A silent community in a nation at war

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A silent community in a nation at war

By Larry King

Inquirer Staff Writer

GERALD S. WILLIAMS / Inquirer Staff Photographer
Janette Manion hugs Ruth Stonesifer (right) in Doylestown's "star garden," honoring Stonesifer's son, Kristofor; Manion's son, Travis; and Colby Umbrell. All were killed in post-9/11 warfare. A22.



Sadly practiced in such matters, Doylestown excels in honoring its war dead.
The streets of one subdivision are named for locals who died in World War II. Plaques for alumni lost in the last century's conflicts overlook one end zone at War Memorial Stadium. In town, a mosaic wall honors a native son killed near Afghanistan.
Doylestown's Memorial Day parade this year drew at least 25,000. Hundreds attended a May 4 vigil for two local men killed that week in Iraq.
And yet, Thomas Manion cannot help wondering.
"I'm not sure people here understand that we're a nation at war," said Manion, a Doylestown Township resident whose son, Travis, was killed in Iraq in April.
As the cacophony grows in Washington over funding and troop levels in Iraq, Manion and his wife, Jannette, remain firm about staying the course. But they are concerned about the relative silence within the community that has embraced them so warmly in their time of loss.
"I really don't know how many people even talk about the war, if it's really on their minds at all," Jannette Manion said. "Pro or con, they need to remember."
Borough Manager John Davis said he had yet "to hear an open, contentious discussion" of Iraq in town.
"I can't think of too many people who have been prominently for or against the war," Davis said. "Our efforts have been more focused on dealing with the deaths of our young people and helping their families."
Few communities have been wounded as deeply as the Doylestown area, which has lost four young men to post-9/11 warfare.
Army Ranger Kristofor Stonesifer, 28, became one of the nation's first two casualties when he was killed Oct. 19, 2001, in Pakistan. The Central Bucks High School West graduate and a fellow Ranger died when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed near the Afghan border.
Marine Cpl. Barton Humlhanz, 23, was killed by enemy fire in Iraq on Aug. 26, 2004. The Doylestown native, who spent his early years here, was the grandson of a longtime Doylestown district judge.
The biggest shock was felt this spring.
On April 29, Marine First Lt. Travis Manion, 26, who grew up in Doylestown and starred in three sports at La Salle College High School, was killed by a sniper near Fallujah.
Four days later, Army First Lt. Colby Umbrell, 26, was killed about 40 miles south of Baghdad. The former Central Bucks East football star died when an improvised explosive device detonated.
Grieving community leaders lined the men's funeral routes with flags and recast the town's May 4 First Friday celebration - typically a night of dining out and shopping - as a vigil for Manion and Umbrell.
At State and Hamilton Streets, a fire truck raised a large American flag above the crowd. Residents queued up to write tributes in a remembrance book. A moment of silence was called at 8 p.m. Manion's Purple Heart medal was presented to his father, a Marine Reserve colonel.
"It showed me that we care about our soldiers, that we come together as a town, and that we honor our own. It had nothing to do with politics," said Bob Quon, chair of the First Friday committee.
There was also a sense, Davis said, "that these were our best people. I heard it said over and over again: These were people who would have been leaders in this community - future council members and mayors and police chiefs."
In the four months since, the Manions and Umbrell's parents, Mark and Nancy, have grown close, bonded by grief, proximity, sons who were much alike, and an abiding faith in the war effort.
"We would have these six-hour dinners because we just wanted to sit and talk about our kids and the war and whatever. Other people don't know what to say to us," Nancy Umbrell said.
"And it's not their fault," her husband adds quickly. "You have to have lost a child in this way to know what we're going through. The emotions you get pulled through, from pride to unbelievable sorrow, it's very difficult."
As is their hunch that others around them think too little, and without much depth, about the war.
"We don't want [Colby's] life to be lost for nothing," Mark Umbrell said of his continued support for the war.
"Wouldn't you think that somebody like us would have an even bigger gripe? And we don't," Nancy Umbrell said. "I'm very upset that I lost my son, but I know how much he believed in it also."
The Manions are even more ardent in their support of keeping the troops, and their funding, in place.
"I'm not sure that a lot of Americans who choose not to support what these guys are doing over there understand the enemy we're fighting," Tom Manion said. "Do they understand the implication of withdrawal, of what happens next? I can think of nothing that al-Qaeda would want more than for us to walk away from that situation."
While there is silence on the surface, evidence abounds that the Doylestown area is torn over Iraq.
Patrick Murphy, an Iraq war veteran, successfully turned last fall's Bucks County congressional race into a referendum on the war. Murphy squeaked by incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick to become Bucks' first Democratic congressman in 14 years. He is the only member of Congress to have served in the conflict.
Doylestown Borough, an island of political blue in a sea of Central Bucks red, voted heavily in favor of Murphy. Surrounding townships all favored Fitzpatrick.
Yet with few exceptions, that schism hasn't been on public display.
Since shortly after 9/11, the Doylestown Friends Meeting has organized a weekly, evening peace vigil at State and Main Streets. Last week, as 10 demonstrators held antiwar signs on corners of the intersection, a horn sounded from a passing red pickup.
From the window, a man held out his arm and gave a thumbs-up. In the past, it might as easily have been a different digit, organizers say.
"We do get angry people. We get people who have been in Iraq who obviously are not in agreement with what we're doing," said Ken Johnson, a professor at Pennsylvania State University's Abington campus who is a regular at the vigils. "But we have more and more people who seem to be positive when they go past."
Still, it has been difficult to get community leaders, particularly the clergy, to speak out, said the Rev. Al Krass, coordinator of the Coalition for Peace Action in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.
"It's very sad," Krass said. Fear of controversy "is not a good excuse for anyone who has taken on the ordination vows that we have taken on."
Nor have Doylestown's youth put their feelings about Iraq on display.
But at Colby Umbrell's alma mater, the war elicits respectful discussions, political science teacher Chris Johnson said.
"I don't think it's in the forefront of kids' minds," he said. But when Johnson raises the subject, "it's more than just another topic. They're serious about it, deliberate about it, and thoughtful about it."
Few students from Central Bucks East go directly into the military, Johnson noted.
"My student teacher is from the central part of the state, where she says the military is a very normal pathway for paying for college and for finding gainful employment," he said. "So the way the war is discussed in a place like Altoona is going to be very different."
Ruth Stonesifer, whose son Kris died in what she calls "the forgotten conflict" in Afghanistan, feels that good has been done in Iraq, but is not upset by those who disagree with current policies.
"When we see protesters lining the sidewalks, I just say, 'Well, my son died so that you could have the privilege of doing this,' " she said. "He would want the world to think logically through this, and to be able to debate it."
Stonesifer recalls her first glimpse of the "Star Garden" along an alley in Doylestown. A cheerful mosaic of broken glass and tile crafted by children and others into butterflies, sunbursts and flowers, it was in progress when Kris died, and soon dedicated to his memory.
"He would have loved it because it had the energy of children - no flags, no military stuff," Stonesifer said. Soon, two memorial benches will be added: one for Travis Manion, one for Colby Umbrell.
Stonesifer is immersed in a flurry of activism, all to honor her son and others like him.
She is president of the Gold Star Mothers in Pennsylvania, women whose children have died in war. She spearheaded the hanging of memorial photo banners - one for each Pennsylvania casualty in Iraq and Afghanistan - from light poles in Harrisburg.
She successfully pushed for a Gold Star license plate in Pennsylvania, and heads a project to handcraft quilts for the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. She hopes to write a book from the journals her son left.
The political head-butting, she said, is beside the point. "We know who our children were and we know why they served," she said "Nothing else matters."
Kris understood the risks, she said.
"He was comfortable with his own death. He talked about it, he wrote about it. He left those journals in my attic," she said. "His words are the ones that heal me."
And if much of her community appears to be non-engaged, Stonesifer said, they may be no different than she once was.
Before everything changed.
"My work is somewhat out of guilt, in the sense that I was not paying attention all these years to the sacrifices that young men and women are willing to make," she said. "I just need to know that, when I meet up with Kris at that great family reunion on the other side, he's going to be as proud of me as I am of him."
 
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