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A grieving mother brings this war home

Dan Rodricks

November 18, 2004

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I TOLD MARTINA Burger, who was very accommodating and who gave me more of her time than I ever expected, that I would not debate the war in Iraq with the grieving mother of a Marine who was killed there.

I oppose the war, she doesn't. But I never argue with the next of kin, even if they seem willing to engage the subject, as Martina Burger did yesterday.

That's not why I contacted her at her house in Port Deposit.

Sometimes, you just want to talk and learn a little more about a young man, like Marine Cpl. Dale Burger Jr., who died Sunday in the Fallujah operation.

It brings you closer to the reality of this war.

Did Dale like sports?

"He loved baseball. He dreamed of being Cal Ripken. He always played shortstop, from T-ball on. But my husband was disabled in 1993; he had a coma and suffered brain damage, and Dale Jr. lost his dad. His dad could not do dad things, could not play with him like he used to, and that turned Dale off from baseball."

Talking with his mom brings you closer to knowing more than what appears in the listing of Dale Burger's death: "3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force."

When did he say he wanted to become a Marine?

"When he was 6. I was just looking at some pictures. For Halloween, he dressed in his dad's uniform. His dad - Dale, Sr. - was a Marine in Vietnam, and Dale Jr. dressed in his dad's khakis and tie for Halloween. He had been a Ninja Turtle, of course, and a Ghostbuster. But he loved to play Marine. As he got older, he studied and read all about the Marines, and knew the history, and could rattle off names. He studied up on nothing else."

All that has passed too fast. Now we are beyond 1,200 American soldiers killed over there, and perhaps 100,000 civilians, and here we sit, far and safe from the scene, wondering where this is all headed and how much longer the violence and the death.

Given the results of the presidential election, I would say half of the country still thinks there are no clear answers to those questions, and that the Bush administration rushed to war blindly, with lies and exaggerations for premise. They think the war might even have heightened the threat of terrorism.

The other half apparently thinks this is a just crusade; polls indicate they believe there are weapons of mass destruction over there and that a link existed between the regime of Saddam Hussein and the terrorist network of Osama bin Laden. At the very least, they think the ouster of Hussein was worth the sacrifice. Dale Burger's mom, Martina, is one of them.

Was Dale a good student?

"He became bored with school. You could see it starting in his sophomore year in high school, and he missed having those dad opportunities with his father and I think he became depressed. His junior year, it was a real task to get him to school. Finally, I said to him, 'Dale, enough. You need direction, you need to do something with yourself,' and a little while later he said, 'Mom, I'm going to join the Marines.' I told him the Marines didn't take dummies and he had to finish school."

The nation is divided. One half hears about Americans dying in Iraq and shakes its head, grumbles about Bush and goes about its business. The other half sticks yellow ribbons on cars and minivans, and goes about its business.

It seems like the only Americans affected by the war in the Iraq - or paying attention to it - are those fighting it and those related to those fighting it.

When did Dale go to Iraq?

"His father died of a heart attack in May, and we had to wait two weeks for his funeral at Arlington [National Cemetery] on June 10. Dale shipped out June 15. We stayed in touch. He had access to a computer and a telephone, and he kept in touch all the time except for one month when I didn't hear from him. He called me when his best friend was killed, Mike Allred. I think it was Labor Day when he was killed. They had been friends since they went into training at Camp Pendleton together. Mike was his buddy."

For the president and those in Washington who started this war, there's a benefit to an all-volunteer force - no draft, no protesting college students, no dissent fueled by self-preservation. Those who have been killed or wounded in Iraq wanted to be there. They signed up for this duty. I've heard fierce talkers on radio and television say so, as if that makes the whole thing more acceptable.

It's so easy to say these things when you are detached from it.

When was the last time you heard from him?

"He called me on my cell phone at 2:30 a.m. Saturday. He said, 'Mom, it's 10 o'clock in the morning in Iraq, and I'm going back with my unit. Don't worry, Mom, the Marines have trained me well.' ... I don't want my son to die in vain. I think we need to finish what we have started. ... Thank you for talking to me. It's a way of honoring my son. I thank God for the privilege of having been his mother."

Dale will be buried near his father at Arlington on Nov. 29.