A Black Hole

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

December 5, 2005

The news last week that 10 marines had been killed in Falluja in yet another improvised bomb attack sent a familiar feeling of dread surging through Paul Shroeder.

Every morning, when Mr. Shroeder awakens, he feels normal for the first 5 or 10 seconds. And then it dawns on him that his son, Augie - Lance Cpl. Edward August Shroeder II - is no longer around. Then an awful sadness descends, like a black curtain, over the rest of the day.

Corporal Shroeder, 23, was one of 14 marines killed last August in a roadside explosion in Haditha, in western Iraq. Just two days earlier, six marines from the same reserve unit - the Ohio-based Third Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment - had been killed in an ambush.

"When you have one or two guys get killed, it's back by the truss ads," said Mr. Shroeder. "It's not on the front page. But when you have 20 killed from the same unit in the space of 48 hours, that's big news."

The deaths of the 10 marines last week generated big headlines. But there was considerably less coverage the day before, when the Defense Department announced that four other servicemen had been killed in separate incidents in Iraq. The coverage fluctuates, but the suffering and dying of young American troops in this hellish meat grinder of a war goes on day by day, without end.

(Two more soldiers were reported killed yesterday in a roadside bomb attack in southeast Baghdad.)

Mr. Shroeder (pronounced SHRAE-der) and his wife, Rosemary Palmer, who live in Cleveland, and who are facing the Christmas season with eyes swollen and raw from crying, believe enough is enough. They have gone public with their view that the war has been wasteful and foolish and not worth the lives lost.

"We have to come up with a plan to get us out of there," said Mr. Shroeder. "What we're saying is that we need a serious debate about all options to end this. We cannot have the open-ended, ongoing, stay-the-course thing, because it's killing people."

Mr. Shroeder said he and his wife are not calling for an immediate withdrawal, "just willy-nilly," of American troops. But they believe it is essential that a workable plan for an orderly withdrawal be developed - and developed quickly - because the present policy, reaffirmed by President Bush in his speech at Annapolis last week, "is not working."

In Mr. Shroeder's view, President Bush's war policies have been both tragic and futile. "Staying the course," he said, is like continuing to pour water into a hole in the sand at the beach, "a process that gets you nowhere."

"My son told us two weeks before he died that he felt the war was not worth it," Mr. Shroeder said. "His complaint was about having to go back repeatedly into the same towns, to sweep the same insurgents, or other insurgents, out of these same towns without being able to hold them, secure them. It just was not working, and that's what he wanted to get across."

Mr. Shroeder dismissed the idea that criticism of the administration and the war was evidence of a lack of support for the men and women fighting in Iraq. "You can support the troops and be critical of the policy that put them there," he said.

He took issue with the public officials who insist that his son died for a "noble cause," however comforting that might be to believe. On the contrary, he feels that Augie's life "was wasted."

Recalling his last conversation with his son, Mr. Schroeder said, "I asked him, 'Do you feel like you're protecting your family and other Americans back here?' And he said, 'No. Not at all.' "

He said Augie felt that he was not accomplishing anything. "He thought it was a waste."

Mr. Shroeder, 56, is a partner in a trading company. His wife, 58, is a high school Spanish teacher. They've started a small nonprofit organization called Families of the Fallen for Change (fofchange.org) that they hope will help push Congress to take steps to bring the U.S. involvement in the war to an end.

I asked Mr. Shroeder how life has been for him and his wife since Augie's death. He paused for a long time, then said:

"Life is not the same. The holidays are not good. We both are church people and we sing in the choir, and this is the Christmas season. So normally it's a time of great music and wonderful singing. But I can't participate this year because - well, because he's just not here."