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A higher calling than duty

Mark Daily wrote on MySpace that he joined the Army to help the suffering people of Iraq. In death, his words have become a call to service.

February 16, 2007|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

"WHY I joined: The question has been asked of me so many times in so many different contexts that I thought it would be best if I wrote my reasons for joining the Army on my page for all to see."

Oct. 29, 2006. On the night before he deployed to Iraq, Army 2nd Lt. Mark Jennings Daily sat down at his laptop in his Texas apartment and began tapping out an essay for his MySpace Web page. Daily, a 23-year-old Irvine native who considered himself a liberal humanist, had decided to join the fight despite initial doubts about the war.

Before shipping out, he wanted to explain why.

The decision had befuddled some. After all, Daily was a UCLA political science graduate with a wide circle of friends and dreams of becoming a senator, or a history professor, or a foreign correspondent. Why join the Army?

His essay would turn out to be a last testament to one soldier's courage and convictions.

And that essay, in recent weeks, has ricocheted throughout the Internet, taking on a life of its own. It was read on the U.S. Senate floor and posted on the websites of columnists and talk show hosts. It has prompted hundreds of letters from strangers. Daily's words, his astonished parents say, seemed to resonate with all kinds of folks, stirring a common altruistic impulse.

He wrote it in just 20 minutes, his parents say, as he chatted with his family in his packed-up El Paso apartment near Ft. Bliss, Texas, where he was assigned to the 2nd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.

"First, the more accurate question is why I volunteered to go to Iraq. After all, I joined the Army a week after we declared war on Saddam's government with the intention of going.... "

Daily's parents, John and Linda Daily of Irvine, didn't particularly want to see their eldest son ship out to Iraq. They would never tell him that directly. They respected their children too much to try to interfere.

"If not me, then who?" Linda Daily remembers her son asking, his earnest eyes leaving her with no good answer.

So the Dailys did what they believed parents should do: They embraced their son, affirmed his decision and sent him off, shielding as best they could their fears and doubts. His wife of just three months, Janet, did the same.

"Anyone who knew me before I joined knows that I am quite aware and at times sympathetic to the arguments against the war in Iraq. If you think the only way a person could bring themselves to volunteer for this war is through sheer desperation or blind obedience then consider me the exception."

Mark Daily, born on the Fourth of July, grew up in Irvine's Woodbridge Village, on a street of spacious homes and well-manicured lawns. His father, John, is an aerospace project manager; his mother, Linda, an audiologist.

His family says he became a registered Democrat who read voraciously and delighted in fervent debate. He read liberal intellectual Noam Chomsky, conservative Sen. John McCain of Arizona and everything in between.

His first passions were animal rights and environmental protection, prompting him to become a vegetarian and Green Party member in high school for a few years. He defended American Indian rights so loudly in one backyard debate that Linda Daily imagined the neighbors would think it a family brawl. His heroes were immigrants because "they risk their lives to achieve better ones," he wrote on his MySpace page.

Fascism and anti-Semitism particularly troubled him. If you really want to understand me, he wrote on MySpace, watch "Schindler's List."

He sought out neo-Nazis for online debates. In a string of e-mails, Daily invited one young man who featured swastikas on his MySpace page to explain his sentiments. After a wide-ranging discussion over German history, the Holocaust, African DNA, North Korean fascism and democratic values, Daily turned the Nazi lover around. "I think most certainly a lot, if not all of my beliefs have changed," the young man wrote. Daily, he said, was right. "Nothing was ever created with a system of hate."

After the 9/11 attacks, Daily was not convinced that a military response was the best option. In his MySpace essay, he runs through the gamut of reasons he used at one time or another to argue against confronting the Taliban and Saddam Hussein: cultural tolerance, the sanctity of national sovereignty, a suspicion of America's intentions. Weren't we really after their oil? he wondered.

Somewhere along the way, he changed his mind. His family says there was no epiphany. Writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens on the moral case for war deeply influenced him. A 2003 phone conversation with a UCLA ROTC officer on the ideals of commitment and service impressed him.

Ultimately, his family says, Daily came to believe that his lifelong altruistic impulses and passions for the underdog had to extend to Iraqis crushed under decades of oppression. It was time to stop simply talking about human rights and actually do something to help secure them.

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