3rd Iraq Death Has One Town Shaken to Core
Source and Copyright: New York Times
HIGHLAND, N.Y. When Eugene Williams was killed by a suicide bomber north of Najaf, Iraq, on March 29, 2003, the grief was shadowed by what looked like a cruel accident of history. Only 11 days later, Baghdad fell. If he had lived a few more days, people thought, the war would have been over. When Doron Chan died on March 18, 2004, after his vehicle turned over near Balad, it seemed too much to bear. This Hudson River town of 10,000 had accounted for three of the 58,000 servicemen lost in Vietnam. Now two of its sons were among what was then 600 lost in Iraq? How could that be? But when Pfc. Michael K. Oremus — ”Mikey O” to his friends — was killed by a sniper bullet in Baghdad on Oct. 2, the numbers lost all meaning, washed away by tears: Jimmy Ventriglia crying all 45 minutes of his drive to coach soccer at West Point, Kevin Brennie unable to pull himself together
when he heard the news at the town hall, tears and more tears at the wake here yesterday. Death is more tornado than hurricane, picking its spots with capricious malice, but a third soldier gone, Mikey O, in this close-knit throwback of a town, Grover’s Corners on the Hudson, seemed particularly beyond grief, beyond pain, beyond knowing. ”You have to understand, all the relationships here are so layered,” said Peter Harris, who coached Mr. Oremus on the high school soccer team and taught him English. ”You know people, you know their brothers and their parents, you know them for generations. So I held Michael when he was a baby, I played with him when he was 2 or 3, I coached him in high school, I played soccer with him after he graduated, as a friend. You don’t experience that most places in the world. But you do here.”
In this Ulster County town of deep ties and long memories, where family and soccer are two of the most enduring threads, few family names mean more than Oremus. Michael’s older brothers, Eric and Richard, were soccer stalwarts. His parents, Madeline and Bruce, were universally admired. And when Bruce Oremus, who coached youth soccer teams in Highland and taught special education nearby in New Paltz, died of cancer in 1995, everyone in town shared the pain. Many also shared the job of raising Michael, then 11 years old, a small, thin boy with a shock of blond hair. The Oremus family’s kid brother became something of the town’s kid brother as well. And if part of that meant developing a bit of moxie to be able to stand up to bigger brothers and
bigger kids, he did it in spades. Despite his size, Michael was the kind of kid who would put on the goalie’s gloves in practice and dare teammates, dare them, to kick one by him. The one in any group who would be first to vote yes on whatever plan was in the offing. After graduating from high school in 2002, and a short stint studying at Dutchess Community College and doing odd jobs, he had a surprise announcement for his soccer buddies. He would not be playing with them next year. He had joined the Army to become a military policeman, a job that almost certainly meant hazardous duty in Iraq. Some were scared for him, but they were impressed as well. ”When he told me, I was shocked,” said Mr. Brennie, who runs a pizza parlor where Mr. Oremus worked and who serves on the Town Council. ”I thought, this kid has way more guts than anyone ever realized.” After he enlisted in February 2005, he came back from training beaming — buff, grown up, his postgraduation uncertainty washed away by the rigor and mission of military life. While many here worried over every casualty report on the radio, others felt oddly insulated. They figured Highland had already overpaid its bill to the god of war. ”We had lost two people already,” said his best friend, Jacob Brett. ”It seemed impossible to me we could lose anyone else.” When the impossible happened, some could not separate one town’s tragedy from a nation’s.
”Highland should not send another soldier to Iraq,” one woman told the local newspaper, The Mid-Hudson Post Pioneer. Mr. Brett said neither he nor Mr. Oremus had been political, but the death had changed him. ”I hope this does make people look differently at the war,” Mr. Brett said. ”I don’t want any other people to go through what we’re going through.” But for most, for now, the grief has obliterated the larger debate over the war. For the people in Highland, like generations before them, it is about young people who died much too soon, about families having to cope with too much and, this time, about a burden no town should have to bear.
On the road into town, there are war memorials from the Civil War to Vietnam. The flagpole and monument in front of the Methodist church honors those who served and those who died ”in the Great War of the Nations,” the quaint coinage before World War I merited a Roman numeral. And today, people say, the funeral for Mikey O, dead at 21, could be the biggest in town history.
”All three of them died so young,” said Mr. Brennie. ”They had so much to offer, so much they wanted to achieve, and it was all ripped away.”