British town rallies, grieves


PLYMOUTH, Britain - The flowers fan out like a spectrum of grief.

In this longtime British military garrison, dozens of bouquets are arrayed before a gate at the headquarters of 3 Commando Brigade, hit last week by the tragic news of a helicopter crash that killed eight British marines and four of their American counterparts.

And the reaction to war and its consequences in Plymouth has gone beyond mere pro and con.

"Although a lot of people are half-hearted about the war, they are extremely upset about what's happened," said Agnies Calkoen, a Plymouth doctor. "Now that they're in it, you might as well be supportive."

As elsewhere in Europe, public opinion in Britain often ran strongly against launching an attack on Iraq without the backing of the United Nations, in the months before the war. But now British soldiers are doing just that, fighting alongside U.S. forces and taking on a major combat role in the assault on Saddam Hussein's regime.

British soldiers, including marines with the 3 Commando Brigade, played a pivotal part in the first stages of the war during the taking of the Faw peninsula, and marines from the brigade are now in control of the crucial port of Umm Qasr. Other British troops continue to battle fighters loyal to the Iraqi leadership around Basra.

And along with the high-profile role have come casualties, including 20 British dead and two missing. Several had ties to Plymouth or the surrounding area; Color Sgt. John Cecil, who died in a helicopter crash Friday and whose wife, three children and brother all live in the area, according to information released by the family through the British Ministry of Defense. There are about 4,000 marines from the brigade in the Persian Gulf.

"Sadness" is a word that crops up often when people in Plymouth talk about the deaths. And there is still some opposition to the war in Plymouth, a city of about 250,000. "I was very much against it happening in the first place," said David Puttick, 36, who said the city is slowly changing from its traditional identity as a military town.

But just as polls conducted in Britain since the war began have shown growing support for the military campaign, several residents interviewed in recent days described a city rallying behind the troops.

"We feel a little bit stronger now that we've seen how they're treating the prisoners of war," said Samantha Davies, a 28-year-old Plymouth nurse who said she knows people who are serving as medical personnel in the Persian Gulf. "People are a little bit more behind it now."

In a city that plays host not only the marines but also a major naval base and an army installation, the military is a presence that touches almost every life.

"I can point to three people in the office ... who are ex-service people," said John Casey, the 37-year-old news editor of the Evening Herald, a newspaper in Plymouth, which he said reported the helicopter crash Friday in the same issue as the assault on the Faw peninsula and the brigade's role in it.

The juxtaposition of those two events reflects a reality of war's shifts that also seems to be captured by a view often expressed in Plymouth, that in war, there are bound to be casualties.

Yet there is another undercurrent in the response to the war in Plymouth, one that seems to be summed up by the sentiments contained on another card at the barracks gate, accompanied by purple tulips, which asked, "Why does it happen to the best? Why does it happen at all?"

Liam Pleven writes for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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