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Parents Try to Reconcile War Death

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was chaos on that hot morning of Aug. 12, 1990--trucks circling, troops yelling and jet engines roaring in the tense days of build-up for the Persian Gulf War.

In one corner of the runway in Saudi Arabia, weary troops had dumped their helmets, gas masks and duffel bags on the ground to use as headrests. U.S. Air Force Sgt. John Francis Campisi, who was wearing earplugs to keep out the noise, plopped down to have a cigarette.

What happened next is not in dispute: Out of the early morning darkness, a van driven by a U.S. airman lurched through the makeshift rest area. The van struck and killed 30-year-old Campisi, the first official U.S. casualty of the Persian Gulf operation, only 10 days after Iraqi tanks and infantry had invaded Kuwait.

But almost every other detail of Campisi’s death has come under question in the eyes of the airman’s parents, who live in West Covina. Was the driver of the truck cited or disciplined? Was Campisi on a secure part of the airfield runway? Or did he carelessly lie on the flight line? Was an ambulance there immediately? Or did it take 15 minutes to arrive? Were there two doctors at the scene? Or none? At the end of a frustrating two-year quest for information about their eldest son’s death, Salvatore and Margaret Campisi say they are no closer to answers that they can believe in.

The military tells them one thing, and they hear another from their son’s friends and from witnesses.

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According to the official account, Campisi had put himself in a dangerous spot and he had received quick medical attention. But witness have told the couple that their son was in a well-defined rest area with several other GIs and that it was as much as 30 minutes before an ambulance arrived.

“I’ve just had it with the higher-ups,” said Salvatore Campisi. “They’re not interested in human beings. Kids are just numbers. That’s wrong.”

Their son, a 13-year Air Force veteran who had been named “Airman of the Month” just days before he died, had too much experience to be somewhere he shouldn’t have been, Margaret Campisi said.

In October, the Campisis visited their son’s base in Nebraska to seek answers from his commander. He offered no answers, but recommended that they seek what the military calls a “mishap report.” It was the first time that the family had heard that such a report was available, even though the Omaha World-Herald had requested and received the report through the Freedom of Information Act two years earlier.

The Campisis sought the report through their congressman, Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-Pico Rivera), who requested it on Oct. 23. Neither the family nor Torres has received it.

The Times requested the report in a letter and received it 11 days later by mail, affording the Campisis their first look at it.

It told them that Sgt. Campisi had arrived, three days before his death, after traveling 23 hours through nine time zones. He was suffering from “jet lag, lack of sleep, excessive heat, stress and possibly boredom, contributing to . . . poor judgment” that led to his resting in the dangerous location, the report said. The driver of the truck also was criticized for “inattentiveness.”

The report’s findings--that their son was partially at fault--failed to clear up the couple’s doubts.

“We want this mainly for our grandchildren,” said Margaret Campisi, 56, fingering a small, gold-colored cross around her neck. “I want them to know what happened. . . . We don’t want the grandchildren to think their father was some dummy, laying out, sleeping (on an airfield runway).”

Their son was a Girl Scout and Boy Scout leader, a father of four, and the type who would invite lonely servicemen to his house for the holidays. Before he left for the Persian Gulf, his parting words to his wife, 28-year-old Charlene Campisi, were: “Don’t forget to mail the card.” He meant his parents’ anniversary card, which arrived after his death.

His parents, Salvatore, a printer and grandson of Italian immigrants, and Margaret, a sales clerk who grew up in Illinois, still live in the four-bedroom house where Sgt. Campisi grew up with three younger brothers and a sister.

It is the type of neighborhood people tend not to leave and where neighbors rally around those in need. When word of their son’s death spread, the Campisis’ kitchen counter was piled high with sandwiches, lasagna and fruit baskets.

Salvatore Campisi, an ex-Navy man, dominates a conversation about his oldest son’s death. Margaret Campisi calmly and quietly backs up her husband’s words with nods of encouragement.

They recalled that their doubts did not arise immediately when they got word about their son’s death from his wife in a 1 a.m. phone call from Nebraska.

At 4 a.m., Campisi was waiting at the window when he saw the official military car pull up. A few hours later, the news media came.

Reporters dropped by all week to talk about the first American to fall in Operation Desert Shield. The questions were routine--about his childhood, his life back home at the Nebraska base. No one questioned the official military statement about his death.

Later in the week, the doubts began.

“A reporter asked me, ‘Can you tell me a little bit about the accident?’ ” Campisi recalled. “That’s when we started getting concerned that we really weren’t getting the information.”

Salvatore Campisi sought answers from the Air Force. A response from Lt. Col. Richard Gammon on Nov. 8, 1990, said: “It is not uncommon for flight line personnel to lie on the flight line pavement while awaiting arrival of the flight crew and does not in any way reflect poor performance or lying down on the job.” Gammon wrote the letter a month after the completion of the official Air Force mishap report that said that Sgt. Campisi showed poor judgment by lying down in an unsafe area.

The Air Force sent the family an “incident/complaint form,” which is the accident report that was filled out on the day of their son’s death, and a handwritten note by an American doctor who tended to their son, said Capt. Tom Gilroy, the spokesman at the Air Force Military Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base, near San Antonio, Tex.

The Campisis said they received neither the incident form nor the note. Gilroy later said the Air Force would be happy to resend them.

“Whenever you lose someone,” Gilroy said, “you just have a million questions. If you don’t get the answer to all those questions, you’re going to be a little frustrated, I would imagine, but sometimes, for whatever reason, (such as) the circumstances behind the event, you can’t answer all the questions.”

Unsatisfied, the Campisis started their own investigation. They tracked down members of their son’s squadron. They heard from other airmen that their son was sitting in a designated safety zone when the van came out of nowhere; that it took about 30 minutes for an ambulance to come; that no U.S. doctors were present; that there was no immediate medical help available at all.

Charlene Campisi heard similar stories and said she is so disillusioned she can no longer say the Pledge of Allegiance with conviction.

“Some days I’m pulling my hair out,” she said. “It’s really frustrating. You know what happened, but yet our government refused to acknowledge what happened.”

Salvatore Campisi said he lost track of the number of letters and calls he put out trying to get answers. Gilroy, the Air Force spokesman, said it is not unusual for eyewitness accounts to vary after an accident.

“I think the family is upset they’re receiving discrepancies,” he said. “Eyewitness reports can vary, even if you have two people standing at the same vantage point.”

Gilroy also referred questions to two other Air Force spokesmen who were also unable to answer specific questions about the incident, such as whether the airman driving the truck that killed him was cited or disciplined.

Gilroy tried to answer other questions, based on incomplete reports that he had. On the question of the ambulance, for instance, he said: “I saw one (report) that said it took 15 minutes for an ambulance to come, and one of the physicians said one came immediately, but the physicians weren’t there when the ambulance came.”

Another Air Force spokesman, Capt. Bryan Holt at the Pentagon, said there were 35 Air Force families who lost loved ones in the Persian Gulf conflict, but he does not know of any except the Campisis who still are seeking answers.

Salvatore and Margaret Campisi still have nightmares about their son’s death.

Yet they insist that they are frustrated but not bitter. They are proud, they say, that two other sons are in the military. They are proud, they say, of the country’s role in the Persian Gulf conflict.

“This is our country,” Salvatore Campisi said, “and we’d do it all over again. Whatever’s got to be done, you make a commitment and keep it.”


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