Cooper Dinges

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Each November 11, marking the date in 1918 that warring powers agreed to the armistice that effectively ended the First World War, this nation honors the sacrifices made by members of the armed forces. Ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq bring even closer the reality of war. President Barack Obama contemplates sending additional troops into harm’s way in Afghanistan and the City learns that police officer Steve Wozniacki will shortly return to Iraq for his third tour.

Some Evanston families – and the true number is difficult to determine – have loved ones in the military waiting to deploy, currently or recently deployed, recently discharged, or casualties of the conflict. The RoundTable spoke with members of four such families, the Dingeses, the Bests, the Iselys and the Hays-Freemans, for whom Veterans Day holds a more emotional meaning.

Waiting to Deploy

Cooper Dinges, the son of former mayoral candidate Barnaby Dinges, is a Marine Field Artillery Specialist currently stationed in 29 Palms, Cal. He awaits deployment almost certainly, says the elder Dinges, tied to the President’s Afghanistan troop-level determination. “There are two types of families – those involved in the military and families that are not,” said Mr. Dinges. Military families, he said, know what it means to wait for such decisions; non-military families can only imagine it. The likelihood that Cooper’s coming assignment will place him in the line of fire is constantly on his mind, said Mr. Dinges. “It’s like there’s a burner on on the stove all the time. You try to ignore it but you’re aware of it all the time,” he said.

“For some kids, the military is the best and only option. Not Cooper,” said Mr. Dinges, adding that Cooper was “an impressive high school student” who was co-captain of his New Trier rowing team (Cooper’s mother lives in the New Trier district) and recruited by a number of rowing colleges. Despite having multiple options, Cooper started thinking about becoming a Marine while a sophomore. Nevertheless, Mr. Dinges said, “it came down to the wire. I said, ‘Let’s go there [Butler University, where Cooper has been admitted] for orientation. It doesn’t mean you’re going.’ And Cooper told me, ‘Dad, it’s not going to happen.’” Shortly afterward, Cooper went to the Evanston recruiting station on Dodge and enlisted as a Marine.

Awaiting deployment news focuses Mr. Dinges’ attention on President Obama’s handling of the Afghanistan war more sharply, he said he suspects, than most Evanstonians. “Afghanistan is still the forgotten war,” he said. “Because we have chosen to do this, the standard of critique is very high.”

Mr. Dinges said Cooper’s Facebook page greets visitors with, “America is not at war. Marines are at war. America is at the mall.” Mr. Dinges urged people to think seriously about the war, whether the sacrifices we are making are worth it, particularly the human cost.

Yet Mr. Dinges has nothing but pride for his son. “I couldn’t be prouder of Cooper as a young man,” he said, adding, “He has grown immensely. I am most proud of his morality. The kid really understands right from wrong. … Cooper is calm and composed. He’s the one who settles me down, tells me, ‘Dad, I’m going to be okay.’”

Been There And Still in the Service

Andrew Best graduated from ETHS in 2002. He wanted to study computer engineering, but did not feel ready for the “backbreaking curriculum” right out of high school. His father, Bob, encouraged him to take a year off, “but he was more serious than that,” said Mr. Best. Andrew “did not fit the profile” of enlisted men, said his father, adding, “He was never in a fight.” Friends and even some teachers called him “Jesus,” in part because of his long, straight, reddish hair. He played bass in a punk band.

“He enlisted [on his 18th birthday] in August, just a month or two before the drumbeat for the invasion of Iraq,” said Mr. Best. He went through basic training and then to Germany. “We went to visit him in Germany,” said Mr. Best, and then learned that he would be deployed to Baghdad 60 days after arriving in Europe. Barely 18, the youngest in his unit, Andrew Best was going to the front lines almost as soon as his basic training ended.

“He was fishing by the roadside to find IEDs (individual explosive devices),” said Mr. Best. “There were a couple of times he thought he might die when he came under fire. He figured he wasn’t alone.” Andrew received the combat action badge for putting his life on the line around people he could not see when he could not fire back.

Andrew’s first tour was extended 90 days because of the Faluja uprising. Mr. Best related that officers told Andrew that “[American soldiers] are going to die” during the extended tour. “It was a very long year for us,” said Mr. Best. Andrew made it through and came home. In November 2005, he was redeployed, spending another year fishing for IEDs along the roadside. All told, Andrew spent 27 of the occupation’s first 44 months in Baghdad.

At home, Mr. Best would read all the profiles of soldiers killed published in the Chicago Tribune. “I would read every one of them,” he said. “Those really brought the war home – the reality of kids dying. My kid’s age. We were just lucky.”

When Andrew completes his tour next spring, the transition to civilian life awaits. “I expect the transition to be okay for him because he’s so young and unattached,” said Mr. Best. “He plans to go to college. What worries me the most is that he won’t be able to get a part-time job because the economy is so lousy right now.” Mr. Best said statistics show a higher unemployment rate among veterans.

Mr. Best said he thinks Andrew has “benefited greatly” from is military service. “He’s still a young kid, but mature. He’s accomplished things I’ll never accomplish.

“When a kid enlists, there’s a chance he or she is going to die. … That’s one of the reasons they enlist. That’s the calling. It’s a noble calling. … I didn’t like the war or the President, but I am very proud of my son. That sustained me,” said Mr. Best. With a child in the military, he said, “You never have to worry about anybody else bragging about their kid. No matter what they’re doing, they can’t top you. No one’s kid has a higher calling than your own. … I never lose sight of that.”

There and Back

Sergeant Christian Isely grew up in Evanston and attended ETHS. He worked and attended school for several years, but reached a point at which school was no longer financially feasible. “I wanted to go back to school, but it was difficult to see how that was going to happen unless I made a big change.” The army offered a sizable bonus for enlisting and the GI Bill promised an educational stipend after service ended, so he enlisted, he said.

Sgt. Isely was not a typical soldier in his unit, having enlisted at 30 and coming from the Chicago area, while his colleagues were “usually from rural areas, from the south, under 20 when they joined…Most seemed to have joined out of economic necessity,” he said.

Sgt. Isely joined the Army, Infantry Division, in 2006. “If I joined the Army, I wanted to be in all the way,” he said – on the ground, not a cook or a mechanic. Sgt. Isely served one 15-month tour in Iraq, primarily in Anbar Province. “People hear stories of Burger Kings and bus routes in military bases, and they do exist. But infantry in Anbar Province … stayed in mud and wood huts.” On mission, they slept in the desert, on the ground or in the back of Bradleys, he said, adding, “I’ve never seen footage that does this justice.” His unit did not suffer any casualties during his tour. “We were lucky,” he said, but he described how many Iraqis, including soldiers and police officers, were not so lucky. “[There was] carnage,” he said, because “they are typically not as well trained.”

“I think obviously people who were cavalier about – especially our Iraq adventure – I wish obviously that had been thought through a little more deeply,” Sgt Isely said. He spoke about the loss of quality soldiers, not just from casualties but also as individuals who would have stayed on as career soldiers left the military after 5 or 6 deployments. “They just couldn’t do it any more,” Isely said. Members of the NCO (non-commissioned officers) corps who entered expecting to be lifelong military are getting out, he said, as the strain is simply too much to take. [The RoundTable spoke with Sgt. Isely before the Fort Hood tragedy.]

But the military is not always easy to leave, Sgt. Isely said. “You have to reprogram yourself,” he said. “It’s a whole different world; things don’t operate the same way.” Financially, making ends meet, is not something you worry about when in the service, he said. Also, the structure of the military is something some individuals need. As a result, “A few of the guys I talked to who got out have already gone back in. They couldn’t make it on the outside,” he said.

Sgt. Isely’s active duty has ended, but he has four years remaining on his commitment to the ready reserves. “I’m concerned a little bit [about being recalled to active service]. But already the expectations I had coming home have changed,” said Sgt Isely, who is currently living in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood and attending Harold Washington College. “I got married while in the military. I wanted to come home to my wife. But it was a tough adjustment, and I am not now living with my wife” he continued, leaving the impression that he would not view a call to Afghanistan as all bad news.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

The Hays family lost their son, Matthew Freeman, to combat operations in Afghanistan over the summer. Mr. Freeman, who did not grow up in Evanston, came to the military from a different direction than either Cooper Dinges or Sgt. Isely. His stepfather was active military, and Mr. Freeman followed in those footsteps.

Mr. Freeman’s stepmother, Paula Hays, said, “I have spent time with military families. It is something ingrained in them.” But there do not seem to be many such families in the Evanston area.

Mark Hays, Mr. Freeman’s father, said that what made his son’s service, and death, unusual for the Chicago area was that, “in Chicago, the only kids getting killed are 19- to 20- year-olds who went into the military because they have to. You don’t expect a young, 30-year-old captain to be killed.”

Evanston, he added, is simply not a military town.

Having a loved one in the military changes the way you look at day-to-day situations said Mr. Hays. “Anxiety – it would pop into my head. He’s someplace and somebody’s shooting at him. I became very focused on the fact that he was doing something dangerous. And it turns out he was. A lot of things cross your mind.”

Overall, people in and around Evanston exhibit a “general obliviousness to what’s going on over there,” said Mr. Hays. Mr. Freeman’s brother, Harrison Hays, agreed that the public is not thinking about the issue. “I’m conscious of the situation because my brother was there… I do not necessarily agree with our presence there. We’re too sophisticated as a society. That’s definitely my view,” he said.

Veterans Day observances began at 10:30 a.m. today, Nov. 11. Civilians and veterans from World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Viet Nam war and possibly the current wars will gather at Veterans Memorial Plaza (Fountain Square) to honor those who served in the armed forces to protect this country.