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The war at home, in their own words

As the Iraq War crosses its fourth anniversary, U.S. involvement in that country has surpassed that of World War II.

Four years can bring a host of changes to anyone, and that’s particularly true for many South Sound residents who have been touched in some way by the war in Iraq.

These are their stories:

The sister

Teresa LaBouff, 52, vividly remembers the dream she had after her youngest brother, Army Maj. Douglas LaBouff, was killed in Iraq. In it, her brother passes her a baton.

LaBouff, a devout Catholic who runs her own public relations and marketing firm in Olympia, has carried that baton ever since, working for and ministering to other Gold Star families — families who have lost a member in military action — and helping pass a law this year that bars protesters from disrupting funerals in the state.

“There’s a lot of ways you can serve your country,” she says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean be in the military. But everyone has the opportunity to serve their country in their communities and be a part of making this a great country and keeping us a free country.”

Douglas, a 36-year-old intelligence officer, was among eight killed when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed near Tal Afar on Jan. 7, 2006. The crash was due to an accident, his sister said.

He died a month before he was scheduled to return home.

“We were planning a homecoming,” Teresa says. “It was a different homecoming.”

His death has been hard on the family, and the sister who helped raise him when their mother was sick. But it also has made her more patriotic and strengthened her relationship with God.

“We’re on a journey here. A lot of military people say that, too. They’re either on a race or a journey, and it’s not whether you win; it’s how good you run and how good you do in your journey. I’ve shared in that philosophy,” she said.

More than once when she’s carrying that symbolic baton, a Black Hawk helicopter has passed overhead. It’s a sign to her that she isn’t alone in that journey.

The activist

Wally Cuddeford, 28, believes in heroes.

The Olympia native joined the U.S. Navy because he viewed those in uniform as defenders of freedom and democracy throughout the world. He soon learned that those within the ranks can be just as flawed as those outside of them.

Two years later, he received an administrative discharge due to depression. He watched the “shock and awe” air campaign at a friend’s house while working a retail job. A few months later, he enrolled at South Puget Sound Community College.

“I got to college and learned about history and how activists, labor activists, environmental activists, etc., had been doing so much work and making so many sacrifices throughout the globe for the cause of justice. And that reminded me there are heroes in this world who are willing to stand up and fight for justice.

“The moment I heard about that, I dove straight in.”

His commitment to activism associated with the Iraq War has grown through the course of the conflict.

He attended his first protest on the first anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion.

He’s now a full-time activist, a member of the Olympia Port Militarization Resistance and the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace who has done some organizing on his own.

He awaits trial later this month with 16 others on a second-degree trespass charge stemming from the protest over military shipments at the Port of Olympia in May. He was arrested during the recent protests at the Port of Tacoma and again while testifying before the Tacoma City Council about his earlier arrest.

He said his activism and civil disobedience has made a difference such as helping stop military cargo from returning to the Port of Olympia.

“I’ve come to understand the duty one has in society to work for positive change,” he says, “and not through joining the military service and not through becoming part of a public institution but through acting when one sees injustice.”

The wife

On her husband’s third deployment, Laural Miller, 38, began losing her mind.

The Olympia resident made a badly planned suicide attempt soon after her husband of 11 years, Brian, left for Iraq in July and received treatment at a local hospital. Then, a day or two before Thanksgiving, depressed and crying nonstop, she was involuntarily entered into the psychiatric ward at Madigan Army Medical Center, after writing an e-mail to family members that she needed to give up three of their five children.

She attributed both breakdowns to the stresses of being a single parent, combined with the fear of receiving a knock on the door from Army casualty officers.

“I wasn’t healthy mentally when he left,” said Miller, who agreed to share her story so other spouses of deployed soldiers who suffer silently will know they’re not alone. “I was trying to be. ‘I can do this. I’ve done it twice. Why isn’t this easy?’ You know, things get easier the more you practice them, right? Well, no.”

She spent five days at Madigan, receiving the mental break she needed. Her husband was brought back from Iraq and was transferred to his unit’s rear detachment so he can stay with his family.

“We have to learn to be married again,” she said. “It’s been four years of just sometimes being married.”

Brian Miller is scheduled to retire from the Army in June, but he’s gotten word that he’s on the list for promotion to sergeant first class. Accepting it would require a three-year commitment and the prospect of a fourth and even fifth deployment.

“I’m letting it be his decision,” Laural Miller said.

Despite the hardships, the Millers said they will not have their marriage collapse.

“It’s tried to destroy us,” she said. “I mean, that’s what my husband always says, is we’re not going to let this destroy us. I mean we’re husband and wife, but we’re also best friends and so we have fights about this and the military and stuff, but we also come back to we’re not the enemy of each other; it’s the enemy of us.”

The resister

First Lieutenant Ehren Watada’s apartment east of Lacey ­— like the legal case against him — is in a state of flux.

He began packing his belongings prior to his court-martial. The military judge stunned Watada’s defense team and Army prosecutors by declaring a mistrial Feb. 7. He hasn’t finished unpacking.

Watada, 28, has emerged as a public face of war resistance for his refusal to board a plane June 22 with members of his Fort Lewis unit and serve in what he considers an illegal and immoral war.

Four years ago, Watada was attending Hawaii Pacific University and soon would be accepted to Officer Candidate School. He joined the Army to serve his country and do something different with his life.

He didn’t pay much attention to politics.

That all changed in the fall of 2005 when he learned he’d command soldiers as a fire-support officer in Iraq for the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

He wanted to learn more about Iraq and began reading. This research, he has said, convinced him that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to sell the war to the American public, bringing suffering to U.S. troops, their families and Iraq citizens.

“Politics, as I’ve said before, is something that really defines how we live our lives. Every law that’s passed is something that will affect our rights, big or small,” he said. “And for me I think this war has changed me, because it has made me realize that I can not nor should any American really be that complacent and that disinterested, detached, apathetic or cynical about the political process.

“And the same goes when you wear the uniform. You should be involved. ... If anything, this war has taught me how to, myself personally, be a more involved American in my country’s government.”

Watada faces up to six years in prison and dismissal from the Army for missing troop movement and conduct unbecoming an officer for his statements critical of the Bush administration. Another court-martial is scheduled to begin July 16, although Watada’s lawyers will argue the “double jeopardy” protection under the U.S. Constitution bars the Army from holding another trial.

The soldier

Sgt. 1st Class Carlos Alexander left the Pentagon parking lot 15 minutes before American Airlines Flight 77 struck the building on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

He was transporting classified information to Fort Mead, Md., where he was stationed at the time.

On that morning, the mission of Alexander and hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops was transformed as the nation took on the threat of terrorism.

Alexander, a 33-year-old Lacey resident, was deployed to Afghanistan following 9/11. He deployed to Iraq in 2004, and in the coming days he and other members of his unit, the 45th Military Intelligence Company, will again deploy to Iraq with the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

“That’s going to take toll on anybody,” he says at a send-off party organized by Picasso Bros., a Lacey cigar shop, where is among their most loyal customers. “... As a soldier, that’s what we do. When it comes to going to war, going to combat, no soldier comes into the military and says, ‘You know what, I want to go to war. I want to go to combat.’ It’s not like that. It’s our job. It’s like firefighters. Yep, they want to be a firefighter, but they don’t sit around all day, saying, ‘Hey, I hope something catches on fire.’

“But when it happens, you’re expected to do your job. That’s what you signed up for, that’s what you get paid to do and that’s what the world — and in particular that’s what America — expects you to do.”

Alexander said he watched on television as the bombs started raining down on Baghdad while he was stationed in England.

“To actually see our Humvees and our Bradleys and our tanks push across the desert in attack formation, it was like, wow, I never expected throughout my military career that I would see something that intense.”

His tours have shown him areas suffering poverty at its worst.

“It really helps you appreciate the simplest things that we as Americans take for granted back here,” he says. “Like I said, I can sit on a porch and smoke a cigar and look at an empty field. It’s green grass and I feel secure in my area, in my house or on my porch.”

Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or at chill@theolympian.com.

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