Wis. town awakens to reality of Iraq

FREDERIC, WIS. — FREDERIC, Wis. - When Sgt. 1st Class Dan Gabrielson was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq last week, he was much more than a statistic to the people who live in this region of woods and lakes and small farms. He was the friend and neighbor who helped raise barns, the avid outdoorsman who taught his son the ethics of hunting before showing him how to shoot.

For two decades, Gabrielson had lived in the same house, worked at the same factory job and been married to the same woman, with whom he had three children. In all that time, he was a member of an Army Reserve engineering unit down the road in Ellsworth, an obligation that led to his being sent to Iraq for what most here thought would be a low-risk assignment building and repairing bridges.


It is difficult for folks in Frederic to think he won't be back.

"We thought it was basically going to be OK, because he was building bridges and he was platoon sergeant, so you assumed he'd be in a building or a tent," said Peggy Gabrielson, his wife and high school sweetheart. "We just didn't assume he would be in any sort of fighting."


With the death of an American soldier yesterday in a grenade attack on a convoy in Baghdad, 32 have died from hostile action since President Bush declared May 1 that major hostilities had ended, and 150 U.S. personnel have been killed in combat since the Iraq war began. In what appears to be an increasingly sophisticated guerrilla war, U.S. troops are coming under fire a dozen times a day, military officials say. Yesterday, a surface-to-air missile missed a U.S. C-130 transport landing at Baghdad International Airport.

In Frederic, a town of 1,200, where neighbors hold potluck dinners weekly, Gabrielson's loss has meant more than deep sadness. For some residents, it has raised hard questions about the continuing conflict.

"They say quote, unquote, 'The war is over,'" said Diane Brask, 45, a church youth worker who has a son in the Air Force and lives on the dairy farm her great-grandparents settled after emigrating from Sweden in 1875. "I think it's going to take longer and cost more. When we saw Saddam falling, the statue falling, I thought, 'Wow, this is really going to be done soon,' but now it looks easier said than done."

Not all here are surprised that the war will take longer and cost more in lives and money than initially thought. Brask and others emphasize that they support the troops in Iraq, but that doesn't stop some from criticizing the politicians directing the war and occupation.

"During that first gulf war, there was a sense of bombs and being able to destroy buildings from far away. It's not. It's about human beings and children without families," said Nyla Greenberg, 48, a political independent who works nights in a nursing home. "And I do think that the politicians are not registering those kinds of individual costs."

Few concerns

In this era of volunteer soldiers, many of the Americans dying in Iraq are older than in past wars. Many had families, and those who were reservists had full lives outside the military.

Tall and brawny, Gabrielson, 40, was a country boy, good with his hands and deft in the outdoors. He liked beef jerky, Shania Twain and Ted Nugent, and the way his mother cooked a roast with potatoes on the side. He hunted deer and collected Remington Model 600 rifles. He was active in 4-H with his children.


During his 22 years in the Army Reserve, his unit, the 652nd Engineer Company, had been sent overseas twice before, to build bridges in Guatemala and Panama.

While friends and family knew Gabrielson was at risk in Iraq, they didn't think he was in serious danger. His unit built bridges, he repaired construction equipment. He asked his wife to send sunglasses - to give to smiling Iraqi children.

"We were more concerned about the family he left behind, rather than him," said Dan Conroy, human resources director of Nexen Group Inc., the industrial brake and clutch manufacturer where Gabrielson worked for 20 years. "We thought he could take care of himself. He always had. That's why this is hard for us. Nobody thought it would come to this."

A going-away party at a favorite restaurant was rousing, not somber. Neighbors teased him about the lack of showers in the desert, giving him small packets of moist towelettes.

In e-mail from Iraq, Gabrielson continued joking, saying he was kicking up sand to find Barbara Eden, star of I Dream of Jeannie. He sent home a picture of his base that showed a makeshift sign in front of a tent that read: "Camp Paradise." An arrow below it pointed to Wisconsin.

His elder daughter Vanessa, 20, a former Miss Frederic, tied yellow ribbons to a driveway fence - for no reason in particular, she said.


Signs of danger

But the signs were there that hostilities were far from over.

Two weeks before, his wife had learned, Gabrielson's convoy had come under grenade attack, but everyone escaped unharmed. The unit was doing police work, not repairs. Soldiers from Minnesota and Wisconsin had died.

"They had other attacks we'd heard about, but it always turned out OK," said his wife. "They were not in a good area. We knew the stuff on the television was the stuff where he was."

But Bush had said the war was over. And friends and family considered Gabrielson's continuing survival some sort of sign that he was safe. The danger American soldiers faced really didn't register until the news of his death.

"When something happens close to home, it opens your eyes. It's the same as when you get a blue Dodge - everywhere, on the highways and in parking lots, there's a blue Dodge," said Liz Petersen, a friend who taught Gabrielson's children to ride horses.


"I was breathing a little easier over here, thinking major hostilities were over with. But it sounds like the opposite is true," Petersen said, holding her head in the Gabrielsons' living room. She emphasized, however, that the mission was right.

Frederic, Wis.

It's not hard to understand why residents of Frederic would not be consumed by happenings in the desert north of Baghdad. The village president refers to the town as a "Norman Rockwell kind of place," and the trustees serve coffee at monthly meetings. The tallest structures are the two water towers. Flowers are planted along the sidewalks. There are no stoplights.

News of Gabrielson's death July 9 would touch off frantic phone calls to comfort those who knew the family. It also would force residents to revisit the difficult arguments over the necessity of going to war and to reassess the claims Bush and other politicians had made about the relatively low cost and brevity of the conflict.

"I thought they figured it would be over in a short time and we'd be able to take care of everything there. But it's not going to be that way," said Carl Zenker, 80, a retired postal carrier sipping a beer at the Sundown Saloon outside town.

Down the bar, Joel Kurkowski said that he was not surprised.


"There's always going to be casualties when it comes to war," said Kurkowski, 34, a jukebox serviceman. He had supported the war from the outset and still does, no matter the time or cost. "The government is good at wasting money anyways. Might as well put it to some good use."

But for those who opposed the war initially, the mounting casualties are a bad sign.

"That reminds me of Vietnam, the body count," said Emory Giles, a former school superintendent who is now chairman of the local historical society. "We're in that thing, and we're stuck in it, and we can't move out. And until we get some handle on this, if we can, there are going to be many more, many more killed."

In the end, though, Frederic residents say they support the troops and call the loss of American lives a necessary sacrifice.

"We are doing the right thing here," Gabrielson wrote his family on July 4. "Don't let anyone tell you differently."

Without him, friends and family have rallied behind the war in Iraq, calling it just and saying that the soldier they had known had died for a good cause.


"I believe they're doing the right thing," said Peggy Gabrielson, curled in an easy chair and surrounded by bouquets from well-wishers.

"I am really proud of all the guys over there and what they're doing, and I hope the rest of them can come home safe."

Sun researcher Sarah Gehring contributed to this article.