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Fallen soldier's father has a question for God

Saturday, April 05, 2003

ERIE -- After the first wave of media departed, the family of Donald Oaks Jr. sat around his grandfather's living room like so many empty bottles.

Donald Sr. answered the doorbell and returned with a large tin. His son was dead. A neighbor had brought food.

Donald Oaks Jr.'s sister, Amber, sat on the living room floor. Donald's girlfriend, Char Fedak, rubbed Amber's arm, as if that might somehow summon some words.

Samuel Oaks, who has now lived long enough to bury a grandson, sat on the couch and spoke with the reedy sighs of a man who might at any moment rise, walk into the next room and die.

The phone rang. Someone asked Sam if he'd take the call.

"Thank you. I appreciate it," Sam told the caller. The caller asked why Donald had joined the Army.

"He was goin' so he could get more school when he got out. That's the end of that."

The huge console television, the kind grandparents always have, was locked on CNN. War news scrolled by like empty boxcars:

"War in Iraq ... New Threat ... New Tapes ... "

Colin Powell flickered noiselessly on the screen. Some Iraqi minister mouthed defiance. Every member of the Oaks family seemed locked in a different part of Donald's life.

Donald Sr. discussed his son's love of hunting and fishing. The fishing has become surprisingly good on Lake Erie, a body of water once given up for dead.

Char talked about her late boyfriend's obsession with "Star Trek" -- "Oh, it was so annoying." She smiled.

In the next room, Mary Oaks, who cared for her grandson while his parents worked, was recalling the tiny Donald whose photo sat on the table in front of her.

"When that Mister Rogers show came on," she said, "oh, he'd go to the closet and put on Sam's cowboy boots and run to the TV. Then he'd put a sweater on."

All of those Donalds died in Iraq on Thursday.

On the big console, CNN's text fluttered:

" ... 23,000 coalition sorties flown since war began ..."

Because one of those sorties apparently dropped a bomb atop three American soldiers manning a rocket launcher, Donald Oaks Jr. will, his father explained, be identified by DNA.

"He felt very safe. That's the thing that gets you," Char said. By now, she had deposited herself on Mary's lap.

The two of them remembered the day at Fort Sill, Okla., where Char had gone to be with Donald. It was two days before Donald was to ship out. He took Char to catch a bus home.

"He said, 'Stop crying and get on the bus,' " Char laughed. "Of course, he was bawling."

Talk turned to the family in West Virginia, where cameras cannot get enough of the smiles and jubilation at the home of Jessica Lynch, the Army private snatched from Iraqi hands in a daring rescue.

"I'm so happy for them," Mary Oaks said. "Them people prayed every night around the table. They got their miracle."

On the big console TV, the words "Battlefield Forecast" actually meant what they said.

A meteorologist gave the weather forecast in Iraq. It will be 98 degrees today. In Erie, winter is hanging on. Rain froze to the trees and a milky fog oozed across the flats along the lake.

Don Oaks Sr. rose to hug a stranger goodbye.

"I don't even know what to think," he said. "I mean, all this -- for what? I know, I know. He was a soldier and he died for his country."

He paused a moment.

"But all this for what? I can't wait till I can ask God what all this is about."

He motioned to the television, the only place life is seamless and war lives without pain.

Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.

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