Soldiers' bereaved parents united in grief but divided on course of war

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The Independent US

When Edward "Augie" Schroeder's remains were sent home from Iraq they arrived in three separate instalments and in three different containers.

His parents buried the coffin in New Jersey where the 23-year-old Marine reservist had grown up, they buried one urn alongside the grave of the grandfather whose name he shared and they placed the remaining ashes in the basement of their home, next to his combat boots and dog-tags and amid the clutter of a young life cut short.

"We've got all clothes here, all his things. We don't really know what to do with it," said his father, Paul, leading the way around their Cleveland home. "I drive my son's truck. I have all his CDs. I can't stand the music but they are there and I feel he is in the truck."

Augie's parents are adamant that President George Bush should not be sending more troops to Iraq. Mr Schroeder and his wife, who uses her maiden name, Rosemary Palmer, were never supporters of the war, but after their only son was killed by a roadside bomb in 2005 they have become strident opponents. Both have left their jobs to campaign to bring the troops home.

"If we stay there Iraqis are going to be killed, if we leave Iraqis are going to be killed. We in the middle," said Mr Schroeder. Mrs Palmer said: "We are not mourning Augie, we are honouring him. We could sit around and cry or we can try to make his death mean something to us and to other people."

Yet not all military families share Augie's parents views about President Bush's decision send more troops to a war that has already cost the lives of more than 3,000 Americans and perhaps 655,000 Iraqis.

Just fifty miles to the south of Cleveland another grieving parent whose only son served in the same Marine unit as Augie Schroeder, is also trying to deal with loss. But Robert Derga, whose 24-year-old son Dustin (CRRCT) was killed in May 2005, has a very different view of Mr Bush's plan. And unlike Mr Schroeder he does not believe his son's life was wasted.

"I feel pretty strongly that we need to stay the course," said Mr Derga, an engineering manager from Canton. "It has been very painful for the nation and for my family in particular but the job is not finished yetÉI was a pretty strong supporter of the mission Dustin was asked to perform. I feel very strongly about that and since his death that has not changed."

Dustin and Augie were Lance Cpls in the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine unit based in Brook Park, a suburb of this industrial city on the shore of Lake Erie, frigid and blustery in mid-winter. Though they served in different companies, Mrs Palmer said the two men would have known each other in Iraq - which has proved to be deadly for this particular unit. Augie was among 20 Marines from the unit killed in Haditha in August 2005, while Dustin was killed in a gunfight with insurgents in Ubaydi, near the Syrian border. In all, 23 Marines from the unit were killed in 2005.

Both young men were thinking about the future. Dustin, who was a month from coming home, dreamed of opening a bar in Florida or else becoming a firefighter. He had a girlfriend of nine-months. Augie, who had six weeks of his tour left, had studied at university but dropped out to decide what he wanted to do with this life.

Augie sent his parents a homemade movie featuring himself and his fellow Marines which they now often watch. In the last few phone conversations with his parents he expressed his belief that "the longer we're here the less good we're doing". Shortly before his death killed Dustin wrote on a website that he was "so ready to come home". In his letters, Dustin asked to be sent copies of Popular Mechanics magazine and bags of marshmallows.

Speaking out and forming the group Families of the Fallen for Change has not been easy for Augie's parents and they realise some parents from the unit do not approve. At one meeting of family members, one Marine officer reportedly likened their behaviour to going to a home sports match and cheering for the opposing team.

But Mr Schroeder said: "I told him before he left - sitting here on this sofa - that if something happened to him we would not keep quiet. He knew how we were and that were not ones to sit and take it."

In their house full of photographs and memories and empty spaces, Augie's parents battle to ensure their son's death counted. While they think his life was wasted, their believe that if their campaign can prevent other young men from dying, his death will not have been in vain.

"It would be a little easier if he died on the beaches of Normandy or Iwo Jima - something that was absolutely, fundamentally necessary. I would be sad, in grief, but I could accept it. I cannot accept this because my family has been violated for no good reason and my son's life was not given for his country [but] it was taken from him," said Mr Schroeder.

Mr Derga also wants to ensure his son's death was not in vain and he has also set up a group, a local chapter of Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission, which seeks to tell positive stories about the troops in Iraq.

Yet he is not among those who criticise Augie's parents. Indeed, both sets of parents express mutual respect. "I feel strongly and I know Paul does," said Mr Derga, who believes a boost in troop numbers is vital to achieve progress in Iraq. "We are not going to be statistics. Paul and I feel very compelled that we have a message to speak. Even though we take different views, I know he wants this to end."