Photo gives soldier '15 minutes of fame'

The Baltimore Sun

After months of fighting an elusive enemy in Iraq, Army Spc. Joseph Merchant has been caught off guard by his new status as a Carroll County celebrity.

An Associated Press photograph of the Detour resident treading the banks of a reedy canal in Iraq was first picked up by newspapers and Web sites around the world in late May. Then an article on the Merchant family's reaction to the image became the most viewed item on The Sun's Web site June 6.

And that one photograph continues to generate attention for Merchant, 23, a soldier from northwestern Carroll on security patrol with the 10th Mountain Division in the Sunni "Triangle of Death," south of Baghdad.

"He laughed and said something about his 15 minutes of fame," Elaine Merchant said, describing a phone conversation she had with her son last week. "My husband is loving it, and the kids are happy about it. He'll have something to save in a scrapbook for his little boy."

After reading The Sun's article, an activist, amateur weather observer and Santa Claus impersonator from the Eastern Shore tracked down Joseph Merchant's address in Iraq to send him a 396-foot scroll of handwritten well-wishes.

A Woodbine resident was similarly moved to mail a card and money to Merchant's wife and 9-month-old son in their home in Watertown, N.Y.

"It's always nice when just random people send you something like that," said Merchant's wife, Joy, who began dating Joseph when they were students at Francis Scott Key High School in Union Bridge.

The May 25 photo of Merchant and subsequent story about his family reminded readers about the lives and loved ones soldiers leave behind as they redeploy on extended tours in Iraq.

His wife, parents and three sisters fear for his safety. Merchant lost his best friend and another platoon mate in December and witnessed the May 12 ambush of three company mates in an attack near Mahmoudiya. Merchant's family eagerly awaits his scheduled return in November.

As H. George Jackson Jr. mailed the massive scroll to Merchant last week, he said he was continuing a tradition he began in Easton nearly 13 years ago. Since sending that first scroll as a Christmas greeting to troops in Bosnia, he said he has mailed more than 150 scrolls to American servicemen and -women stationed around the world.

"There's always somebody that needs to have a smile on their face over there, whether it's in Kosovo, Germany, Italy, Africa, on an aircraft carrier or in Korea," Jackson said by phone from his home in American Corner, a crossroads in rural Caroline County. "I just like doing this for the troops."

When Jackson, 59, read that Merchant was with the 10th Mountain Division, he knew he had the scroll for him.

He sent a scroll created in honor of the late Sgt. Thomas "Tommy Lee" Latham of Delmar, who, like Merchant, served with the 10th Mountain Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team. A roadside bomb in Iraq took the life of Latham, 23, on March 11.

Both Latham and Merchant redeployed from Fort Drum, N.Y., in August and served in Iraq after their scheduled discharge dates from the Army.

"When I saw that photo, it moved me like it moved everybody else," Jackson said of Merchant. To track Merchant and his family down, Jackson spent several days communicating with Carroll County officials.

Ralph Green, Carroll's director of general services, who lives near Detour, hand-delivered letters to the Merchants on Jackson's behalf. Finally, Joseph Merchant's APO address in Iraq was obtained from his wife.

At first, Elaine Merchant said she thought Jackson's plan "was some kind of baloney." But Jackson's persistence won the Merchant family over.

"I thought that would be nice for Joe to get," Elaine Merchant said of the scroll. "He can share that with some other guys in his group."

Merchant isn't the only Carroll County resident Jackson has honored with a scroll. Jackson recently mailed a 53-foot one to Joe Colley, a Westminster resident and World War II veteran who fought as a Marine in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

"I'd met veterans from every war that are still alive, but not from that specific battle," Jackson said. "It would have been nice if somebody had done a scroll like this for them at Iwo Jima 62 years ago."

While Jackson collected signatures at a Denton grocery store for a scroll he presented at the Iwo Jima Memorial in late April, Jackson met Colley.

As Colley signed the scroll, he told Jackson that he turned 20 years old during the battle on the Pacific island. Jackson said he had no choice but to honor Colley with a scroll to thank him for his service.

In the case of the Merchant family, Jackson wasn't the only person to seek them out.

Mark Mooney, a Woodbine resident who served with the Marines for two years in Japan during the 1950s, sent a card and money to Merchant's wife and their baby son, Valin.

"Most enlisted families don't receive enough cash to keep up with the cost of living," Mooney wrote in his letter, Joy Merchant said. He said he would keep Joy Merchant, her husband and Valin in his prayers.

Mooney said he also plans to send cash to Merchant's parents and sisters in Detour.

"I just know how hard it is on the families that have sons and daughters and husbands over there," said Mooney, 71, a retired telecom technician.

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