December 29, 2002

War's Toll Paid Close To Home

                   Jimmy Breslin

                   The sound of war in America yesterday came from an otherwise silent street in Washington Heights. As the
                   mother, Arelis Checo, followed the casket of her dead Marine son, Sgt. Steven Checo, out of Mother Cabrini
                   Church, her wail rose through the leafless trees. Checo, a paratrooper, was killed in Afghanistan on
                   Dec. 21. [CORRECTION: Army Sgt. Steven Checo, killed in combat in Afghanistan Dec. 21, was an 82nd
                   Airborne Division paratrooper. A Sunday column by Jimmy Breslin incorrectly described the branch of the
                   military he served in. Pg. A02 Q 12/31/02]

                   There is no war without bloodshed.

                   Checo is the first serviceman killed in Afghanistan since August. During the action that began a year ago,
                   17 Americans have died in fighting.

                   The one being carried out of church yesterday was a large, beautiful young man of 22 who came from a
                   neighborhood of drugs and gunfire and wanted to be a Marine and guard America. His family begged him to
                   come home, but he re-enlisted for four years and went into Afghanistan. Why he had to die in Afghanistan and
                   take all that beauty with him and leave his mother, a Dominican immigrant, bent and deep in grief on a
                   cold day in front of a church is a dismal, hideous question. Oh, Steven Checo was ready to die for us.
                   The trouble is, we didn't want him to.

                   A year ago, George W. Bush was a little boy in a cowboy suit demanding that we smoke this bin Laden
                   out, as if the enemy were some common gunman on the streets of Yuma past. He offered a $25-million
                   reward. Nobody has claimed the money. They all would rather root for bin Laden. They shoot our brave
                  Steven Checo.

                   The pompous in Washington strut and boast about the war they say they are
                   running in Afghanistan, and the one in Iraq that they are walking into on muffled
                   feet, the better for Americans not to notice what they're doing. They're counting
                   on the nation to be thrilled by the first-day invasion notices. Who thinks of the
                   casualty lists that could follow on the second day? Watching Checo's casket
                   yesterday, you could remember nights when the names of more than 1,000 dead
                   in Vietnam in a week were scrolled over the television screens. Nobody knew
                   why we were there. Nobody knows what we're doing in Afghanistan, either. Iraq is
                   madness. And North Korea gives us a great chance to have a nuclear war.

                   The big Washington officials rarely have a dead body at their feet. How is their
                   heroism going to handle a real war? And that is bloodshed.

                   It was real in Washington Heights yesterday. There was the dead Marine, Checo.
                   And a mother mourned.

                   Suddenly, two police motorcycles roared to life and rolled out of the driveway in
                   front of the church. The hearse followed and after that a line of cars. They were all
                   going up to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

                   Three women, in their 40s, whose households have the next young who are
                   eligible to die, were standing outside and talking about war.

                   "Send your children to war, they come home like this," Nancy Reyes said.

                   "I don't want my baby to go to the service," Rosabell Tavarez said.

                   She had on a black fedora and held eyeglasses in nervous hands as she
                   watched the funeral cars pass. She said, "They come back in victory, it is so
                   great. The uniform and the medals. Everybody is up. Cheering for them. I like
                   that. This is no good, he comes home like this. I don't want my baby to die. He's
                   20. He should have a life."

                   She was asked how long she had known Checo.

                   "We were neighbors," Rosabell said. "He didn't come from this parish. He came
                   from Good Shepherd on Broadway. In Inwood. That's where we knew him from.
                   On 65 Post Avenue. I remember him growing up. He wanted to be a Marine."

                   "No good for my son," Nancy Reyes said. "He had the sergeant from the
                   Marines right behind him. 'We want your son for the Marines,' he told me. He
                   gave me this." She held out a key chain with a Marine Corps disc. "My son
                   signed nothing. He went to a computer job. He is 20."

                   "I don't want my baby to go to the service," Rosabell said "Except if there's a big
                   war. Then my baby goes. And I go."

                   "I go, too," Nancy Reyes said.

                   "Not just Steven. Everybody. Steven lived on our street. He was a lovely child."

                   "He was very hyper, tell the truth," Nancy Reyes said.

                   "But he wasn't bad," Rosabell said.

                   "He couldn't sit still. He was always moving, shaking. Every time he sat and
                   watched videos with my son he could sit there for a while but then he would have
                   to jump up."

                   "But he was good," Rosabell said. "He never got into fights."

                   "He rode his bike on the street. He wouldn't stay still riding the bike," Nancy
                   Reyes said. "He was made for the Marines."

                   "Not like this," Rosabell said.

                   The street where Checo grew up, Post Avenue, was empty in the cold afternoon.
                   It is a block of dull attached apartment houses. Checo was here until he went off
                   to the Marines. Three years ago, his mother moved to Elizabeth, N.J.

                   A unisex hair shop is across the street. A young woman, Dominican, looked out
                   from under a dryer. "Checo?" she said. She didn't know him. Three years is a
                   long, long time on these streets.

                   "He was killed in the war," she was told.

                   "War," she said, shaking her head. She didn't know about any war, either. Pray
                   that she stays that way.

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