Small-town families did not expect war on terror to hit them so hard

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The Independent US

Paul Johnson's son had made the simplest, most heartfelt of pleas for his father's freedom. "I just want to ask the President of the United States and the Saudi officials to please make this happen," he said in a television interview 24 hours before the kidnappers' ultimatum on his life ran out. "Father's Day is right here. Please bring my father home for Father's Day."

Paul Johnson's son had made the simplest, most heartfelt of pleas for his father's freedom. "I just want to ask the President of the United States and the Saudi officials to please make this happen," he said in a television interview 24 hours before the kidnappers' ultimatum on his life ran out. "Father's Day is right here. Please bring my father home for Father's Day."

It was not to be. Yesterday, as news of Mr Johnson's beheading was flashed across television screens and the internet, Paul Johnson III, Mr Johnson's sister Donna Mayeux and other family members were in seclusion in the small New Jersey town of Eagleswood, about an hour's drive up the shore from Atlantic City. An American flag hung off the porch, which was also adorned with a yellow ribbon.

The ripples of George Bush's war on terror have now come to small town America. As the President reels from the political fallout, American families across the country are counting the cost of the Iraq war as soldiers return home in body bags. But the families of expatriate workers never expected to be hit so hard.

Mr Johnson had scarcely set foot in his home town since moving to Saudi Arabia as an engineer for the military contractor Lockheed Martin a decade ago. That, however, did not stop his home town from pouring its heart out to him and his loved ones. Eagleswood organised prayers, church services and a candlelit vigil on Thursday night, as did his son's home town in Port St John, Florida.

The New Jersey service took place behind a fire station, where about 150 people gathered beneath a sign that read: "Our creek may be shallow, but our roots run deep." It was an occasion expressing many of the simple, heartfelt emotions of small town America, with expressions of patriotism mingling with personal testaments to the decency of the man they were all praying for. There was a similar outpouring for Nicholas Berg in Pennsylvania a month ago, after he was killed in a similar way by other Islamic extremists.

The 40-minute service, which included addresses by four preachers as well as Eagleswood's mayor, was broadcast live by a local Christian radio station and included renditions of "God Bless America" and "Amazing Grace". "Your love, your prayers and your support are appreciated," Mr Johnson's niece Angel Roorke told the crowd before dissolving in tears.

Mr Johnson's ordeal was treated very much as a trial for the community - and for the state of New Jersey, whose governor and two senators both made efforts to let the family know they were doing everything in their power to try to save Mr Johnson.

Up to the moment of the announcement of his death, there was no indication of any political sentiment connected to his plight, either in favour or against the Bush administration's handling of the multiple crises in the Middle East.

Mr Johnson's captors depicted him as an enemy combatant in a pitiless war, not least because his job was to maintain Apache helicopter gunships used by the Saudi military, making him, in their eyes, a pawn in the machinery of government in Riyadh that al-Qa'ida has sworn to overthrow.

Apache helicopters have also been used by the Israeli military in its assaults on Palestinian militant factions such as Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza and are, therefore, a focal point of anti-American sentiment in many parts of the Middle East. And Mr Johnson was used as proof of that anger.

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