Not everyone in Iraq is the enemy, Cpl. Stephen Michael McGowan used to say. Especially the kids. But his bright words were little consolation to his mother, Bobbie, who cradled the American flag that had draped his coffin at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday, stroked it against her cheek and, with eyes closed, gently kissed it.
McGowan, 26, and two other soldiers were killed March 4 by a roadside bomb outside Ramadi. Twice before, he had been brushed by death -- an artillery shell that landed near him and didn't explode, then a bomb that ripped the undercarriage of his patrol Humvee. He escaped unscathed, until that Friday.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Farmer offers the American flag that draped her son's coffin to Bobbie McGowan of Delaware.
(Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
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McGowan was an Army combat medic for a scout platoon. After the terrorist attacks of 2001, he felt it was his duty to enlist, his mother wrote in a family statement. When his unit, stationed in South Korea, was about to ship out to Iraq in August, McGowan volunteered to go as its medic. He had no wife or children, and he wanted to spare the medics who did.
"That was just so like him," said Barbara Reilly, a family friend and his former English teacher at St. Mark's High School in Wilmington, Del. "He didn't do things for himself or for the adulation. He did things because they had to be done."
By all accounts, he was a child who made his own way -- a gifted student, Reilly recalled, a seeker, a questioner. He was deeply spiritual, a devout Catholic and mischievous. He and his buddies once scrawled "Go Seniors" all over the school's front walk in white shoe polish.
News of his death hit hard. At his funeral Monday, more than 300 friends and family, including the governor and state senators, packed Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church in Wilmington to honor McGowan.
"It's difficult to think about what a truly giving, giving man he would have become," said Timothy J. Neal, an assistant principal at St. Mark's who coached him on the championship volleyball team.
McGowan tried to explain why he was in Iraq to his pen pals in a second-grade class in Texas. He made a video with digital photos of sunsets and camels, of sand and men sleeping in camouflage fatigues atop Humvees, of patrol vehicles shattered by bombs.
"We fought and continue to fight so that one day there may be peace," he wrote. "Because we are here to help. And make friends -- I really like the kids here. So that they can have a bright future -- just like you."
For Christmas, he wrote home that he didn't want anything for himself. He wanted little presents to give to the kids in Ramadi. They seemed to like Beanie Babies. With no more said, his mother organized a Beanie Baby drive at the Wilmington charter school where she teaches, and soon care packages were winging to Iraq stuffed with hundreds of the small toys.
At the service in the stately desolation of Arlington, she was presented her son's Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal and Good Conduct Medal. Along with the 70 or so people gathered graveside in the clear March chill, she wore a pin with one of the many photos Stephen had taken in Iraq. "Our Hero," some pins said.
McGowan's father, Wilmington psychologist Fran DiDomenicis, sat directly behind his ex-wife and received a separate flag.
A bagpipe played "Amazing Grace." Those gathered lay white roses atop McGowan's coffin. And as they slowly drifted back to their cars, the remains of Stephen Michael McGowan, the 122nd soldier killed in Iraq to be buried at Arlington, waited alone to be lowered into Section 60, Grave 8103.