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A year after war, GIs not the only casualties

Sometimes the Air Force gunships fly low and slow over the pine forests in this western stretch of the Panhandle, practicing attack runs from their base at Hurlburt Field.

Amber Hodges, though just 3 years old, recognizes the droning hum, looks skyward and says, "Daddy is home! Daddy is home!"

"She's been told he is dead, that he won't be coming home," says her mother, Michele Hodges. "But she doesn't understand."

In a way, Amber is like many of those whose husbands, brothers and fathers died a year ago in one of the biggest American casualty incidents of the Persian Gulf war.

It was a crash overshadowed by other, more euphoric news of a short and decisive victory against Iraq. But it has raised confusing questions and persistent, angry feelings among a patriotic people not accustomed to challenging the military.

Last Jan. 31, the Spirit '03, a hulking, cargo-like attack gunship, flew into the night and the intense battle for the town of Khafji. The plane never returned. All 14 crew members died.

The year since the plane crashed into shallow waters off Kuwait has been one of continuing pain and bitterness for the crew members' families.

There are many unanswered questions. There are rumors of poor judgment and command errors.

In the tight circle of military families that work these Special Forces operations, stories circulate of crew members so angered by the dangerous assignments during the war that they at times refused to fly.

And there is talk about money.

Kuwaiti money.

After a war sometimes criticized for its mercenary, army-for-hire feel, what has happened among the families of Spirit '03 does little to quiet those critics.

The Kuwaiti government doled out money for two of the Spirit '03 families but gave nothing to the others. That has left some of the other families _ working with the quiet help of at least one U.S. senator and a congressman _ in the awkward position of asking a foreign government to pay for U.S. soldiers' lives.

"It's not really a question of money," says Terry Buege, a widow who publishes a newsletter for the Spirit '03 families. "That can't bring my husband back. But two families get money and the others don't; where is the justice in that?"

Protected by darkness

In an Air Force full of supersonic combat planes, an AC-130 gunship is sort of the fat kid on the block. It flies low and slow but when it hits, it hurts.

A gunship like Spirit '03 is equipped with sophisticated targeting computers and cannons that give highly accurate fire support to troops on the ground. But it relies, in part, on the dark of night to help protect it from enemy fire.

The Air Force doesn't reveal the complete results of its crash investigations, but the public portion of the crash report offers this succinct scenario:

On Jan. 31, 1991, Spirit '03 was attacking targets in and around Khafji and, as the sun rose, was returning to base, checking a few final targets.

"At this time (it) encountered enemy fire and suffered catastrophic damage resulting in the loss of the aircraft with all crew members on board," the report reads.

Search and rescue efforts were made, but, according to the report, the plane wasn't found until after the ground war ended more than a month later. The first survey teams reported that wreckage _ small, almost unrecognizable pieces _ suggested the plane must have hit the water at high velocity.

As other gunships and their crews began making their way back to Florida and Hurlburt Field, some of the widows began hearing things that made them think there might be more to the story.

During the war, some of the wives were told in letters and phone calls that some gunship crew members believed the missions the gunships were flying were beyond the capability of the plane.

Several widows said their husbands told them that because of the slow speed and vulnerability, gunships only would be used after missile and anti-aircraft threats diminished. But in calls and letters home, gunship crew members told family members of increasing danger.

In a diary recovered by his family, the pilot of Spirit '03, Maj. Paul Weaver, wrote of an incident in which one gunship pilot had to dive wildly to avoid missile fire.

"He got fenced in by (missiles) that popped up after he crossed the border," Weaver wrote.

Stephanie Clark, wife of Spirit '03 gunner Sgt. Barry Clark, said her husband told her by telephone that several gunners had even refused to fly.

"He told me they turned in their wings," Clark said. "He wasn't happy about that but he said he could kind of understand it. He figured they hadn't really thought about what they were getting into."

Lacking specific answers to all their questions from authorities, some widows have relied on what personal friends in the squadron can tell them. Many have developed theories of why their husbands died.

Some believe the crews may have been sent into risky situations by overzealous commanders who wanted to prove the value of the gunship at a time when military spending is being scrutinized.

Some believe the missions were being determined by other, joint service commanders who didn't understand the gunships' limitations.

Others believe the Spirit '03 was on an appropriate mission, but, for reasons the Air Force won't explain, the ship was kept out after sunrise.

One woman, Jennifer Lavery of Colorado, the sister of pilot Paul Weaver, has conducted her own investigation because she thinks the official report on the accident could unfairly imply her brother was to blame for taking the gunship into danger and exposing it to the light of day.

Lavery says she has interviewed Marines, Army Rangers and other Air Force personnel and believes her brother and his crew are unrewarded heroes.

Because their military careers could be hurt, Lavery says she can't identify the specific sources of the information she gathered. But she says she now believes this scenario:

Her brother's crew first hit targets in northern Kuwait before joining the battle for Khafji. Though there was heavy anti-aircraft fire in the area and daylight was fast approaching, his gunship was ordered in to take out Iraqi missile sites. Hours after the plane crash, U.S. military officials found the site, determined no one could be alive, and ordered the wreckage blown up to keep sensitive materials from falling into Iraqi hands.

Lavery says any suggestion that her brother mistakenly kept the plane up after daylight flies in the face of his own diary. On a mission a week before his death, Weaver wrote that he had turned down a last-minute target assignment "due to sunrise."

"My brother was extremely competent and respected by his crew," Lavery says. "I know he wouldn't have kept that crew out there unless there was a good reason."

Air Force officials say they can't respond to some of the families' questions because of confidentiality rules and because information might be classified.

Shirley Sikes, spokeswoman for Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, denies that Spirit '03 was out after daylight because of a direct order. Sikes also denies the gunship was found immediately and was blown up before bodies could be recovered, as Lavery has charged.

Sikes did acknowledge that three people requested "removal from the flying schedule" during the deployment, but she wouldn't say why they refused to fly. She said all three later returned to flight duty.

"All I can say is we all care very deeply for the families out here," Sikes says.

Struggling to end pain

For many, the healing after a tragedy begins when the dead are buried.

In a way, that could explain some of the continuing pain some of the families of Spirit '03 feel.

Many of these families never buried their dead. Rumors, anger, grief and the lack of closure a burial brings, some widows believe, have caused some families to dwell too long on questions better left unanswered.

"Bad things happen in war," says Suzanna Galvan, whose husband, Capt. Arthur Galvan, spotted targets from Spirit '03. "Knowing information is not going to change the fact that he's gone. They're dwelling on it. They're living in their pain. Even if there was something wrong, I'd rather not know it."

When word of the loss of Spirit '03 first made it back to the families at Hurlburt, search and rescue operations were under way. There was hope the crew might be found alive or that they might have been taken prisoner.

When they weren't among POWs, crew members were declared killed in action and the families awaited return of the bodies.

But the Air Force said most of the remains found at the crash scene could not be identified. A group grave and monument was suggested _ in centrally located Missouri.

The families bristled and, instead, the unidentified remains were divided among the families so each could have a funeral.

"But it wasn't exactly the same," says Nan Grimm, wife of Capt. William D. Grimm. "My husbands body was identified, but it wasn't all of his body. I remember going to (another crew member's) funeral and wondering if that was part of my husband in the casket."

Stephanie Clark of Alabama had a funeral for her husband with apportioned remains, but learned weeks later that his body had been identified. She had a second funeral, more pain, but some solace in knowing her husband was finally in the casket she buried.

"I'm just concentrating on getting my girls worked through all this now," Clark says.

Concern for children's future has been a source of tension for many of the Spirit '03 families and has led to awkward dealings with the Kuwaiti government.

For reasons most are not aware of, the families of two Spirit '03 crew members _ Master Sgt. James B. May and 1st Lt. Thomas Bland _ received $12,000 payments from Kuwait. May's widow received the grant; Bland's grant was used for a scholarship fund created in his honor in Maryland.

Several other families have written letters to the Kuwaiti embassy in Washington asking for similar treatment. Many have received no reply.

Bunny Murdock, special assistant to the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington, says Kuwait is handling requests for aid on a case by case basis and has been swamped by requests since the gulf war.

She said the May family was given money at the request of U.S. Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, who, she said, intervened on behalf of the family.

Bland's scholarship fund apparently was granted money, Murdock says, because "someone lobbied very carefully."

Several families of other Spirit '03 casualties have enlisted the help of U.S. Rep. Earl Hutto, who acknowledges dealing with the Kuwaitis on the issue.

But Hutto, a Florida Democrat, wants to keep a low profile in this type of constituent service. He declined to talk about his efforts. Calls to Gore on the subject also went unanswered.

"It's tricky because everyone who died is important," says Murdock, the embassy aide. "To sort of blatantly ask for a list of everyone who died and send them money, well, it's not worthy of their memory, I think. That's putting a price on someone. We have to be very careful about that."

Rather, Murdock says, the Kuwaitis have donated money to the USO, the Marine Corps Scholarship Fund and other charitable groups who deal with all war victims. She says Kuwait has donated millions to those charities and is referring many who request aid to contact those organizations.

The quest for Middle East money has not been limited to the Spirit '03 families, though.

In December, Sheik Hamad Bin Hamdan Al-Nahyan, a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi, sent $1,000 to each of the more than 380 families of Americans listed as killed in the gulf war. Sheik Hamad says it was a token of his concern for their loss.

But for those who were hurt by Desert Storm _ the widows of Spirit '03 _ the talk of money is clearly a painful necessity. There are children to raise, educations to be financed.

"When the war was going on there was a lot of talk of helping the families and there are scholarship funds set up," says Michele Hodges. "But I was pregnant with my Bobby when his Dad died. And 18 years from now he'll be ready for college; will any scholarship money be left then?"

Widow Terry Buege's daughter started college in the fall, and already some promised scholarships have fallen through.

Buege is teaching again. She fills her days trying to get over her loss and helping her children adjust. But her sorrow is tinged with anger as she recounts the struggles of the last year.

"My year has been a living hell," she says. "It's been one fight after another fight after another fight. I don't know when it will end."

As she speaks, the sounds of an AC-130 gunship could be heard taking off from nearby Hurlburt. For a moment it flew as though it were following Buege's street.

Then it droned off into the distance _ practicing for the next attack in the next war.