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Parents make pilgrimage to Iraq

Group sees where their children died in war

    LYERLY — After her son Justin was killed serving in Iraq, a grieving Jan Johnson resolved to see the place where he died and to better understand why it happened.
    Johnson and her husband, Joe, who also served in Iraq, were among a group of seven parents who lost children in the war who were picked to travel to northern Iraq in November as a scout team for a bigger trip next year.
    ‘‘I wanted to go see where my son died,’’ she said. ‘‘You hear in the news how bad Iraq is, that it isn’t worth saving. ... I wanted to go find out for myself.’’
    Family members of U.S. casualties of war have made pilgrimages in the past to Vietnam and other war zones where their sons and daughters died.
    But the fighting in Iraq was far from over, so a similar journey seemed unlikely until a nonprofit organization called Move America Forward decided to organize a trip.
    By the time plans had been made, Joe had returned from an eight-month tour in Iraq and was willing to return for his wife’s sake.
    The trip cost between $5,000 and $7,000 per person, but donations came pouring in from across the country, including checks from soldiers. The seven were told to keep their travel plans hidden from the Department of Defense and even their own children.
    Robert Dixon, the organization’s director, said that because the Kurdistan Regional Government was hosting the group, there was no reason to clue the Defense Department in on their travels. He told them to keep tightlipped because ‘‘we didn’t want to endanger anybody by telling people.’’
    The department did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
    The Johnsons abided by Dixon’s requirement, telling their two children and other family members they were going to Canada.
    The group left in early November for Amman, Jordan, where they spent a day before arriving in Iraq. A few shell-shocked security guards staying at a hotel begged Joe Johnson to rethink their trip into a war zone.
    But Jan was determined to press on: ‘‘We’ve gone this far,’’ she said. ‘‘We’re going to go all the way.’’
    The next morning, a plane flew the families into Arbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. It’s one of the safest areas of the country, where suicide bombers rarely strike and the insurgency has little support among the Kurds, a minority long oppressed under Saddam Hussein’s rule.
    The Johnsons were never able to go to Sadr City, the rough-and-tumble Baghdad neighborhood where Justin Johnson was killed by a roadside bomb in April 2004.
    Far from the strife of Baghdad and other violent regions, the group’s members said they nevertheless found a cause worth fighting for in Arbil.
    There, they said, their sons were treated as liberators and the parents welcomed as heroes.
    As guests of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the parents visited a parade of politicians and government ministers who thanked them for their visit — and their sacrifice.
    Many told the families their sons were martyrs, a term that at first seemed offensive to some.
    ‘‘Until I understood the meaning of what a martyr was, it was kind of a slap in the face,’’ Jan said. ‘‘But they weren’t comparing them to suicide bombers. I realized they were comparing them to heroes.’’
    They traveled to outlying villages and were invited to sip tea with Kurdish dignitaries. One told them of his painstaking efforts to find mass graves and evidence of Iraqi abuse. Another took them on a tour of a prison camp that was transformed into a rose garden after Hussein’s grip on the region waned.
    Wherever they traveled, fellow mother Debra Argel Bastian of Lompoc, Calif., handed out wallet-sized photos of her son, Derek Argel, who was killed in a May 2005 plane crash near the Iranian border.
    One mother tucked the photo into a framed picture of her two sons and husband, who had also been killed during Saddam’s rule. ‘‘Now your son is my son,’’ the woman told Bastian.
    She broke down crying.
    ‘‘I needed to make that trip,’’ said Bastian, who traveled with her husband, Todd. ‘‘All of us were very, very disappointed in the media coverage over the war. I had so many avenues that were telling me different, that there were good things happening in Iraq, that they were just reporting the bomb of the day.’’
    Jan Johnson said she was touched by an unexpected meeting with a soldier who was part of the team that tried to rescue her son. ‘‘It brought Justin closer to me,’’ she said.
    The group returned home 10 days later, in time for some to attend Veterans Day parades.
    Jan says she hopes to help lead another trip, possibly to Baghdad, with a larger contingent of families.
    ‘‘We’re crazy. We suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,’’ Jan said. ‘‘We’re allowed to do stupid things. ‘‘

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