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Tracy has lost more soldiers than any other city in San Joaquin County

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Posted: Friday, December 23, 2005 10:00 pm

A U.S. Marines flag hangs from a garage door, an enlarged portrait on the wall, a framed e-mail from a co-worker, endless stories about a son who is lost but never forgotten.

The third winter since America has gone to war has descended, and at the homes of four families in Tracy, memories and emotions crowd the lives of those who remain.

Especially this time of year, the parents of four fallen soldiers reminisce with thoughtful pauses, sighs, smiles and laughs, dwelling on a topic that casts a long shadow in their living rooms, one that has become intimately personal.

War. They share its heartbreak - the death of soldiers, their own sons - yet they part company in their views of the war that surrounds them.

Death has either crystallized their previous convictions, or left them ambivalent. Some choose to give voice to their inner feelings, while others reflect in private.

Truly, though, their struggle is the same - to find a way to cope with their intense grief and to make sense of their losses.

Jan Martinez, mother of U.S. Army Pfc. Jessie Martinez.

One July afternoon in 2004, Jan Martinez saw through the peephole three men in military uniforms knocking on her door.

She started crying.

"These people don't knock on your door," she said. "You know what is wrong."

Her son, U.S. Army Pfc. Jessie Martinez, 20, had been killed in Iraq in a Stryker accident hours earlier. The day before he died, his mother and his brother, Ralph, changed the tires and the stereo in his Ford truck as he had asked on the phone and mailed a package of family photos and beef jerky to him.

On a recent Monday, Martinez sat on a couch in her living room across from a brown rocking chair - Jessie's favorite spot to watch TV - and said her view on the war has never changed.

"After 9/11, we really have to do something to prove to people we are a strong country," said Martinez, a lifelong Republican. "War is not nice, but it's a fact of life."

Martinez said her son wanted to fight in the war, despite the chance he might never return, and she's proud of him.

"He said, 'I'm fighting for the freedom we all share that a lot of people take for granted'â" she said. "He felt so strongly. You have to support what your children do."

The United States should stay in Iraq until its job is done, she feels, pointing out that the number of casualties in this war is fewer than the war in Vietnam.

Martinez also finds comfort in knowing that Jessie enjoyed his life in the U.S. Army and matured since he enlisted in 2002. He used to be quiet, she said, but after he joined the military, he cracked jokes and made everyone laugh.

Two months after Jessie's death, Martinez bought herself a Corvette - her son told her to do something for herself before he died, she said. She drove the new car to his grave a few blocks away from their home to show him.

Two months later, the family went to Las Vegas to celebrate Jessie's 21st birthday - another wish of his. And, every few days, Martinez brings flowers, balloons and his favorite food - beer and a bag of In-N-Out burgers - to his grave.

Yet for Martinez, Jessie will always be that teenager who would call out for her the moment he arrived home from school.

"He walked through the front door and yelled, 'Mom! I'm home! I want dinner!'" she said, mimicking her son's tone. And then she laughs.

Nadia McCaffrey, mother of U.S. National Guardsman Spc. Patrick McCaffrey.

The death of her son turned Nadia McCaffrey's life upside down and tossed her into a world of nonstop cross-country and international trips, speeches and protest rallies.

Nadia McCaffrey holds a photo of her son, Patrick, that she takes with her on various speaking engagements throughout the country, talking about her opposition to the war. (Glenn Moore/San Joaquin News-Service)

National Guardsman Spc. Patrick McCaffrey was killed in June 2004 at age 34.

Her crusade to stop the war is on behalf of her son, McCaffrey said.

"He wasn't enlisted to go to war," she said. "He was enlisted for something like Katrina.

"Once in Iraq, he said everything he was told was wrong. He said, 'I don't understand why we are here. We are not doing what we are supposed to do.'"

During the years, McCaffrey, a former hospice volunteer, has traveled to Europe and the Middle East, met with Iraqi women, founded a nonprofit, filmed a documentary and made plans for a rehabilitation center in Oregon for veterans who have difficulty adjusting to life after the war.

She was opposed to the war from the beginning, but she said she never dreamed she would become an activist. Once, when she participated in a peace march in San Francisco, she didn't even carry a sign.

The turning point of her life came when her son's coffin arrived at the Sacramento Airport, and she invited the media - despite the Bush administration's ban on publicity of such ceremonies.

"(Patrick) didn't hide when he left," she said. "I didn't want to hide my son. I wanted the whole world to see him."

McCaffrey said she doesn't believe in war because she was born in Paris before World War II ended and saw war's devastation first-hand. She said her grandparents hid Jews in their wagons when they went through the German checkpoints.

And the Iraqi invasion cannot be justified, because that country never did anything to us, she said.

The fact that Patrick was killed by people he was supposed to help proved to her it is a senseless war. When Patrick and two of his comrades were separated from their unit, the two Iraqis they were training shot and killed Patrick.

"I don't make sense of that," she said. "There's no sense to be made."

The Iraqis told her that they are defending their country and they want the U.S. military to leave, she said.

"They have nothing against us," she said. "We're invading them. They say, 'Please leaveâ' but we don't pay attention. We stay."

When she speaks in public, she said, she puts a portrait of her son in front of the podium. She talks about Patrick and how he carried water and food to children in Iraq, how he always hung pictures of his wife and children from his neck, and how he died.

Sometimes people wait in line with tears in their eyes to talk to her. In the last year, many have asked her what they could do to stop the war.

Her most memorable experience happened in May in Brussels, Belgium, when she was part of panel at a conference with an audience that was one-third Arab.

A woman stood up and yelled at her, "You Americans, go home! We don't want Americans!"

But when McCaffrey finished her speech, the woman went up and hugged her.

"I talked about my son and my son's life, who he was, his values," she said. "People started crying. That's all I need to say."

Sheldon and Loretta Bridges, parents of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Steven Bridges.

Sheldon and Loretta Bridges said they weren't happy about the Iraqi war from the start, but they supported what their son did.

Loretta and Sheldon Bridges talk about their views on the war in Iraq as a photo of their son, Steven Bridges, rests in the living room. (Hime Romero/San Joaquin News-Service)

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Steven Bridges enlisted at age 18 and died at the age of 33 in 2003.

"He supported his president," Loretta said. "That was what he was trained to do for 15 years. He told his daughter, Sarrah, he had to protect little girls that don't have a daddy to protect them."

She said she felt America should have gone after Osama bin Laden instead of Saddam Hussein, yet she respected what Steven died for and would not speak publicly against the war.

Also because of Steven, Loretta said she believed the U.S. military should stay in Iraq until the mission is accomplished - when the Iraqis can take care of themselves.

"We want it completed," Loretta said. "In our quiet way, we want it completed."

Since their son died, the Bridges have installed a flagpole in front of their home, grown rose bushes in the backyard and visited his son's wife and children in Washington twice a year.

They want to keep his memory alive, yet they can still laugh. It was the wish of Steven.

"If Steven could come down and see us, he would tell us not to change (our life)," Loretta said. "He once told us, 'If I die, I want you to have a celebration of my life, not a mourning'."

As the couple held a photo of Steven for a photographer, they gazed at each other and smiled. When they reminisced about their son's teenage years, they joked and laughed.

Their faith in a higher being helps ease the pain, they said, and they find comfort with the thought that Steven could have just as easily died in an accident here.

Loretta said she refuses to be enraged about the war in the same way as Cindy Sheehan, who has emerged as a leading figure in the anti-war movement after the death of her son.

"We grieve in each our own ways," she said.

Mike and Virginia Kenny, stepfather and mother of U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa.

Mike and Virginia Kenny got word that their son, Joseph, 33, was killed four days into the Iraqi war when they were visiting Mike's father in Redwood City. They couldn't even drive back to Tracy.

Virginia Kenny holds a picture of her son, Joseph Menusa, as she and her husband, Mike, stand next to a shrine she has kept in her son's memory. (Enrique Gutierrez/San Joaquin News-Service)

Virginia's ordeal with war started long before that. When Joseph fought in Desert Storm, she kept herself busy by baking cookies all day long, trying to distract herself from news about the conflict in Kuwait.

When he came back, she told him, "You cannot do this me anymore."

In November 2002, Joseph, a recruiter stationed in Mountain View at that time, decided to join his fleet in San Diego. Virginia had a feeling he was not coming back. She tried to talk him out of his decision, but he wouldn't listen. And he didn't come back.

Now, there's Joseph's brother. Against the urging of his parents, David, a Marine drill instructor who is two years younger than Joseph, volunteered to go to Iraq early this year to see the soil where his brother had died.

After 10 days in Iraq, David told them he wanted to come home. He returned safely in September but will go back to Iraq in July.

"I hated (the Iraqi war) from the start," Virginia said. "Because I lost a son, I hate it more."

The American government should have hunted down bin Laden instead of attacking Iraq, she said. She agrees with Sheehan that the soldiers should come home, and she'd like to join her cause.

"No parents bury their children," she said. "Your children bury you."

On a Friday afternoon, the couple argued about whether the U.S. military should pull out immediately. The soldiers should stay until the insurgency is quelled, Mike said, but he has no idea how long it would take.

Virginia glanced across their living room, and her eyes rested upon a Christmas tree and the pile of presents under it. A smile floated across her face.

"(Joseph) loved Christmas trees," she said. "He loved holidays. He loved to eat."

Now the Kennys are comforted by the avalanche of support from people in Tracy. Hundreds showed up for Joseph's memorial service, and for months, neighbors brought flowers and candles.

"We never realized how good a small town is," she said.

Contact reporter Brenda Huang at bhuang@tracypress.com.

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