War Stories: Sympathy Forms

President Bush's surprise visit to see the troops last week hasn't stopped the grousing over how he is handling the war dead.

Democratic candidates for his job see Bush's absence from soldiers' funerals as great fodder for their cause. War opponents and media cynics accuse him of obfuscating the reality of the prolonged conflict. But what do the families of the dead soldiers themselves think?

As usual, reason lies outside the Beltway. There, you can also find grace in the face of tremendous sorrow. Take Denise Marshall of Georgia, for example. Her husband, John, is the oldest soldier to die in Iraq so far. The lifelong Army veteran was 50. "It takes a lot of mental preparation to be ready for something like his," she says of his death.

The top brass at Fort Stewart, where the Marshall family (with its seven kids) is based, no doubt chose Denise to meet President Bush several weeks ago because of her composure. It was the first of a series of private meetings he has had with fallen soldiers' families here and in London recently. When he was in England, his meeting with a small group of handpicked families raised the ire of some Britons.

But Marshall understood that Bush couldn't meet with everyone and she felt that she and the other nine families were there as representatives, not tokens. Her view on the president's funeral policy was equally sanguine. She didn't expect a personal appearance, but says: "I think that if he can't make it himself that he should designate an individual with a high enough status that makes his presence known." That seemed like a reasonable solution to many of the families I asked.

No president has ever attended every funeral of every soldier. Even President Clinton was selective in his visits. He didn't want to set the precedent of having to go to every one or being seen to play favorites, his former aides recall. And yet the Bush White House has at times acted defensively about Bush's approach. Sometimes aides suggest that Clinton was just an attention seeker (which set off a new round of barbs between the Bushies and the Clintonites). Other times they point out that Bush is "writing" letters to each of the soldiers' families instead of going to the services.

So I asked some families about the sympathy letters they had received. I assumed that they were in the Bush family style. Both his father and his mother come from a generation of note writers. His mother's Christmas list is notoriously long and his father is famous for his handwritten notes. This Bush has followed suit, often using his thick Sharpie to pen short notes to friends, foes and fund-raisers.

But those are not the letters Bush is "writing." They are form letters. With the exception of the salutation and a reference to the fallen soldier in the text, the letters the families shared with me are all the same. Now some one has gone to the trouble of finding out if the given name of the solider and the name he or she used were different. And Bush does sign them all personally. But it would be more accurate to say he is "sending" all the families letters, a practice that goes back many presidents.

Maggie Caldwell of Massachusetts was still a newlywed when a mine exploded under the Humvee of her husband, Todd, in Iraq. A few weeks later, she received Bush's letter. "Something a little more personal would have been nice," she says. Maggie is not running for office or writing a snarky column, she just wants to know that her nation appreciates what Todd--and she--have sacrificed.


A larger-than-average number of Vietnam veterans responded to T. Trent Gegax's column about Capt. Glenn Palmer, an Army chaplain.

George Schabbehar, of Leesville, La., wrote: Vietnam all over again. [The story of Cpt. Palmer] really brought back some memories, ones I thought were buried. No, not really. My son is with the 173rd Airborne in Iraq. I think about it a lot.

Char Braden, of Kettering, Ohio, wrote: My 20 year-old son is stationed in Mosul, Iraq. He has seen and been through ordeals I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. He recently lost a good friend to a roadside bomb and then had to clean the remains/blood/tissue out of the Humvee after they had sat there for several days. I fear he will never be the same. It's nice to know some of our troops have the help of soldiers like Chaplain Palmer. At this point and time, I no longer support this war or President Bush. I want my son home alive and well, not in a box.

Gary Kolarski, of Richmond, Va., wrote: I got a pal over in the war. He says it ain't like what you all make it out to be on Fox News. This ain't a war we are winning; it's one we are slowly losing. The general public needs to know this and it's gonna be people like myself and other friends of our men over there that are gonna make the real story public. Fox news and the rest of you tabloids can stick to something you're good at, like covering the Michael Jackson fiasco.

SSG James Sommers, of Ft. Myers, Fla., wrote: I've been over here in Iraq since February and I've seen this country go from hating the U.S. to being grateful for our involvement. I know there are still many Americans that do not believe in us being over here. Those same people are not here, and in my opinion they do not hold the right to open their pie hole. We are here trying to give the Iraqi people the same rights and freedom from oppression as they do back in the states.... Don't judge and place blame if you're not ready to receive the same treatment for your faults in impurities.