View Full Version : Three dads will celebrate holiday, mindful of how Iraq conflict has affected their li

06-17-03, 05:56 AM
Three dads will celebrate holiday, mindful of how Iraq conflict has affected their lives

By Alex Roth

June 15, 2003

When he closes his eyes, Marine Capt. Jason Frei can tell you the exact position of each finger on his right hand, even though it has been nearly three months since he lost the hand to an Iraqi rocket grenade.

Frei now has a hook in place of his hand and phantom sensations in place of real fingers. Adults often try to avoid looking at his prosthesis, apparently under the assumption that it would be rude.

Children, however, are both mesmerized and unabashed. They tell Frei that they want to touch his hook. They want to see him use it.

"Daddy has a boo-boo," his 2-year-old daughter said when she first glimpsed his wound. His 3-year-old son thought the hook was about as cool as a robot.

At his Oceanside home one recent night, Frei tried to explain how the war and the loss of his hand have affected him as a father. He said his missing hand is a reminder of how close his children came to not having a father at all.

This Father's Day will be different for Frei, 31, and many others in San Diego County who have been directly affected by the war. Marine Maj. Joe Craft, who flew sorties over Iraq in a fighter jet, will spend part of his day remembering the time he sat alone at a kitchen table and tried to compose a letter for his children to read in the event of his death.

Then there is Ryan Mikha, an Iraqi native who lives in El Cajon and who will consider the day a success if he simply hears from his father at all. His dad still lives in Iraq, with a family that huddles in the house at night, too afraid to go out in the dark.

All three of these men were changed by the war, visibly (in Frei's case) and otherwise. Each plans to observe the holiday in a different way, but all acknowledge that the war has affected them as fathers and sons to the same degree that it affected them as human beings.

Marine captain says little about war to his children

"My arm is gone," Frei thought at that moment. "That's not supposed to happen to me."

It was March 25 and Frei, a Marine artillery battery commander, was sitting in a Humvee that had just been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade north of the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. A distance of 6 inches prevented him from being cut in half. Instead, only his right hand was missing.

He grabbed a radio cord to use as a tourniquet and was evacuated to a hospital. Now he has a prosthesis that he controls with a shoulder harness attached to a wire that functions like a bicycle cable, opening and closing his hook in harmony with subtle motions from his torso. Eventually he will be fitted with a prosthetic hand.

In the field, Frei was a commander of more than 100 men. Now he has a more routine job at Camp Pendleton, overseeing vehicle maintenance. Part of him wants to stay in the military, but he's also acutely aware of the famous motto, "Every Marine a rifleman." He's thinking about graduate school and a career as a businessman.

He doesn't talk much to his two children about war – not about the abstractions of war, and certainly not about the specifics.

"They're too little," he said.

But Frei's experience in Iraq reminded him that children have a remarkable ability to process bad things. He sees it in how his own have reacted to his missing hand, and he saw it in Iraq, where children living in unspeakable poverty could be seen playing happily along a dusty roadside, looking just as content as his offspring in Oceanside.

"They're the same as your kids, and you wonder what kind of future they have," he said. "You feel worse for the children. The parents have made their own decisions."

Frei doesn't have specific plans for Father's Day other than to spend the day with his family. They might see the movie "Finding Nemo."

On a recent night, shortly before Frei came home from work, his wife, Valerie, stood in the family room and asked her son, Robbie, to explain what's different about his Daddy.

"He has only one hand," the 3-year-old said.

"What does he have?" his mother asked.

"He has a hook."

She asked her son what Daddy planned to be for Halloween, and the boy answered, "Captain Hook." She then asked Robbie what he planned to be for Halloween, and the boy told her a robot.

"No, silly," his mother said. "You're going to be Peter Pan."

Major feared leaving kids without dad

The Marine with the nickname of Smoke said he decided to leave the piece of paper blank.

It was early one evening last week, and Smoke was relating a story at a Round Table pizza parlor in Rancho Peñasquitos, where he and his wife were throwing a birthday party for one of the couple's four children. The party provided a case study in what happens when 10 small children eat lots of cake and drink lots of soda in a very short period of time.

"Smoke" is Marine Maj. Joe Craft, 36, a Miramar-based member of a fighter attack squadron, and he served as a navigator in an F/A-18D Hornet that flew 40 sorties over Iraq during the war.

They flew at night, when the Iraqi sky was ablaze like a video game, full of dangerous streaks of light, a disorienting environment where even friendly missiles posed a danger.

The thing about dying that scared Craft the most was leaving his four children without a father. His own dad, a Marine gunnery sergeant who served in Korea and Vietnam, died of emphysema when Craft was 4.

"There's a part of me that fears that I'm potentially putting my children in the same exact position that I was in," he said. "That was the one thing in my life I didn't want them to go through."

It always bothered Craft that his father never left him a letter saying, "Hey, Joe, this is what I think about things." So several years ago, Craft sat down at his kitchen table to write a letter of his own, one that would give his children some words of wisdom to live by in the event of his death.

But he couldn't bring himself to compose even one word. He decided his children would place too much importance in whatever he chose too say, and too little in whatever he forgot to include. So instead of the letter, he told his wife to pass along this simple advice: "Be good Christians."

Craft was asked what fatherly advice, in light of his experience in Iraq, he intends to give his children about serving in the Marine Corps. He said he won't discourage them but won't push them into it, either. This country needs great lawyers, too, he said, and great doctors and accountants and artists.

"This country needs great everything," Craft said. "You don't have to go fight. But at the same time, somebody does."

Iraqi immigrant escaped Hussein's grip

Instead of getting angry, Ryan Mikha's father would take pictures.

And so it came to pass that Mikha's father, an Iraqi businessmen, managed to document in photographs all of his son's screw-ups, bad behavior and misadventures as a small boy.

The family – a husband, a wife, five daughters and two sons – lived near the Iraqi city of Mosul. Two years ago, Mikha said, he decided to flee the country after being pressured by Saddam Hussein's henchmen to join a paramilitary group. He hasn't seen his father since.

He is now 24 and lives in an El Cajon apartment with his wife and 7-month-old daughter. He works part time at a liquor store. His father still lives in Iraq, along with his mother and most of his siblings.

He didn't hear from his father for virtually the entire war and didn't know if he was alive or dead. Then, a few weeks ago, the phone rang in his apartment. It was his father, calling from a pay phone.

"I didn't believe it at first," Mikha said.

His father and the rest of the family were OK, but terrified. The country was completely lawless, and a family acquaintance had been shot to death by bandits. It was too dangerous to leave the house after sunset.

Mikha has spoken to his father four or five times since then. He's hoping his father will call today, but isn't optimistic. They don't celebrate Father's Day in Iraq.

As Mikha spoke about his dad last week, his wife, Rawaa, served tea with sugar and Middle Eastern pastries. Then she sat on the couch and cradled her daughter, Ranita, in her arms.

Mikha was asked how he hoped his own daughter's life in this country might unfold. The first thing he said was: "I want it to be safe, man. That's all I want."

Alex Roth: (619) 542-4558; alex.roth@uniontrib.com