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COUNTING THE COST

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Kentucky's famous Trappist monk said it best: "Nothing is lost by peace, yet everything
may be lost by war."

Keeping count "by the numbers" (army parlance) tells us that more than 2,600 of our young warriors have died for their country in this war. But these dead are more than statistics. It galls me that they are not being given the honor and recognition they deserve. Why not? We do it for presidents President Reagan, for instance-a full week of mourning and old Glory at half-staff for 30 days.

That flag should be flying at half-mast every day! Yet we see nothing and hear little of our dead being brought home from Iraq in flag-draped coffins. Is it a deliberate attempt by this administration to promulgate the old saying "out of sight, out of mind?" If it is, it won't work. There are those of us who still grieve for the loved ones we lost in other wars, so many years ago:

Words can not express the desolation of that bleak Kentucky winter of 1944 when the message came a telegram regretting to inform my parents that their eldest son had died of wounds received in action. He died near Metz, France with Patton's army. The grandstanding general (who reminds me so much of our present Commander-in-Chief!) had outrun his supply and support lines in his rush to glory. My brother bled to death before medics reached him.

Later, a special packet arrived: a gilded Purple Heart medal and a letter of condolence from President Roosevelt. My mother could not, would not, accept his death, even when his personal possessions came home in a box. She fondled his wallet, empty except for a few faded photographs of the family. There was his pocket comb with two teeth missing and a worn handkerchief. She hugged to her breast these personal items he had last touched, some of them still encrusted with mud from a far away field in France where he had fallen.

Letters came, one from a Catholic chaplain to my Protestant mother advising her that he had been with her son at the end. His company commander wrote that Staff Sergeant William Franklin Preston had been one of his best soldiers, a credit to his family and to the nation.
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She put away the treasured medal and letters in a small cedar box, symbolically burying her great loss. But she was inconsolable. Her 21 year old son, dead, and she hadn't seen him since he was 16 the day he he'd quit shucking corn in the field and hitchhiked to Lexington to join the army. But what choices did a poor farm boy have during the lean, hard years of the Great Depression? The army offered good food, clothing, and $21 a month a step up from nothing.

The memory of my mother's grieving face that cold Kentucky winter haunts me still. Although my sisters and I had quit our war-time jobs in Cincinnati to come home to strip out the tobacco crop, our best efforts in assuaging her grief failed. From the stripping room in the barn we could hear her keening, heartbroken wailing. Looking at each other, we stopped stripping the leaves from the dusty tobacco stalks, waiting, knowing that it wouldn't be long before she would be at the door, swollen-eyed and desperate, seeking a solace none of us could give.

My dad, his own eyes brimming, stopped work to hold her. We stood silent, stricken, at the stripping bench, each of us sharing their hurt, yet lost in our own private grief: Dear brother, 21 is too young to die! You hadn't yet begun to live.

My mind wanders: Long rows of young, green tobacco stretching endlessly under the hot sun. A gaggle of ragged children with goose-neck hoes chopping Johnson grass and thistles from the weedy rows; daydreaming, talking about what we would do when we got "rich." What regret, Bill, that now you would never get married, have a fine house on the hill with a bathroom; have the daughter you would name "Alice"; never get all the peanut butter and graham crackers you could eat. Not that you didn't enjoy our daily fare pinto beans, fried potatoes and cornbread, but that unfamiliar treat you'd enjoyed at a neighbor's house whetted your appetite and fired your imagination.

What a wistful bunch of kids, leaning on our hoes, wishing and wanting. You wanted books to read, not the kid stuff in the school library, but about the Graf Zeppelin and the China Clipper; exciting stuff about G-8 and his Battle Aces. You wanted to play basketball, but you had no athletic shoes, and that's really why you quit high school. The coach ran you off the court when you couldn't afford those shoes. Six-feet-two at age 16, you were quick and smart, and would have made a fine addition to the team.You had traded your old shotgun (you'd painted the barrel blue!) for a guitar and were getting pretty good on it before you left home. You sang "Man of Constant Sorrow" and "Little Maggie" as good as Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley.

You were just a boy, the apple of your mother's eye, when you stood in that recruiter's office, lied about your age, and swore to defend your country against all enemies. Bless your dear heart! You did that, and did it well, but died in the process.

I think often of my brother, William Franklin Preston, 10th Infantry Division (Camp McCoy, Iceland, Ireland, and D-Day). He would today be 83 years old. And now, so many years later, I have one consolation that siblings today don't have. He fought in probably the one war that needed fighting, World War II a war that resembles Bush's war not one whit!
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Former editor of the Plains Georgia Monitor during Carter's presidency: former columnist for the Jessamine Journal, Nicholasville, Ky. WAC veteran; lost a beloved brother in World War II. Supports anti-war efforts to end the killing in Iraq.

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