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Soldier's Family Finds Value in Iraq Report


This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Mike Pesca.

MADELEINE BRAND, host: And I'm Madeleine Brand.


As military and political leaders debate changing strategy in Iraq, we turn to those who are directly affected. This week DAY TO DAY's speaking with family members of soldiers who've died in Iraq. Today we hear from the family of army national guardsman Brian Slavenas.

PESCA: Brian Slavenas was a six-foot-five, 230-pound graduate of the University of Illinois who could bench press half a Toyota and then whip you in a game of chess. He was, according to almost everyone who knew him, smart and caring and unpretentious. But the reason we're saying his name today and the reason we're using the word was, is that his Chinook helicopter was shot down over Iraq in November of 2003. Ron Slavenas, Brian's dad, joins me now. Thanks Ron.

Mr. RON SLAVENAS: Thank you.

PESCA: Ron, before I ask you your thoughts on the war, I want to ask you this. Whether you tell me this is a good war or a bad war, tough but worth it or a mistake from the get go - do you think the conclusion that American's have about the war, do you think that should affect their answer to the question was your son killed in vain?

Mr. SLAVENAS: Well, I try to say my son was a soldier and when you are on a mission and you get deployed, you do what you have to do so whether it was in vain or not, I would say yes as a father, but with personal feelings.


But he was just called out at a bad time I guess and he did his duty and he died for his country. It is very saddening we lost a tremendously fine human being but we lost about 3000 now, talking about this war. So, they went out for a higher cause and the country calls and you do your duty. That's how I see it, although, it's painful and maybe he could have lived a long life.

PESCA: Are you military?

Mr. SLAVENAS: I'm a retired military yes.

PESCA: And on to Iraq now. Soon after Brian died you told Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker that you thought the U.S. went to war, your quote was a little too fast but that the U.S. must persevere. Do you still think that way?

Mr. SLAVENAS: I still do yeah. I think we jumped the gun but you know I fully believe that we had weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Knowing that they used poisonous gasses on the Kurds and they used chemicals during the Iraq/Iran war and it would stand to reason that you know he was probably brewing something up.

Yet I was slightly cautious you know apprehensive, primarily because my son was deployed. But also I thought we should have maybe waited for more involvement of the United Nations although it didn't come through as quickly as we thought.

PESCA: Do things like mid-term election results or the impending departure of Donald Rumsfeld, or the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group; are those benchmarks that cause you to reassess your thoughts, to check in your own head about Iraq policy.

Mr. SLAVENAS: Not really. You know nothing much will change. I think Iraq has to sort itself out right now. You take away a dictator ala Yugoslavia or SIRUS, Russia - a dictator is gone all of a sudden the big cat is gone and the mice are fighting for their cheese, you know, and very tragically so.

And I don't know if Iraq is really ready for democracy. There are a lot of progressive people in Iraq that understand our concepts of democracy but there are elements there, in various factions of Iraq, that probably don't grasp the concept, you know, so this is tenuous situation I would say.

PESCA: Are there any particular U.S. politicians whose thoughts on Iraq seem to you to be more or less right on?

Mr. SLAVENAS: Well I agree more on the conservative side that we should stick with it right now. We have to help them establish a good army and a police force and a stable government and then let the democratic process develop if at all possible. I don't know if it will, you know, but we have to stand by them right now. We can't just pack up and go.

PESCA: I know there's a flagpole on your property. Can you tell me what's flying on it right now?

Mr. SLAVENAS: It's a U.S. flag during holidays and sometimes I put the 82nd Airborne flag on or marine flag. I was in the 82nd Airborne years and years ago. Brian, my son, before he became an officer he was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne detached to Italy and then he became an officer later on and a pilot.

But the flag flies when the day is fine and I appreciate to be in this country. I'm Lithuanian by birth and I experienced dictatorships. Soviet Russia I've seen how Nazi Germany worked. So I'm very thankful of being here and I will always be a patriotic American.

PESCA: I know those were the flags that Calvin Trillin wrote about in 2003. At that time there was also a framed condolence letter from President Bush on display in your living room, is it still there?

Mr. SLAVENAS: It's still there, yes.

PESCA: Has your opinion of the decisions that the president's made changed at all in the last three years?

Mr. SLAVENAS: Not really. You know in retrospect-you know now things turn kind of sour. Usually it happens after you topple a dictatorship. We're impatient people. American's are very impatient. You want instant results. Military operations go very smoothly with American's usually. But in the follow-up that's the difficulty.

PESCA: And when people hear that your son died have they, have their reactions changed at all over the last three years?

Mr. SLAVENAS: Well they feel very regretful. You know, it's a waste. But again, we have to find strength through it and I see it in terms of he was a soldier who raised his right hand to serve his country and it happens. Sometimes - I had two other sons who - they served and both were in combat. I served 20 years and have never seen combat because of the luck of the draw. I served in Eisenhower's time - it was peaceful. So if the chance happens of activity or warfare and you get called, and that's just bad luck I guess.

PESCA: Ron Slavenas's son army national guardsman Brian Slavenas was killed three years ago in Iraq. And Mr. Slavenas thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SLAVENAS: Thank you, sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.