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thedrifter
12-22-05, 08:36 AM
MITCH ALBOM'S DREAMS DEFERRED 2005: A soldier's journey
Small town embraces its first fallen Marine
BY MITCH ALBOM
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
December 22, 2005

First in a series on challenges for Michigan athletes and their families

Let us begin at the end, a few weeks ago, when a Marine named Craig Watson came home from the Iraq war. He was accompanied by his best friend, a fellow Marine named Corey Douglas. The two had wrestled and played high school football together -- Craig, a defensive lineman, Corey, an offensive lineman -- so they were always grasping, tackling, hooking sweaty arms and legs, two small-town kids refusing to let go of each other.

Now, on this journey, they remained inseparable. They rode behind each other from Dover Air Force Base to the Philadelphia airport. They flew together from Philadelphia to Detroit. They flew together from Detroit to Kalamazoo. It was early December, the earth frosted with snow, and they were returning, in time for Christmas, to a tiny place named for two rivers that join together. Union City, population 1,804, is the kind of small, one-stoplight town that gives so many young men to America's military. There is a Civil War monument on the north end of town and a veterans memorial along the riverbank. Soldiers have been honored there before.

And, soon, Craig would receive a hero's welcome.

Corey thought about that on the plane, just as he thought about the times they had shared together as kids, be it head-butting at football games, jet-skiing on the lake, double-dating at a winter dance or sticking marshmallows on friends' windshields as practical jokes.

It was Craig who encouraged Corey to join him at the Marines recruiting office. "Come on," he said. "We'll sign up together."

They were juniors in high school.

Now here they were, less than three years from their senior prom, combat veterans. Craig was 21, Corey 20. Perhaps, under other circumstances, they would laugh about the pranks they soon would play on old friends.

But they couldn't laugh now. They couldn't speak. Corey, in his military dress blues, sat in a seat in the passenger cabin.

Craig was in a coffin, in the cargo hold below.

And at each stop, from the hearse to the big plane, the big plane to the small plane, the small plane to another hearse, and, finally, at the funeral home where he had to lift the coffin's lid, Corey did his duty; he verified for the record that yes, these were the remains of Lance Cpl. Craig Nolan Watson, the kid with whom he used to ride the school bus. He did it because "those were my orders." He did it because a Marine stays with another Marine. He did it because he wanted to be with his best friend, right to the end.

Let's go back now, less than two weeks earlier, to the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which, although halfway across the world, also sits by a river, the Euphrates. Craig Watson had been sent there with his unit, Company F, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. A compact young man who stood 5-feet-9, with powerful legs and soft, deer-like eyes -- his fellow troops called him "Oomph" after the diminutive Willy Wonka characters -- Watson was on his second tour of duty in Iraq.

On Thursday, Dec. 1, seven weeks from the scheduled end of his tour, his unit gathered in an abandoned flour mill for a small promotion ceremony.

Perhaps Craig Watson enjoyed a smile there. Perhaps he clapped when his fellow troops were promoted. No one knows. Because moments later, according to military reports, as the soldiers were leaving, someone stepped on a buried pressure plate that was linked to explosives -- a hidden bomb made from four artillery shells -- and a deafening blast tore the place apart.

Early the next morning, in an apartment building in Union City, Craig's mother, Shirley, was awakened by a knock on her door. It was 2 a.m. She peered through her peephole and saw uniforms and thought, "It's the police. There must be some disturbance."

But when she opened the door, the uniforms were green, and she stepped back unsteadily, and the two Marines asked her to sit even though they remained standing.

And they said the words you hear about but never want to hear.

Her son was dead.

That flour mill explosion killed 10 Marines and wounded 11 others. It made all the newscasts. It was the largest single U.S. military death toll in four months.

But it was the first Iraq war casualty in Branch County.

And the first in Union City.

And the first in this family.

"I just thought, 'This was a mistake,' " Shirley Watson says now, still shaking her head. "Not my son. This is somebody else."

Hadn't she just sent a Christmas package to Iraq? Hadn't she boxed up socks, underwear, puzzle books, a CD, cookies, candy and a little "Matchbox zip car" just for, well, just for something to pass the time? Hadn't he told her he would be home in January?

How could her son, Craig -- the practical joker who should be stealing her Saran Wrap to tape over someone's door -- be blown dead by explosives halfway around the world?

She woke up her two younger sons, Kevin and Bradley. She told them, through tears, what the two Marines had told her. One of the brothers punched a chair so hard it flipped over.

It was dark outside and as quiet as winter.

Let's go back a few months before that, to June, when Shirley Watson had also been sleeping and the dog barked and she got up to see about the noise -- and this time, there was Craig, right before her eyes, slim and muscular and grinning as if he'd won a bet.

"Oh, my God!" she squealed, hugging him.

"Are you surprised?" he asked.

He told her he could stay for one week, and they spent more time together than usual. One night, they went out to dinner. Another night, he introduced her to the parents of a girl he had dated. He enjoyed being back in calm of Union City, which sits south of Battle Creek, about a half-hour from the Indiana border.

"Craig had grown up a lot," she recalls. "He still spent time with his friends, but it wasn't the same. He didn't want to run around. He was a man now."

Others echoed that thought. Where a younger Craig would be itching to go out and party, or at least play a practical joke, now he wanted mostly to rest and take it easy.

"There was a different look to him," recalls Corey Douglas, who was also home during that stretch. "He was nervous this time. I think it was because he heard stories about Fallujah."

Douglas understood. He had been to Fallujah on his first deployment. During his time there, a helicopter crash killed 30 Marines ("they were part of my battalion") on the deadliest day for U.S. forces in 15 years. A car bomb took another friend.

"There were a lot of insurgents," Douglas says. "We killed them all away, but they kept coming back.

"Craig heard there were bad guys there. ... I told him things change, and maybe it wasn't as bad now."

Still, Craig seemed worried. He told Corey of his own encounters in Iraq, like the time a rocket-propelled grenade exploded near his Humvee and blew him into a wall.

"We had a special kinship because we were in it together," Corey says. "It's hard to talk to somebody who's never been there. It was definitely not what we expected it to be. But it's a job you can't back out of."

He pauses, then adds, "We're not the cowardly type."

One morning, shortly before leaving Michigan for the last time, Craig drove to the Church of the Nazarene in nearby Coldwater. He went to the office of his pastor, the Rev. Robert Tharp, who used to watch Craig play football on Friday nights. They exchanged a few pleasantries.

Then Craig asked a question.

He asked if he could pray.

"I'll pray with you," Tharp said.

They entered the church. They knelt on the red oak altar. They stayed there a long time.

"The whole weight of having to go back to Iraq was heavy on him," Tharp recalls. "He wanted to make sure God was going with him."

Tharp read verses from the book of Isaiah: "Yet those who wait upon the Lord will gain new strength. They will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not get tired. They will walk and not become weary."

Afterward Craig asked about being remembered.

"He said when you're out in the field 16 hours a day, seven days a week, it's hard to know that you've got people praying for you back home," Tharp says. "He had this fear sometimes that people might have forgotten about him."

The pastor assured him he would not be forgotten.

A few weeks later, Craig Watson boarded a plane from California, heading back to Iraq.

It was the Fourth of July.

Let's go back a few years from that visit, to high school, when nobody could forget about Craig Watson, because he was such a force. On the wrestling team, assistant coach Ed Sybesma says, Craig would struggle to add enough pounds to compete as a heavyweight, then volunteer to take on opponents 100 pounds heavier than he was.

"He was short, stocky, strong, and he had speed." Sybesma says, "but his biggest muscle was his heart." The coach, a Vietnam vet, recalls a meet against rival Jonesville, when Craig wrestled the last match. Union City needed a victory to win. Craig was a decided underdog, but he wore the guy down and won the match. Sybesma was so excited he lifted his young wrestler and swirled him around the mat.

"Whatever we asked him to do," Sybesma says, "he stepped up and did."

On the football team, Craig was much the same way. Undersized, but never outmatched. As a defensive lineman, he was voted all-conference as a senior, and by most accounts, he was the hardest man on the team to block. He wore No. 67, and nobody wanted to take that number on. He once lifted and threw a running back to the ground so decidedly, it was printed as a photo in the local newspaper. He was dogged during games, pacing the sidelines, yelling encouragement -- or yelling, period.

"One time, in his senior year, there was a goal-line stand and Craig got kicked in the groin," recalls his football coach, Eric Tundevold. "He was so angry, yelling so much, that we had to pull him out. He said, 'Coach, that guy did it on purpose!' I said, 'Hey, look, we can't deal with personal vendettas now. Simmer down or sit.'

"So he said, 'OK, I'm going back in.' And he did. And we stopped them at the goal line. He was emotional. But he could control it when he had to."

And he could celebrate. Corey Douglas remembers a game where a pass was batted into the air on a two-point conversion attempt, and Douglas somehow wound up with the ball. He dived in the end zone.

"Craig came running out just to give me a big head bang," Corey says. "He was so happy for me."

He was happy, period. There was no brooding for Craig Watson in those days, no furrowed brow of war. When he wasn't playing sports, he was trying, seemingly, every practical joke known to man. He would moon friends out the window. He would cover their cars with honey and flour. He would light bags on fire on someone's porch. Once, his mother says, he actually covered a teacher's lawn with plastic forks stuck in the ground. The forks had been greased with Vaseline, so that when the teacher tried to remove them, her hands slipped off.

Perhaps in more politically correct places, such things would be considered inappropriate. But in small heartland towns like Union City, where the sense is strong that childhood passes too quickly, this is "boys will be boys" stuff, pranks that bring a smile when remembered. And most everyone seems to smile when they talk about Craig Watson.

Before they cry.

"At the start of every wrestling season, I always got a bucket of dirt from around the school and told each wrestler to put a scoop of that dirt in a bag," Sybesma says. "Then we put that bag inside a cloth of maroon and gray, our team colors. And every time we go out to wrestle, we touch that cloth because that's who we wrestle for. Our school."

He pauses.

"We have Craig's picture on that cloth now."

Let's go back even further, before the sadness, before the deployment, before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which were the impetus for Craig Watson to become a Marine "and protect this country," as his mother recalls.

Let's go back to snapshots of the boy who would become the soldier. To the duffel bags of his wet, sweaty clothes that his mother would open and roll her nose in horror. To the hunting trips he took with his father, Jay, a foundry worker, who taught him how to shoot. To the movies and living room rassling he shared with his brothers, James, Kevin and Bradley.

To the artwork he created for his bedroom wall, the helmets of every team in the National Football League. To the picture he drew of the Chicago skyline, after his first visit there, with his mother, when he was just a kid. They went to the Hard Rock Café. They saw a Bulls game. "We had a blast," she says.

In the photos of that trip, Craig Watson looks as boyish and innocent. Nothing military about him. There are even younger photos of him, holding a rubber football in fifth grade. He is just a child.

"I remember once, when he was 7 or 8 years old, we had a party at our house," Shirley Watson says, "and we had a friend who had a bit too much to drink and he was picking on Craig. Teasing him, you know?

"Well, Craig didn't like it. And so he just pulled back and hit the guy in the jaw. Just like that. Hit him in the jaw.

"Craig was just a little boy. But the guy fell backwards. He got angry and he stormed out. I told Craig that he should never start a fight. But that he should always defend himself."

Was that it? Was that the moment the seed was planted, that standing up for yourself became noble -- and standing up for others even more so?

Or was Craig Watson no different from any other American boy who skinned his knees and played in the lake and rolled in the snow of his quiet little hometown, and its one traffic light, until he heard an inner voice that called him to duty?

The country fights a war. It sends grown men to fight it.

But every grown man was once a little boy, dreaming of a long and happy life.

Let's finish now where we began, with Craig Watson arriving home from the war in a military casket. His funeral was held on a Sunday, but it really became Sunday, it took over the day, starting with a remembrance service in the high school gym where Craig had wrestled. More than 800 people reportedly attended. There were teachers, classmates, politicians, even some of the people he used to play practical jokes on. The man whose face he struck as a child was there now, crying. Sybesma, Craig's former wrestling coach, addressed the crowd and read a quote from Ronald Reagan after the devastating suicide bomb blast in Lebanon, 1983, another surprise attack that killed unsuspecting Marines: "We cannot and will not dishonor them now ..." it began.

The Rev. Tharp told about Craig's last visit, and the praying they did together, as if he'd had a premonition that his days would be short.

Shirley Watson chose a quote for the funeral program: "My heart ... my hero ... my Marine ... my son."

She remembered the song Craig once said he wanted at his funeral: "Go Rest High on That Mountain" by Vince Gill.

His wish was honored.

Go rest high on that mountain

Son, your work on Earth is done

Go to heaven a shoutin'

Love for the father and the son

The remembrance spilled into the streets of Union City, where cars and trucks and police and fire vehicles made their way across town under a giant American flag. Craig's coffin was pulled by a horse-drawn wagon, heading toward the cemetery, and the people of the town that had once honored Civil War soldiers and World War II soldiers now lined the streets and paid respects to this soldier, some saluting.

Perhaps it seems excessive. One fallen Marine. But so many soldiers who are fighting this war come from small towns like these, where even one son's absence is noticeable, where his phone messages are passed on at grocery stores and barbecues, where his visits home are greeted with squeals and open arms, and where his death doesn't just hit the family, it hits the school, the factory and the coffee shop. It rings the church bells. It quiets the streets.

Read the names of the other Marines who were killed in that flour mill explosion. They were from places like Splendora, Texas, and Tomah, Wis., and Portland, Mich., which lost a young man named David Huhn. Huhn's body, inside his casket, was flown to Michigan on the same plane that carried Watson, Corey Douglas says. For a few final hours, the two fallen Marines were side by side, one last time, Semper Fidelis, the Marines' credo, "always faithful." Then their remains were taken to their hometowns, from where they came and to where they would return.

And this is how it happens. This is how a war is fought. Not on television or in political speeches, but in local recruiters' offices and snow-covered funerals.

"The day of Craig's service," Sybesma says, "was the day a lot of kids in our school realized what it means to be patriotic."

And finally, at Riverside Cemetery, Craig Watson's long journey ended. His coffin was carried through the snow by six pallbearers, including Corey Douglas, the kid whose legs and arms Craig used to playfully entangle, and who, right to the end, held a grip on his best friend.

"Corey was on duty, so he wasn't allowed to cry," Shirley Watson says. "I felt so badly for him. That was so hard."

And then, the rifle shots. The sound of taps. The American flag that draped Craig's coffin was folded neatly into a triangle, as is custom, and handed to his mother.

She burst into tears.

And her son, who lived 21 years, eight months and 28 days, was buried in the earth, on a hillside, with honors.

This week, Union City prepares for Christmas, which falls two weeks to the day after Craig Watson's funeral. And on a cursory drive through town, things seem to be normal, snow packed on the curbs, colored lights on houses, decorations in the store windows.

But Union City, peeled back a layer, is an altered place, now that the first death of this latest war has touched its streets.

The wrestlers on the high school team, before they go out to compete, touch the cloth with Craig's photo attached.

And a pastor, the Rev. Tharp, no longer posts Craig's letters on the bulletin board.

And Shirley Watson cries "every morning" and no longer watches the news, and plans to forge ahead with Christmas "for the sake of my other family. But they know there'll be times when I'll have to go shut myself in the bedroom."

And Corey Douglas, still shaken by Craig's death, prepares for an upcoming tour of duty, this time, he says, in Afghanistan. And he cherishes every quiet minute in his hometown.

"It's funny, it used to be all about partying, but now it's about relaxing and enjoying that sitting with your family," he says.

"I never thought I'd miss this kind of stuff. I thought it was boring. But a lot of people take it for granted. They don't appreciate not having to worry about anything.

"That's because there are people out there protecting them. People like Craig."

People like Craig, who one by one, city by city, high school by high school, build the American fighting force.

Douglas was asked if, knowing what he knew now, of war, of fighting, of losing friends, would he still be so quick to go to the Marines recruiter's office and sign up?

"I don't know," he says, after a pause. "I think I'd rather just stay here and go to college. Maybe I would try and talk Craig out of it. ...

"Then again, he died with honor. Everyone's gonna remember him."

And everyone who knew him, in some way, has been changed.

It is one soldier's story, unique, yet terribly common.

If you go back, before the coffins, before the explosions, before the weapons, before the boot camps, you'll find a son, a family, a team, a town. Every soldier's story begins with a journey and ends with a journey. Winter is here. Craig Watson has come home.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch "The Mitch Albom Show" 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

Ellie