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A higher calling than duty

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"WHY I joined: The question has been asked of me so many times in so many different contexts that I thought it would be best if I wrote my reasons for joining the Army on my page for all to see."Oct. 29, 2006. On the night before he deployed to Iraq, Army 2nd Lt. Mark Jennings Daily sat down at his laptop in his Texas apartment and began tapping out an essay for his MySpace Web page. Daily, a 23-year-old Irvine native who considered himself a liberal humanist, had decided to join the fight despite initial doubts about the war.

Before shipping out, he wanted to explain why.

The decision had befuddled some. After all, Daily was a UCLA political science graduate with a wide circle of friends and dreams of becoming a senator, or a history professor, or a foreign correspondent. Why join the Army?

His essay would turn out to be a last testament to one soldier's courage and convictions.

And that essay, in recent weeks, has ricocheted throughout the Internet, taking on a life of its own. It was read on the U.S. Senate floor and posted on the websites of columnists and talk show hosts. It has prompted hundreds of letters from strangers. Daily's words, his astonished parents say, seemed to resonate with all kinds of folks, stirring a common altruistic impulse.

He wrote it in just 20 minutes, his parents say, as he chatted with his family in his packed-up El Paso apartment near Ft. Bliss, Texas, where he was assigned to the 2nd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.

"First, the more accurate question is why I volunteered to go to Iraq. After all, I joined the Army a week after we declared war on Saddam's government with the intention of going…. "Daily's parents, John and Linda Daily of Irvine, didn't particularly want to see their eldest son ship out to Iraq. They would never tell him that directly. They respected their children too much to try to interfere.

"If not me, then who?" Linda Daily remembers her son asking, his earnest eyes leaving her with no good answer.

So the Dailys did what they believed parents should do: They embraced their son, affirmed his decision and sent him off, shielding as best they could their fears and doubts. His wife of just 15 months, Janet, did the same.

"Anyone who knew me before I joined knows that I am quite aware and at times sympathetic to the arguments against the war in Iraq. If you think the only way a person could bring themselves to volunteer for this war is through sheer desperation or blind obedience then consider me the exception."Mark Daily, born on the Fourth of July, grew up in Irvine's Woodbridge Village, on a street of spacious homes and well-manicured lawns. His father, John, is an aerospace project manager; his mother, Linda, an audiologist.

His family says he became a registered Democrat who read voraciously and delighted in fervent debate. He read liberal intellectual Noam Chomsky, conservative Sen. John McCain of Arizona and everything in between.

His first passions were animal rights and environmental protection, prompting him to become a vegetarian and Green Party member in high school for a few years. He defended American Indian rights so loudly in one backyard debate that Linda Daily imagined the neighbors would think it a family brawl. His heroes were immigrants because "they risk their lives to achieve better ones," he wrote on his MySpace page.

Fascism and anti-Semitism particularly troubled him. If you really want to understand me, he wrote on MySpace, watch "Schindler's List."

He sought out neo-Nazis for online debates. In a string of e-mails, Daily invited one young man who featured swastikas on his MySpace page to explain his sentiments. After a wide-ranging discussion over German history, the Holocaust, African DNA, North Korean fascism and democratic values, Daily turned the Nazi lover around. "I think most certainly a lot, if not all of my beliefs have changed," the young man wrote. Daily, he said, was right. "Nothing was ever created with a system of hate."

After the 9/11 attacks, Daily was not convinced that a military response was the best option. In his MySpace essay, he runs through the gamut of reasons he used at one time or another to argue against confronting the Taliban and Saddam Hussein: cultural tolerance, the sanctity of national sovereignty, a suspicion of America's intentions. Weren't we really after their oil? he wondered.

Somewhere along the way, he changed his mind. His family says there was no epiphany. Writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens on the moral case for war deeply influenced him. A 2003 phone conversation with a UCLA ROTC officer on the ideals of commitment and service impressed him.

Ultimately, his family says, Daily came to believe that his lifelong altruistic impulses and passions for the underdog had to extend to Iraqis crushed under decades of oppression. It was time to stop simply talking about human rights and actually do something to help secure them.

And he decided that joining the Army was the best way to do that.

One thing is certain, as disagreeable or as confusing as my decision to enter the fray may be, consider what peace vigils against genocide have accomplished lately. Consider that there are 19-year-old soldiers from the Midwest who have never touched a college campus or a protest who have done more to uphold the universal legitimacy of representative government and individual rights by placing themselves between Iraqi voting lines and homicidal religious fanatics. Oftentimes it is less about how clean your actions are and more about how pure your intentions are.Daily had read historian Stephen Ambrose's writings on World War II and the generation of soldiers who fought for freedom from the forces of fascism. If not Iraq, Daily thought, he wanted to help save those being slaughtered in Sudan.

In the fall of 2003, he entered the UCLA ROTC program. The UCLA military science faculty selected Daily as cadet of the year for 2005. He was named a Distinguished Military Graduate, an honor given to 20% of cadets nationwide.

Lt. Col. Shawn Buck, who headed the UCLA military science department at the time, said Daily was a deep thinker and natural leader who persuaded many cadets to stick with the program. "Once he made the decision to join, he jumped in with both feet and gave it everything he had," Buck said.

In a 2005 videotape of his officers' commissioning ceremony, Daily told the crowd that the U.S. Army is one of the few militaries in the world that teach not only tactics but also ethics. "I genuinely believe the United States Army is a force of good in this world," he said.

He was not blind to military transgressions and fumed to his father that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib was a failure of leadership. But that was exactly why he needed to get over there, he said. He was going to make sure that his men upheld Army values of integrity and honor.

So that is why I joined. In the time it took you to read this explanation, innocent people your age have suffered under the crushing misery of tyranny.Don't forget that human beings have a responsibility to one another and that Americans have a responsibility to the oppressed. Assisting a formerly oppressed population in converting their torn society into a plural, democratic one is dangerous and difficult business, especially when being attacked and sabotaged from literally every direction.So if you have anything to say to me at the end of this reading, let it at least include "Good Luck."Daily touched down in Iraq on Nov. 19 and was sent to the northern city of Mosul. In calls and e-mails home, he began asking for presents for his new Iraqi friends: cigars for the soldiers, candy and soccer balls for the children. He vividly described his adventures with them: a Thanksgiving Day game of musical chairs, a rooftop cigar session; his first Kurdish meal, his first local haircut.

In one video he sent, Iraqi soldiers surround him with grins, crowning him with a turban as a gesture of friendship.

In typical fashion, he sought out new points of view. In one discussion, he wrote that he asked a Kurdish man whether the insurgents could be viewed as freedom fighters. The man cut him off. "The difference between insurgents and American soldiers," Daily said the man told him, "is that they get paid to take life — to murder — and you get paid to save lives."

"That Kurdish man's assessment of our presence means more to me than all of the naysayers and makeshift humanists that monopolize our interpretation of this war," Daily wrote in a Dec. 31 e-mail.

He was equally expansive with his troops. His wife, Janet, says he was constantly asking for tea bags so he could invite his soldiers to his room for tea and talk. They asked him for advice about careers, finances and family problems, discussed politics and philosophy. His troops jokingly posted a sign on his door: "Mark's Tea Hour."

In January, Daily was transferred from a support operation to a security one. He told his family that if he should die, he would never regret a thing.

In an e-mail to his brother, Eric, Daily wrote: "I know it is hard for you knowing that I am over here in danger, but never forget that I came here on behalf of the countless brothers who were torn apart by the savage exploits of this region's tyrants."

On Jan. 14, the family received another e-mail:

"All is well. More war stories then I can fit in this e-mail. Having the time of my life!"

It was his last e-mail.

The next day, Jan. 15, Daily was killed when a roadside bomb detonated beneath his vehicle in Mosul. Three of his comrades died with him.

But his words have become a living appeal for his most treasured Army value — selfless service — as it rips through the Internet and reaches unimagined audiences.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) recently read part of the essay on the Senate floor. It has been posted on the websites of syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin and Los Angeles radio talk show hosts Larry Elder and Hugh Hewitt. It has traveled overseas to places as far-flung as Bulgaria, where it is being translated for publication in the local newspapers.

His family has received official letters of condolence from President Bush, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California First Lady Maria Shriver, senators, congressmen, judges. Most touching to them are the hundreds and hundreds of heartfelt notes from ordinary folk, most of them strangers, who read Daily's essay and wanted to share how it inspired them to serve others.

One woman said she had begun volunteering in a children's cancer hospital. Others have donated to Make-A-Wish-Foundation and other charities in Daily's name. Trees have been planted, scholarships planned.

So many people reached out that the family scrapped plans for a 175-person memorial service and moved it to Mariners Church in Irvine instead. More than 1,600 people attended the Jan. 27 service.

The response has filled the Dailys with a strange mix of grief and pain, mingled with gratitude and awe. All of it, his parents muse, affirms Daily's faith in the decency of people and the value of community.

Which doesn't make his loss any easier to bear.

"I'd give it all back a thousandfold," his father says, "just to hug him one more time."


teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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