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A son is sent to war

Kenton Dial heads for Iraq, and the hearts of his Sylvania family go with him

This is the third in an occasional series

These stories mark universally common experiences in our lives, the seemingly mundane events that, in fact, are some of the most meaningful moments of human existence.


FROM: toledobade.com, Toledo, OH
Article published Sunday, September 25, 2005

Kenton Dial heads for Iraq, and the hearts of his Sylvania family go with him

This is the third in an occasional series

These stories mark universally common experiences in our lives, the seemingly mundane events that, in fact, are some of the most meaningful moments of human existence.

Turning 21. Divorce. Sending off a child. Death. Buying a house. Marriage.

These are the kinds of "ordinary" occasions that Blade columnist Roberta de Boer will chronicle throughout this year in a uniquely up close and personal style, as she spends time with local people to learn about Life.

In that no-man's-land between the airline counters and the security screeners, a family sat lined up along a row of rigid black chairs.

Not many people were at the airport yet, not that early, but the ones there were all in motion. Freshly shaved business travelers, airline and airport employees, families toting bulky carry-ons and cranky toddlers - all strode past without so much as a glance at this family, father-sister-mother-brother, quiet and motionless in the increasingly kinetic morning airport din.

The father, Lenny DePew, sat at one end, a silent bookend. In fact, in the hour or so since the car pulled away from his Sylvania house, he'd hardly said a word, and that wasn't like him.

The daughter, Katelyn DePew, fought a wave of sleepiness that would have swamped any 10-year-old plucked from bed and taken on a long car ride through inky, middle-of-the-night darkness.

The mother, Cathy DePew, gripped a 20-ounce coffee cup from a Speedway station. Her usual make-up missing this morning, the skin beneath her eyes was that opalescent blue-gray which belongs to the sleepless. She alternated between issuing bright smiles and furiously gnawing the inside of her left cheek. If anyone had asked her what she was doing, she would have said: I am not crying.

The son, Kenton Dial, was the other bookend. He perched on the very edge of his chair - feet planted wide, elbows on knees - leaning as far forward in that chair as a person could without falling off. A new iPod was strapped around his left bicep, ready to travel. In the baggy cargo shorts that twentysomethings wear, he looked bound for college.

But of course, he wasn't.

That haircut, that jarhead "high and tight," gave him away as a United States Marine.

"I'm at peace," the new warrior said softly, after his mother went off to find an airport bathroom. "I'm happy. If this is the last time I see everybody, I'm ready. It's weird. I just feel at peace."

Earlier, walking from the parking lot to the airport terminal, his mother jabbered nervously about doing the boy's laundry.

"You know, you wash all their underwear and T-shirts, and then they only take one pair. I feel like we're sending our kid away to camp."

But in the autumn of 2005, the U.S. death toll nears 2,000 in Iraq. It is as far from summer camp as any American 21-year-old in uniform can get.

Born again
"I thought if you didn't pick infantry, you weren't a real Marine," Kenton told me the first time we met. This was August, over lunch. His mother insisted he show up not in a T-shirt, but in something with a collar.

Besides, he added, in that tone young people use when explaining the obvious: "I get to blow stuff up. I get to shoot awesome weapons. It's cool."

When a kid who just turned 21 and still has zits on his forehead says something like that, you think you already know all there is to know about him. But over the course of his nearly three-week leave back home, you learn yet again what a mistake it is to make assumptions about people.

Oh, it's not that Kenton can't easily be summarized. He can - and is, in one of his all-time favorite books, Making the Corps, by Thomas E. Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning military correspondent.

Of the new Marine recruits Mr. Ricks profiled on Parris Island, he found many had arrived from "part-time lives": a few hours here and there at low-wage jobs, a few courses now and then at a community college.

"They are, with a few exceptions," Mr. Ricks observed, "denizens of the bottom half of the American economy, or on the way there … Most of them knew they were heading for mediocre jobs at wages that will always seem to lag behind inflation."

By the time Kenton left for boot camp late last year, he was working at a Kroger store part-time, taking courses at Owens Community College, and living with his parents and little sister in the family's home in the Centennial Farms subdivision. Did Mr. Ricks' characterization of Marine recruits include him, I wondered?

"In a lot of ways, it does," Kenton said. "After I got done with high school, I had classes at Owens for, like, two or three hours a day. And then I would work maybe four hours a day. The whole rest of the day - I mean, my [high school] friends were at Ohio State and BG. I was just sitting around the house, playing video games, watching TV, sleeping. Not going anywhere with my life."

And yet, unlike other recruits who might just as easily have joined, say, the Air Force as the Marines, by the time Kenton Dial arrived at boot camp he'd spent years dreaming of the moment.

Like so many little boys, he played with G.I. Joes. But did other mothers literally pry toy soldiers from the death grip of their son's stubby little fingers, long after the boy succumbed to sleep?

This boy had always wanted to be in uniform, but not until his sophomore year of high school did he realize he wanted to be a Marine - an epiphany born of savvy military marketing.

"One night, I went to the Marine Corps Web site. It's changed from what it was then. It used to - I mean, it's still very cool - but it looked so hard, and so, like, savage and rough and tough. I really got obsessed with it."

The very next day, he went to the library and picked up "anything I could" about the Marines. These included two books he loves so much he later bought them to take to Iraq: Anthony Swofford's Jarhead, and Making the Corps.

The latter, Kenton said, "takes you inch by inch through boot camp, through Parris Island, so you know everything you're getting into. I was like, this is really intense. I can't wait to do this."

He was, by his own account, a high school "wall flower." He tried football, but didn't fit in with the jocks. He was an OK student with a 2.4 grade point average, whose outlook on schoolwork might as well have been, Never let it be said I didn't do the least I could do. He didn't get invited to the parties, and went to few dances; no surprise, his favorite TV show was Freaks and Geeks. When word got around school that he had USMC aspirations, Kenton Dial - who stood 5-foot-8 and weighed 270 pounds - got an awful lot of crap.

"I thought Marines were, like, superheroes, and when I started telling people I wanted to be a Marine, they would, like, blow it off … I like being different, so when I saw this [Web site], it was like, 'I can be different.' And definitely people respect Marines. I definitely didn't have any respect. I was really just a funny guy, and I wanted to be taken seriously."

For the first time in his life, Kenton set himself a goal: To lose enough weight to join the Marines. This was no small task for a guy who was overweight since childhood, never exercised, didn't care for fruits or vegetables, lived on chicken wings and fast-food, and thought four Hot Pockets made a dandy midnight snack.

Suddenly, it was all Slim-Fast and salad, and Kenton would be the first to tell you there were highs and lows during those months when he shed 70, 80 pounds.

And then there was the conditioning. It wasn't enough to be trim; the Marines have fitness requirements, too, and these were an obstacle to Kenton. When he first hit the treadmill, he could only last 15 minutes.

Soon after graduating from Northview High in December, 2003, problems crept up with his girlfriend, his first real love. That spring they broke up, Kenton said, and "that's when I started getting really motivated about the Marines."

"Come back and see us when you can do three pull-ups," the recruiter had told him. Kenton installed a pull-up bar in his room. By autumn last year, he was waiting his turn to ship out to Parris Island for the start of a four-year enlistment.

Any Marine will tell you that, with all due respect, their branch of service ("the few, the proud") is sharper, more demanding, more rigorously trained, and just, well, better than the other branches of the United States military. When Kenton read this passage from Making the Corps, it was like a tuning fork reverberated:

"In a society that seems to have trouble transmitting values, the Marines stand out as [a] successful and healthy institution that unabashedly teaches values to the Beavises and Buttheads of America … The Corps takes kids with weak high school educations and nurtures them so that many can assume positions of honor and respect."

The little boy who once wouldn't release toy soldiers from his slumbering grip is now a young man with a new "USMC" tattoo on the inside of his left forearm. It took nearly two hours, cost $80, and made Lenny mad. When anyone asked to see it, Kenton always extended his arm to make a very tight fist that just happened to flex his new muscles.

Coming as he does from a deeply religious family, a day without prayer is unfathomable to Kenton - yet boot camp was his true conversion experience.

Kenton Dial went to the Marine recruit depot on Parris Island, South Carolina, and it was there that he was truly born again.

On Election Day 2004, Cathy was winding down her day at Wildwood Athletic Club, when her usual water aerobics were cut short by a phone call from Lenny.

"You'd better get home," he advised. "They want Kenton tonight."

He wasn't due at boot camp until after Christmas! He couldn't go tonight. She'd planned the whole holiday season!

On the way home, she did what she always does for comfort. She prayed. And then a kind of inner stillness overtook over her, along with this realization: First, I've taught him all I can; second, he will not be alone.

"You have to let the kite string out," is how she explained it to me, this acknowledgment that, yes, it was time for Kenton to leave home - even if that meant boot camp during wartime.

Lenny, meanwhile, was less certain about his son's departure. Well, stepson, really. But as words go, stepson sorely underestimated Lenny's love for that boy.

He remembered coming home one day - Kenton was 9, it was just a year or so after Lenny and Cathy married - and there were all those photos of Kurt Dial, face down on the boy's bed.

Why, Kenton?

I didn't want to hurt your feelings, Dad.

Pictures of your father will never hurt my feelings. I'm sorry he died, Kenton. But he will always be your father, and I want you to always love him. You know, you can love us both, Kenton. It's OK.

All right, Dad.

"Well, you're not going," Lenny told Kenton after the boy hung up the phone. But even as he said it, Lenny must have known the futility of trying to keep a 20-year-old man home against his will.

When Cathy got home, there was a family discussion - if Kenton would just stay another month at Owens, he could finish out the whole semester! - but no, the boy was going, like it or not.

And so they gathered at the computer to draft the recommended power-of-attorney papers, giving the parents control over every detail of the boy's life, except the details of his departure. The TV droned in the background with presidential election results. It was, Cathy said, "surreal."

Then Kenton ran around town saying goodbye to friends. His parents went upstairs to bed; if they slept at all, it didn't leave them rested. They were up hours before dawn. His mother kept going over what he'd said: "This is like Christmas, Easter, and my birthday all rolled up together!"

That's how bad he wanted it.

"And that's how he got into the Marines," Cathy said. "That night, he was gone."

When the recruiter came calling for Kenton around 3:30 a.m., off he went.

This boy, who couldn't drive a stick shift, was off to become a Marine? This boy, who couldn't make his way to Cedar Point unless Lenny printed directions from Mapquest (and who then complained because he got no directions for the way home), this boy would be trained for war? This boy, who, Cathy once whispered to me in an aside (and really, she prefaced, she shouldn't even be saying it), this boy who didn't really need to shave every morning, this boy would be issued a weapon?

Cathy watched Kenton walk out the front door, get into a government-issue sedan, and, just like that, leave home.

"He never looked back," she marveled. "Not once."

Just a fender-bender, one car tapping the rear end of another at the always-busy intersection of Monroe and Secor. No harm done.

Nevertheless, the flustered man who hit the young married couple's Chevy Citation tripped over himself apologizing.

He was very sorry. But, see, his son was a Marine, and that terrorist suicide bombing they just had over in Beirut - yeah, at least 200 Marines were killed. And his son was over there - oh, no, the boy wasn't in the bombing. But he was so worried about his son. So … preoccupied. Anyway, he was very sorry - especially her being pregnant and all! Was she sure she was OK? Really?

This was October, 1983, before "terrorist" and "suicide bomber" were commonplace words. Cathy liked to joke that Kenton's enlistment can be traced to that moment. She was barely two months along when that man rear-ended her late husband's car, and somehow an invisible USMC bug was transferred deep within her oldest child's soul.

With Kenton shipped out, she empathized even more with the man who so long ago mindlessly bumped into the Dials' car.

"I really have to watch myself now," she said last month, soon after a cop gave her a warning for speeding on King Road. "I totally understand that man now."

None of this is what she planned for Kenton, her "joy boy." She'd been saving for the boy's college education ever since his fourth-grade year. He was supposed to be knocking around some tranquil campus right about now, and she was supposed to be worrying about his grades, about whether he was eating right and getting enough sleep - not about whether his Marine-issue flak jacket is sturdy enough for Iraq.

And the infantry! What was that boy thinking!? What was wrong with being an MP, or maybe a guard at the White House?

"Kenton just for some reason chose infantry. That's the front line! He's an 'assault man.' Some of the stuff I heard from him about boot camp, I just told him, 'Tell your dad. I don't want to know.' "

The Marines see Pfc. Kenton Dial as a well-trained, highly disciplined warrior. His mother sees a dimpled eighth-grader who sobbed so hard when his pet rabbit died that he very nearly choked.

She wasn't sleeping too great. Sometimes she got up extra early and went downstairs. She read her Bible, prayed, wrote in her journal. On Aug. 5, soon after 20 Marines (14 from Ohio) were killed in Iraq, Cathy was beside herself when she picked up her pen at dawn and wrote.

Oh, families of these dear boys whom you now grieve. My heart aches for your loss. I can't imagine your pain. … Pray for your enemies, Jesus said. I can only do this in obedience, God. My head tells me I must, my heart is stony to them.

When Kenton came home last month for a 19-day leave, the clock inside her head counting down his departure ticked so loudly sometimes she couldn't hear herself think.

They had these talks, she and Kenton, these gruesome, necessary, what-if talks. Where would he want to be buried? Aw, mom, whatever's easiest on you. But I wanna be buried in my dress blues! And what if he's wounded? No big deal, Mom. They've got amazing prostheses now.

She wondered: Is he trying to prove something to himself? Is he even realistic about this war? Are any of them, for that matter? He was always such a compliant kid. That's why he's a good grunt, he told her: "I do what they tell me."

Well, he sure didn't do what she and Lenny told him to! They'd tried hard to talk him out of enlisting, especially after Sept. 11. Go to college, they'd said. You can join later - as an officer! You'll go in at a higher rank. You'll make more money. Please, Kenton, just put it off for a while.

Aw, Mom! C'mon, Dad …

"I trust God with all my heart, but I just want to go run and hide," Cathy said. She told me of a few instances when she experienced an inescapable, suffocating sensation of feeling "cornered," and it occurred to me she was describing panic attacks.

And yet the war in Iraq is something Cathy endorses. To her, sending the American military to fight stateless terrorists is not just a step toward global peace - it is the very embodiment of the age-old struggle between good and evil.

"I see this between God and Satan in this world. I believe the Word of God that says Jesus will return - I don't know if it's a thousand years from now, but I believe - and, prior to that return, Satan is going to give it everything he's got. Terrorism feeds into Satan, who I very much believe is alive and at work on this planet."

The Sunday of Labor Day weekend, the whole family took comfort when the pastor at their church, the Cathedral of Praise, called them to the altar. The laying of hands on Kenton, the petition to God for His watchfulness - it gave the family much-welcome peace.

And it made Cathy and Lenny even more determined to work on the new Ministry to Military Families that they're launching at the church. Veterans from earlier wars, current military families - so many of them, Cathy realized, and all so isolated from one another.

She reminded her son that while in Iraq, he would be in the very cradle of civilization, where Moses and Abraham once walked. And while religious conversion should not be part of the military mission, Cathy said, if, on the other hand, the presence of U.S. troops gives the Gospel entry, well, "God loves every single one of them, and He wants them to know His son."

Do such absolutist beliefs, I asked Cathy, maybe give her an oddly sideways insight into Muslim extremism? And, in the face of two sets of absolutes, which prevails?

"Exactly! It's a Holy War! A jihad. I've told Kenton, you're here training to go over there and kill some mother's son, who believes just as strongly and is willing to sacrifice her son. God hears that woman's prayers just like he hears my prayers. In that regard, I have to leave it at what I know from reading my Bible: that Jesus Christ was His one and only son."

She looked at me, smiled, and gave an almost sheepish shrug.

"I know you're sitting there listening to me, thinking, 'She's talking out of both sides of her mouth,' " said Cathy, who worried later she'd come across as a "right-wing wacko."

On the other hand, Cathy DePew refused to pass judgment on Cindy Sheehan - that grieving war mother, Bush protester, and national lightning rod for what pollsters say is growing anti-war sentiment. Indeed, she feels sympathy for that other mother. Empathy, even; Cathy easily appreciated Cindy's point of view.

So, is there maybe more gray than meets the eye in this black-and-white world we create, this world where we try to summarize everything with yellow ribbons?

Like mother, like son, perhaps; Kenton, too, offers sometimes surprising contradictions.

For one thing, the lifelong overweight kid grew to embrace the boot camp motto: Pain is weakness leaving the body.

And, as a prospective recruit impatient for his turn to enter boot camp, he was thrilled to go to the Sports Arena last October for a Pearl Jam concert - part of the "Vote for Change" tour in which lead singer Eddie Vedder personally appealed to his fans to turn a war-mongering George Bush out of office.

The Marine warrior who's proud to be in Iraq hates Arnold Schwarzenegger-style action movies. Not for him, automatic weapons and huge explosions. He'd rather watch The Big Lebowski, American Beauty, and "21 Grams, have you ever seen that? I love that! Such a beautiful, emotional movie. That's what I'm big on: human emotions."

He was the gung-ho recruit who wrote fretful letters home from boot camp, worried about keeping his "Christian values" in an environment that, as he later described it to me, placed "a lot of emphasis on killing people, and just, you know, slaughtering, and just being a murderer, and a cold-blooded killer and everything like that."

But the "boot" Marine now on patrol in Iraq expects it will be easy to kill: "I definitely think it's going to be instinct. If I walk into a room and someone's holding a rifle, I'm just going to shoot him. I mean, that's just how it is."

Yet when I asked this Marine which scared him more, getting killed or getting wounded, he said: "I'm more afraid of making a mistake, of pulling the trigger when it didn't have to be pulled, or not pulling the trigger when it should have been pulled. That's what I'm most afraid of."

He's a pro-war Marine who reported nearly paralyzing ambivalence about the last presidential election. "When Bush was up for re-election, I definitely considered voting for Kerry," he said. "I think Bush handled the first part [after Sept. 11, but before the Iraqi invasion] pretty well. Don't get me wrong. There was a lot of BS and a lot of shadiness, saying 'mission accomplished' and it's gotten worse. But the way I rationalize it, Washington will never be a straight place, and if you think that way, you're naive."

The Marine who trained last month for desert conditions at Camp Wilson (in the Marine Corps' Twentynine Palms combat center in California's Mojave Desert) spent his free time there reading the Bible. But he also reported great "respect" for Islam: "Anyone who prays five times a day, who will stop what they're doing and take time to pray - [at] Camp Wilson, they played Islamic prayers over loudspeakers. I'd never heard that before. I think it's very musical, very soothing. That's kind of a bad thing, in a sense, because I paid a little too much attention to that, instead of maybe watching what I was supposed to."

During his leave last month, Kenton was forced to distill both Operation Iraqi Freedom and many of his personal beliefs into language easy enough for school children to grasp. His mother asked him to put on his uniform and visit Katelyn's classroom, and while he complained that he didn't want to be anyone's show-and-tell, he did it, anyway. Afterward, he admitted enjoying the kids' questions.

Why are we at war?

"There's this evil guy named Saddam, and he pretty much took all their money away from them. After a while, we just got fed up with it. We're just trying to make it so they can have it like we have it over here."

Was boot camp fun?

"There's some fun times. Anybody know what paint-balling is? There's a lotta training with paint ball, so it's a lotta fun."

Where are you going?

"We're going to a place called Fallujah. I don't even know where Fallujah is, but that's where I'm going to stay. Where I'm going - I'm not sure how big it is, but it's a big city - and the area where we're going is, like, the slums."

What are you going to do there?

"We're going basically to keep the peace."

How long has the war been going on?

"That's a good question. I don't really know that."

Are you scared?

"I'm a little scared. Yeah, I'm a little scared. But we trained hard. We're definitely ready. We definitely want to do this."

As the airport began to hum with life, it was Cathy who said it first: "Well, Kenton, maybe you should …"

Her voice trailed off, but they all promptly rose from the row of chairs. It was time to send the boy off.

Maybe we've seen too many stylized World War II movies or something. But when we send 'em off to war now, there's no crowd scene of jubilant well-wishers down at the old hometown train depot. When we send 'em off to war now, it's just a small knot of people in a close embrace, standing off to the side of a wide airport hallway, utterly unnoticed by hurried people passing by.

"It's just seven months, you know," Kenton chided his mother. "I'm coming back, you know."

A pause, and then those dimples appeared, along with Kenton's trademark devilish humor: "Just remember to go to church. And, don't do drugs. Whatever you do, Mom, don't do drugs."

The tension broken, everyone laughed. It was the breathy laughter of anxious people, but it was laughter nevertheless.

Hugs. Kisses. More hugs.

And then Kenton walked away.

He passed uneventfully through the metal detectors. He joined a growing line of people, where he fiddled with the earbuds of his iPod. I do not need to report that Cathy and Lenny fought tears, and that one of them was more successful than the other, but only just barely.

But I will tell you this: This time when Kenton Dial left home, before he disappeared around the corner on his way to Gate A6 and beyond, this time he looked back.

Contact Roberta de Boer at: roberta@theblade.com
or 419-724-6086.