Bonded by Loss, Divided by War
Parents of Casualties in Marine Unit Torn on U.S. Role in Iraq

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 5, 2006

UNIONTOWN, Ohio -- Bob Derga searches for purpose on a flat terrace behind his house, overlooking the woods. On one side is a weeping cherry tree. On the other, above the Marine Corps seal, is a chiseled stone: "If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever."

Amid the sadness that has looped through his life since the death in Iraq of his only son, Derga has found a spark that drives him to defend President Bush, the war and the troops who are fighting it. He has begun to speak out, urging Americans "to have the guts as a nation to stay the course."

Forty miles north, Paul Schroeder and Rosemary Palmer, whose only son lived and died in the same Marine Reserve unit as Derga's son, have also been driven by anguish to speak out. But they do not believe in this war or this president or in staying the course.

They are convinced that their son's life was wasted. They want negotiations to begin, the war to end and the troops to come home.

One war, one Marine unit, two pained families divided about the way forward.

To talk with the parents is to see reflected a real debate, grounded in searing loss, about the war's wisdom. It is also to witness a powerful connection felt toward one another by the Gold Star families of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines.

"It's amazing that all of us can be so far apart politically, but we can joke and sit down and tell stories about our sons. Above all, there is a mutual respect," Derga said. "We all know what we've gone through."

The strongest bond, Palmer said, is that the parents "all had our hearts torn out."

Columbus-based Lima Company spent seven months in Anbar province last year and lost more troops than any other U.S. military unit in the war. What many had expected would be relatively safe duty -- perhaps guarding a base -- turned into grueling weeks of combat.

Twenty-three Marines died, blown up by roadside bombs or killed by insurgents.

As the peril intensified, Marines in crisp uniforms began showing up at homes in Ohio, solemnly informing parents that a coffin would soon carry their young man home. Cpl. Dustin A. Derga, 24, was the first, shot during an assault on a house in Ubaydi, just east of the Syrian border.

His father, an engineer at Diebold, prayed hard after he heard the news. He soon sent an e-mail telling other Lima parents that they and the nation must buck up, lest Dustin and others have died in vain. He and his wife, Marla, Dustin's stepmother, began attending military funerals to honor the dead and embrace the newly grieving.

They have been to 19 so far. They joined a growing support network of Gold Star families whose children, siblings, husbands died in Iraq. In March, Derga agreed to help start an Ohio chapter of Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission. It is a civic organization that aims to tell positive stories about the U.S. military's role in Iraq and to show the troops the country is behind them.

"We had a choice of how to deal with the grief," Derga said. "Believe me, it would be so easy to crawl into a hole and ask yourself every day, 'Why?' I think if I would go there, I wouldn't come out."

Still, for a father who expected to see strands of himself woven into his son's long life, his recent role -- the activism as well as the piercing sense of Dustin's absence -- feels strange.

"How little did I expect that I would be the legacy of my son," Derga said.

Lance Cpl. Edward "Augie" Schroeder, 23, died near Haditha on Aug. 3, not quite three months after Derga was killed. When Marines drove to Cleveland to deliver the news, Paul Schroeder said he felt fury as much as grief. Within days, he seized the attention that came with his son's death.

"Our comments are not just those of grieving parents. They are based on anger, Mr. President, not grief," Schroeder told reporters. "Anger is an honest emotion when someone's family has been violated."

Schroeder and Palmer blamed Bush for a war poorly chosen and badly fought. U.S. troops were stretched too thin, they said. Lima Company squads were repeatedly ordered to fight their way through cities such as Haditha, only to depart and allow the insurgents to return.

The parents called on Bush to send more personnel or bring everyone home -- but not to continue the same strategy.

Although Schroeder and Palmer asserted vociferously that they were supporting the troops, many Marines and other Marine families were indignant. They said it was impossible to support the troops without supporting the mission. They called them unpatriotic and accused Schroeder and Palmer of undermining the very fighting men who walked patrol with their son.

Marines who served with Augie said he would turn over in his grave if he knew what his parents were doing.

At one gathering of Gold Star families at Lima Company's Columbus headquarters, an officer likened the comments of Schroeder and Palmer to going to a home football game and rooting for the other team. A parent of another fallen Marine defended them, saying it was more like going to a football team and calling for a new coach.

"They criticized us for not being patriotic. I've told them bluntly, 'That's nonsense,' " Schroeder, a China trade specialist, said as he drank soda from a glass with a Lima Company insignia. "I have a right to say this is not right. I have a right to say my son's life was wasted. You could let it fester and throw stones. You've got to channel that anger into something constructive."

In November, Schroeder and Palmer founded Families of the Fallen for Change, which seeks what they call a responsible, bipartisan, negotiated end to U.S. military involvement in Iraq.

Membership has topped 1,200, including 160 friends of Augie, the relatives of 21 fallen service members, 42 active-duty members of the military, and workers at the Pentagon and State Department.

"If this war ends on one day and not two weeks later and that saves the lives of two or three Americans, that's constructive," Schroeder said.

Schroeder never supported the war. He spoke to Augie the night before he deployed and told him, "If something happens to you, I'm not going to keep quiet. You know your mother is not going to keep quiet."

About a year after the two young Marines died, Bob Derga said of Paul Schroeder, "I've got nothing but respect for the man. It's not an easy question. Should we be there? Should we withdraw? Are we doing the right thing? I don't know if there is a right. But if you believe, you've got to stand up for your convictions."

Even Derga, despite his approval of Bush and the war, and his desire to stiffen the country's spine, said the U.S. administration should have been "better prepared" to wage war and win the peace.

Schroeder, meanwhile, said of Derga, "I've got the same respect for Bob."

In a country severely polarized over Iraq, where opposing sides sometimes can barely abide each other, the families manage to commune. At a screening of the A&E film documentary "Combat Diary: The Marines of Lima Company" last week, many embraced.

The Dergas chose to watch from the same row as Schroeder and Palmer.

"What it comes down to, the loss is the same," says Palmer, a high school teacher. "They know and we know that our politics aren't the same. When we get together, we talk about our kids. Even people you think have a different political point of view, really we're not that far off. They'd like to turn the clock back, too."

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