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A Disproportionate Sacrifice

Md. Mother Lobbies to End Sons' Concurrent Deployments in Iraq

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2005; Page B01

When Ann Swann's twin sons were deployed to Iraq with the Marine Corps Reserve last year, she fired off a letter to President Bush. Her eldest son already was serving there with the Army Reserve, she explained, and she wanted one of her boys brought home.

"This letter is from a concerned mother," wrote Swann, 53, principal of Gladys Noon Spellman Elementary in Prince George's County. "I request that if at all possible, you conference with me to discuss the reason that all three of my sons (my only family left) are serving in Iraq."

Henry Swann, 27, is back in Maryland with his mother, Ann, after service in Iraq, but she is awaiting the return of his two brothers. (Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

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What Swann discovered since sending her letter in the fall has surprised her. The Department of Defense has no prohibition on sending every child in a family into combat -- even in the same unit at the same location.

The only way to get her sons back early would be if one were killed, captured, maimed or missing.

Then the so-called Sullivan rule, named for the Iowa family who lost five sons on the USS Juneau after it was attacked in 1942, would apply. Swann could request that her remaining sons be excluded from combat or any duty that would expose them to hostile fire.

That's what John and Lori Witmer did when their daughter Michelle, 20, was killed in Iraq last year serving in the Wisconsin National Guard. Her sister Rachel, 25, who served with her in the 32nd Military Police Company, and her twin sister, Charity, 21, a medic, did not to return to Iraq after their parents pleaded that they be allowed to remain stateside.

"Common sense would say that one hero per family should be enough," John Witmer of New Berlin, Wis., said in a telephone interview. "That way, the brothers and sisters wouldn't have to be put in the position of feeling like they deserted their families if they went back or that they deserted their country if they stayed home."

Their decision led to death threats and criticism from some who thought the other daughters should return to their units despite their sister's death, he said. Radio stations held call-in discussions and the family received numerous threatening phone calls.

Swann said she believes a policy should take effect before a parent loses any children.

"When you have men and women who are in the family tree who are deployed to war, there is a chance that a branch might break," said Swann, whose eldest son, Henry, a sergeant, returned to the family home in Glenn Dale two weeks ago after his deployment ended. "Taking all the children from families and putting them in harm's way could stunt the growth of those family trees and endanger those families."

She has persuaded Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) to take a look at the issue.

In an interview, Wynn said there should be a mechanism to keep all the siblings in a family from being deployed "into a war zone" if one of the children or a parent disagrees. He said he has asked his staff to investigate and believes a bill may be needed to open debate on the issue.

"You should avoid having them all in harm's way," he said. "I thought there was a general policy about that dating back to World War II, but now I realize that the rule only [applies] if one sibling has died. . . . I don't think there's ever been a discussion if the siblings are alive and in a combat zone. I think it deserves review."

Military officials acknowledge that there probably are many families who have more than one child deployed, but they say they have no way of tracking them.

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