A Patriot's Place

Sun Staff

JENNERS, Pa. -- On the other side of the Allegheny Mountains, in that distant place called Washington, politicians are branding Joe Darby a hero. He told the truth, they say, standing alone while others hid, and they want to see him get a medal for the bravery it took to report the abuse at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. As the story builds and TV cameras track every development, Darby assumes a wartime role -- the fine character in the ugly story, the soldier whose compass didn't waver, the moral man in the middle.

But there's a problem. Washington is three hours away from here, and so are the cameras. In the closest thing to a hometown that Joe Darby ever knew, the story line is not so clear, and not everyone is following the script.

"If I were him," says Bob Mathias, 69, hunkering down over his hot roast beef sandwich, "I'd change my name."

It's lunchtime at Our Coal Miners Cafe in nearby Jennerstown, just down Route 30 from Darby's home when he was in high school. Photos from the Quecreek Mine disaster line the walls of the restaurant, which renamed itself in honor of the nine men who survived three days inside a flooded mine shaft a few miles from here. Tourists in red, white and blue T-shirts stop in for sandwiches and cream-filled desserts known as Gob Cakes before visiting the site of that dramatic 2002 rescue. And then they keep going, driving less than 10 miles to Shanksville, their tour ending at the windswept field where Flight 93 went down in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Heroes are part of the scenery here, rooted in the landscape like the farm fields and exhausted mines.

But this rural enclave in western Pennsylvania is also a place where the definition of heroism is shifting and debated. It is a place like others in America, where the war does not always offer clear answers about right and wrong. When news of Army Spc. Joseph M. Darby reached these hill towns, it wasn't apparent where he would fit on the tourist map.

At his table, his roast beef nearly gone, Mathias questions the actions of the 24-year-old soldier who tracked down photographs of naked prisoners being mistreated, slipped an anonymous note under the door of Army investigators and later delivered a sworn statement about what he knew. Mathias wonders if U.S. troops now are at even greater risk than before. Prisoners will be shot, he believes, when they wouldn't have been if this news hadn't broken. By exposing the abuses, he says, Darby has opened his fellow soldiers to condemnation by outsiders in no position to judge what happens in a war zone.

"What'd they do, undress them?" the barrel-chested former insurance salesman asks his wife, his voice rising with sarcasm. The graphic pictures chronicle prisoners forced into homoerotic poses, chained to bars, one with a dog collar around his neck, many with U.S. soldiers smiling on. Even so, Mathias doesn't see profound shame here. "What'd they do? Parade a couple of them around and look at them? Nothing more than that. Nothing more than embarrass them. They're killing our people and we're embarrassing them."

His wife, Ruth Ann, tells him quietly that if Joe Darby were one of their kids, she'd be proud.

"We need to show integrity in everything we do," she says, "in all walks of life."

But valor isn't the label her husband pins on this hometown boy.

"I think," he says, "they call that a fink."

This is one of Joe Darby's first lessons about war:

It's 10th grade. North Star High School. Darby's American history instructor tells the students to close their books. They do. The lesson is Vietnam. The teacher is Bob Ewing, a Vietnam vet with searing blue eyes and haunting memories.

For two days, he talks only about his war.

Ewing tells Darby and the other students about how soldiers survive when they're in a conflict, how Vietnam was like a one-year jail sentence, how the war changed them all, forever. He tells the class about the My Lai massacre -- the 1968 slaughter of Vietnamese civilians by American troops -- and how enlisted soldiers from the same division eventually exposed it. He tells his students about the disillusionment those killings caused in America.

Ewing, who entered the Army after the massacre was revealed, tells the class about one of his drill instructors at Fort Ord in California who had been involved in My Lai.

"I asked him, 'What did you guys do over there?' He told me, 'You won't understand unless you go there.' "

And he tells the class it was true. When he got to Vietnam, he understood.

Now, on a sunny afternoon at the school, Ewing sees that lesson in a new light. His former student was always opinionated, tough, headstrong. But, Ewing believes, there was a soldier in Joe Darby, too. And he was listening.

"I was in combat, and I know what it's like," he says. "And I'm proud of Joe. There are some people saying he squealed on fellow soldiers, he was a narc, and I'm saying, no. As a former veteran, I'm very proud of what he did."

Last week, in congressional testimony, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld praised Darby for "honorable and responsible actions." Democrats and Republicans seeking a positive note in this mess also praise the soldier.

The Darby family just wants him home safe. They hear from the Pentagon that Darby is heading back from Iraq for a two-week break before he testifies against his fellow soldiers in the courts martial.

His mother, Margaret Blank, who has diabetes, lost an eye to cancer and has trouble walking, has long hoped her son would return -- he has been overseas all but 3 1/2 months in the last three years -- but she had never imagined he would do so under these circumstances. She looks forward to the day their lives will feel normal again.

And she sees the fighter in him on a scale she never imagined before.

"As his mother, I'm very proud he stood by his beliefs," she says. "He stood true to his country."

Darby's wife of six years, Bernadette, stands by him, too. She lives in Cumberland, near other families from the Maryland-based 372nd Military Police Company, some of whose members are at the center of the scandal.

Today, Bernadette Darby flies an American flag outside their home, even in the rain and even through the night.

It is a sign of solidarity with her husband.

In the living room of Gilbert Reffner's home, while a ham stew boils on the stove, the phone rings. Reffner takes his cigarette and leaves his neighbor, Jennifer Pettitt, at the kitchen table while he goes to answer it.

Across the street is Joe Darby's old home, the doghouse for his huge mutt, Bear, still sitting in the back yard by the clothesline. Darby moved away in 1997. Most neighbors weren't here when Darby sat on the front steps of 109 Cloud St., a modest duplex with beige aluminum siding. The people next door fit into a later chapter in Jenners' history, with their "Let's Roll" license plate and 9/11 flag that reads, "Our nation will eternally honor the heroes of Flight 93."

But Reffner and Pettitt are old-timers. They remember Darby. They're practically spokesmen for him now.

It's USA Today on the phone. Reffner starts talking into the receiver with a country twang:

"He had respect for life. Even when he was growing up, he wouldn't join in and disgrace somebody."

At the table, Jennifer Pettitt looks tired. She works nights at Dunkin' Donuts. She knows how few opportunities there are for kids in Jenners. Her own daughters -- one of whom dated Darby during high school -- moved away. This old mining town of 250 doesn't give youngsters many options. That's why a lot of them join the military.

The U.S. Army Reserve wasn't Darby's plan at first, the neighbors know. He'd spent all those hours studying forestry at the vocational school he attended part time. He told his teachers he hoped he'd be a park ranger one day. He had dreams of going to college, even getting a master's in forestry, but he lacked the money to make any of it a reality.

Soon, the student who got excited about identifying trees and figuring compass readings -- an acne-scarred high-school kid who took his mother to Future Farmers of America awards banquets -- was headed overseas to fight.

Pettitt considers that an innocent time now. This is a patri- otic area, she says, and people want to support their country. But as the 54-year-old western Pennsylvania native listens to her neighbor on the phone, praising Joe Darby for standing up for what he believed in, she stays quiet. She sees this as a far more complicated story.

She sighs and closes her eyes when she's asked if Jenners is proud of Darby.

"I don't think it's that simple," she says. "I was down at the store and I heard this comment, 'Well, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't.' We're thinking about the retribution he'll get from the people in his unit."

And she wonders how deep the damage will go.

Reffner hangs up with USA Today and sits back down. He's not used to attention like this. Most of his afternoons are spent quietly caring for his 91-year-old mother, Helen. Every weekend, the 50-year-old son pulls the curlers from his mother's hair and listens to her stories, like how Albert Einstein once wanted to date her (but never did).

There's a horseshoe by the Reffners' porch door, a memento from the days mules pulled the wagons in the coal mine Gilbert Reffner's grandfather operated in Jenners. The family's resources have since dwindled with the area's. Now Jenners is best known for what it used to be.

A story like Darby's is pretty clear-cut to his former neighbor. Reffner has been telling reporters about how Joe Darby refused to cut across his yard when the kid would visit his then-girlfriend, Chrissie Pettitt. Reffner invited him to trespass but Darby said no, his mother wouldn't approve. Reffner calls it early evidence of Darby's values.

Reffner remembers Darby caring for his toddler brother, Montana, and helping the family while his stepfather, Dale Blank, who died in 1999, was laid up from a construction accident. He thinks about the small things, like how Darby's mother brought home a real Christmas tree every year -- other neighbors bought imitation -- and always planted flowers in the spring.

"He was brought up in a pleasant home -- there weren't a lot of commotions going on," Reffner recalls. "He was really on his own. He was an individual. He didn't have the designer clothes and the fancy cars and his mother paying for everything. He had to work. He had respect for his life. That's the way he was brought up."

The media onslaught that has descended on Jenners has stunned some of its residents. "What's 'NPR'?" Reffner asks a visitor after National Public Radio calls. But inside this international story, Reffner sees the roots of his small town.

"Joe would stand up for his rights, for any human being," he says. "He'd stand up for his neighbors the same way."

Pettitt lets her neighbor talk. But sitting in the kitchen, a ceramic version of the Last Supper hanging on the wall behind her, she wonders whether the lessons Jenners teaches its children are as unassailable as they once seemed.

"When you're a little kid and you go to church, what you're taught is right from wrong, and you know when you're doing right," she says. "But what's going to happen to him? What's going to happen to our standing over there? What's going to happen with security and all this stuff?

"What I'm saying is, all of a sudden there's this great big gray thing that's gone over everything. There's neither black nor white anymore. There's just a gray area, and we're all in it."

There's a church on a hill above the old Darby home, which sits down by a creek. Beyond it, Route 30. Past the dairy farms and the "Celebrate Milk" billboard: the highway. It leads to an interstate, which turns south and goes all the way to Louisiana. Past Lafayette, La., the road narrows again, leading into Broussard, a place not much bigger than Darby's hometown. There, past side streets named for American presidents, sits Hugh Thompson's front door.

Life is easier for Thompson now, more than three decades since he risked his life to stop the My Lai massacre, since that morning of March 16, 1968, when he first saw the devastation from his helicopter.

The pilot had been flying along Vietnam's Quang Ngai province when he saw the trench filled with dead Vietnamese and soldiers chasing villagers into a bomb shelter. He saw an American soldier riddle an unarmed woman with bullets. He landed his helicopter between the civilians and the U.S. troops and screamed at an officer and then told his own men to shoot the American soldiers if they opened fire again. He called in more helicopters to evacuate some villagers and, as he was leaving, set his aircraft down again to rescue a wounded child.

When he returned, he reported the incident to commanders, who ordered an end to the killing. But a cover-up ensued, and the incident was not revealed until a former GI, Ron Ridenhour, heard of the massacre and reported it in letters to Congress and the president. Thompson then spent the next few years as a witness, testifying before Congress and in the My Lai courts-martial cases, in which Lt. William L. Calley was the sole officer convicted.

But Thompson was not labeled a hero.

The military is different from many other careers in this regard: In other jobs, it's hard to be punished for inaction. But a soldier who learns of wrongdoing and does nothing about it can be prosecuted.

Still, on Capitol Hill in the early 1970s, some lawmakers accused Thompson of threatening American soldiers in the performance of their duty. These critics denied the existence of any massacre.

After his testimony, Thompson went back to Fort Rucker in Alabama. Everyone there knew him by his nickname, "Buck." They had all heard about a whistleblower named Hugh Thompson. "I'd go in the officer's club after work and they'd say, 'Hey Buck, you know who this Hugh Thompson is?' And I'd say, 'No, I don't know him,' " Thompson recalls.

That lasted less than a week. Then people figured it out.

"I'd walk in, there'd be 100 people sitting there having a beer after work," he remembers. "Five minutes later, I was sitting alone drinking a beer with the bartender. He was getting paid. He couldn't leave."

Thompson remembers the loneliness: "I was just confused. I thought, 'What the heck did we do wrong?' "

In that small military community, he waited for people to forget. His phone rang in the middle of the night with death threats. He'd wake up in the morning to find dead rabbits or opossums on his front step.

Finally, the military sent him to Korea for several years. By the time he returned, the news had died down. It was not until 30 years later, after a Clemson University professor took up his cause, that the Army awarded him the Soldier's Medal.

It is the highest award for bravery not involving a battle with the enemy.

Finally, the Army's official report on the massacre identified Thompson as a hero.

Now, from his home in Louisiana, Thompson reads the news stories about Darby. The 61-year-old can't compare a massacre to abuse in a prison. But he knows the isolation that comes with bringing military cruelty to light. He knows what it feels like to be Spc. Joseph M. Darby.

"He could be having some thoughts about, 'Why didn't I just keep my damn mouth shut?' " he says. "It's hard trying to understand how somebody could condemn you for doing something you think is just 100 percent right."

Thompson says he spent years trying to forget My Lai, but he doesn't regret intervening with his crew.

"I am glad we did what we did," he says. "It was the only thing we could do. It was the only human thing."

These days, Thompson, who works at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Lafayette, still looks for something to redeem My Lai. He lectures about his experiences at military academies such as West Point.

"It's really not easy, talking about all that," he says. "But if I can touch one person in the audience. If they hesitate going along with the crowd because they don't feel it's right and they make the right decision, it'll be well worth it."

He hopes there's at least one Darby listening.

On a dusty green ridge, marked by flags, sits the makeshift monument for Flight 93. The folks in Jenners and the surrounding towns hope the intimacy of this place in nearby Shanksville isn't ruined when the government finally puts up a permanent memorial. Beyond the chain-link fence adorned with keepsakes from visitors, beyond the commemorative inscriptions surrounding it, lies the field where the last hijacked plane crashed on 9/11.

The spot has altitude, unlike the old Darby house, which sits in a hollow.

Robert Gohn, a 72-year-old native of the area, is one of the volunteers who shows visitors where the plane went down. He also shows them the official photo album. It begins with the day of the crash, then moves through the aftermath of the investigation and cleanup. It closes with shots of the nearby Quecreek Mine, where the nine men were rescued. It's a happier way to end.

Gohn says he respects the action Darby took, but worries it has heaped unfair judgment on America.

"The pictures are very degrading, certainly, but the American public never sees the brutality of people against us," he says. "We do something that's a fraction of the guilt and it goes on and on, totally out of proportion."

Gohn stands a half-mile beyond the flag that marks the point of the plane's impact. Bumper stickers line the guardrails. "Terrorists Are Cowards." "Never Prouder To Be An American." "It's Not Just A Flag -- It's A Way Of Life." Nearby, a plaque remembers the 40 passengers on Flight 93 as heroes. The word is not debatable. It is set in stone.

It is not a word the tour guide uses about Darby.

"It sure hurt our cause worldwide, all this," he says. "I wish the whole thing could've been cleaned up and taken care of without the media taking hold of it and exploiting it. War is war. And sometimes dirty things happen."

He stops talking. Tourists watch the empty field. The sun sets.

And the only sound is the beating of the flags in the wind.

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