Loss of soldier a shared burden
A web of relationships helps a Pendleton father cope while waiting to plan a final goodbye to his son, the town's latest casualty of the violence in Iraq
Sunday, January 15, 2006 by TOM HALLMAN JR.
PENDLETON -- Randall Walker waited for a telephone call all morning. But the phone didn't ring. Walker couldn't tolerate waiting, sitting at home and marinating in memories. So he got in touch with Jerry Stump, a father who knew what it meant to pick out a casket.
They met for lunch at the airport lounge, a popular hangout, and when they walked in the other customers greeted them with somber handshakes, hugs and nods. They sat at a corner table in the upper section to talk about sons, death and how yet another funeral procession soon would be winding its way through the city's streets.
During the past three months, three soldiers from Pendleton have died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Walker's son just a week or so ago. Another Pendleton soldier died in 2003.
While death is no less profound or painful in a big city, sheer size dilutes impact. To strangers, a dead soldier is an unfamiliar name on a newspaper page that will be recycled, a portrait flashed across the television screen before the screen fades to a commercial.
But here, where about 16,000 people live, nearly everyone knows the dead or someone in the extended family. The soldier was "Ray's grandson" or "Bob's boy." The people here refer to the dead as "boys" because the young men were, in a real sense, part of family connected not through blood, but through place.
The fallen soldier was the second baseman on the Little League team, a classmate in eighth grade, the Eagle Scout in the local troop. He was the kid who worked as an usher at the annual rodeo Round-Up, the tyke who squirmed when the barber trimmed his hair. Each death reverberates along a web that links the young to the old, the wheat ranchers to the cowboys, the men who work with their hands to the men in ties.
They turn out for each funeral. Not out of obligation, but because they've lost a piece of their community. They leave their homes and offices by the thousands to line the streets and pay their respects as a hearse winds its way through downtown on it's way to the cemetery.
When the phone rings with the call Walker's been waiting for, the man on the other end of the line will be an officer at the military morgue back at Dover Air Base in Delaware. The moment Walker gets word that his son's remains are on their way to Oregon, he can start planning the funeral's details. Right now -- body or no body -- it's scheduled for Monday.
And so it will begin anew in this Oregon city -- tears, right hand over the heart, hats removed, salutes -- as the people of Pendleton welcome home one of their boys.
"It's hard to let go"
After the waitress served hamburgers and fries, Stump and Walker talked about their sons, often in the present tense. "It's hard to let go," Stump said after catching himself and haltingly changing an "is" to a "was." "Been 110 days since he died."
Walker, 57, is 13 years older than Stump. They met 30 years ago when Stump was a high school student and Walker a Pendleton cop. Now retired from the police department, Walker, divorced, is a domestic-violence investigator for the Umatilla County Sheriff's Office. Stump, married with a wife and kids, runs the Umatilla County Educational Service District warehouse.
Ryan Walker, a U.S. Army medic, died a little more than a week ago after a roadside bomb destroyed the Humvee he and five other soldiers were riding in. Adrian Stump, a warrant officer in the Oregon National Guard, died when the helicopter he was co-piloting was shot down in Afghanistan. Everyone on board, including Sgt. Tane Baum, a Guard member from Pendleton, died when the chopper slammed into a hillside.
"When you're alone, you get to thinking," Stump said. "Sometimes you don't want to think."
The men, at ease in the silence, ate slowly.
"Randy," Stump finally said, "you're going to be on a roller coaster."
Walker studied his friend. In the last week, he'd peppered Stump with questions about military red tape, funerals and paperwork.
"You try and dig up the positive," Stump explained. "But. . . ." He picked at his food. "I just don't know, Randy. I just don't know."
He cleared his throat and wiped his eyes.
The meal over, the fathers pushed away from the table and walked to the cashier to pay the bill. On the way down the steps to the lower level, Stump stopped at a wall filled with photographs. The lounge owner, in tribute to the soldiers who've died, created a memorial.
"That's my boy right there," Stump said, pointing to framed photo. He gently touched the image of his son's face. "Soon, there'll be one up there for Ryan."
At the cash register, Stump reached for his wallet.
"This one's on me," Walker said. "Actually, this one's on Ryan."
Back in his truck, Walker flipped open his cell phone to make sure he hadn't somehow missed the call from the casualty officer. "No news," he told Stump. "I thought he'd call me by now. Ryan was supposed to be back on U.S. soil yesterday."
The two men set off down the hill from the airport and wound their way into the heart of Pendleton. They stopped at Dave's Chevron, another meeting place where men like to gather to talk and drink a cup of coffee. Friends stood outside, and the group took over a couple of booths. On the wall, just above Walker, a television set was tuned to CNN. At that moment, the news was from Iraq.
"You can't get away from the war," said Bob Hensel, a lieutenant with the Umatilla County Sheriff's Office. "My neighbor's in Afghanistan, the husband of the nurse at the jail was shot in Afghanistan and lost an eye. One of my detectives had a boy who lost a leg in Iraq. My next-door neighbor's grandson lost his leg in Iraq.
"When I got the news about Randy's boy," Hensel said, "I was in a grand jury, sitting with the father of a boy who lost his leg over there. I got a cell phone call and was told that Randy had been called at work and told to go home with a friend and wait for official notification. As a military man myself, I knew it was not going to be good news."
Hensel, sitting next to Walker, wiped away tears. "Official notification," he said. "That's what I'll always remember hearing."
Walker turned to look up at the television.
"Since Ryan left, I was a news junkie," he said. "I see those casualty reports and I know what other families are going through."
Cody Maine, 22, went to school with Ryan Walker and Adrian Stump. A friend of his is in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq, and Maine's brother, also a Marine, was wounded in Iraq and received the Purple Heart.
"Everyone who signs up knows the possible consequences," he said. "But when it happens, it's a shock. A friend called me, and I asked, 'What's up?' He told me, 'Stump's dead.' I was in disbelief. I graduated with Adrian. And then Ryan. He was three years older, but I knew him from school."
The table fell silent, each man lost in thought.
"Two families lost a son," Maine said. "Some people lost a brother. Some people lost a friend. Everyone here lost a soldier. Everyone showed up to pay their respects, all down Main Street all the way to the cemetery. It made me feel proud of this town."
Walker picked up his cell phone. It wasn't the casualty officer, but Mike Critchlow, a Pendleton plumber and Walker's close friend.
"I've known Randy for more than 30 years," he said over the phone. "Known his kids since they was small. We hunted together. You got to understand that Pendleton is close-knit. When something happens, it hits us kind of hard."
Critchlow's boy is in the Marines, serving in Iraq.
"I say a prayer for him every morning," he said. "Every morning."
"I can't plan at all"
After saying their goodbyes, the two fathers drove through downtown. Walker's phone rang. It wasn't the call he'd hoped for. A friend wanted to say that he'd seen a television report that the governor had ordered that all flags in the state be flown at half staff in honor of Ryan.
Walker pulled his truck to the curb, and he and Stump walked into Heads Up. On one wall of the barbershop is a framed photo of Adrian Stump. Hanging in the corner is an American flag Stump carried with him on a mission. "His commander found all this in his personal effects," Jerry Stump said, bending low to look at the photograph. "His commander gave it to me, and I gave it to the shop."
The barber, Paul Richards, cut Adrian Stump's hair and was Ryan Walker's Little League baseball coach for years. Stump studied the certificate presented from the Mustang 24 unit to the Head's Up.
"My boy never got a chance to sign it," Stump said. "They flew the mission on September 9. He died two weeks later."
He touched the photo of his son.
"See you in a few weeks," he called out to Richards as he left the shop.
Walker started the pickup. He and Stump headed up the hills to Walker's home. On the way, Walker talked about his boy's funeral. "It want it to be done right," he said. "Not some dog and pony show."
Walker was frustrated that he couldn't get an update on his son's status. "He was supposed to be here by 11 a.m." he told Stump.
"Randy, he won't be home that quick," Stump said. "Adrian was back there for three weeks."
"I can't plan at all," he said. "I have time on my hands. I sit at home, in limbo."
"Where's Ryan going to be buried?" Stump asked.
"I thought about Willamette National down in Portland," he said. "But then I decided to bring him home to Pendleton, out in Skyview.
"It rains too much in Portland," Walker said. "My boy never liked the rain."
The reality of war
Up at the Walker place, Ryan's brother, Steven, worked on cleaning a pickup that he and Ryan's best friend will drive in the funeral procession. "It's a Ford F350," Steven said. "That's what he wanted when he came back."
Inside the home, Walker and Stump sat in the living room. "They told me the casket would be closed and not viewable," Walker told Stump. "Flesh is fragile. That's the reality of war."
Stump said the urn containing his boy's remains weighed 40 pounds, much of it metal from the helicopter that officials could not separate from Adrian Stump.
"Everyone deals with it their own way," he said. "My wife's my best friend. But he was a friend, too. It was a great run. I feel blessed we had him 22 years."
Walker, who served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam and was a first sergeant in the Oregon National Guard out of Redmond, recites the words that changed his life: "We regret to inform you. . . ." He's memorized the official notice.
Resting on a chair are two folded American flags.
"What are those?" Stump asked.
One, Walker explained, covered his father's casket, the other his grandfather's. His father served in World War II, his grandfather in World War I.
"My grandfather and my dad," Walker repeated.
The room fell silent.
"Pretty soon," he said, "I'll have three."