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Residents of Paris, Illinois Cope with Loss of Hometown National Guardsmen

December 21, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The 1544th, an Army National Guard unit, has a long history with the small town of Paris, Illinois. The unit’s armory is in Paris, but the identification goes deeper than that. The 1544th is a part of the fabric of this Midwestern town of 9,000 that sits amidst the rich farmlands of central Illinois.

The Guard members’ names went up on the town’s light poles when the unit was sent to Iraq last February. Now, holiday decorations mix with a show of support on front lawns and in the windows of storefronts all over town. The 1544th is a 170 member transportation unit that draws from a four-state area: Missouri, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois.

The troops all train in the Paris armory, and it was there where they got the word last year of their deployment to Iraq. Then most thought the assignment would not put the unit in terribly dangerous areas. Paris Mayor Craig Smith:

MAYOR CRAIG SMITH: People weren’t worried. When the Guard left, we thought here’s a transportation unit. A lot of them were women; a lot of them were children who went to school with my children, 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds.

We were thinking it was a supply group going… taking things from Point “A” to Point “B.” So probably the impact was “Yeah, they’re going, they’re going to serve their country, and they’re going to come right back.”

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But it hasn’t turned out that way. Transporting troops and materials over Iraq’s unsecured roads has become one of the most dangerous jobs in Iraq.

Five soldiers of the 1544th have been killed in Iraq, more than any other National Guard unit in the country; twenty-four have been seriously injured. Even the 1544th’s compound situated just outside of Baghdad is not safe. Sgt. Ivory Phipps died less than 24 hours after the unit’s arrival in Iraq, killed by a mortar shell lobbed into the compound.

MAYOR CRAIG SMITH: As the deaths kept coming, the town… you could feel the thickness in the air. I mean, you could just cut the first death, then the second death, then there were some wounded.

All of a sudden, you’re really in a war zone. It’s not make believe anymore. You’re in Paris, Illinois, but you feel it every day because every day I see somebody who has a child over there — every day in this town.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Many of the kids in the 1544th went into the Guard right out of high school, looking for a way to pay for college. Paris High School football players wear the 1544th logo on their helmets.

At least four former Paris players are now in Iraq. Allan Morrison walks by the high school bulletin board filled with stars, one for each former student serving overseas. His sister Shawna’s star is surrounded by a heart. The 26-year-old woman was killed in Iraq Sept. 5.

CINDY MORRISON: Oh, well. This is all her clothes.

RICK MORRISON: Clothes, a few shoes.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Her parents, Rick and Cindy Morrison, had received their daughter’s personal belongings from Iraq the day we spoke to them. They had already purchased a display case for their daughter’s combat medals and certificates.

A smaller case held the flag that had draped her coffin. The Morrisons had moved to Paris 15 years ago, after losing their factory jobs in Detroit. Both said they have been overwhelmed by the support from the community.

CINDY MORRISON: We heard about it at about 9:10 Sunday night. The very next morning our next-door neighbor here was over with stuff, you know, offering his condolences. It got around Paris really fast. People were calling us offering to sit… you know, “What can we do to help?”

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Sgt. Shawna Morrison handled satellite and computer communications for the 1544th.

She lost her life when mortars again hit the compound, believed to be fired from a nearby mosque. 23-year-old Spec. Charles Lamb was also killed in the attack. The deaths left the Morrisons with questions about the war.

RICK MORRISON: I don’t think we should have been over there. I feel real sad about what has happened. I think it’s going to be a long time before we really make the kind of change that they thought was going to be so easy.

CINDY MORRISON: I just hope it made a difference, and when this is all said and done it wasn’t just a lot of senseless casualties.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The question of whether the soldiers of the 1544th lost their lives in vain is one that is rarely asked publicly here.

People worry that the question might be mistaken for a lack of support for the troops. Among those who gather every morning for coffee at the Max and Diane Cafe, the support for the troops and the war is solid.

BOB COLVIN: I was for the war effort, I am still for the war effort. If it was my son that had lost his life over there, I don’t know that that would change my opinion. I would hope it would not.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And is there any bitterness or anger about these deaths?

MAN: No.

MAN: No.

MAN: Maybe sorrow.

MEN IN CAFE: Sorrow.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The sorrow was evident at the memorial service the town held for the five soldiers of the 1544th who lost their lives in Iraq. “The 1544th had given enough,” says the mayor.

MAYOR CRAIG SMITH: I think it’s time for them to come home. I think it’s time for our kids to come home. I want them to be safe. And I don’t think they’re safe.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Aaron Wernz has already come home, back to the farm that has been in this family for three generations.

He’s on medical leave after nearly losing his life in the same mortar attack that killed Shawna Morrison and Charles Lamb. He still carries multiple pieces of shrapnel in his body.

SPC. AARON WERNZ: They say that there’s a piece of shrapnel that’s in my heart wall.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Despite his serious injuries, he says he would return to the 1544th in Iraq if he could.

SPC. AARON WERNZ: I’m proud of what we’ve done, what they’re still doing over there. I think, you know, we’re fighting for the protection of the American people and, you know, the freedom of the peoples of Iraq. I think that’s an honorable thing to fight for.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Sgt. Scott Johnson, also home on medical leave, was providing security for a private contractor hired to deliver mail to the troops when the convoy was hit by a roadside bomb. The unarmored truck was destroyed.

Johnson survived after an emergency roadside tracheotomy. Seven months later, the scars are still vivid. Spec. Jeremy Ridlen of the 1544th died in the same attack. In October, the 1544th lost Sgt. Jessica Cawvey when a roadside bomb hit her armored convoy truck. Cawvey left a six-year-old daughter.

Even with all the deaths Johnson does not question the U.S. mission. Though when asked to describe the U.S. mission, he does not go beyond the role of the 1544th.

SGT. SCOTT JOHNSON: We’re given several missions. We’re to support other units there and do what we need to do as a transportation unit.

We need to support other companies and other units there. So we’re given a series of several missions, and each mission in itself that’s accomplished, you know, that’s a success.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A family support group headed by Jim Cooper tried to make the 1544th’s missions safer by providing CB radios and armor for the soldiers’ vehicles.

JIM COOPER: When our trucks went over and we didn’t have enough steel, the American Legion, the VFW, and other support groups around here went right immediately together to raise money and buy our steel ourselves and ship over there. And the military put a stop to us, but we… the community was going to do it. They wanted these kids safe.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Cooper says the Army tells him the majority of the 1544th’s trucks are now armored.

JIM COOPER (on phone): Well, you never know, that’s true.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Cooper also spends hours on the phone as part of a telephone tree set up to quickly get the latest information out to worried relatives and friends. His 21-year-old son, Matt, is with the 1544th.

JIM COOPER: You don’t get any sleep. Every night you worry. You just… you’re on edge all the time.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: As difficult as the holiday season is here without the soldiers of the 1544th, the bigger worry is whether or not they will come home when their one year tour of duty in Iraq ends in February.

JIM COOPER: Yeah. End of February, 1st of March, a lot of men telling everybody. It’s either that or the government better get me a plane, because I’ll be over there. ( Laughs )

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But the 1544th’s stateside commander, Lt. Col. Robert Mayberry, isn’t so sure of the return date.

LT. COL. ROBERT MAYBERRY: The Army works in strange ways. Nothing is solid until you see your soldier. I’ve told the family readiness group that it’s not over until your son or daughter is sitting in your living room talking to you. Then it’s over.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: How often do the families ask you that question?

LT. COL. ROBERT MAYBERRY: Every chance they get. (Laughs) And I would, too.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So for now, the town of Paris, Illinois, watches its hometown unit operate in a distant war that hits very close to home.