My Godson at 20 is older than I’ll ever be

Published 6:21 pm Monday, December 24, 2007

By Staff
It's surreal to watch a media maelstrom engulf your family from a safe distance.
But there I was Dec. 18, in the unfamiliar role of news consumer, viewing and reading a torrent of images and words by others my wife unleashed with a few e-mails.
As a former Daily News editor, Sue well knows news people aren't psychic, and that many good stories originate with a well-placed tip.
She knew instinctively the emotional Christmas homecoming of a young soldier would resonate with mothers and others.
Her older sister, Kathy Marek, felt a vague sense of urgency to do something special to greet her third son, Mike, as he stepped off the plane in South Bend, Ind., after serving his country for 15 months in Iraq.
But without Sue's journalistic expertise, the celebration might have been confined to a few balloons and banners instead of the multi-media frenzy celebrating family and the Greatest Generation that ensued. Fox and WSBT expressed interest in covering the event.
The South Bend Tribune sent columnist Bill Moor, whom I've admired since his sportswriting days. I can't say I know him, but we spent a lot of time in the same pressbox that summer of 1988 when the Silver Hawks came to South Bend.
My first inkling of what followed came on an early broadcast when I spied Jim Rider photographing Kathy's and Mike's embrace.
I don't know him, either, but I've crossed paths with him at enough news events to know his reputation as a photographer.
He didn't disappoint with an amazing 10-photo gallery. Either did the TV stations. We now have the equivalent of home movies with really high production values to remember this special moment, from Sue's mom, Betty Ann, with her camera to Aunt Lorraine Dove whooping it up and Kevin and Kathy's twins, Dylan and Tyler, scooting around.
I pointed out the picture which would lead their Dec. 19 paper and two of the other three color images.
In the lead photo, Sue and my niece Danielle are crying, their hands in the same position.
Everyone else radiates joy.
You can't help but wonder what evoked such a range of emotions.
I see more in the photo than a casual observer, of course.
There's Logan's left eye, lurking over his mom's shoulder.
Cheryl, Sue's much older sister (two months my elder). Bill, a groomsman in our wedding.
Kathy, combining a small American flag with her Santa hat. And Jordan, holding grandson Ian.
Ian, 1, is completely facing the other direction so only the back of his head shows. I say it's because Grandpa told him if his face appears in the competition, he would have to tell Santa he was naughty instead of nice.
I usually see these people gathered around my dining room table. It didn't feel like Thanksgiving when the Mareks didn't make it last month.
Matt, the only member of this clan taller than me, enveloped Mike in a bear hug reminiscent of their spleen-splitting horseplay as kids.
The Konopkas and the Mareks are hard-working, unassuming Catholic folks who have finally accepted after 26 years that I'm going to continue stringing word necklaces and might never get a real job, but they taught me to play poker and say "cold beer" in Polish anyway.
Stan Konopka, 82, and Frank Marek, 84, are so modest I didn't know Frank hit Utah Beach on D-Day until I read it in the paper.
Of course, I didn't know he had a twin brother until I showed up at a cookout one time and did a doubletake that there were suddenly two Franks.
Frank worked at Studebaker and was the proprietor of Shamrock Inn in North Liberty.
My father-in-law, a retired truck driver, is amused by my lack of mechanical aptitude.
Mike, who grew up playing paintball in Lydick, graduated from Washington High School and played football for the Panthers, idolizes his grandpas.
Moor captured that with the quote, "They're the ones I try to measure up to." Mike carried Frank's rosary and a flag from his mom. At 21 in February, Mike's already older than I'll ever be.
His unit lost 22 soldiers.
Mike's first letter arrived Aug. 17, 2006, when he landed in "insanely hot" Kuwait. "When you breathe the air it's like sucking on a hair dryer and the wind is as hot as a blast of air from a jet engine." His description amused Sue and reminded her of him at 13, coming to Dowagiac one fall weekend for his first plane ride at Municipal Airport. The weather didn't cooperate, however, and Mike never did fly until entering boot camp. Ironically, the boy who never flew grew up to be a paratrooper who takes off, but never lands, leaping out of aircraft, including Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters.
July 12 Mike was part of Operation Ithaca against al Qaeda forces in the Diyala River Valley.
According to Capt. Stephen Dobbins, "We cleared from house to house, chicken coops, canals and palm groves, rooting out the enemy. Along the way, we discovered three large caches of RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), AK-47s, (al-Qaeda in Iraq) propaganda, Iraqi Army police radios, military uniforms and more than 17 IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
"Through the night into the early morning we fought the enemy," Dobbins related, "dominating them with impunity. The end result was we saved eight severely tortured civilians being held captive. The hostages told us that they had been sentenced by the Islamic State of Iraq to be executed later that day, and we saved them from certain death.
"Our paratroopers with their (160-pound packs) and body armor covered four square kilometers of ground, clearing over 250 homes, many canals and palm groves non-stop for eight hours, all while taking fire from a disciplined and determined enemy."
Though he's like "hugging a rock," Kathy found Mike "just plain beautiful … the picture of health and fitness. He still has his sense of humor and his awesome smile, plus that twinkle in his eye!" I'll see Christmas Day when I'm finally able to welcome Mike home.
Merry Christmas everyone!