Inside California’s stately old Capitol, the call comes crackling over a state-issued radio. Maintenance man Dustin Peard drops what he’s doing and climbs a steep, narrow ladder to the roof.
There, in the shadow of the grand rotunda, the 35-year-old former Marine slowly lowers the building’s three flapping flags -- the Stars and Stripes, the California bear and a black POW banner -- exactly halfway down the pole.
He is acting on orders from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who drops the flags to half-staff each time a service member from the state dies in the war.
“It gets to you,” Peard said recently on the rooftop, his words nearly carried off by a stiff April wind. “Each time we come up here, it’s because somebody over there has been lost.”
Peard is one of a team of state workers helping Schwarzenegger publicly mark the death of Californians fighting the war. With each casualty, the governor issues a news release detailing the circumstances and honoring the service member’s sacrifice. He and his wife, Maria Shriver, also send personal notes to parents and spouses.
The governor salutes not just those who lived in California but service members who were stationed here as well. He has sent out more than 344 messages of remembrance so far, including 10 that honored those killed in Afghanistan.
There is no formula prescribing how elected officials should act during wartime, and Schwarzenegger’s public commemoration of the fallen is not without controversy. He has taken heat from some groups that celebrate the flag, with members saying they find it demoralizing to see Old Glory flying at half-staff so much. The flags remain lowered for 72 hours after each death.
Other governors take a more cautious approach.
In New York, GOP Gov. George Pataki issues statements only when a member of his state’s National Guard is killed. Another Republican, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, sometimes sends personal condolences but does not release public messages about the dead.
Relatives of those killed in action say Schwarzenegger’s open marking of each death is significant, especially as the body count grows. By creating a public pause -- however brief -- the governor’s messages give them hope that the value of their loved one won’t be lost in the crowd.
“It made me feel less alone,” said Pauline Pritchett, whose brother, Army National Guard Spec. Glenn Watkins of Carlsbad, died in a Baghdad explosion last year. “The fact that he takes the time to acknowledge this person -- who was someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s uncle -- just helps with the healing a little bit.”
For Schwarzenegger, the recognition is a small gesture of appreciation for a type of public service he said he views with the utmost admiration.
“Every single time that we lose a soldier,” he told the Sacramento Press Club recently, “it hits my heart.”
The task of relaying Schwarzenegger’s sentiments to the public falls to a dark-haired woman about the age of many whose lives are ending in Iraq. While other press aides organize news conferences or craft declarations about the benefits of good nutrition, clean air and fortified river levees, Gina Grebitus chronicles the daily carnage of war.
Using a Department of Defense website, she searches for the names of Californians on the list of dead, then blends any available details with a comment from the governor. Amid the daily stream of predictable gubernatorial chatter, the eulogies stand out like marble slabs on a grassy slope.
Grebitus declined to be interviewed, but the message she dispatched about Army Reserve Sgt. Joseph C. Nurre, killed by a roadside bomb, was typical:
Maria and I extend our heartfelt sympathies to the family of Sgt. Nurre. He fought and gave the ultimate sacrifice for a noble cause and we are deeply saddened by his loss. Our hearts go out to his loved ones.
Nurre, 22, died Aug. 21, near Samarra, Iraq, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his M916 tractor during convoy operations. He was assigned to the Reserve’s 463rd Engineer Battalion, Weirton, W.V.
Nurre was the only child of Leigh and Charles Nurre of Wilton, near Sacramento. An M-60 machine gunner on a one-year tour of duty, he built roads, bridges and berms in Iraq.
In the months that followed their son’s death, the Nurres received piles of letters, from the White House, commanding officers and various dignitaries. They sit, among mementos that include the flag from their son’s funeral, waiting to be cataloged once the grieving parents can manage the task.
One letter stood out: a personal note from Shriver, sent on her gold-embossed stationery and signed “Love, Maria”:
I want you to know how saddened I was to hear about the loss of your beloved Joseph.... I know there is little I can do to ease your pain.... “
“It was a beautifully written letter,” said Leigh Nurre, “and I could tell it came from her heart as a mother.”
In the blurry days after Nurre died, his parents were unaware that the governor had issued a statement honoring him.
Then it was e-mailed to them by a fraternity brother of Nurre’s, along with word that Capitol flags had been lowered in his memory.
“At a time like this, anything that brings attention to the passing of your child is extremely appreciated,” Leigh Nurre said.
In an interview, Schwarzenegger said that as the son of a police officer growing up in Austria, he “always had respect for people who wore the uniform.” That feeling deepened after he immigrated to the United States and more fully realized the “sacrifice that made this country the great place that it is.”
The governor, who served a compulsory one-year stint in the Austrian army in the mid-1960s, has found other ways to salute those in the armed forces, whether during visits with the wounded at military hospitals or tours of American bases abroad.
Before he was elected in 2003, he went to Iraq for an Independence Day celebration with troops.
As governor, the former actor headlined a send-off for Iraq-bound troops at Ft. Irwin in the Mojave Desert -- praising them as “true Terminators.”
He and Shriver also gave 24,000 pre-paid telephone calling cards to California National Guard members stationed abroad -- a gift funded by private donations -- and have greeted military personnel at numerous homecomings.
The public eulogies that accompany each death were initiated by Schwarzenegger’s predecessor, former Gov. Gray Davis. A Vietnam veteran and a Democrat, Davis once said he believed that Americans expect to see their elected leaders acting as “comforters in chief.”
Political analysts say the messages are a uniquely nonpartisan gesture in an arena where virtually every act is viewed through a partisan lens.
“In politics, everything is scripted and there are no pure impulses, so the human side of things rarely gets discussed,” said Barbara O’Connor, professor of politics and communication at Cal State Sacramento. “This resonates a sense of personal respect -- the honoring of a life -- that one can’t help but endorse.”
Conversely, some analysts say, if Schwarzenegger showed up at funerals for the dead, it might be viewed as opportunistic, and his celebrity status might draw a media crowd and create a distraction for families in mourning.
With the Bush administration facing mounting pressure over the war, the public nature of Schwarzenegger’s salutes might seem politically risky. But O’Connor says the governor is on safe ground.
“It’s not a statement about whether we should be in Iraq or not, it’s not a hawk/dove issue,” she said. “It’s just about revering service.”
Schwarzenegger called the messages and lowering of flags “a reminder, a reminder to honor these men and women and to recognize the toll [a war] takes.”
California has lost 250 residents in Iraq.
In Tracy, the toll has seemed especially high. With a population of 78,000, the city about an hour east of San Francisco has lost five young men in Iraq.
Marine Lance Cpl. Brandon Dewey, 20, was one, killed in the town of Haqlaniyah, northwest of Baghdad, when a roadside bomber blew himself up.
His mother, Julie Conover, said his death came after Dewey had already survived shrapnel wounds in the 2004 attack on Fallouja.
“We thought maybe nothing else would happen to him,” she said.
In the family’s gloom, a few bright spots have emerged. One is the Marine Corps casualty assistance officer who has been with the family “every step of the way.” Another is the letter from Sacramento.
Dewey was an almost fanatical fan of Schwarzenegger and loved to entertain friends by impersonating the actor. At one gathering his buddies read the governor’s letter aloud and reminisced about Dewey’s dead-on impressions, especially one from his favorite Schwarzenegger film, “Predator.”
“It gave us something we could laugh about for a little while,” his mother recalled. “And I know Brandon would have appreciated that.”