The Dead and The Wounded

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

 

It was right after September 11 that Levi said he wanted to enlist in the Marines. Gordon knew that there was going to be a war, although at that point he thought it would be in Afghanistan. Gordon could understand a war in Afghanistan, after what had just happened. But why Iraq? This was not one question but a kaleidoscope full of them, and you no sooner answered one than another tumbled into view, questions about the good or bad faith of the government, the planning and equipment and objectives in the field, the pure vagaries of chance: Why his son?

For his own part, Levi had wanted to travel, "to Europe, Mexico, anywhere," according to Amy Olson. He had plans that would take money--going to school, buying a house with his girlfriend, Tiffany Klass--but he didn't have any idea what to do. It's the same way for a lot of kids from Cloquet High School. Four of Amy and Levi's other classmates joined the National Guard under a program that allows friends to stay together for a while after enlisting. They are in an infantry unit that's headed to Iraq after Christmas.

Military recruiters are frequent visitors to the high school, and Amy guesses a quarter of each class enlists. The recruiters set up tables in the counselor's office or in the hall and kids can get passes to leave class to talk to them. "When you go down and talk to the recruiters, they set up a time to take you to the Twin Cities for a medical exam, to test your eyes and ears," and to administer vocational tests, she says. "You're sworn in down there and you pick a ship-out date, which could be 18 months away. It's easy to get people because they don't ship out right away."

After the swearing in, the recruiters stay in contact. There are fitness drills and social activities. "They go bowling, play pool, go camping," Amy says. "They make it look so fun. And it's not."

A boy in the class ahead of Levi's had joined the Marines, and he talked up the service to Levi and took him to meet recruiters. Levi enlisted in February 2002 and started boot camp in September of that year.

He had just finished training when George Bush landed on an aircraft carrier to speak against a backdrop that declared "Mission Accomplished." A few weeks later, Levi shipped out to Iraq, where his commanders swore reconstruction would be the only thing going on. It wasn't, and he was horrified to discover how poorly equipped U.S. forces were. When he came home the following Christmas, Levi was happy to know he would be sent somewhere stateside after the holidays.

At home, he listened to Amy's problems, just like old times. She was working at a gas station, a cleaning company, and a bar. She still had too little money and no time for herself at all. Maybe the Marines could help her, too, Levi said. "He brought me down to the recruiter. They made it look like it was going to solve everything," she recalls. "They do provide decent pay, and they give you insurance." Amy signed up.

Everything changed after Levi learned he was going back to Iraq. The night before his going-away party, he came over to watch a movie with Amy and her roommate. The three stayed up all night talking about boot camp and their futures. Amy didn't ask about the war, though. "I didn't want to know," she says. She could see a change in his eyes.

When Levi died two and a half months later, Amy tried several times to get out of going into the Marines. Once the recruiter read her the paragraph she'd written at the start about why she was enlisting. Another time he said that Levi would want her to go. Halfway through basic training in Texas a few weeks later, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and offered a health-related discharge.

 

Gordon was at Lila's house working in the junkyard when Loretta called on April 8. Loretta told Lila to send Gordon home right away. "Something's up with Levi," Lila remembers saying to Gordon as he left. "I've felt it all day."

Gordon knew it, too, although he tried to fend off the thoughts until he saw the two vans in front of his house: "I turned the corner and said, 'God, don't let those be military vehicles.'" When he got closer, he saw the Marine Corps insignia emblazoned on each of them.

The officers said someone from the family could fly to Dover Air Force base in Delaware and accompany Levi's body on the trip home. Gordon wanted to go, but somehow things turned chaotic and he wasn't able to make the trip. Instead, on the afternoon of April 17 he received a call saying his son's body was in Minneapolis and would be flown up that night.

The Marines from Fort Snelling came back to escort the family and two of Levi's ministers to Duluth around 10:30. As they were driving along the frontage road at the airport, a commercial jet whooshed overhead. "There he is," one of the Marines said. "He's on that flight."

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