WHEN THE BODY BAGS COME HOME
by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Crresp[ondent
Lake Worth, Fla.
LAKE WORTH, Fla., Nov. 13, 2004 -- "When they come to the door, you know there is only one reason. I asked them when did he die and they told me."
Slow news of someone's death only delays the pain. It never is lessened. Let's just say it was a Veteran's Day I won't forget, even if I wanted to.
This is about when the body bags from Iraq start arriving close to home. Too close to home.
If you want the short and sweet version, go back to your X-Box, your Oprah, or your NFL. I can't help you.
U.S. Marine Lt. Mike Felsberg is dead at age 27. He was killed back on October 15th when I was out of state and foolishly and selfishly thinking I was doing something important.
He was one of the kids.
If you've ever been a den mother, a little league team mom, assistant soccer coach, Pop Warner referee, or worked a stop watch at a track meet, you know what I mean. Michael was one of the suburban Palm Beach County kids who we drove to practice, or his dad drove our kids home from practice, or who slept over, or who went to Paisano's for pizza after a game. A classmate of our middle child, who is now an Army officer, Michael was the poster child for what's right with America. As a student athlete at one of the nine state universities in Florida, Florida International University in Miami, no one before, or since has lettered in varsity sports and held a 3.94 grade point average. Yes, he once got a B in a class. He was six feet of lean and mean. I would watch him in youth soccer, and later in regional and local cross country and track and field events, and marvel at his split times, but also at his competitive spirit. He spent four years in the Marines as an enlisted man after high school, then went to college, and then to officer's school. "He was the type who led by example," FIU track couch Carlos Salvat said.
Unless you are familiar with the year-round warm climates of Florida and Southern California, you might not know too many true athletes such as Mike.
He grew up in a 12-month sports environment. Top athletes often picked up varsity letters in two, three, four, or even five sports. They rotated classes, seasons, practice, and schedules.
In Texas high school football is everything.
In Indiana, high school and college basketball is everything.
In Denver, snow sports are king.
In South Florida, well, everything is everything.
Mike and his ilk didn't do it for a spot on ESPN or a pro contract. Excelling in sports kept you with the good kids, the smart kids, the successful kids. Those, such as Mike, who particularly liked individual sports, knew that they were part of a team, but the team did not have to be part of them. You raced the clock, the elements, and your own fears. You trained because you could. You were never a victim. Your success was yours.
The stereotypes I have erroneously preached to friends, relatives, readers, and broadcast listeners, break down with Mike Felsberg. It shows my true foolishness. I feel like a wayward preacher who was inadvertently serving the Devil.
Not so much in the past year, but when asked to give speeches to conventions or civic groups, I usually thank our Veterans, and ask for active duty personnel, or those with a member of their immediate family in the service to stand. I then ask those who have a good friend serving on active duty to stand.
I have found fewer than one in 60 Americans in any way shape or form knows someone in uniform these days.
Watching the tv war casualty pictures, and listening to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. Charles Rangell, and others, I extrapolated that: few if any U.S. Congressmen have kids in the service; few college professors, investment bankers, architects, lawyers, physicians, or real estate developers have kids in the service. In fact, I used to argue, it's the Black, Hispanic, or poor white rural high school kid with a dead end future, who is recruited to a life of better education, only to find shrapnel in Fallujah. The poorest and least educated carry the burden of the "volunteer" Army, while the President tells us a good way to fight the War on Terror is to go to the outlet mall, spend money, and trust him.
Now I think of Mr. Paul Felsberg, who when I met him was in charge of the physical plant and immense facilities of the South Florida Fairgrounds, and Mrs. Arlene Felsberg, who was a respected long-time U.S. Postal worker, I remembered how all-America everything they were.
Mike was their only child. From a middle class family. A cum laude graduate of a large urban university.
Then I started thinking about the "exceptions" to my ridiculous beliefs.
There were just too many exceptions... .
Over the past 14 years two of my sons had served a total of 9 years in the military, one still active. What about the dozens of friends and acquaintances of theirs we had met and broke bread with at Forst Bragg, Benning, Knox, or Jackson - or perhaps a dozen other places?
What about the son of the marathon runner and former pharmaceutical executive who enlisted in the Army six months before Sept. 11, "just to serve." He had his college degree but no interest in being an officer, just "to serve the country"?
How about the diminutive daughter of an an Alaska businessman, who delayed college to become a paratrooper, and in two tours of duty in Iraq has been a driver for senior officers, ducking bullets and bombs every day?
Or the other college kids who wanted hands-on experience in computers; electronics; counter intelligence; criminal justice, finance, logistics, etc., who intentionally became privates and specialists without worrying whether their uniform warranted a salute? Some would go to Officers' Candidate School, some would build enlisted careers in the military, or return to civilian life.
A criminal justice graduate, Mike volunteered to go to Iraq as a replacement when another officer was killed in combat. In regular emails home he assured his mom and dad "I'm still in one piece and doing fine." When possible, he continued to stay fit by running every day, just like he did in high school and college.
Mike was serving as a weapons platoon leader in Ramadi, and the Marines report he and five other Marines were killed on the same day in a combination of roadside bombs and a suicide attack. He died on the way to a hospital.
Relatively few of my high school and college pals were drafted to go to Vietnam.
As a young reporter, I had to interview too many grieving parents who saw the dress uniforms head up their driveway.
Mike's dad, a Navy veteran, told reporters, "When they come to the door, you know there is only one reason. I asked them when did he die and they told me."
Veteran's Day started for me just after dawn, when I drove down what we used to call Rangeline Road to the cemetery where my dad is buried. A veteran of Normandy, combat infantryman, combat medic, Bronze Star winner and more, I just wanted to plant a small U.S. Army flag on a wooden stick in front of his grave marker.
We chatted about the great-grandson, now one year old, who was born a year after his death; he listened as I poured out my heart with family news, and sincere thanks for the men and women, now at peace, who put it all on the line for their country. For those of us who never served, I thanked him again and asked him to keep an eye over the guys and gals serving today.
It was emotional, but by noon I got over it.
At my noon Kiwanis meeting, one of our past presidents, a career Air Force chief warrant officer in the Strategic Air Command, now age 80, wore his Veterans of Foreign Wars uniform and cap. I looked around the room at the tough Jewish kid from the Bronx who served in the Marines in World War II; the Irish Catholic kid from Philly who was an intelligence officer during the Cold War and whose son now is a naval officer, the former Army medic and nurse who served in Vietnam, and the few other veterans in the room.
After lunch I reflected on what each of them put at risk. How many plans had been put on hold? How many friends never came back alive?
But by the end of the day, I got over it.
Then I heard that 65 ABC affiliates would not be airing "Saving Private Ryan" because they feared the FCC fines due to curse words and violence in this Oscar-winning war film. When the local ABC station said they were showing the movie, my daughter wondered whether "Schindler's List" would ever be aired again.
My wife and I went out for hamburgers, and when we returned my daughter said the local ABC station had changed its mind and pre-empted "Saving Private Ryan" with another movie.
I was annoyed, but turned to Donald Trump's latest attempt at management, and got over it.
At the end of a long day, I was about to turn off the late news when I heard an announcer say that the local Postal Workers Union had honored two area young men, killed in Iraq. I heard the name Michael Felsberg, and saw his mom on tv.
I hadn't seen Michael or his folks in perhaps five, or maybe eight years. It didn't matter. A wave of emotion hit me hard. The lip service that "all these kids in uniform are my kids" changed to truth. Why? Why? Why?
Through tears I started searching the web for stories about his death. After four or five false starts, I sat down to write these thoughts.
I haven't gotten over it.
AR Correspondent Mark Scheinbaum is chief investment strategist for Kaplan & Co. (www.kaplansecurities.com) and a former UPI newsman.