More than 200 troops with Hawai'i ties dead
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Chief Warrant Officer 2 Theodore U. Church didn't wear his patriotism on his sleeve. He had it tattooed into his skin.
After a 2003 deployment to Iraq, the Ohio man and Schofield Barracks soldier had an American flag inked onto his right arm with the names of his wife and two children above.
Below the flag read: I am prepared to die in their defense.
On Memorial Day, the 32-year-old Church and 1st Lt. Keith N. Heidtman, 24, also from Schofield, were killed when their OH-58D Kiowa helicopter crashed after receiving heavy enemy fire in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad — one of the most volatile areas of Iraq.
The deaths represent the 200th and 201st for Hawai'i since the start of the Iraq war in March 2003 — another sadness-filled mile marker for the state.
"He would have gone 12 times if he needed to go 12 times in order to serve his country," said Church's mother-in-law, Marcinda Mers, who flew from Ohio to Hawai'i to be with her daughter, Mindi, and grandchildren Maryn, 6, and Dorian, 4.
"We're dealing with it as well as can be expected," Mers said. The kids "are quite aware even at their age of what's going on and that it's a forever kind of thing."
The man known since boyhood as "Tuc" for the initials of his name will be returned to Ohio for burial.
The trauma that's begun for Mindi Church and others who have lost loved ones in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will radiate out to touch hundreds, if not thousands, of others for years to come.
After four years of fighting in Iraq — longer than the U.S. fought in World War II — and beyond the patriotism, there is increasing frustration and weariness among military members and civilians alike.
Mers said she believes, and her son-in-law would have, too, that the U.S. should stay to finish the job in Iraq. But she also believes, like a growing number of Americans, that that effort shouldn't go on much longer.
"We've lost too many men and women from everywhere. It doesn't matter where they are from, and it doesn't matter if I knew them or I didn't know them. They are somebody's son, they are somebody's husband or wife, somebody's daughter," Mers said. "We need to do what needs to be done (in Iraq) to get this thing under control and get our men and women back home."
WAHIAWA FEELS LOSS
The significance of the latest deaths and the total they represent for the state were not lost on State Rep. K. Mark Takai, D-34th (Newtown, Waiau, Pearl City).
Takai, a captain in the Hawai'i Army National Guard and commander of the guard's medical company, created the Hawai'i Medal of Honor in 2005 on behalf of the state Legislature.
"I knew we were going to have some battle casualties," Takai said, "but I don't think we ever figured out it was going to get to a couple of hundred. The fact that we're at 201 is not lost on anyone close to the situation.
"Whether being a child of Hawai'i — a keiki 'o ka 'aina — or a service member attached to a military unit from Hawai'i does not matter, from my perspective. We consider anybody with ties to Hawai'i to be special."
At the second medal ceremony in April, 42 of the 66 dead military members were represented by friends and family, some of whom traveled to Hawai'i from Delaware and Florida, Takai said.
Outside of the military, people don't bring up the war or the casualties, Takai said.
"To some extent the community may be getting tired," he said.
But for the families and friends of the dead, Takai said, "the emotions and the feelings are still very real. It continues to have an effect on me personally."
Dan Nakasone, vice president of the Wahiawa Community & Business Association, believes that Wahiawa residents and businesses may share the loss of Schofield soldiers more profoundly than other Hawai'i civilian communities — but not by much.
"Because we're so tied closely with the military, our community is more sensitive because we've been neighbors for 100 years," Nakasone said. "They're in our community. They're part of our community. We feel the loss a little bit more because we're neighbors."
Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou also serves as a captain, in the Army Reserve, and has been tracking the Hawai'i-based military members who have died.
"Every time I hear and see about soldiers dying, it affects me personally," Djou said. "I scan to see if I know them personally or have served with them. It's a punch to the gut every time I read about a soldier I served with who died overseas. It has a profound effect on me personally."
'IT'S ALL A SHOCK TO US'
Heidtman, of Norwich, Conn., and Church, of South Point, Ohio, were assigned to the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade out of Schofield. They were among 10 soldiers killed in Iraq on Memorial Day — eight of whom died as a result of roadside bomb attacks.
"It's all a shock to us," said Chris Heidtman, the soldier's uncle.
A Norwich Bulletin article quoted Heidtman's stepfather on the loss of their son: "The family, while devastated by the loss, is proud of his service to the country. His perspective on life was pretty good. He had focus. He had drive. He did what he thought he could do best. He died for it."
As of late Tuesday, there have been 113 U.S. deaths in Iraq in May — trailing only the 137 in November 2004 and the 135 in April 2004. More than 7,000 Schofield soldiers are serving in northern Iraq on a 15-month deployment.
Army Brig. Gen. Perry Wiggins, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military believes the aircraft was brought down by small-arms fire. The roadside bomb killed a response team headed to the crash site.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Wiggins called the assault a "complex attack." But he also said the military continues to "adjust our flight maneuvering and our routes in order to not become predictable and in order to make it more difficult" for the enemy.
Heidtman was a graduate of the University of Connecticut.
"If you had to pick your son, this is who you would pick. He was handsome, he was bright," Chris Heidtman said. He added that "we're sending our finest, and we're losing them."
Church and his wife, Mindi, grew up four blocks apart in Ohio and were childhood sweethearts "when mom had to take them to see a movie," Mers said.
Two days before he died, Church and his wife celebrated their 12-year anniversary with some instant messaging online. He also had sent her some jewelry.
"He was the best father and husband I could ask for for my daughter and grandchildren," Mers said.
Kate Fuller, whose husband, Capt. Jeff Fuller, is a Schofield soldier in Hawija, Iraq, said the two soldiers will be remembered.
"Each (killed) soldier has a memorial that we do for them, so each soldier is remembered in some way," Kate Fuller said, "and we're all pretty proud to go to those memorials and support the family and friends — even if we didn't know them."The Associated Press contributed to this report.