The Dead and The Wounded

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

During the summer and fall, Gordon kept busy driving everywhere he could manage to Kerry-Edwards campaign rallies. He'd talk about the war and about "Bush's damn lies," to whoever showed up--twice he got to talk to Edwards privately--but he was most interested in the young people. Levi never got to vote in a presidential election, he'd tell them, so they should make sure to.

He spoke in Moose Lake at a DFL rally. Afterward, he says the uncle of a 19-year-old Marine from that town who died in Iraq the same week as Levi told him he had guts to be speaking out, that a lot of people wouldn't do it. He also spoke at an antiwar rally in Duluth when Dick Cheney was in town. That time he got a phone call from an anonymous woman who said she was sorry about his son, but wouldn't Gordon please support the president?

"A lot of people say I'm exploiting my son's death, but I'm not saying anything my son didn't tell me," he says. "If a football coach put his men out on the field without helmets and pads and everything, how long do you think it would be before people said something's wrong and he wouldn't be the coach anymore?"

 

Among Gordon's pictures there is a snapshot taken at a Flag Day ceremony in Alexandria that depicts a handful of fuzzy orbs against a blue sky. The blips are gold balloons released as part of the ceremony, one for every Minnesotan killed in this war. There was a lady there whose son died in Kuwait just before Levi was killed. She sobbed as the organizers read her son's name and let his balloon rise.

Her name is Mary Nordlund, and she lives about 20 miles south of the Angells in Kettle River, a speck on the map just outside Moose Lake, which is itself a town of only 2,100 people, not counting those confined at the prison, where Mary works, or in the sexual psychopath confinement center. Mary's son, Matthew Milczark, was just 18 when he died in what the newspapers initially called a "noncombat shooting in a chapel in Kuwait."

In October the Marine Corps formally ruled it a suicide, but Mary, like many of Matt's other relatives, disputes this. His grandfather and uncles all served, so Matt knew what he was getting into, they say. Plus, he was a go-getter--homecoming king and a hockey, football, and baseball star. When the ruling came down, Mary and Vern Nordlund, along with Matt's father and stepmother, Greg and Linda Milczark, gave the Duluth News-Tribune a prepared statement.

"To now learn the U.S. Marines have ruled the death a self-inflicted wound before all information has been made available to us is devastating," the family wrote. "With all due respect to the Marines, we will continue to pursue with our congressmen all the information that the U.S. Marine Corps has gathered and which led...to this determination.

"Our son...was a very proud Marine. We all supported and respected the choice he made to defend his country. We will always carry him close to our hearts and keep him in our prayers."

The Flag Day ceremony was staged by the Blue Star/Gold Star Mothers of America, an organization started in 1942. Mothers with sons or daughters in the service are Blue Star mothers; Gold Star mothers are those who have made "the ultimate sacrifice." After Mary watched Matt's gold balloon disappear, she tried to join the group. Instead the organizers encouraged her to start a Moose Lake chapter.

Blue Star bylaws say you can't have a chapter without officers, so in July Mary dragooned three other military moms into serving as vice president, secretary, and treasurer. Within four months, they had enrolled 55 women (including state Sen. Becky Loury) and packed the calendar with events. They've solicited donations of toiletries and other sundries and sorted them into care packages for the troops. They've made up T-shirts and ordered pins, although those haven't come yet.

Matt was deployed first to Camp Victory, a big base in Kuwait that served as a clearinghouse for troops arriving and departing from all branches of the service. Two weeks after he got there, he was selected as Echo Company's radio operator and informed that his unit would enter Iraq shortly. On March 6, commanders staged a simulation drill, complete with a wounded Marine. According to a letter Mary got from Matt's commander, the new arrivals didn't know it was a drill. "Matt grabbed the radio and rattled off stuff from memory," Mary says. "He called in the med-evac chopper to get the Marine who was down. 'I would trust him with my life,' is what [the commander] said." Matt's body was found two days later in a chapel, with a gunshot wound to the head.

The Blue Star mothers tell the tale of the day they found out about Matt as a group, gathered around Mary at a table in the high school library. Treasurer Inez Syrett heard from her son Derek, who walked through the front door, fell to his knees, and started crying. Secretary Carla Giersdorf's boy, Matthew, got the news while instant messaging. He got up from the computer, told her, and went straight to the Syretts'. His mother wanted him to call first, but he just left. Vice President Cathy Nummela's son, Jason, answered the phone and started to cry.

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