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WAR WITH IRAQ

Families of Missing Marines Find Reasons to Hope

With eight unaccounted for after a battle near Nasiriyah, their loved ones back home try to focus on the positive as they wait for news.

March 29, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren and John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writers

The news sent Paul Patchem reeling. Two Marines and a Navy chaplain were at his door in Waterford, Conn., notifying him that his stepson was missing in action in Iraq.

But what he learned next gave him a spark of hope: Three comrades of Marine Cpl. Kemaphoom A. Chanawongse had been found -- alive and well -- hours after they had become separated from their platoon during a battle near Nasiriyah.

If those three could make it, Patchem said Friday, so could his 22-year-old stepson, who was in command of an amphibious vehicle. "He's very smart, he's resourceful -- and he's a survivor," Patchem said.

Across the country, families of seven other Marines missing from the same battle were making the same calculations Friday, balancing the anxiety of having a loved one missing in action against the hope that the missing troops would soon be rescued.

"Every time I look at my oldest son, I feel it in my heart, I feel so deeply that he is OK," said Tina Cline, the wife of Marine Lance Cpl. Donald J. Cline Jr. They have two children, Dakota, 2, and Dylan, 7 months.

Along with the names of the eight Marines missing in action, the Pentagon on Friday also announced two deaths.

The remains of Marine Cpl. Evan T. James, 20, who had been listed as missing in action, were recovered from Saddam Canal.

And Marine Maj. Kevin Nave, 36, a veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War who had been stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., was reported killed in a vehicle accident in Iraq. Nave and his wife, Carrie, had been living in Oceanside, Calif., with their 6-year-old son, Anthony, and their daughter, Maeve, who turned 5 on Thursday. Nave's death brings the number of U.S. troops killed in the war to 28. Seven have been taken prisoner by Iraqi forces and 16 are missing.

For the relatives of the missing, the wait for news has been agonizing. Most of the families of the eight Marines unaccounted for after the battle for Nasiriyah on Sunday did not get the news until late Wednesday. By then, their sons, their husbands, their brothers, had been missing for three days.

As the hours go by without news, many relatives say, they are taking comfort in remembering their loved ones' strength and courage, hoping against hope that they are simply lying low, waiting for rescue.

Neighbors of Marine Pfc. Tamario D. Burkett, 21, on Friday tied yellow ribbons on trees near his home -- on Peace Street, in Buffalo, N.Y. Burkett, the eldest of six siblings, did not express concern for his own safety before he deployed. But he did ask his mother, Brenda, "Ma, is God going to forgive me if I kill someone over there?"

She reassured him, telling him, "You're doing what you have to do."

Now she waits for word from the front, waits for the words she feels sure she will soon hear: " 'We have your baby. He's on his way home.' "

In Boiling Springs, S.C., the Hutchings family waits with equal confidence.

"I told [my wife] that they'll look for our son and find him somewhere behind a sand dune," Larry Hutchings, the father of Marine Pvt. Nolen Ryan Hutchings, told the Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald-Journal.

The Hutchingses received a letter from their son Thursday -- four days after he became separated from his unit. He had sent them a Colgate toothpaste box with the label in Arabic.

A proud Marine, Hutchings, 19, wore his uniform to his home church on his last furlough -- and was warmly applauded by the congregation, said the Rev. Wayne Dickard, pastor of Northbrook Baptist Church.

Pvt. Jonathan L. Gifford, 30, another of the missing, also wore his uniform with pride.

Gifford had wanted to enlist in the Marine Corps for years, since he graduated from high school in Decatur, Ill. Several times he was on the verge of joining up. But his mother, Vicky Langley, always talked him out of it.

"He's my only child," she explained. "I wanted him here with me."

Finally, a year and a half ago, she gave her consent. "I felt he had to get it out of his system," Langley said.

Gifford was a decade older than many fellow recruits, but he had no trouble passing the fitness test. He was soon deployed far from home -- first to Camp Lejeune, N.C., then to the Persian Gulf.

His mother waits by the phone, the TV turned up high, for word that he will soon be heading back to Decatur. "My son is a proud Marine," she said. "I'm going to believe he's coming home safe."

In Broken Arrow, Okla., just outside Tulsa, televisions and radios were also turned up as residents waited for news of Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas A. Blair, 24, who had enlisted shortly after his high school graduation. He is a member of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing in Cherry Point, N.C. The other missing Marines are attached to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Camp Lejeune.

In high school, Blair was a snare drummer with the Broken Arrow Tiger marching band, and also played the xylophone and marimba. "He always showed a tremendous amount of leadership ability and initiative," his former music teacher, Darrin Davis, said.

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