The Dead and The Wounded

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

The van drove through some gates into a restricted area and straight out onto the tarmac. When the casket was unloaded, there was a small flag, about the size of a place mat, draped over the seam between the two halves of the lid. A single Marine, detailed to stay with the body at all times until it was delivered to the next of kin, walked alongside.

At the funeral, the casket was draped with a much larger flag. The nave of the church could not hold the thousand people who came, and arrangements were made to broadcast the service into other rooms. Levi's pastor and confidant, Tom Brinkley from St. Matthew's in Esko, spoke at the service. Levi had written the minister a month before his death, and Brinkley felt terrible that he hadn't had time to write back.

He has since offered to show Gordon the letter, but Gordon feels torn. It seems too private. He knows only what everybody else knows about it, which is what Brinkley said to the newspaper: Levi was worried about his faith and about other things people worry about when confronted with the thought that they may die.

Outside after the service, there was a color guard and a 21-gun salute and a horrible, heartbreaking ritual where a Marine commander begins taking roll call. When he gets no response from Angell, he calls again a couple of times, louder. This is the moment in the funeral video that turns the slow, rheumy trickle from Gordon's eyes into flat-out crying. "A man to the world," he says, "but my little boy."

Levi was buried the following day at Fort Snelling. "Levi Tuddy Angell, LCPL, Iraq," his tombstone is inscribed, "Until We Meet Again." Tuddy was Gordon Sr.'s nickname, and Gordon Jr.'s. When Levi was born, Gordon figured they might as well put it on his birth certificate.

Levi was the third Marine from Carlton County, population 32,000, to die in Iraq in a month. On the day of the funeral, TV cameras sprouted up in the Angells' front yard. The families of the two boys from Moose Lake killed in the war had people to talk to the media for them, but Gordon already knew he would have to speak for himself. "I told them that that morning I turned on the TV and learned that seven more Marines had been killed," he says. "I said I also saw that Bush was on his ranch that day, and it wouldn't have hurt him to pick up the phone and make a call."

At the time, and to this day, Gordon treasured the courtesy and dignity of the Marines who spoke with the Angells and helped them make arrangements. But even that memory has been sullied by reflection. Why was Levi's body returned so damn conveniently under cover of darkness?

This is one question Gordon feels able to answer, but there is no consolation in it. "If I only knew then what I know today," he says, "I would have called all the media. They want to keep everything so hush-hush. They don't want the public to see those pictures."

 

When Levi died, the minister asked what music he would want at his visitation, and Gordon named his son's favorite song, the Charlie Daniels Band's 1979 hit "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." "You probably wouldn't let us play it," he said.

"No problem," the minister replied. "You can play it 10 times if you want to. I don't care."

Gordon had been crying for a week, but that broke him up anew, made him feel bad for grousing at Levi for playing the song over and over during that cross-country trip in the Explorer.

Later, Gordon heard that Charlie Daniels was coming to Grand Casino in Hinckley. He had someone e-mail him and ask if he would play the song for Levi. Daniels personally e-mailed back that morning and said he'd be proud and honored. "I want to see you there," he instructed Gordon. Gordon went, and had Daniels sign a photo Amy Olson had taken at prom of Levi playing the air fiddle to the song.

The prom photo is in a file of pictures Gordon carries around, right on top of a newspaper photo of the memorial service Levi's unit held in Iraq. The latter is an iconic image, a man's service rifle stuck into his boots and topped with his helmet so his comrades have something to salute. In this picture, to the right of Levi's empty boots, there's a friend of his named Nolan Peterson. When the two met in Iraq, Peterson said he was from a little town called Barnum. Levi laughed, cutting off his explanation. "I have two brothers who live in Barnum," he said.

Every time Gordon looks at the picture of the Marines saluting Levi's gear, he has the same thought: "You travel thousands of miles and meet someone who's from 19 miles away."

Peterson was home in the fall and brought Gordon a flag signed by all the guys in Levi's company. He brought a videotape of the overseas memorial, too, but it got wiped clean by the airport x-ray machine.

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