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COLUMN ONE : Flashbacks to Images of the War : Faces of ordinary people have been imprinted on the public mind. Their tales of grief, frustration and solace reveal the conflict’s impact on the spirit of the nation.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When a war lasts only six weeks--about as long as Lent or the NBA playoffs--everything necessarily happens at double-time. Conquest, death, even fame.

From whatever imminent moment the diplomats and tacticians fix as “V-K Day,” the official end of the war, the memory machine begins to replay itself.

This truncated war has elevated unremarkable people and places to sudden and sometimes unwelcome celebrity, klieg lights burning them into the public mind. Now it is over; the lights are switched off. Attentions and emotions veer elsewhere, and all that is left is epilogue.

In the conflict’s wake is a new grave and plans for a family cabin that now may never be built. There is a four-star general, fired by the Pentagon for his frankness then hired by CBS for his savvy, once again looking for work. There is a little street in East Los Angeles that obtained unsought celebrity by sending off five sons to the fight. There are the daily telephone calls between the dead soldier’s wife and a buddy of the dead soldier, one of seven who were the first to fall in ground combat.

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Assembled, such faces and places as these compose abiding reminders of America in war. For war can be gauged not only by miles of battlefield overrun or armaments captured but also by the marks it leaves on the spirit of the nation and the men and women who waged it.

Tom Jenkins had hoped to retire to his ranch on Bull Creek in a few years and raise cattle with his only son, Thommy. They were going to “modernize” the 160-acre spread and build a house and cabin.

Now, Tom and Joyce Jenkins must decide if they want to go it alone.

Their son, Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas A. Jenkins, was killed in battle Jan. 29 in a light-armored vehicle at the Saudi-Kuwaiti border. His freckled, stern gaze, frozen on the cover of Time magazine, became a tearful reminder of the sacrifice small towns across America have made for freedom.

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“The hurt may go away a little with time, but the feelings remain,” said Harvey Tomlinson, a family friend who watched Thommy grow up at the ranch in the rural Sierra foothills of California’s Mariposa County. “This is not going to go away in a day, a week, a month or a year. And we feel that.

“Death is forever.”

Tom Jenkins, a foreman for the state Department of Transportation, and Joyce, who drives a school bus, have gone back to work, but their lives are not their own. About 30 letters a day arrive at the gray wooden house at the end of Ferry Road in Coulterville, and the phone rings straight through supper. Seven grocery bags of mail await their attention.

“Last night we got one from Missouri, tonight Kentucky,” Tom Jenkins said. “We are just overcome with . . . it all.” There has not been much time to get out to the ranch these days, he said. He does not know whether he has the heart for it, anyway.

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War has meant two rather spectacular job changes for former Air Force Chief of Staff Michael J. Dugan.

On Sept. 17, the four-star general was fired for discussing, in an interview with The Times and The Washington Post, intended allied bombing targets in Iraq.

With the war wrapping up, Dugan will be leaving his second job as military consultant to CBS News, which hired him the day war started.

“I have gotten a kick out of talking to 12 million people a night,” Dugan said, even though “one minute 20 seconds doesn’t make it very interesting.”

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His frankness is unchanged: “I thought there was great utility in the military story being told in the press better than it had been told in the past,” a belief that got him fired from the Air Force and hired at CBS. Network military consultants “have contributed to telling that story well, providing increased credibility.”

With the war over, he is casting about for work. “I’ve learned consulting is a spectator sport, and if there’s something I’ve enjoyed over the last several years, it’s being responsible, being in charge, and that certainly doesn’t go with consulting.”

What happened in September leaves him with “no excuses, no regrets, no explanations. I’m not apologetic about anything I’ve done.”

By the way, most of Dugan’s tactical disclosures turned out to be on target.

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There were “two explosions” that changed Navy Corpsman Clarence Dean Conner’s life.

The first one, on Jan. 17, drove a red-hot, arrowhead-size piece of shrapnel into his right arm, winning him the first Purple Heart of the Gulf War.

“The second boom went off when I came home to Hemet and everybody wanted to interview me, or invite me to dinner, or shake my hand, or just say hello,” said Conner, 21.

Conner came home Feb. 15 and found his grandmother’s trailer getting crowded with letters, plaques and awards. One from his old high school honors his grandmother just for being, as the plaque reads, “the grandmother of the first recipient of a Purple Heart in the Persian Gulf War.”

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Celebrity has forced Conner and his fiancee, Stephanie Lee, 19, to abandon plans for a “small wedding” of 25 friends and relatives. “Now it looks like we’re going to have a humongous one with more than 125 people.”

Why not? The country club is hosting the reception for free, two florists have pledged the corsages and bouquets, and “a lady is baking a huge wedding cake for us with three tiers, a working waterfall and bridges connected to other cakes,” Conner said.

Oh yeah. “Here’s the Purple Heart,” he said, holding the gold and purple medallion in his left hand.

“And here’s this thing.” In his right hand was a nasty looking chunk of iron with razor edges.

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President Bush always said this war would be no Vietnam. But Vietnam, with its images of tortured American POWs, is embedded, deep and fearful, in the nation’s psyche.

When the OV-10 Bronco turboprop bearing two Camp Pendleton Marines--Chief Warrant Officer Guy L. Hunter, 46, and pilot Lt. Col. Clifford M. Acree, 39--was downed in January, it felt like it was all starting up again.

For the wives of the nation’s earliest prisoners of war, the strain was personal and public.

First, the men were listed as missing, then, briefly and erroneously, as rescued. At last, they became POWs, after the Iraqis paraded them on Cable News Network. For Cindy Acree and Mary Hunter, the relief that they were alive was tempered by a new set of worries.

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Since then, there have been no letters, no pictures. There have been telephone calls--from strangers. The military gave them answering machines and advised them not to talk to reporters “until their husbands are released and in their loving arms,” said Pendleton Capt. Rose-Ann Sgrignoli.

Cindy Acree has made only cautious, written statements, and only through the military.

Sgrignoli explained the wives’ reticence: “Until (the POWs) are free, they can be interrogated,” and wives’ comments could provide Iraq with powerful emotional leverage.

So, terrified of inadvertently aiding the captors, the wives have receded into the shadows. “If it were your husband,” asked Sgrignoli, “what would you do?”

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No one knows for sure why Gregory Levey doused himself with two gallons of paint thinner, ignited two matches and set himself ablaze two weeks ago in front of a cardboard “Peace” sign on the Amherst, Mass., town common.

Some say he was a loser looking for a quick exit from a troubled life. Others insist his suicide was the ultimate sacrifice for peace. To a nation reveling in victory, the reason seems of little consequence: His death serves as a horrific instant symbol of the unfulfilled promise of an anti-war movement that has alienated, angered and offended most Americans.

“I think the war is not worthy of anyone’s death,” said Elizabeth Ahearn of the Trap Rock Peace Center near Amherst.

Levey was alone the Monday afternoon he died, but later that week, 600 peace protesters rallied on the spot. Amherst police say they will dismantle a makeshift shrine left by sympathizers on the spot where the part-time schoolteacher died. The poems and flowers left in his memory will be given to Levey’s father.

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Five soldiers, Iraqi and American, have reported seeing an American woman soldier in enemy hands as a prisoner of war. But Leo Rathbun’s daughter, Spec. 4 Melissa Ann Rathbun-Nealy--possibly the first woman POW in the Gulf War--has been officially listed as “missing” since her truck got stuck near the Kuwaiti border and she vanished along with Spec. David Lockett, reportedly the first black man missing in the war.

Rathbun, from his home in Newaygo, Mich., remembers the frustrations of “bureaucratic asininity” from his days in the Air Force. Seeking a practical and emotional acknowledgment that she is alive, he repeatedly has asked the Pentagon: “What in hell do I have to do to get my daughter established as a POW?”

Rathbun also wrote to Saddam Hussein, asking him “as father to father” to allow the Red Cross access to all prisoners. He has not heard back.

Rathbun-Nealy, whose 21st birthday is Saturday, was the cover story in the French magazine Paris-Match a month ago. “She was originally going to make a career of the Army, but she’s coming out now” to go back to college and study psychology, her father said. “She wrote me from over there she’d decided she wasn’t going to stay in.”

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Today, Rathbun expresses confidence, even if the military does not, that when the Iraqis release POWs, his daughter will be among them.

Someone assassinated the man who held Nazih Bayda’s job three years before Bayda took it--not the most alluring job recommendation.

On the night that Scud missiles first hit Tel Aviv, Bayda, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, answered his phone to hear a man--a Jewish Holocaust survivor, it turned out--threaten to blow up his offices.

The Gulf War has changed Bayda from a 32-year-old petroleum engineer who was a virtually invisible man with an equally low-profile cause to the point man for Arab-Americans’ image.

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“Plato once said: ‘Those who tell the story rule the society,’ ” he said. “If Arab-Americans do not tell their story and improve their image, the general public will never have the right image of them.”

The Beirut-born Bayda, now a U.S. citizen, was the first to raise a hue and cry about Arab-Americans being interviewed by the FBI about his political allegiances. He was a regular on news shows. His hot line urged callers to press President Bush for an early cease-fire.

The day after the cease-fire, he was still promoting his agenda. “We hope the Palestinian people will celebrate someday going home as the Kuwaiti people did, with the help of the U.S. and the allied forces.”

The town of Arcata may tote up some war-related political casualties of its own.

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Hours after allied bombs first smacked into Baghdad, the City Council in the Humboldt County college town made what it thought was a gesture for peace and declared Arcata a sanctuary for conscientious objectors.

Two weeks later, beset by protests, radio ads calling them “traitors” and even death threats, the council apologized and rescinded the sanctuary offer.

Even now, when the war in the Gulf appears to be over, hostilities here are not.

“A couple of people I considered acquaintances--well, I never knew they were such bigots,” Councilman Bob Ornelas said frostily.

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He is one target of a new coalition to dump three council members when they come up for reelection. “Arcata has received a black eye,” said the group’s president, Robert Thomas, “and we are trying to rectify that.”

The folks of La Verne Avenue had a little war of their own going.

The working-class neighborhood in East Los Angeles got a rude introduction to the news media after reporters discovered that five young men from a single block were in the Persian Gulf.

“You don’t really want to know how I really feel about reporters,” Rachel Reyes, the unofficial leader of the parents, once told one. “After I take care of Saddam, you guys are next.”

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She was only partly kidding.

The Times began chronicling the saga of La Verne Avenue and its men in uniform last August. Once the war began, Reyes received an average of 75 calls a day from reporters, mostly TV types, some from as far away as Miami and Mexico City.

TV camera crews trampled rose beds, she said, and kicked dogs. An embarrassed Reyes scolded reporters who came unannounced to her door at 7 a.m. and found her in her bathrobe.

Twice, she became a virtual prisoner in her home after a CNN reporter stationed himself outside the house for four hours on two successive nights. She eventually agreed to an interview later if the reporter would leave.

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At the mall, at Denny’s, people recognize them. “I know you!” people say, and ask to shake their hands. It is hard for the Reyeses to fathom: “Madonna’s a celebrity--I’m no celebrity.”

Book agents, movie producers, a songwriter and politicians have done their best to share the limelight. Reyes, a trusting sort who has lived all her life in and around La Verne, chatted with most. But some left her laughing and fuming in the same breath.

After a recent photo of her ran in The Times, a woman telephoned and left a message on the answering machine: “You look like a woman who could use some cosmetic makeup advice.”

For David Saldana and Mark Rizkowsky, it would happen time and again. They would be at work--Saldana running the plumbing department at Home Depot in Van Nuys, Rizkowsky managing a Ross clothing store in Ontario--and somebody would bring up the war. Then they would be asked the question: “You know anybody over there?”

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“I’d say, ‘Well, I lost my best friend there,’ ” Saldana would answer. “They look at me like, ‘You’re kidding!’ ”

A war that left America relatively few deaths to grieve was still a war that wrenched. The first to die was Air Force Staff Sgt. John Francis Campisi of West Covina. Ten days after the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, he was hit by a truck on a Saudi runway that had been darkened against possible attack.

Death is an occupational hazard of military life, but six months after Campisi died, his best friends since first grade are having a hard time coming to terms with that. They do not question why America went to war or the risk their friend assumed. They are proud he volunteered when another soldier panicked and did not go.

But why is it, they ask, that so many were killed accidentally, beginning with Campisi? The vehicle accidents, the mechanical failures, the “friendly fire”?

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“We’ve shown our weapons work really well in combat. But we’ve got a gray area here, killing our own people,” Saldana said. “I feel like I lost my brother and that he died needlessly because of an error on somebody else’s part. Somebody who was an American. We need to do something about that.”

The big new flag, the one Ronald Sylvester Kline had bought to hang outside his Chatsworth mobile home, flies day and night now, illuminated by sunlight and spotlight.

Two days before the air war began, Kline, 52, had propped a ladder against the 25-foot flagpole to put a new brass ornament on top of it and hang the flag. The pole snapped. He fell about 50 feet down a hillside and was killed.

Ron Kline “may not have died in the war, but he died for the war,” said his eldest daughter, Collette Crothers.

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Dennis Walsh and Pete Pistone, Kline’s roommate and his friend, finished the job and sent the new flag up the pole.

Awhile back, Crothers heard a song with lyrics that included, “Your father died a hero.”

“Well,” she said, “that’s how I feel about him. He may not have died on the front line, but he would have wanted to be on the front line.”

Time hung as heavy as sandbags for medical reservists in military hospitals in Germany.

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But a swift war and low allied casualties meant that for many doctors and nurses called to do their duty, there was almost none of it to do.

Dr. Dean Duke, 49, father of four and a reserve colonel, was the only dermatologist from Provo, Utah, assigned to Las Vegas. Now, he is the only U.S. medical reserve dermatologist assigned to Europe, working in an Army hospital south of Frankfurt, Germany.

During the long winter and short war, Duke, with 11 years on active duty and 13 years as a reservist, found himself actually looking forward to watching “Twin Peaks"--"Holy hell, is that what life’s coming to?"--getting out for dinner and traveling on weekends.

It was not rough; it was not war.

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Duke insists that he has not been bored and is glad he came. But he says he will probably leave the reserve when he gets home, and believes 70% of reserve doctors intend to do the same.

“You’d be remiss or emotionally unstable if you didn’t see the reality staring you in the face with this situation. (Reserve duty) has always been one weekend a month, then you go home and resume your life. But this is incontrovertible proof that you really don’t have a lot of say about when, where or if.”

Marine Lance Cpl. Ronald Tull, his neck stuck awkwardly in a metal brace, pursed his lips tensely when the caller to CNN’s “Larry King Live” show said she was the wife of Cpl. Stephen E. Bentzlin.

Carol Bentzlin wanted to know what had become of her husband’s tape recorder--"he was making me a tape.” Bentzlin did have a tape recorder, Tull said, but it was gone--lost when a missile, apparently fired by a U.S. pilot during the battle of Khafji, destroyed their light-armored vehicle and killed Bentzlin and six buddies.

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Tull was driving the LAV-25; he was somehow thrown clear--knocked unconscious but alive. The lean, six-foot Texan lives with that lonely miracle every day, and may not yet fathom it.

“For six months, I lived, ate, slept, showered and dressed with these men,” Tull, 22, said from a naval hospital bed in San Diego. “They are men I love. They are heroes, and I miss them.”

Tull is home on the Marine base at Twentynine Palms. He has changed his phone number and will not give any more interviews. Now he seeks solace through the families of his seven fallen friends.

“He told me that he needs me as much as I need him,” said Carol Bentzlin. They have talked almost daily since that first, very public phone conversation. “I know that is true. I can sense it. He built some very close relationships there, and now they are gone.”

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Times staff writers Scott Harris, Charisse Jones, Elizabeth Mehren, Julio Moran, George Ramos, Kenneth Reich, Louis Sahagun, Janny Scott and Nora Zamichow contributed to this article.


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