Ten years ago, Christmas changed forever for Diane Price.
Her son was her Christmas eve baby, born on Dec. 24, 1966. But as she was preparing for another Christmas a decade ago, Price learned that her son, Army Ranger John Mark Price, had been killed during the U.S. invasion of Panama launched Dec. 20, 1989.
"He was my best Christmas, and my worst," Price said. "It's never been the same since."
Yesterday, Price and members of other families who lost loved ones during the Panama invasion gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to remember those who died in an operation forgotten by many Americans. Tears mixed with a light, cold rain as an officer read a roll call of those killed in action, and a bugler played taps at the service sponsored by No Greater Love, an organization that supports families of Americans killed in service.
"Those who we honor today will not be on millennium magazine covers, and not profiled on television," retired Gen. Colin L. Powell told family members. "They will never be forgotten--not by you, of course, and not by those . . . who fought by them."
On Dec. 20, 1989, after months of increasing tensions with Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega, then-President George Bush unleashed Operation Just Cause, a U.S. force of 27,000 troops to oust Noriega and protect U.S. citizens in Panama.
Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, oversaw Just Cause. "Ten years ago tonight, we sent our very, very best," he said, looking directly at family members, who sat outdoors on metal folding chairs near the grave of one of the soldiers killed in the operation. "They would rather have been home with their families, getting ready for Christmas."
While the fighting was largely over in one day and Noriega was soon captured, tried and sent to prison, the operation was not without heavy cost. In addition to more than 200 Panamanian civilian deaths, 23 U.S. service members died in the invasion. Eight more were killed in the months that followed.
The invasion drew international criticism, but Powell said the final U.S. hand-over of the Panama Canal to Panama, scheduled for the end of this year, proves the worthiness of the operation. "We are turning the canal over to a free people and a democratic government," Powell said. "We are not turning it over to a dictator. The bright future was bought for them by the sacrifices of these young Americans."
Family members said that many Americans have only a vague recollection of the invasion, if they remember it at all. "I tell them he was killed in Panama, and they have no clue," said Paula DeBlois Lineberry, whose husband, Army Sgt. Michael A. DeBlois, 24, died in the invasion.
Lineberry, who is living temporarily in Alexandria, remarried three years ago but said a place for DeBlois remains in her heart. "I still think of him every day. I've told my husband that, and he understands," she said.
"A lot of people have forgotten about it," said Audra Duran, a resident of Sterling whose cousin, Isaac Rodriguez III, a 25-year-old Navy SEAL, was killed in the invasion. "It was a passing event for people."
Rodriguez had joined the Navy "to make something of his life," said Duran, and he was the pride of the family. "To see him so happy was heart-warming," she said.
Rodriguez was supposed to be coming home to Houston for Christmas that year. Instead, his family spent Christmas day at a funeral home. "I remember it being very different from any Christmas we've ever known," said Duran, 28, who is studying health services at George Washington University.
Rodriguez was among four SEALs killed attacking Punta Paitilla airport. In his autobiography, Powell said commanders had made a "mistake" in assigning the mission to SEALs and called it "a poorly conceived attack."
Near the end of yesterday's service, children of Panama veterans placed American flags in a remembrance panel listing the names of those killed in action.
"It's nice for them to be remembered," said Libby Owens, whose son, Army Warrant Officer Wilson "Sonny" Owens, was lost in the operation. "I've always looked at it as being that special people are remembered at Christmastime for a special reason, and Sonny was special."
CAPTION: Marine Maj. Gen. Randall L. West kneels during a memorial for service members lost during Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989.
CAPTION: Courtney Pendelton, 7, recites a "Pledge of Peace" at yesterday's service at Arlington National Cemetery. Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, third from left, was among civilian and military guests honoring service members killed during the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.