A grieving mother brings this war home

I TOLD MARTINA Burger, who was very accommodating and who gaveme more of her time than I ever expected, that I would not debate the war inIraq 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, evenif 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 playedshortstop, from T-ball on. But my husband was disabled in 1993; he had a comaand suffered brain damage, and Dale Jr. lost his dad. His dad could not do dadthings, could not play with him like he used to, and that turned Dale off frombaseball."

Talking with his mom brings you closer to knowing more than what appears inthe listing of Dale Burger's death: "3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1stMarine 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, hedressed 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 aNinja Turtle, of course, and a Ghostbuster. But he loved to play Marine. As hegot 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 Americansoldiers 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 muchlonger the violence and the death.

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

The other half apparently thinks this is a just crusade; polls indicatethey believe there are weapons of mass destruction over there and that a linkexisted between the regime of Saddam Hussein and the terrorist network ofOsama bin Laden. At the very least, they think the ouster of Hussein was worththe 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 sophomoreyear in high school, and he missed having those dad opportunities with hisfather and I think he became depressed. His junior year, it was a real task toget 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 takedummies and he had to finish school."

The nation is divided. One half hears about Americans dying in Iraq andshakes its head, grumbles about Bush and goes about its business. The otherhalf 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 - orpaying attention to it - are those fighting it and those related to thosefighting it.

When did Dale go to Iraq?

"His father died of a heart attack in May, and we had to wait two weeks forhis funeral at Arlington [National Cemetery] on June 10. Dale shipped out June15. We stayed in touch. He had access to a computer and a telephone, and hekept 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 wasLabor Day when he was killed. They had been friends since they went intotraining at Camp Pendleton together. Mike was his buddy."

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

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's10 o'clock in the morning in Iraq, and I'm going back with my unit. Don'tworry, Mom, the Marines have trained me well.' ... I don't want my son to diein vain. I think we need to finish what we have started. ... Thank you fortalking to me. It's a way of honoring my son. I thank God for the privilege ofhaving been his mother."

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

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