A Father's Devotion Sustains His Support for Iraq War
Michael Sparling stands guard against the ugly realities of war. His mission: Protect the morale of wounded soldiers recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Tell them that the sacrifices have been worth it. Let them know that a grateful nation appreciates their service. And express the deeply held belief that victory in Iraq and Afghanistan is assured. From his post in the lobby of Walter Reed's Mologne House, an outpatient residence where he serves as an unofficial greeter and concierge, Sparling holds his ground against an onslaught of views to the contrary.
Polls show the majority of Americans now believe the war in Iraq isn't worth it, but Sparling dismisses them as uninformed. "They don't know what's going on over there," he snaps.
But what about the likes of Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who conceded this week that President Bush's Iraq war strategy was not going well? "If we start questioning the war, what does that say to our soldiers?" asked Sparling, 56, a resident of Port Huron, Mich. "If people don't agree with the war effort, the least they can do is keep their mouths shut."
Sparling's defensiveness is understandable. He has lived at Mologne House for nearly two years, caring for his son, Joshua, 25, an Army Ranger who lost a leg to a makeshift bomb while on patrol in Iraq. His son has undergone more than 40 surgeries and is scheduled for yet another. For his own peace of mind, no doubt, Sparling must ward off criticisms of the war as senseless and fend off each new revelation that troops are not being treated like heroes, even at Walter Reed.
Asked what he thought about decrepit conditions The Washington Post uncovered this year at some Walter Reed facilities, Sparling said proudly: "There is no finer military hospital anywhere. Is it a cruise ship? No. But it is the amputation center of the world." All around him were soldiers with missing legs, limping on canes or moving about in wheelchairs.
Sam Floberg, 29, was one. A member of the Army Reserve from Fargo, N.D., he lost a leg when a grenade exploded near him in Afghanistan. When I arrived at Mologne House on Monday, he and Sparling were chatting in the lobby with the widow of a reservist who had been killed in the same grenade attack.
"Back when the war first started, I could go through an airport and people would say, 'Thanks for your service,' " Floberg said. "Now you go through an airport and when people see you've been wounded, they avert their eyes. Thanks to people like Mike, coming back here is like being in a safe haven."
Sparling said he used to work as an executive recruiter for an insurance company. But two weeks after moving into Mologne House, his employer gave him a choice: Come back to work, or lose the job. He decided to stay with his son. "I've depleted my savings, but I have seven children, all but two married, and they are helping out," he said.
The Vietnam War veteran said he fully supported his son's decision to join the Army in January 2005. "He believes in duty, honor and country -- just like I do," Sparling said.
Joshua, a member of the 82nd Airborne out of Fort Bragg, N.C., was on foot patrol in Ramadi, his next-to-last mission in Iraq before returning home, when the bomb went off.
"They didn't know if he was going to survive, but I knew I had to be with him," Sparling recalled. "My son needed me, and when I got to Walter Reed, I saw that other soldiers and families needed help, too. So I jumped right in."
He helped find interpreters for Spanish-speaking parents who did not speak English well; he helped traumatized parents find the rooms of their injured loved ones; he ran errands for those whose toiletries had been confiscated at airports and didn't know where to go to replace them. He put families in contact with support groups. He became a chauffer, counselor and guide to bureaucratic shortcuts. He was always ready with a handshake and a smile.