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Michael Smerconish Headshot

The War Comes Home

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Things like this don't happen here. That's what I was thinking while standing at a parking lot at State and Hamilton in Doylestown, Pennsylvania last week.

It's a location I know well. I used to walk through this spot most mornings on the way to high school at C.B. West, when the school was known for being a football powerhouse. Across the street is my mother's real-estate office. Katty-corner is La Maison cheese shop, where I often stop for a bite. Down the block is Kenny's News Agency, where we used to line up for Spectrum concert tickets. Still visible in the distance is where Bert's Bicycle Shop once sold my parents my banana-seat bike. Two blocks away is the County Theatre. I remember the night in the 1970s when Kevin Benstead "streaked" after the "Bad News Bears" let out. Main Street merchants. High-school hijinks. That's the normal stuff of Doylestown. Not what I witnessed on Friday night.

Ladder 79 of the Doylestown fire company raised an American flag above a crowd of a few hundred. And as the clock (a gift from the Rotary Club marking Doylestown's founding in 1838) was about to strike 8, someone called for a moment of silence.

In front of the crowd was a fit, immaculately groomed man wearing a blue Oxford shirt. He was on the verge of tears. His wife, in black, was already over that line. Equally distraught were their daughter and son-in-law. No one could blame them, or understand their loss.

They were Col. Thomas Manion, Jannette Manion, Ryan Borek and David Borek -- the family of Travis Manion.

The night was to be First Friday in Doylestown, a monthly ritual for dining out and shopping. But the evening had been recast as a vigil for Marine First Lt. Manion, who died in Iraq on April 29.

But by the time it began, its purpose had changed yet again. Now it wasn't just to honor Manion, but also another man from town as well, Army First Lt. Colby Umbrell, who died May 3. Neither fit the cliche of who's fighting in Iraq.

They were 26, scholars, athletes, warriors, patriots, and from Doylestown. Young men who could've done anything with their lives. Now there were two condolence books to sign, and, silently, the crowd did so. As we waited, a young woman named Christy Jefferson sang "Amazing Grace."

Major Adam Kubicki is the commanding officer of Military Transition Team 20. He was Travis Manion's commanding officer and was at his side when he died. He wrote a letter to the family, which they shared with me.

Major Kubicki wrote, "Know that Travis meant a great deal to all of us in his unit. He was an incredible officer, a true warrior, and an example and inspiration to us all. He was also an honorable man, willing to pursue the right path no matter the difficulty. His enthusiasm and abilities were apparent to everyone, including the Iraqis with whom we live and serve."

Meanwhile, an Associated Press story ran in this newspaper on May 1 under the headline "April's toll: 104 troops."

It's the sort of story I would have read in passing. I doubt I would've paused when I got to the paragraph that said, "A Marine died in combat Sunday in Anbar province, a Sunni insurgent stronghold west of the capital, the military said."

But the Marine who died in Anbar was Travis Manion. And when another story is written giving the final count for May, there will be one more Doylestonian in those ranks, Lt. Umbrell.

It's difficult to localize a war fought around the globe when daily stories describe a death toll pushed upward by often-faceless, nameless soldiers killed in combat.

But things have changed. Never again will I read a headline on war dead and see only words. The war has now come home.

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