Pfc. John Landry Jr. (1986-2007) & LCpl. PJ Sora (1984-2004)

March 29, 2007 at 1:06 am | Posted in America, Essays, Evil Tribune, Lowell | 9 Comments

Overheard this morning at the grocery store, between an elderly bagger and a cashier:

Bagger:  “You know that Landry kid that got killed in Iraq?”

Cashier:  “What about him?”

Bagger:  “My son lives next to his sister.  He said the grandmother was over there yesterday.  They went for a walk.”

The Landry kid was Pfc. John Landry Jr., who was buried yesterday as the first Iraq casualty from the city of Lowell.  The bagger’s story is probably garbage, not only because most old people’s stories are garbage, but also because Landry only has a 17-year-old sister, who probably doesn’t live on her own.

landryfuneral.jpgNonetheless, the brief exchange illustrated just how blisfully removed we are from this war.  In one jarring moment, like a boulder dropped into a lake, the family gets The Knock on the door.  And from there, the news spreads in concentric circles as the ripples grow smaller and smaller.  From John’s parents, to his closest friends, to his distant relatives, to the kids in his biology class, to the parents of the kids in his biology class, to the neighbor of somebody, to the grocery store bagger, to the cashier, who didn’t know him at all and greets the news of grandma’s walk with a raised eyebrow.  And there, the ripples stop.

I have nothing profound to say in conclusion.  But I’m grateful that as a reporter, I had the opportunity to meet parents who’d lost their kids to war.  It gave me a better understanding of what a “surge” really means.  It re-enforced my objections to the culture of militarism.  And it gave me a tiny taste, but a taste all the same, of the debilitating pain these families live with every day.  More people should get that taste.

After the jump is an essay I wrote a while ago about another kid like Landry, LCpl. PJ Sora.  PJ never even got the chance to die in a war.

Related: Lowell Sun story on Landry funeral (this link will probably be dead in about 10 minutes, as their website sucks)
Related: Boston Globe story on Landry funeral (Photo above courtesy of Boston Globe.  And by “courtesy,” I mean I took it from their website.  Thanks, Boston Globe.  You guys are the best.)

P.J. Sora

The girl in the Range Rover behind me was feeling good. There was no reason not to feel good. She bopped her head and tapped her fingers, grooving to the beat of a song that occasionally inspired her to take both hands off the wheel and wave them in the air.

Spring had returned to New Hampshire. The tedious brown months of salted roads and cold, hard steering wheels were finally gone. And Interstate 93 looked like it would soon be swallowed whole by the lush flavors of green growing all around it.

I was feeling good on I-93 too. But then a little less good when I exited onto Route 102. My stomach tightened with each turn commanded by the Mapquest directions, which led to a place I did not want to be. By the time I took a right onto Parmenter Road, “a little less good” had given way to full-blown nausea.

P.J. Sora had been killed two days earlier in a freak training accident with the Marines at Camp Pendleton in California. Apparently his Humvee had flipped over, but the details had yet to be sorted out. The military was investigating the fatal mishap. P.J. Sora was 19.sora.jpg

All the houses looked the same in the development where P.J. grew up – if it can even be called growing up when you fail to reach 20. Each home had its subtle distinctions. But they were all variations on a pleasant and affluent theme. Both the neighborhood children and the lawns on which they played were well-maintained and appeared to be in good health.

I counted down the mailboxes on Anthony Drive until I reached 14. Parked at the end of P.J.’s driveway, I checked my rear-view mirror, hoping to see the kind of face that I wouldn’t mind talking to if my youngest child had just been killed. Unfortunately, the face in the mirror was the same one I’ve carried around for years. But it would have to do.

P.J.’s mother answered the door and invited me inside without assaulting me or chastising me for exploiting her tragedy. Neither act would have surprised or offended me, but she and her husband were extremely kind. Their eyes were glassed over, as they had been crying for quite a while. It had been two days since another guy knocked on their door at 6 a.m., informing them that their son was dead. I wondered what his face looked like.

Together, we sat around a kitchen table, playing out a scene that’s been repeated countless times by reporters and parents mourning young dead soldiers. The most important thing, they told me, was that P.J. loved being a Marine. “He died doing what he loved,” his mother Gail said, “How many people can say that?” I nodded and wrote down her quote, thinking that in truth, no one can say that and no one ever has said that. They’re dead. But there was no reason to point out such technicalities this early in the grieving process.

P.J. was 16 when he first asked his parents to sign a consent form allowing him to join the military. His mother would not do it, and told me that at that age, “There was no way I could sign a paper letting him go off and die in a war.”

She said these words with a stern focus, as if she was forcing herself to ignore how useless her resistance sounded in hindsight. No one could predict how things would have turned out if she’d signed that form two years earlier. But P.J. Sora certainly would not have been in that particular Humvee on that particular day in that particular training exercise. And I probably would have never sat down in the Soras’ kitchen.

The 9-11 attacks occurred during P.J.’s senior year at Londonderry High School. His older brother Carlo worked in the towers, but managed to escape the nightmare unharmed. Nonetheless, P.J. was consumed by an urge to fight against those who threatened Carlo and the rest of his country.

He joined the reserves when he turned 18, and made an unsuccessful run at college life, spending one semester at University of Southern Maine. It just wasn’t for him, his mother said with an ‘oh-well’ shrug of the shoulders. In January of 2004, P.J. requested to be placed on active duty in hopes of being sent to the war in Iraq.

That request was granted, and P.J. was told to report for training at Camp Pendleton in Twentynine Palms, California. Gail convinced his father, Peter, to drive west with the boy. Still protective of her baby, she did not want him driving cross-country alone. At the end of their drive, Peter would fly home to New Hampshire, never to see his son again.

A military veteran himself, Peter was well aware of the dangers his son would face. But they were far from his mind on this trip. This was simply father and son riding together in the boy’s cherished red pickup truck. A journey through the beautiful nation that both had committed to defend.

I pictured them scanning the radio for country music stations and stopping at McDonalds and cheap motels. I imagined their jokes and conversations, and the miles spent in silence as they pondered a future that unbeknownst to them was only 14 days long.

You could cry just thinking about that, and Peter almost did. His face scrunched up, and he had difficulty breathing. But I don’t think his eyes could generate any more tears. He took his wife’s hand and thanked her once more for pressuring him into that trip.

One prolonged farewell. One last hug. I love you, Daddy. I love you too.

***

Equipped with all the quotes, facts, and photos needed to file a thorough story, I thanked the Soras for being so open. On my way out, Gail showed me a collage that she and her daughter had assembled that morning. Pictures of her little boy with guns and brothers-in-arms, taken from training camps he attended during his brief time as a reservist. Everyone in the pictures looked so young. They always look so young. If you didn’t know better, you might guess they were at a birthday party playing paintball.

The sadness of watching Gail describe each picture was overwhelming, but expected. What I did not expect was the anger that crept into that sadness. As tears returned to her eyes, I could not help thinking that P.J. and the others pictured were nothing more than a pack of idiots. What a stupid kid he must’ve been to have such beautiful parents and a beautiful neighborhood and a beautiful red pickup truck – only to throw it all away. How could he put his mother through this? He had so many other options.

Intellectually, I understood that P.J. was a hero and that the cause he died for was just. I understood that without P.J. and millions of others, this country would not exist. But I could not deny the anger. Anger at the zealots who hijack planes and blow themselves up in the name of God; and anger at those who respond with equally lethal force. Anger at history’s bloodthirsty gene, which ensures that mankind will never escape the trappings of war and killing and death. And anger at poor, innocent P.J. Sora, who wanted nothing more than to do good.

It all amounted to an empty woman standing in her living room, exhausted and heartbroken, wearing a sweatshirt that said, “Proud to be the mother of a Marine.”

I got into my car and drove away from Anthony Drive, leaving behind their sorrow to return to my own life. As the distance grew between myself and the Sora home, I felt better and better. Their misery would linger for days, weeks, and months. But mine was already fading. I would return to the newsroom and write their tragic story as quickly as possible, so I could get home to watch the Red Sox and rub my dog’s belly.

On Route 102, I passed a driving range, where a man crushed a ball at least 300 yards and straight as an arrow. The ball seemed to sit up there for a week, suspended in the sky. Savoring the view of a perfect May sunset in southern New Hampshire.

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9 Comments »

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  1. Did I mention that we have a preview for air guitar nation up on our web site?

    I hate New Hampshire.

  2. admittedly that post was a bit on the morose side. and a nice walk along the river has me feeling a little better. but hey, only about six people read this shit anyway so if it makes you feel a little sullen for a few minutes, deal with it, six people.

  3. that came across angrier than intended.

  4. […] to America March 29, 2007 at 6:57 pm | In America, Bush, Video | After yesterday’s depressing post, what better way to clean the palate than video of Karl Rove showing Condi that he’s […]

  5. it could be true lol
    im his siter and i was 17 and i did live by myself olol
    my parents moved 2 fl and payed for my apt. =)

  6. I really hope your eventual article about P.J. Sora did more to capture the essence of who he was because to know him was to love and hate him all at the same time. He was both arrogant and kind, brutally honest and funny as hell. He was the type of guy who could make you want to smack him and then want to be his best friend in a matter of minutes. But most importantly, he was fiercely loyal to his friends and family. He loved his country, his family and the “pack of idiots” he would eventually call his brothers. He was a talented trumpet player and was constantly goofing off at our many band rehearsals and marching band practices. He graduated in 2002 from Londonderry High School, just a year after I did. We went through marching band together and shared at least one music class together, and my only regret is that I didn’t get to know him better. But I feel blessed for having met him and for the opportunity to say that he was my friend, even if we were never all that close.

  7. I grew with PJ, from Londonderry Middle School, to Londonderry High School and he was really a good guy, a great friend and was always there when needed. We’ll miss you, man.

  8. Tara, you are so right. He and my brother, Ryan, used to tool on me so bad, but in the end I knew that PJ was always gonna be there to help me if I needed it. I cant believe it has been so long. I miss you bro.

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