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Unexpected emotions

Bin Laden's death stirs up mixed feelings for those who have lost loved ones in the Afghanistan war

May 03, 2011|Scott Gold and Louis Sahagun and Hector Becerra

Margot Stengel went to bed Sunday on the early side, with a heavy heart, as she had ever since her son died during his tour in Afghanistan. She was surprised when the phone rang a little before 10, and even more surprised to hear the voice of her grandson.

An often taciturn teenager, Jessee had a lot on his mind. Osama bin Laden, he told her, was dead. And it had come too late for his father, who died in December saddled with doubt about his slog through a dangerous pocket of Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border.

It had seemed a confounding mission, both to California Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Vincent W. Ashlock and to his family back home, with an objective as concrete as a handful of water. But here was a moment, Stengel told her grandson, of clarity -- finally, mercifully.

"Your father," she told her grandson, "is tap-dancing in heaven."

Since 2001, more than 1,500 Americans have died supporting the war in Afghanistan, including 161 Californians, according to military databases. For the friends and relatives of those troops, the announcement that U.S. special forces had killed Bin Laden was cause for celebration. It was also an opportunity to reassess sacrifices, to wrest a historic and tangible result, at long last, from a murky war.

"He is a part of this," Stengel said of her son. "Every step he took over there was one step toward freedom. I believe that. I'll spend the rest of my life missing him. But his circle, his goal, is complete."

Those touched by the war in Afghanistan know that it is far from over, that the long battle against the Al Qaeda terrorist network will continue. California Army National Guard Capt. Robert C.J. Parry, who returned home to Monrovia in August after a tour in Afghanistan, called Bin Laden's death "a huge morale boost for us" and "a huge morale blow to the enemy."

For some, word of Bin Laden's death brought little consolation.

Tracy and Arthur Pratti, their four surviving sons and their grandchildren went to a cemetery to honor Joseph C. Lopez, a son who was killed last October by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. It would have been the Marine's 27th birthday; the family released 27 balloons.

Later that night, Tracy Pratti was summoned to the TV to watch the initial reports of Bin Laden's death.

"My husband and all my other boys were glad. They kind of thought, 'Happy birthday, Joey,' " she said.

But Pratti said she did not gain much solace; she felt strangely nauseated, she said. "I thought, 'This is the man that started everything in motion that ultimately killed my son,' " she said.

"I guess he's gone," Pratti said of Bin Laden. "But it doesn't bring my son back."

There was never going to be a tidy ending in Afghanistan, however -- no Appomattox, no treaty signed on a battleship in Tokyo Bay. Many of those touched by the Afghanistan war felt that this was as close to a moment of closure as they were going to get -- a bookend, at least symbolically, to the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

That meant, for many, sudden and often unexpected emotions.

U.S. Army Maj. Evan J. Mooldyk emailed his mother frequently during his tour in Afghanistan, noting that the war had dragged on for nearly a decade, that Afghanistan was an almost impossible assignment where it was difficult to distinguish between friend and foe. Soldiers, Mooldyk told his mother, continually reminded one another that even when it didn't feel like it, they were driving toward the top of Al Qaeda -- inch by inch.

"It all pointed to Bin Laden," said his mother, June Mooldyk, her voice breaking.

After complaining of chest pains, Evan Mooldyk, 47, an intelligence and logistics officer, died in his sleep Jan. 12 in the Afghanistan province of Khost on the Pakistani border.

"I know that his group over there must be screaming with happiness," June Mooldyk said.

Mario and Linda Ferrara were having dinner with relatives at a Redondo Beach restaurant Sunday when a bulletin scrolled across the bottom of a TV screen.

"I didn't have my glasses on at the time, so I squinted hard to make sure I understood what it said: Osama bin Laden had been killed," said Linda Ferrara, whose son, Army 1st Lt. Matthew Ferrara, was killed in 2007. "We felt a profound and sudden sense of happiness."

Hailey Patrick's 19-year-old fiance, Cpl. Alec Catherwood, was among 25 Camp Pendleton Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment killed in Afghanistan during a recent seven-month deployment. Her mother, Christine Patrick, sent Hailey a text to share the news.

"She was very excited," Christine Patrick said Monday. "She kept saying, 'Really? They got him?' "

Catherwood was killed by a sniper Oct. 14 while Marines were on foot patrol in the Sangin district of Afghanistan.

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