relatives, Fasci was worried the minute she saw a news clip about the accident -- and then more so when it mentioned a Marine in Hilla, where she thought her husband was working.
"You freeze," she said. "You immediately freeze. I instantly got on the computer to see if there was a name."
When the phone rang a short while later and she heard Walt Fasci's familiar "Hello," she almost cried. "Oh thank God," she said happily.
Then she felt a little guilty. "You know that somebody else is not getting that same phone call," she said. "Some other family has lost someone."
These are familiar complexities for military families, many of whom point out that they readily accept the hardships and risks of the armed services. And yet that may be easier in wartime, when flags are flying and public support is more visible. In the last two months, Fasci, a hairstylist at an Old Town Alexandria salon, has noticed that many of her customers assume the worst is over for her family.
"I'm sure you feel better the war has ended," they say expectantly as they walk in among the broad mirrors, snipping scissors and big leather chairs.
"It's not over for me," she lets them know. "My husband is still being shot at. I won't exhale until he gets sent to Kuwait."
She is not sure when that will be.
Howard Erlanger, father of the platoon captain, has taken to writing letters to "about half of Congress" to urge that more troops be rotated out. He said he is worried about his son "24 hours a day, seven days a week, but particularly now, in a guerilla environment, and particularly now, when these troops are supposed to go out among the population."
Much of this concern resonates with the family grieving the loss of Gregory MacDonald.
Just a week before his brother died, Matt MacDonald talked with a reporter about his fears that trouble that might befall his little brother.
"I still worry every day," he said then. "Our parents worry constantly. . . . It's one of the worst possible things, to have a child in peril."
Gregory MacDonald, a cerebral man with red hair and blue eyes who loved books and classical guitar and studied philosophy as an undergraduate, did not fit the classic profile of an enlisted Marine. In fact, when his sister, Karen Edwards, heard of his decision, she said: "You're doing what? Oh my gosh."
Jeni Spevak, one of his closest friends, said MacDonald saw military service as a way to gain credibility and experience in his intended career in Middle Eastern affairs. He had earned his master's degree in 2001 at American University. "He wanted to do foreign policy work," Spevak said, "and he wanted to do it for the Middle East, and he wanted to create peace in the Middle East."
Just before his unit was called up for duty, Gregory MacDonald had worked as a bartender in the District at The Zoo Bar Cafe, a homey, neighborhood place just across from the National Zoo. "He was a very popular bartender here, and people have been writing him letters and e-mail," said Stephen McKinney, the owner. "It's just shocking."
Last week, the MacDonald brothers talked for the last time. Matt says Greg sounded weary and, like many deployed troops, said he was ready to come home. Yesterday, Matt tried to take comfort in one observation: "He died doing something meaningful," he said. "He was going to aid other soldiers. Unfortunately, he didn't come back."