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Unexpected emotions

Margot Stengel went to bed Sunday on the early side, with a heavy heart, as she had ever since her son died during his tour in Afghanistan. She was surprised when the phone rang a little before 10, and even more surprised to hear the voice of her grandson.

An often taciturn teenager, Jessee had a lot on his mind. Osama bin Laden, he told her, was dead. And it had come too late for his father, who died in December saddled with doubt about his slog through a dangerous pocket of Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border.

It had seemed a confounding mission, both to California Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Vincent W. Ashlock and to his family back home, with an objective as concrete as a handful of water. But here was a moment, Stengel told her grandson, of clarity -- finally, mercifully.

“Your father,” she told her grandson, “is tap-dancing in heaven.”

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Since 2001, more than 1,500 Americans have died supporting the war in Afghanistan, including 161 Californians, according to military databases. For the friends and relatives of those troops, the announcement that U.S. special forces had killed Bin Laden was cause for celebration. It was also an opportunity to reassess sacrifices, to wrest a historic and tangible result, at long last, from a murky war.

“He is a part of this,” Stengel said of her son. “Every step he took over there was one step toward freedom. I believe that. I’ll spend the rest of my life missing him. But his circle, his goal, is complete.”

Those touched by the war in Afghanistan know that it is far from over, that the long battle against the Al Qaeda terrorist network will continue. California Army National Guard Capt. Robert C.J. Parry, who returned home to Monrovia in August after a tour in Afghanistan, called Bin Laden’s death “a huge morale boost for us” and “a huge morale blow to the enemy.”

For some, word of Bin Laden’s death brought little consolation.

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Tracy and Arthur Pratti, their four surviving sons and their grandchildren went to a cemetery to honor Joseph C. Lopez, a son who was killed last October by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. It would have been the Marine’s 27th birthday; the family released 27 balloons.

Later that night, Tracy Pratti was summoned to the TV to watch the initial reports of Bin Laden’s death.

“My husband and all my other boys were glad. They kind of thought, ‘Happy birthday, Joey,’ ” she said.

But Pratti said she did not gain much solace; she felt strangely nauseated, she said. “I thought, ‘This is the man that started everything in motion that ultimately killed my son,’ ” she said.

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“I guess he’s gone,” Pratti said of Bin Laden. “But it doesn’t bring my son back.”

There was never going to be a tidy ending in Afghanistan, however -- no Appomattox, no treaty signed on a battleship in Tokyo Bay. Many of those touched by the Afghanistan war felt that this was as close to a moment of closure as they were going to get -- a bookend, at least symbolically, to the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

That meant, for many, sudden and often unexpected emotions.

U.S. Army Maj. Evan J. Mooldyk emailed his mother frequently during his tour in Afghanistan, noting that the war had dragged on for nearly a decade, that Afghanistan was an almost impossible assignment where it was difficult to distinguish between friend and foe. Soldiers, Mooldyk told his mother, continually reminded one another that even when it didn’t feel like it, they were driving toward the top of Al Qaeda -- inch by inch.

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“It all pointed to Bin Laden,” said his mother, June Mooldyk, her voice breaking.

After complaining of chest pains, Evan Mooldyk, 47, an intelligence and logistics officer, died in his sleep Jan. 12 in the Afghanistan province of Khost on the Pakistani border.

“I know that his group over there must be screaming with happiness,” June Mooldyk said.

Mario and Linda Ferrara were having dinner with relatives at a Redondo Beach restaurant Sunday when a bulletin scrolled across the bottom of a TV screen.

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“I didn’t have my glasses on at the time, so I squinted hard to make sure I understood what it said: Osama bin Laden had been killed,” said Linda Ferrara, whose son, Army 1st Lt. Matthew Ferrara, was killed in 2007. “We felt a profound and sudden sense of happiness.”

Hailey Patrick’s 19-year-old fiance, Cpl. Alec Catherwood, was among 25 Camp Pendleton Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment killed in Afghanistan during a recent seven-month deployment. Her mother, Christine Patrick, sent Hailey a text to share the news.

“She was very excited,” Christine Patrick said Monday. “She kept saying, ‘Really? They got him?’ ”

Catherwood was killed by a sniper Oct. 14 while Marines were on foot patrol in the Sangin district of Afghanistan.

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At a Camp Pendleton memorial service last weekend, Hailey Patrick, 18, broke down in tears as she approached an inverted-rifle display of Catherwood’s name, photograph and dog tags. The couple were planning to get married July 2. Now, Hailey is starting community college, her mother said.

“It’s been rough on her,” Christine Patrick said. “She told me, ‘Alec would be happy. I’ll bet he’s smiling from ear to ear right now.’ ”

The news swirled like an energizing wind through Patricia Valdovinos’ Huntington Park home, six months after her 24-year-old son was wounded, on his birthday, in a remote area of Afghanistan. Army Sgt. Diego A. Solorzano Valdovinos, who had emigrated from Mexico, died two days later.

First the Spanish-language television show broke in with the bulletin: Osama bin Laden was dead. President Obama was about to speak. Patricia Valdovinos huddled with her husband and three of her children around the TV. Another son, Jesus, called repeatedly from the restaurant where he works.

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In October, Valdovinos was on patrol outside an Afghanistan combat outpost when enemy gunfire rained down on his unit from nearby hillsides. Known to his comrades as “Sergeant Solo,” he was hit multiple times, including in the major artery in one of his thighs. He kept firing and directing his team even though they were pinned down, the Army said.

It was his third tour in the war zones of the Middle East. Now, with another son, Omar, in the Marines after one tour of duty in Iraq, Patricia Valdovinos said she wants to believe this will be a turning point in America’s long wars -- and her family’s sacrifice.

The special forces team, she said, “got a man that was causing so much pain for so many families. That’s a relief.” Knowing that Bin Laden is gone, she said, “brings hope.”

scott.gold@latimes.com

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

hector.becerra@latimes.com

Times staff writers Rich Connell, Martha Groves, Maloy Moore, Tony Perry, Sam Quinones, Lee Romney, and Alexandra Zavis contributed to this report.

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Times staff contributors

Contributing to the coverage of Osama Bin Laden’s death from the Washington and New York

bureaus were Neela Banerjee, Geraldine Baum, Brian Bennett, David S. Cloud, Ken Dilanian,

Bob Drogin, Kim Geiger, Matea Gold, Tom Hamburger, Kathleen Hennessey, Lisa Mascaro,

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Melanie Mason, Michael A. Memoli, Peter Nicholas, James Oliphant, Christi Parsons, Paul

Richter, Richard A. Serrano, Richard Simon, Katherine Skiba and Tina Susman.


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