Area families await return of loved ones

Posted: Friday, March 21, 2003

As the war with Iraq kicks off overseas, most of the nation is riveted to televisions and newspapers, waiting for reports of each air strike or ground battle. For many, the troops involved are nameless. They're "our boys," but little more.

For some Kenai Peninsula residents, however, the soldiers are much more. They are sons, brothers and friends, and they each have names: Dustin, Ben, Patrick, Shane, Joshua and Kyle, to name a few.

"I'm very, very proud. I really believe in what he's doing," said Janine Espy of Kenai, whose 22-year-old son, Patrick, is stationed with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan. "Even though he's in Afghanistan, and we're wondering what will happen in Iraq, I think it's all the same war. It needs to be done."

Patrick Espy joined the Army in June of 1999, shortly after graduating from Kenai Central High School, his mother said.

In part, it was because he received a $50,000 scholarship to complete his education after completing his four years of service.

And, Janine said, "I think he wanted an adventure, to see the world a little bit."

Patrick certainly is getting that adventure. Originally trained to work a large artillery gun, Patrick was retrained on mortars last fall when he received his orders to head to Afghanistan, where he traveled on Jan. 5.

As dangerous as the situation may be, Janine is comforted by the fact that Patrick is able to call home on a satellite phone for 10 minutes twice a week.

And, she said, he must believe in what he is doing, because he announced to the family last week that he had voluntarily extended his service time for six more months, meaning instead of heading home in June, he will wait until at least November.

Janine said she, her husband Roy, and their other three children couldn't be more proud of Patrick's service.

"We're really proud to be able to fly a little red banner in our window that we got through the (Veterans of Foreign Wars)," she said.

The banner, which originated in World War II and recently was reinstated by the VFW, designates families with loved ones serving abroad. At the Espy home, the red banner is marked with a blue star, which means the family member is currently serving. Other banners have silver stars, designating a wounded family member, or gold stars, "which means they paid the ultimate price," Janine explained.

Despite their pride, Janine said the situation still is hard on the family.

They struggle with the mixed feelings other community members have about military action overseas.

"It's hard with people who don't understand. Our other three kids go to (Kenai Peninsula College), and a lot of students there are against the war. They hear it all the time, and it makes them angry, because their brother is serving so they have the freedom to do what they're doing," Janine said. "I try to gently remind them that's part of why Patrick's doing what he's doing."

Plus, she said, they can't help but fear for his safety.

"I do feel proud, but I wish he were here," she said. "I think if I had my choice, though -- maybe I'm fooling myself -- but where he's at might be better that Iraq or Kuwait right now."

Some peninsula families, however, can't share Janine's relief.

Mary Dreifuerst of Cooper Landing speaks with a shaky voice as she explains that her son, 18-year-old Dustin Dreifuerst, is driving a reconnaissance vehicle close to the Iraq border. A 2001 Skyview High School graduate, Dustin went to boot camp a week after graduation, was stationed a Camp Pendleton, Calif., then reassigned to Camp LeJune, N.C. He is a lance corporal with the 3rd Marine Division.

"He has always had a very strong interest in the military. He was always a very patriotic, loyal young man," she said. "He's a proud person, he wanted to be a Marine and serve his country. I guess that's what he's doing."

On Wednesday afternoon, just hours before the United State's first strike on Iraq, Mary was holding her breath to see what would happen. She and her husband, Richard, had just received a letter from Dustin -- dated March 3 -- that said, among other things, that he would be one of the first groups to enter Iraq in the event of a strike.

"It's hard on us, but we're very proud and supportive of him, all the Marines and all the military over there," she said. "It's a big sacrifice. They're doing this to keep our country safe. They're doing what they think needs to be done, and we're right there supporting them 100 percent."

Buck George of Kasilof agreed.

His 22-year-old son Joshua, a member of the Marine infantry, is stationed in Kuwait City. Joshua, who graduated from Ninilchik, where his mother, Mary Clock, lives, has served 3 1/2 years in the Marines. Though his service contract was supposed to be completed in June, Buck said Joshua was a victim of "stop loss," meaning due to the heightened risks abroad, his contract was extended indefinitely.

"Now he's in for however long," Buck said.

Buck said Joshua is with the Infantry Weapons Platoon, but he's not sure what his son is doing right now.

"We haven't talked to him," Buck said. "He had e-mail for about a week, now the address doesn't exist."

Buck said he and his wife, Barbara, are proud of Joshua's service.

"We have our American flag hanging here. We are very proud," Buck said.

"That doesn't stop a father from wanting to go over and watch his son's back, but he's better trained than I am," he said. "I just wish we could hear from him."

Buck admits that, like many Americans, he's not sure what to think of the war in Iraq.

"I have mixed opinions about what's going on in the Middle East," he said. "I'm supportive of the U.S. stand, though. You can only tell someone what to do for so long, then you have to take a stand. I support Bush for drawing a line."

Noting the disparity of stances on the war here in the States, Buck said he is reminded of a line from "We Were Soldiers."

"Hate war, love American warriors," he quoted.

"Politics aside, right or wrong, our guys over there need support at home."

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