Last in a series

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The vases of flowers on the dining room table are many days past their prime, the pink roses now hanging their heads. But still they sit. Red, white and blue ribbons that once adorned them are saved in a basket on the floor.

It is hard to let go of anything.

In Natalie Wilkins' brick, ranch-style home, where the bookshelves are filled with family photos instead of books, a wood-encased flag - the one that draped her son's coffin - now sits next to a photo of Lt. Charles L. Wilkins III along with his Bronze Star and Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Awards.

Natalie's son was a 38-year-old transportation planner, law student and Ohio National Guardsman. Unmarried, he was devoted to his family, the kind of man who took his mother to church and sent money to his sisters. He mentored younger students, volunteered for Habitat for Humanity - and he volunteered to go to war in Iraq, even though he had misgivings about the mission.

In notes and cards, the 53-year-old divorcee hears from Chuck's friends, co-workers and classmates about what a fine man he was. She is filled with a mother's pride and only wishes she could tell him so.

But she is also filled with bitterness and pain - layer upon layer of pain.

And this, too, is hard to let go of.

There is the pain of losing one's only son. The pain of opening the newspaper every morning and reading about more losses, and crying all over again.

And then there is another whole universe of pain and anger that the Wilkins family is grappling with: losing a son to a war they didn't support and don't understand, a cause they grow more skeptical about with each day and each casualty and each evaporating explanation - and a commander in chief they feel doesn't truly understand the price American families are paying for his decision, a president who sent this grieving mother a seven-sentence letter after Chuck was killed Friday, August 20, as the death toll of American soldiers neared 1,000.

"I hate this war," Natalie Wilkins says quietly, her eyes red, sad and wet, her voice thin and tremulous. "It's something I won't ever understand. Chuck did what he thought was right. Everyone over there is doing what they think is right - but is it? God bless the troops, but I hate the war. I hate anything that would take a life."

The triangle-folded flag. The medals and photos. The tears that show no sign of letting up.

They are all part of Eddie Wright's home too, hours away in the working-class neighborhood of Delhi Township outside Cincinnati.

It's been about a year since Eddie's younger brother, Spc. James C. Wright, was killed in Iraq at age 27. A year of missing him, creating memorials to him, looking up at his picture and talking to him, and holding fund-raisers to help out his widow, Alina, and the now 8-month-old son, Jameson, whom Jimmy saw only in an ultrasound image his wife sent to him in Iraq.

But while the Wilkins family, of Columbus, finds its grief compounded by the uncertainties of the war in Iraq, the Wright family is comforted by their belief that Jimmy - or "Dawg," as he was known to his friends - died for a noble cause, one he believed in. "He was doing good," Eddie Wright says.

Eddie, a 30-year-old automotive painter and father of two young children, has two Bush/Cheney lawn signs outside his dark brick Tudor-style house. He attended a Bush rally in May, hoping to shake hands with the president, and had T-shirts made a week after his brother's death with a Bush quote that begins, "We will not waver."

His parents - Ed, a school bus mechanic, and Barbara, a saleswoman at Big Lots - live next door. They say they support the president and the war effort "1,000 percent."

"I believe we're doing the right thing, at least for the Iraqi people and the global war on terrorism," says Eddie, who surrounds himself with his brother's memory.

He still believes weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq. And he dismisses the bipartisan 9/11 Commission's finding that there was no link between the Sept. 11 attacks and Saddam Hussein. "Quite obviously, I don't want to look at it that way," he says. "It seems like these are just jabs at President Bush."

But even if nothing he once believed about the threat of Iraq holds true, he feels deep in his gut that his brother died for a worthwhile cause - helping to take down a dictator, plant the seeds of democracy and bring a better life to the Iraqi people.

"We've already succeeded in that," says Eddie, the oldest of the three Wright boys, whose father spent 20 years in the Army. "Jimmy believed in what he was doing. I know he did."

Nothing has energized or seized the attention of voters in this presidential election year as fiercely as the war in Iraq. And nothing has split the electorate this year as much as the war in Iraq.

Passions about President Bush's decision to take the country to war have raged on both sides as Iraq has largely dominated the political dialogue at every level - from the candidate debates down to neighborly (or not so neighborly) chit chat at the corner barbershop.

Protests have revolved around the war. The anti-Bush, anti-war documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 became an unlikely box office hit. Books about Bush's decision to go to war have lingered on best-seller lists.

And nowhere is the split so profound, so raw, so emotional as among the families of those who lost their lives or have been wounded in Iraq.

Both of them middle-class Catholic families where cats roam the house and family photos dress up the walls, the Wright and Wilkins families of Ohio have much in common - especially a level of grief that most of their friends and neighbors will never know.

But their viewpoints about the war - and the president who decided the war was necessary - couldn't be further apart.

One of Eddie Wright's most prized possessions now is a letter from Bush, in response to a letter of support he wrote to the president. It is framed and sitting on the dresser by his bed, along with his brother's medals.

"That means a lot to me," he says. "I'm sure his secretary typed it, but he did sign it. You can see that it was signed and not a photocopy signature."

A presidential letter of condolence did little to assuage Natalie Wilkins' heartbreak. The day it arrived, she noted, Bush was campaigning in Columbus not far from her home. "A phone call, a visit, even for five minutes, would have been better," says her daughter Lorin.

Natalie looks to another possession for comfort. "The most valuable thing I have is my vote," the Democrat says. "And I do intend to vote."

Even as they feel the effects of the war more than most, the two families in this most coveted battleground state are in many ways representative of the near 50-50 split in the nation over the war.

Polls have shown a slow but steady increase over the past year and a half in the percentage of Americans who think going to war with Iraq was a mistake, peaking at more than 50 percent during the summer and decreasing slightly since then.

What's more, black voters, like the Wilkinses, tend to be far more opposed to the war than white voters, with 76 percent of blacks believing the war was a mistake, compared with 42 percent of whites, according to a Gallup poll last month.

Both presidential candidates have struggled mightily to make the war a winning issue for them. Bush has had to justify the increasingly costly, bloody and chaotic situation in Iraq as his original reasons for the action - that Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and was connected to al-Qaida - did not prove true.

What's more, his optimistic prediction of a free, democratic Iraq has been hard for many to reconcile with an unrelenting and violent insurgency, daily accounts of car bombs, kidnappings and beheadings.

The president's efforts to make the Iraq war synonymous with his "war on terror," Sept. 11 and al-Qaida have had some success. About 40 percent of Americans, like the Wright family, believe Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, even though inquiries have proven otherwise.

"Two years and seven days later, because of what happened there," Eddie says of Sept. 11, "my brother died. I firmly believe there had to be ties."

For his part, Democrat John Kerry has had trouble delivering a muscular blow to Bush over his handling of Iraq, in part because the senator voted in 2002 to give the president the authority to use force there. Complicating his case further, Kerry said in August that, even knowing what he now knows about Iraq, he still would have voted to authorize military action.

Even so, many Democrats and anti-war voters, like Natalie and Lorin Wilkins, believe Kerry would be slower to send America's sons and daughters into war because he has firsthand knowledge of combat. "He was in a war," Natalie says. "He knows what it's like to see people killed. He knows what it's like to lose friends. I think John Kerry would not be so hasty to sacrifice lives."

In fact, with the Iraq war the centerpiece of the presidential race, the military resumes of both candidates have become subjects of scrutiny and cast the spotlight for a time on another controversial conflict: Vietnam.

Both the Wright and Wilkins families have direct ties to the Vietnam War.

Jimmy's father, Austrian-born Ed Wright - who came to the United States at age 13 after a U.S. serviceman married his mother, Josefa - did two tours of duty in Vietnam in food services. He dropped out of school to join the Army at age 17, and doesn't talk much about his war experiences, except to say that it instilled in him a sense of support for the nation's leader - no matter what.

"It doesn't matter who the commander in chief was or is, my duty is to back my commander in chief whether he's right or wrong," says Ed, a heavyset 54-year-old with a thin gray mustache. "Will I vote for George Bush? You damn right. I feel what he's done is the right thing, even though we lost our son because of the decision he made. I can't blame President Bush for Jimmy's death, no matter what anybody says."

He and his sons don't like what they've heard about Kerry's Vietnam experience, especially the allegations made by a group of Kerry opponents that the former Swift boat commander exaggerated his war wounds to win three Purple Hearts. Even Jimmy's youngest brother, Mark, 22, a tile-setter who says little about the presidential race, has this to offer: "I don't like John Kerry. I think he's a liar."

Natalie Wilkins, whose ex-husband and brother both served in Vietnam, recalls opening the morning paper day after day during the Vietnam years to see the faces of her friends, classmates and neighbors among the fallen. Now she fears history is repeating itself.

"It's going to be another Vietnam war. It's one I don't believe we can win."

Decades after Vietnam, she sits in the living room of her '50s-style rancher with a newspaper on her lap that contains three full pages of head shots of soldiers killed in Iraq in July and August, including the one her eye finds in an instant.

"There he is," she says of her oldest child, a light-skinned black man with his mother's big eyes and a gentle smile. "Heaven has a new angel."

As grand marshals of this year's Harvest Home parade, a 145-year-old end-of-summer tradition in the small western Ohio town of Cheviot, Ed and Barbara Wright are taking their places atop a shiny red convertible. Behind them are Eddie and his wife, Melissa, riding in the beige Porsche that Eddie turned into a sort of memorial to his brother, with an air-brushed photo of Jimmy painted on the hood, camouflage design painted on the body, a decorative license plate that says "FREEDOM" and a Bush/Cheney sign in the windshield.

Just before the parade begins, an old man with no left hand approaches.

"I'm a World War II guy," the man, wearing a Veterans of Foreign Wars cap, says.

He takes Ed Wright's two beefy hands in his one and holds onto them for a while. No words seem necessary.

Then a Scout troop leader comes up to Ed and Barbara. "Are you the parents of this young man?" he asks, seeing the sign, "In Memory of Spc. James C. Wright, 4th Infantry Division."

"Thank you for your son's service to our country," the troop leader, trailed by a trio of 8-year-old boys, tells the couple. "I hope those people over there are living in a free country five years from now, and they get to do this kind of thing, too. So thank you very much."

The parade, with Jimmy Wright's family in the lead, proceeds for about a mile, past the Land of Oz bridal outlet, past Schinkal's poultry, the Starmaker Dance Studio and Laundry Land.

All along the parade route, spectators stand up from their lawn chairs and applaud as the family rolls by. They salute, give a thumbs-up or wave their flags as they whisper to one another, "Their son was killed in Iraq."

The signs of support, which are plentiful in some of these heavily Republican suburbs of Cincinnati, comfort the Wrights, whose tears still come easily and frequently one year later.

Like Natalie and Lorin Wilkins, the two generations of Wrights have had a hard time letting go. Ed still finds himself behind closed doors playing and replaying two taped messages his son left on his answering machine in the weeks before he was killed in a firefight in Tikrit.

Eddie has devoted much of the past year to preserving his brother's memory. A car fanatic, as his brother was, he has outfitted several of his five cars, most of all the Porsche, with elaborate tributes to Jimmy. He even printed an essay someone e-mailed him, called "An American Soldier Died for Me," on the window of his Chevy Suburban.

His home, where cuckoo and grandfather clocks provide constant background noise, is filled with photos of Jimmy, including a blown-up shot of him sitting in one of Hussein's palaces in Tikrit with a gun across his lap.

"We're going to liberate this country," Eddie says. "These people are going to have a lot more freedoms. It's going to come around."

As children, the three Wright boys lived in a number of cities in the United States and Germany, where their father was stationed, until the family settled in Ohio in the late 1980s. After high school, Jimmy went to a vocational school, as his older brother did, and started working in construction and landscaping.

But in 1996, tired of being known primarily as Eddie's little brother, he decided to strike out on his own. He joined the Marines and served for four years, including stints in Bosnia, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

Out of the military, he settled in Waco, Texas, with his new wife, also a former Marine, and worked at a landfill operating a bulldozer. But on Sept. 11, 2001, he called his older brother and his parents and told them, "he had to do something," his father says. Jimmy and his wife joined the Army.

Jimmy left for Iraq on April 1 last year. He'd been excited to go, Eddie says, but when he found out three weeks later that his wife was pregnant with their first child, he was eager to get home. On Sept. 18 last year, while manning the gun turret of his Humvee, he was shot in the head in the midst of a skirmish near the Tigris River.

In Eddie's more contemplative and spiritual moments, he thinks of his own 2-year-old son, Grant, a cherubic blond-haired boy whose favorite word these days is "why?"

"Why? It's a good question," Eddie says, wiping tears from his eyes. "Why was Jimmy taken at such a young age? All he ever wanted was a family. He had a son on the way. That's what he was looking forward to. Why that was taken away from him, it doesn't make sense to me. Quite obviously, the man upstairs has better plans for him."

Eddie's profound grief has ignited a new and fierce interest in politics in him.

In the letter he wrote to Bush last April, he told the president, "I want you to know that I have stood behind you from the beginning, and I still believe in what you are doing for America today."

A man who never before voted, Eddie now keeps a framed photo of Bush next to one of his brother on top of his tool box at his shop.

For last April's homecoming of the 4th Infantry Division, his brother's division and the one that captured Hussein, he drove down to Fort Hood, Texas, hoping that Bush would attend because the Army base is not too far from his ranch in Crawford. He was disappointed when the president didn't.

Still, Eddie sees Bush as a down-to-earth guy compared with Kerry, whom he views as somewhat arrogant. Most of all, he believes Bush has been a take-charge leader.

His support for the president's actions seems based not so much on any geopolitical implications for the region or Bush's foreign policy doctrine, but more on an emotional, gut-level, almost instinctual reaction to the man himself.

"The president didn't go run and hide when we were attacked in the United States," he says. "As a president, he stood up and did what he needed to do."

And that includes invading Iraq and getting rid of a dictator Eddie calls "the Adolf Hitler of the 21st century."

Although he and his family still believe there are weapons of mass destruction yet to be found, as well as a link between Saddam Hussein and Sept. 11, he says that even without either, "there's a lot of reasons why we we're there." Freedom for an oppressed people. Democracy in the Middle East. Even oil - and the car enthusiast says that's fine with him.

"For anybody who wants to bitch and complain about that, I don't see too many people in our society walking," says Eddie, who's about to open the automotive shop he and his brother always dreamed about.

There is one facet of the war, however, that he says "really lights my fire" - the fact that Halliburton, the company Vice President Dick Cheney once led, won no-bid contracts worth billions of dollars in Iraq. "Somebody's getting rich off of this," Eddie says. "Is this really why my brother died? That would be ... it's a terrible thing to think."

He acknowledges that some of the information he hears about the war that contradicts his earlier convictions about it can leave him unsettled - if he lets it.

"I'm just a guy who watches TV and pays attention," says the fan of Fox News and CNN. "I think for us to go after Iraq, there had to be something there that we knew. It wasn't just like, 'Hey, we're going to go after Iraq now just to go after all these different countries.' There had to be a reason why. Maybe everything's not laid out on the table yet as to why. The president of the United States knows way more about what's going on than you and I."

Then an earnest young man who pieced together every detail about how his brother was killed, where the bullet entered and exited, how long he suffered, pauses for a moment. "I just wish I knew the truth," he says.

There were no weapons of mass destruction.

It is an easier way for Natalie Wilkins to express what she finds almost unbearable to say:

She believes her son died in a war that never should have been. In vain.

"There were no weapons of mass destruction," she says, her fragile composure crumbling whenever she utters the words. "We shouldn't be there."

She was never convinced that the war was necessary, even at the start, and begged her son not to go. She did everything but get down on her hands and knees.

Although his own unit had been sent to Indiana for training and then pulled back a year earlier - rendering 1st Lieutenant Wilkins off the hook, at least for the time being - he volunteered to be transferred to an engineering unit based in Chillicothe, a small town south of Columbus, that was heading to Iraq last February and needed officers.

With a week's notice, he prepared a loose-leaf binder for his family with all of his affairs meticulously in order, including instructions about the Psalms and hymns he wanted at his funeral, notes about his cat, an obituary and a goodbye.

And then the Ohio National Guardsman went off to war convinced, if not of the mission, then of his duty to go where he was needed.

Lorin Lacie Wilkins, 36, one of Chuck's two sisters who is now living in her brother's home on Morality Drive in Columbus and caring for his cat, says her brother "didn't agree with the war." In fact, he told some of his law school buddies he thought it was probably about oil. But, Lorin says, once her brother was over there, he was glad to be helping rebuild the country, especially for the children. He had asked his family to include school supplies and socks for the Iraqi children the next time they sent him a package.

"I hope I can be just half the person he was," says Lorin, who works for the clerk of courts in Columbus.

After graduating from a Catholic high school in 1984, the year his parents divorced, Chuck followed in the path of two of his uncles and joined the Air Force. Once out of the service, he joined the Ohio National Guard, wanting to become an officer, while he earned a degree in economics at Ohio State University.

He'd been pursuing a law degree at Capital University and working full time for the Federal Highway Administration when he offered his services to the 216th Engineering Battalion that was heading to Iraq to build bridges, roads and bunkers. On Aug. 20, he and another Ohio guardsman, Pfc. Ryan Martin, 22, were killed when a roadside explosive hit their Humvee.

"I hurt," his mother says three weeks later, as neighbors bring in food she has no appetite to eat. "I hurt."

Their grief tinged with bitterness, Natalie and her daughter feel betrayed by the president and suspicious about the real reasons he sent U.S. troops into Iraq.

Iraq did not appear to be the "imminent threat" the administration warned it was. And if the troops are there to bring a better life to the Iraqi people, why, the Wilkinses ask, does it seem like the region is more rife with terrorism and violence than it was before?

Natalie also asks this: "What happened to looking for Osama bin Laden?"

"You want to believe in your leaders. You want to have faith and think that they're doing the right thing," she says. "But it was supposed to be about Osama bin Laden. Now we're going after Saddam Hussein? It looked to me like Bush was picking up a battle where his father left off."

Beyond bringing down "his daddy's enemy," as she calls the Iraqi dictator, Natalie fears, as did her son, that the war is largely about oil. "If this is all about oil, I don't want it. I'll park my car and walk," says the lifelong Democrat. "It's not worth a human life."

The Wilkinses say they are angry, too, that so many Reserve and National Guard units have been sent to Iraq, ironic to them because Bush, as a National Guardsman during the Vietnam War, avoided combat and had his pilot qualification suspended because he did not appear for a required physical examination, according to his service records.

"If position will buy you privilege, that's awful," says Natalie, who worked as a supervisor at the Ohio Department of Insurance before rupturing a disk and having to retire in 1996. "That means little people like me who believe in the Cleveland Browns and the neighborhood, we've got no hope."

Not only has Chuck's death stirred passionate feelings about the presidential race in the Wilkins family, but it has also energized some in their community. At Carol's Cakes, a bakery in nearby Bexley where Natalie is a regular customer, owner Stephanie Matthews has decided to organize voter registration drives, political forums and a car-pool service to get people to the polls on Election Day.

"I have a great deal of support for the troops. I just do not support this war," says Stephanie, 31, a Democrat who also holds book-signings by African-American authors at her shop. "Every day it's brought home - we're losing so many of our sons and daughters."

As Eddie Wright did, Natalie, too, is planning to write the president a letter - a very different letter. But not yet.

For one thing, she has dozens of thank-you notes yet to write. But more important, Natalie says she is too angry and bitter right now and wants to wait until she can say something constructive.

She won't ask for an explanation, she says. It's too late for that. She will only make a plea - stop the war.

"I want to tell him my son died, and before anyone else's son dies, would he bring our troops home? Truthfully, I don't expect an answer. I just want to tell him how I feel."

It's one of the few things she says might give her a little peace of mind - if she thought President Bush understood. She watched him speak at the Republican convention - little more than a week after getting the worst news of her life - and his words about the sacrifices of Americans like her son didn't strike her as heartfelt.

He does not know, she said to herself.

"That's my son," Natalie says of the child she bore when she was a mere child herself, before she had even finished high school or married Chuck's father or graduated from Ohio State. "He'll never know, he'll never know the pain. He'll never lose a loved one to the war. He doesn't have a son, and his daughters aren't going to war. It's so foreign to him; it's just, send in more troops. The troops don't have faces to him; the troops are just numbers.

"These are people. These are not numbers. These are people, real people with families.

"These people are dying," this mother says she wants to tell the president. "And we're not even sure what they're dying for."