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Knock on the Door, a Knock on the War

The knock came just after 6 a.m., way too early for visitors at the neat two-story home in the hills of Castaic.

“I remember my wife wondering who could be at the door at this hour,” says Loren Farell, thinking back on that day in July 2003.

It was to have been a big day for Farell, a Los Angeles native and Vietnam vet who was being promoted to lieutenant in the LAPD.

His daughter, Ashley, had just graduated from college and was staying with her parents while looking for a teaching job. Ashley’s husband was in Iraq, fighting a war the Farells supported and believed in.

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Farell went downstairs, looked through the peephole and saw an Army sergeant.

“You remember how you got butterflies as a kid?” Farell asks. “I got that tenfold. I opened the door, and she asked me, ‘Does Ashley Ashcraft live here?’ I said, ‘Yes, she’s my daughter,’ and the sergeant asked if she could speak to her.”

Farell knew what was coming. His daughter’s husband, Evan Ashcraft, 24, was with the 101st Airborne Division. He was a smart kid who played classical piano and wanted to join the LAPD after the war, just like his father-in-law, Mr. Farell.

“You know how cops say a shooting is like slow motion?” asks Farell, who was one of the first two officers on the scene of the harrowing 1997 North Hollywood bank heist. “That’s how this was. I stepped outside, shaking like a leaf. I said, ‘I’m her father, are you here for what I think you’re here for?’ She started crying, and she said, ‘Yes.’ ”

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Now Farell tried to figure out how he was going to break this to his daughter.

“I aged 25 years. I started to walk up the stairs and my legs weighed a million pounds each. All I could think of was, ‘How can I sugarcoat this?’ My wife asked who was at the door, and I must have been all white. I said, ‘Evan is dead.’ She started screaming, and then Ashley bolted out of her room.’ ”

Not long after they got the news, I was invited to Farell’s house by Evan Ashcraft’s mother, Jane Bright. Bright, who opposed the war, wanted to tell me a wonderful young man had died. He wasn’t a number or a statistic, she said, he was her son, and she wanted people to know the true cost of the war.

It was clear to me that Bright’s perspective put the San Fernando Valley woman in a distinct minority in the Farell house, and in fact we did most of our talking outside. I’ve been in sporadic contact with Bright since then but never saw Farell again until recently, when we bumped into each other in downtown Los Angeles.

Farell told me his daughter and the rest of the family were doing as well as could be expected, and then he said something that stopped me in my tracks. He made a comment about this crazy war and about all the angry letters he’d written to politicians and publications, trying to make his feelings known.

Hadn’t he been a supporter of the war, I asked. “That’s right,” he said, smiling over the irony of his turnaround.

He was still a conservative -- “don’t get me wrong” -- and still a law-and-order cop who will never get over “those longhairs” who spat on returning Vietnam vets. He still supports the troops in Iraq, but he’s done a 180 on the American leaders who called them to war, including President Bush, who on Friday lashed out at critics.

Lt. Farell, who works in the Rampart Division, explained why over a long cup of coffee, and he began by recalling the day he got that knock at his door in Castaic.

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“Later, we went as a family to counseling and I ended up breaking down,” said Farell. “The thing is, as a father, you can always fix things for your daughter. A broken wagon, a broken heart. This, I couldn’t fix.”

As Farell helped his daughter with funeral arrangements, the body count continued to rise, and Farell, a Republican, grew angrier. Meanwhile, he says, the Army turned the business of death into even more of a nightmare.

“The casualty assistance officer was inept regarding the body, the burial, the money. Everything was like pulling teeth, and you’re trying to figure out what part of it you’re paying for. Why are we paying for any of it? Evan died a hero and ended up getting a Bronze Star.”

Only six people -- not seven -- showed up to perform the 21-gun salute at Ashcraft’s funeral, Farell says, and one shot misfired.

“Evan got a 17-gun salute,” he says, still seething.

A month after his son-in-law was killed, Farell opened Newsweek magazine and read a story that said military officials were calling the relatively low number of casualties in Iraq “tragic but militarily insignificant.”

He flipped.

“Let me tell you how ‘insignificant’ Evan’s death was,” he wrote in a “My Turn” essay submission Newsweek did not print. “He was a young man of only 24 years, the husband of my daughter and between the two, full of plans for their life together.”

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The following February, Farell wrote a letter that was published in The Times protesting the treatment of fallen soldiers’ families.

In it, he said he was tired of empty gestures from politicians, and if his middle-class family’s ordeal was difficult, he wondered, what must it be like for less fortunate families?

“Congressmen, senators, the president and even people from other states continue to send a barrage of their guilt toward us by way of a form letter. Letters to the Army by me regarding the mishandling of this entire episode have gone completely unanswered.”

Every time another soldier dies, Farell says, someone gets a knock at the door. We all know that, but it doesn’t mean anything until you’re the one who gets the knock. In his case, he began to question the very premise of the war and every one of the rationalizations he once believed.

“I’m still waiting for word on what we’re doing there. If Evan had died in Afghanistan looking for Osama bin Laden and then the war branched out into Iraq, I might have been into this. Sure, I’ve got 20-20 hindsight. But we were supposed to stabilize the region. Yeah, nice. When will that happen? Weapons of mass destruction? Give me a break.

“Did we do it to get rid of a madman? Yeah, sure, but how do we pick and choose who we remove? Did we do it for oil? Gas is now $2.65 a gallon, and we think that’s pretty good compared to what it was, which is exactly what they want us to think.”

If it was about Sept. 11, Farell asks, why didn’t we lean on countries known to harbor terrorists?

“Yeah, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia. Hey, we just lost 3,000 people, you’ve got terrorists here, and we’re taking them out. You’ve got five minutes before we go in, and by the way, the F-16s are circling.”

I ask if we might see him marching in the next antiwar rally.

“It’s not my style,” Farell says.

But he understands the sentiment. We tried to root out our enemies and instead created a homeland for them in Iraq. Do we stick it out and hope for the best, or withdraw and pray Iraq doesn’t descend into full-blown civil war?

“I haven’t got a clue,” Farell says, and by his accounting, neither does anyone else. He wishes we’d reinstate the draft, just to get more people to wake up and pay attention to what’s going on.

“Someone will ask me, ‘Do you want for your son-in-law to have died in vain?’ No, I don’t. But conversely, I don’t want anyone else dying in vain, either. I’d love to think that down the road somewhere President Bush will have an ‘I-told-you-so’ moment, but it doesn’t look good right now, does it?”

Farell tries to get home in time for the “CBS Evening News” every night so he can watch the “Fallen Hero” segment. He always gets a lump in his throat.

At the end of our conversation, Farell tells me he’ll be going to visit Evan’s grave the next day. Veterans Day, 2005.

Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns At latimes.com/lopez.


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