IRBIL, Iraq — In the twilight of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq, Ann Hampton and Lorie Southerland are here to help finish a mission their children started.
Fearing that the U.S. government and the American people are giving up too soon on a country that still needs help, the women are making their own long-term commitment to the country and, in the process, coming to grips with why the United States came here in the first place.
Hampton’s only child, Army Capt. Kimberly N. Hampton, 27, was shot down over Fallujah in January 2004, becoming the U.S. military’s first female helicopter pilot killed in action. Roughly three years later, Southerland’s son Army Spec. Michael J. Rodriguez, 20, was killed by a truck bomb at a military outpost in Sadah, in northeastern Iraq
By the end of their trip on Monday, the two Gold Star Mothers from the Carolinas plan to meet with dozens of Kurds who survived massacres sanctioned by deposed president Saddam Hussein, distribute medicine, school supplies, sewing machines, clothing and toys, and discuss ways to partner with local hospitals and schools so they can one day return with more aid.
In the future, they said, they hope to bring along other parents seeking to get beyond what the two consider false notions of Iraq
“Things have changed, and things are better, and the Iraqis do appreciate what we did,” Southerland said. “If we don’t help them, somebody else will, and it may not be the good guys.”
Hampton and Southerland’s positive outlook is explained in part by their limited itinerary. The women — who are joined on the trip by Southerland’s husband, Eric, and Kenneth Katter, who served as Rodriguez’s sergeant before his death — are visiting only Kurdistan, a relatively peaceful region experiencing an oil-driven economic boom not seen elsewhere in Iraq. U.S. officials insisted it was too risky for them to visit Baghdad or the cities where Kimberley and Michael died.
As they drove through Irbil, Kurdistan’s largest city, the women pointed to the Western-style hotels and new homes as proof that the American military campaign has been effective.
A recent U.S. watchdog report, however, concluded that Iraq is more dangerous than it was a year ago, citing increased attacks on U.S. forces as proof, while other studies warn that the upcoming U.S. military withdrawal could spark fresh violence and reignite long-simmering tensions between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds. Most foreign investors wouldn’t dare visit Sadah or Fallujah, and Hampton said her husband won’t come to Iraq until he can safely visit Fallujah.
The mothers began their visit the same day Iraqi leaders agreed to seek negotiations with the United States on keeping military trainers in the country into next year. Though the U.S. military plans to withdraw all of its 46,000 troops in Iraq by Dec. 31, the Obama administration has said it is willing to keep at least some forces in the country if Iraqi leaders request further military aid. U.S. officials believe a formal request is still months away.
As Iraqis ponder what they might need from the Americans, the mothers said they hoped the United States would push to maintain a large military presence.
“We should stay and finish,” Southerland said. “I would be very hurt if things don’t move forward.”
Over the course of several meetings, Hampton, 66, and Southerland, 49, gave most of the Iraqis they met silver-dollar-size ceramic coins featuring photos of Kimberly and Michael. The coins are a popular way for military families to commemorate the lives of service members killed in action.
“I just want you to know that she was here to help the Iraqi people, and I hope just in some small way to continue what she and others have done,” Hampton said of her daughter at one meeting.
“He was a good soldier,” Eric Southerland said of his stepson. “He was very proud to be here serving America and helping the Iraqi people.”
Mousa Ahmed, deputy director of the Barzani Charity Foundation, seemed taken aback by the gesture at first.
Later he acknowledged that many forget that American soldiers killed in Iraq also have families who will suffer from their loss. “The American and Kurdish people should remember these soldiers aren’t robots,” he said. “They are children, and parents, and family.”
As they handed out the coins and shared stories about their children, Hampton’s voice would shake, and Southerland would cry. But both agreed it helped them.
“We don’t come here to be thanked or heralded as mothers of martyrs,” Hampton said later. “But it is nice that they show appreciation.”
In return for their condolences, the Kurds pressed Hampton and Southerland for specifics: If you’re willing to help, how many doctors can you bring us? How many children can you take to the United States for medical care? Are you willing to teach English at a new school?
The mothers know of at least one doctor in the United States willing to perform surgeries for Kurdish children, and they said much of their work will be done in partnership with the Canadian-based Friends of Kurdistan Foundation.
The group’s founder, Amy Ball, traveled last year to South Carolina to meet with Hampton, Southerland and other members of American Gold Star Mothers, an organization for those whose children have been killed in war. Over the years, Ball told the mothers, she had met many Kurds eager to thank the parents and families of American service members who had been killed in action. Overcome with emotion and relief, Ball said, most of the mothers started to cry.
“Their children are considered martyrs in Kurdistan,” Ball said in an interview.
“It was the first time the mothers had heard a message like this about Iraq,” she added. “They felt like it was a healing turning point for them. This message isn’t really out there.”
After her speech, Ball agreed to help Hampton and Southerland visit Kurdistan, sharing their concern that the United States might leave Iraq prematurely.
“You could hear this giant sucking sound earlier this year with all the funding starting to go to Afghanistan,” Ball said. “But if you go too soon, you’ll make the same mistakes in Iraq that you did in Afghanistan before.”
Neither the Pentagon nor Gold Star Mothers tracks how many parents of deceased U.S. service members have visited Iraq in the past eight years, but U.S. officials know of at least some who have either visited or taken jobs here as government contractors, similarly hoping to finish their children’s work.
Hampton first visited Iraq last year with other Gold Star Mothers. “Now I don’t feel like Kimberly’s death is in vain,” she said. “Whether we pull out or whether we stay, I guess history is going to determine whether either one of those was the right thing to do.”
Special correspondent Asaad Majeed in Irbil contributed to this report.
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