March 25, 2008 – The bomb’s blast threw Army Specialist Matthew Stanley from his gunner’s turret, leaving his body lifeless on a dusty road in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle. When his commander arrived minutes later, the slumping soldier looked asleep, resting in his full body armor.
Nine months after his December 2006 death, Stanley’s name was given a new life in the U.S. presidential campaign, etched into a black bracelet his mother gave to Senator John McCain.
“I asked him to wear Matthew’s bracelet not just for Matthew but all of the other soldiers,” said Lynn Savage, his mother. “I think we need to finish what we started.”
Like Stanley, Sergeant Ryan Jopek of the National Guard was hurled posthumously into the debate about how long U.S. forces should remain in Iraq. His mother asked Senator Barack Obama to accept her son’s bracelet at a Green Bay, Wisconsin, rally in February, 18 months after Jopek’s death, also from a roadside bomb. “All gave some — He gave all,” reads the bracelet Obama wears on his right wrist.
Tracy Jopek wanted “to show him that the war is real, it affects real people in real places,” said her 17-year-old son, Steve. She thought Obama should know “he had support from families of the fallen, too,” he said.
Both senators say they wear the anodized aluminum bands to honor fallen soldiers. They also use the names to help frame their competing positions on the war.
`Not in Vain’
McCain, 71, an Arizona Republican, invokes Stanley’s name to show the U.S. is capable of sacrifice and that he is prepared to call for more. Obama, 46, an Illinois Democrat, channels Jopek’s mother to inveigh against a war he never supported.
On the stump, McCain recounts how Stanley’s mom implored him to “make sure my son’s death was not in vain” and pledges to achieve victory in Iraq. Speaking yesterday at a veterans hall in Chula Vista, California, he said he wears the bracelet “not only as a symbol of the sacrifice of a brave young American, Matthew Stanley,” but of the 4,000 U.S. troops who have been killed in Iraq.
Obama also reprises his meeting with a grieving mother to launch into a discussion of Iraq. “It has cost us thousands of precious lives,” he said last week in Pennsylvania. “Like the life of this young man, whose mother gave me this bracelet, commemorating her 20-year-old.”
In death, Jopek and Stanley, who was 22, have assumed opposing roles. In life, they traveled a similar path.
In August 2006, two weeks from returning home, Jopek volunteered for a final mission: a convoy run to Mosul. He wanted to see the city where his father, Brian, also a Wisconsin guardsman, had been stationed for the first year of the war.
`Too Late for Ryan’
Barreling back along Main Supply Route Tampa, Jopek was perched in the gunner’s nest when an improvised explosive device detonated outside Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s ancestral town.
Jopek absorbed most of the IED’s blast. “The driver was able to move the vehicle outside of the kill zone,” said his father. “But it was too late for Ryan.”
Four months later, on Dec. 16, Stanley would meet his own IED. Outside Taji, in the heart of the Sunni insurgency, his team was charged with sweeping a road so civilian engineers could fix a pipeline sabotaged by insurgents.
Stanley’s up-armored Humvee, the same M1114 model as Jopek’s, had driven over the bomb three times before stopping to probe what turned out to be a decoy. Buried six feet below was a wired quartet of 152-millimeter artillery shells — the equivalent of a 1,000-pound bomb.
The percussion disgorged the Humvee’s four occupants, ejecting one 50 feet away. Three, including Stanley, died before they landed. The fourth succumbed the next day.
“They looked like they were sleeping,” recalled Captain Christopher Wehri, marveling that the IED had vaporized everything but the vehicle’s engine and tires, yet left his men “completely intact in their body armor.”
Lynn Savage, Stanley’s mother, was spared the details. “They don’t give you too much information, only what you need to know,” she said, recalling how two uniformed men appeared at her door in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, days before Christmas with the news.
During the Vietnam War, she had worn a silver wristband to signal support for prisoners of war, like John McCain. When she attended a town hall meeting last August and heard McCain discussing his support for President George W. Bush’s plan to dispatch more troops to Iraq, the parallels overwhelmed her.
Handed Over Bracelet
She approached the senator and told him about her son. Then she handed him her bracelet with Matthew’s name, his visage and the date of his death, cut by laser into the curved black bracelet.
Both Stanley and Jopek left for basic training shortly after high school, ambivalent about what they wanted from the military, say their families and friends.
The two believed in their mission, yet it was a commitment to their comrades that sustained them. Jopek dreaded returning to Iraq after a short break at home in Wisconsin to attend his sister’s high school graduation, according to his father.
On leave, he bought a midnight-blue Ford Mustang, logging 1,800 miles before he boarded the plane back to Iraq. His last face-to-face words to his father were: “I love you, Dad. Don’t blow my speakers.”
Planning to Leave
Stanley, newly married at his death, told friends in the 7th Cavalry that he planned to leave the Army when his second tour was finished. He would join KBR Inc., a contractor, perhaps back in Iraq. He wanted to “make a little bit more money,” said Specialist Kyle Lehmann, who served with him in Taji.
Jopek talked about making a career of the military. “He was getting a great sense of accomplishment and felt that he was contributing to the effort,” said his father, Brian.
The father, who is divorced from Jopek’s mother, said she is declining media interviews because “she wants to avoid the Cindy Sheehan situation,” referring to a mother who has publicly crusaded against the war since her son was killed.
The father is leaning toward McCain and said his ex-wife “would like to see the troops come home a little sooner than I would.”
Tracy’s younger son, Steve, plans to follow his brother’s footsteps into the National Guard. “It’s an iffy situation and mom doesn’t like me talking about it,” he said. “But more than likely I am looking at it.”