Thursday, June 9, 2005

Two wars, two generations, one flag

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (June 9, 2005): When Sgt. First Class Garth MacDonald leaves his bunker in Iraq to go on a mission, he takes with him a rare artifact: a Maine state flag that was carried by a soldier in Vietnam more than 30 years ago – his uncle Jim.

MacDonald, a 1986 Scarborough High School graduate, is a member of the 716th Military Police Battalion, part of the 101st Airborne Division, based in Fort Campbell, Ky. He is now on his second tour in Iraq, and is again in Mosul, helping train Iraqi police officers, who do their jobs under constant threats to their lives and families.

Although the circumstances surrounding the wars and their lives are different, MacDonald's service runs parallel in many ways to that of his uncle. Although they both won medals for bravery, neither MacDonald nor his uncle talk much about them. They have at times used the same words in correspondence with family. And carrying a Maine flag has been important to both of them.

When Jim went over to Vietnam – he had dropped out of college and volunteered to fight – he wanted a Maine state flag. Carol called state officials, asking them to send a flag to her brother.

She got nowhere, and ended up calling Gorham Flag Company, whose owner not only hand-delivered the flag to her, he gave her a discount on the purchase.

That flag went to Vietnam and flew there, and returned home safely with Jim.

“When Garth went over the first time, Jim couldn’t find the flag,” so Carol sent another, new Maine state flag to him in Iraq. Garth wanted the flag, and his mother wanted him to have it, to pass on the tradition.

When he came home in April 2004 after about a year in Iraq, she went to greet him in Kentucky, but Garth got to Maine first: His homecoming flight stopped to refuel in Bangor, and “he was very proud to say he was from Maine.”

After some time at home in Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and three sons, just over the state line from the fort, the family headed up to Maine’s North Woods to unwind and reconnect.

“We knew it was just a matter of time before he’d have to go back, but you don’t think about that,” Carol said.

By the second time Garth was heading to Iraq – in January – Jim (who lives in Presque Isle) had cleaned his attic and found the flag, the same flag he had flown in Vietnam.

Now that flag hangs on the wall in Garth’s office bunker, and goes on missions when he leaves the base.

The similarities between her son and her brother startle Carol, and make her smile with pride. Both men went through jump school, and are quiet about their combat medals.

On his first tour, MacDonald, a career soldier, earned a Bronze Star for courage under fire during a firefight with Shiite militants in Karbala in October 2003, during which his battalion’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Kim Orlando, was killed, along with two other soldiers.

“Garth drove his Humvee between incoming fire and the wounded,” shielding them from the enemy, said his mother, Carol MacDonald.

His uncle did a similarly brave thing in Vietnam, calling in fire on his own position during a firefight. He didn't tell her about it for decades – not until Carol told him about Garth’s medal.

“These folks who get these medals are never overjoyed,” she said.

Jim told her he thought he could have avoided the dangerous situation for which he was honored. Garth, who will be 38 in October, told his mother, “I just did what I had to do.”

There are differences too, mostly in the circumstances surrounding their service. Jim signed up for an unpopular war, and his family was left with little emotional support and only rare contacts with him.

“We didn’t have e-mails. You waited for the mud-coated letter with that red dust,” Carol remembered. She has a single picture of her brother during his service.

By contrast, Garth has slideshows of his service on his laptop computer, Carol is part of a Kentucky-based Family Readiness Group by e-mail, and the two are often in touch by e-mail. Carol has even figured out how to make the technology keep her even closer: She sends Garth greeting cards through the America Online service, which tells her when he has picked up the message, even if he doesn’t write back right away.

But the similarities keep coming. “Just before Jim came home, he sent me a letter and at the end of it he said, ‘Keep the faith,’” Carol recalled. Though he had never heard about that letter, Garth used the same three words to end an e-mail he sent when on his way home from his first tour in Iraq.

Both have cared for the flag. “This one he will bring home and give back to Jim,” Carol said. “He may live in another state, but Maine has always been his home.”

“I feel about my son the same way I did about my brother,” Carol said. “They go away, they shoot people, they come back changed forever. … That’s the saddest part.”