The Dead and The Wounded

Last spring three soldiers from northern Minnesota's Carlton County died in Iraq in one month's time

Gordon Angell answered the phone and heard the voice of his son's sergeant on the other end. He handed over the receiver, watched as his boy's face crumpled, and didn't even have to ask why. In two days Levi was to have headed back to Camp Pendleton in California, and the phone call could only mean the plan had changed, and Lance Corporal Levi Angell was going back to Iraq for a second tour.

Things were bad over there. Levi had told Gordon so during a father-son road trip before the holidays last fall. While stationed in San Diego, Levi bought a Ford Explorer, and he wanted to store it at home. So Gordon flew out to meet him and they drove the truck across the country together, back to Cloquet.

"Dad, I'll tell you what," Levi had said. "I'm worried about my friends over there." The troops kept waiting for bulletproof glass, for armored panels for their vehicles, hell, for something as low-tech as sandbags to line the floors of the truck cabs in case they rolled over a mine. Body armor was scarce. Some of the other guys in his unit, the First Marine Expeditionary Force, had asked their families for bulletproof vests for Christmas.

One night shortly before Levi left the last time, the family held a going-away party in the garage. Levi--20 years old, and already the survivor of one harrowing tour in Iraq--danced and partied. At the party, Levi's grandmother Lila teased the girl who lived across the gravel road about her prospects. "I'm not getting married unless it's to Levi," the girl teased back.

The next night there was an ice storm and Levi smashed up the Ford. So in the morning Gordon drove him to Moose Lake to catch a ride with a friend. The two had lunch and then Levi said, "Take care of yourself, Dad," and he was gone. Or so it seemed. Gordon had barely gotten home when Levi called on his cell phone from Forest Lake. The engine in his friend's car had burned up.

"Levi," Lila told him, "somebody doesn't want you going back there for some reason." To Gordon she said, "Build him a shack and hide him back there," in the woods behind her house.

Two months later, on April 8, 2004, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the Humvee Levi was driving and the explosion ripped open his left side. The Marines told Gordon his son died instantly. It happened during the first siege on Fallujah, when the Marines stormed the city, realized they were outgunned, and retreated. Levi was killed during the retreat, on the outskirts of Baghdad in a place called Abu Ghurayb. All told, the convoy only had to make it 20 miles or so, about as far as from the Angells' house to Moose Lake. This is one of the questions that will not let go of Gordon to this day: How did his son come to be so exposed? Why weren't there planes or helicopters to reconnoiter that road and provide cover fire?

The day after Gordon got the news, the phone rang again. This time it was the guy from the body shop. "Your kid can come get his truck out of my yard," he said. "It's done." Gordon blurted it out: "Levi got killed yesterday." On the other end of the line, he could hear the man fumbling not to drop the phone.

 

Levi's grandmother, Lila Angell, is almost 80 and lives in a tiny house encircled by a junkyard full of old vehicles and machines and engines in no discernible arrangement, almost as if they just grew there among the grass and weeds and the Angells happened along one day and found a way to harvest them for modest profit.

The family business has always been resourceful by necessity. Gordon, age 62, and his brother do remodeling jobs; they move houses and buildings--sometimes the whole structure, lifted from its foundation, sometimes only the contents. For a while they had a contract to bury cable in Cloquet and communities to the west. Levi would have been welcome in the business, but it was never any wonder to Gordon that Levi wanted something more. Gordon wished that for him too.

"One day we went to empty out an old store in Cloquet," Gordon recalls. "We found a case of sardines, and I brought them home." Later on he found out that Levi had told his mother, "I want a better education than Dad. I don't want to bring home sardines." And he understood.

There's a small patch of lawn in front of Lila Angell's house, and a pole flying a flag at half-staff. Inside, the tiny living room is a riot of figurines and demitasse cups and doilies. Every remotely flat surface in her kitchen is covered with family photos, whole and cropped. There are pictures of Gordon's eight kids--the five he had with Levi's mother, Loretta, and three from their previous marriages. There's Levi, of course, his fleshy face and rounded nose so much like Gordon's, minus the wild white hair and beard.

Gordon says his wife wants to move on, to go back to living, but Gordon just can't. And it is hard to listen to him. Fifteen years ago Gordon lost half his throat to cancer, and the synthesizer he uses to talk renders his voice a low monotone that clashes sharply with the hurt, enraged content of his words.

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