Town struggles to absorb war's ultimate cost
Karina Lau's death leaves Livingston with grief, memories
By Michael Stetz
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
JOHN R. MCCUTCHEN / Union-Tribune
LIVINGSTON – The missile hit the helicopter and this town's heart.
It streaked through the Iraqi sky Nov. 2, slamming the Chinook in the tail, but it's this place that still smolders.
Because of Karina.
Karina Lau was among the 16 U.S. soldiers who died on board the craft, which crashed and burned near Fallujah.
She was 20 years old, adored Judy Garland and played 10 musical instruments. At her high school graduation in 2001, she sang the national anthem.
Once, when a new neighbor moved in next door, Karina baked gingerbread cookies for the family. "I thought that only happened in the movies," the neighbor said.
Livingston, a city of 11,000 in the Central Valley, is hardly alone in dealing with such loss.
As of yesterday, 715 U.S. service personnel had died in Iraq, and it's the heartland that aches most. An analysis by the Austin American-Statesman in November found that soldiers and Marines from America's rural counties were dying at twice the rate of those who grew up in large cities.
In California, a similar trend is unfolding. More than half the dead have come from towns and cities with fewer than 100,000 residents, a San Diego Union-Tribune survey has found.
The grim roll call keeps growing. Alvaton, Ky.; Valentine, Neb.; Klamath Falls, Ore.; Moose Lake, Minn.
Patriotism flows in many such places. Opportunity may not. For the young who yearn for opportunity or, perhaps, their first jet ride, the military can look inviting.
In Livingston, an immigrant-rich, farm-based community, it has been no simple thing for the people to get over or grasp the loss of one of their own. The pain is sharp and lingers because everybody knows everybody, or if they don't, they at least know of everybody.
Some fought tears when talking of Karina's death. Or they looked off in the distance. Or they said it went to the soul, the very soul, the loss of Karina, the first California woman to die in action in the war in Iraq.
It hardly mattered whom you talked with or where you went in this town, where Main Street stretches for all of a few blocks. The reaction was much the same.
At a sandlot baseball game, where 9-and 10-year-olds scampered as parents ate 75-cent hot dogs. At the high school, home of the Wolves, where Karina graduated eighth in her class of 200. At St. Jude Thaddeus Catholic Church, where she went to Mass and where her funeral was held.
Time – in this case, nearly six months – has not put an end to the grief.
"She was one of us. She was family," said Margaret Martin, 89, who has lived in this region most of her life.
"The people here hurt for that family. We're good about that."
For some, their support of the war has stiffened in the aftermath of Karina's death. They say that now, more than ever, the fight must go on or else such losses are in vain.
For others, doubts have crept in about why this nation is again sending its young people into battle.
Before, such internal debate was hardly the rule of the day. But now everybody has been touched.
"In the beginning, I followed it, but it didn't hit home," said Livingston Mayor Gurpal Samra. "You'd hear one soldier was killed or two soldiers were killed, but it didn't really register.
'Nothing to do here'
In her last letter home, Karina wrote of homesickness. There was a catch,
though. "I miss home. Well, I miss California, not Livingston," she wrote.
For a 20-year-old, there doesn't seem much to miss. The town's charms take time to absorb and appreciate, no doubt.
Every few hours a train barrels through town, backing up traffic a whole half-block. Here and there, men wearing straw cowboy hats hang out. There's a movie theater near City Hall, but it no longer delivers Hollywood's fantasies. It's boarded up.
Livingston is quaint, quiet and . . . well, as Karina found while she grew older, boring.
"There's nothing to do here," said Jackie Arredondo, a high school senior. She clicked off the places to go. You can hit McDonald's, Rite-Aid . . . And there, she was done.
Jobs? A chicken plant and a winery are major employers. Agriculture, of course, is big. Sweet potatoes, peaches, almonds, and grapes are grown here. Many people work in the fields or in the processing plants. Karina's mother used to work in a cannery.
Livingston's unemployment rate is 23 percent, more than triple the statewide rate. Only 37 percent of its residents have high school degrees. (San Diego's rate is better than 82 percent.) The median household income is $32,500, compared with the state's $48,000.
The city gleams, though, with an eclectic mix of races and cultures.
More than 70 percent of its residents have Hispanic roots. About 20 percent are from Punjab, a farming region in northwest India.
Generations ago, Portuguese settlers arrived. Japanese settlers also formed a colony near town.
On Sundays, at St. Jude Thaddeus, the priest holds Masses in English, Spanish and Portuguese. Last week, the Spanish Mass was so jammed that people spilled out onto the sidewalk. They knelt there, bathed in the morning sunshine, as hymns sung in Spanish drifted from the church.
Karina's mother is Mexican; her father, Chinese. They met in Mexico, their original home. Ruth worked in a restaurant owned by Agustin's sister. He walked in, their eyes met, and that was that.
They eventually moved to Livingston, where another of Agustin's sisters lived. It was a nice small town, a good place to raise a family.
Young people who grow up in Livingston look elsewhere, though.
After high school, most go off to college, to trade school, or to the military. The high school estimates that 5 percent to 8 percent enlist.
Older residents understand the exodus. More than a few of them left when they were young, only to return, lured by the comfort of small-town living.
Martha Rivera, Karina's older half-sister, lived in San Diego for two years after high school. When she came home for her best friend's wedding, she felt the tug. She settled in the neighboring town of Delhi.
"I was surprised. I missed it," she said.
But the price to get out via the military rises when a war is being fought. You can see the world, but the world of late is hardly harmonious.
Karina enrolled at the University of the Pacific in nearby Stockton, but she left after only two months. She wanted more, her family said. She wanted a challenge.
Her older brother, Luis, was serving in the Navy. Her best friend had recently joined the Marines. Karina opted for the Army.
Headed for some R&R
Karina was jazzed that November morning in Iraq. She was getting R&R,
some time away from her duties as a communications specialist.
She had been in the country since April 2003, and she did not like it. In e-mails, she complained to her family that she was bored, lonely, sick of Army grub.
She wrote that she was working in a drab air-conditioned trailer. She said she felt as though she were stuck in the middle of the desert.
So, no doubt, she flashed that big smile of hers when she boarded one of two hulking Chinooks waiting to take her and dozens of others for some well-deserved time off outside Iraq.
The lumbering helicopters had barely cleared the airfield when the missiles came. They were shoulder-fired, Russian-made.
One missed. The other . . .
The Chinook was shot down outside Fallujah, where much of the war's bloodiest fighting has been concentrated in recent weeks. Four U.S. civilians were killed there in March, and two of the bodies were hung from a bridge. Marines, many from Camp Pendleton, are now preparing to storm the town, which has become a hotbed of insurgent resistance.
But back in November, the downing of the Chinook shocked the nation. It was one of the first major losses of life for the American forces, which until then had encountered minimal resistance.
Things were changing, though.
As some Iraqis danced and celebrated the killings, Livingston prepared to mourn.
A town honors its own
The town moved quickly to honor Karina, to mark her sacrifice in tangible
ways. Proclamations, memorials – all were in the works.
Livingston set aside Nov. 2, the day of her death, as Karina Lau Day.
On Memorial Day, the Merced County-based chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America will dedicate a memorial to her in nearby Atwater, the county seat and home to a former Air Force base.
The granite block will be installed near Atwater's Vietnam War Memorial, which includes this line: "It may be they served in a war they may not have agreed with or understood, yet they served."
The veterans won't talk about this current conflict and how they feel about it.
"One of the lessons we learned is that it's not about the war, it's about the soldier," said Ed Mentz, chapter president.
Last Sunday, a portrait of Karina was put on display at the Livingston Historical Museum.
Her parents, Agustin and Ruth, took part in the small ceremony, which was attended by a handful of city officials. The parents looked tired and drained. They walked slowly.
One of the city councilmen, Bill Ingram, who served in the Navy for 37 years and pulled duty in Korea and Vietnam, read a short proclamation. Then the tiny portrait was put on display near the front door.
She used to wear a button emblazoned with Karina's photograph, but so many people would stop her and tell her how sorry they were that she started carrying the button in her purse.
Neither she nor her husband is working now. Neither seems to have the energy, the will. They don't like this war. There are too many deaths, they say. And the dead are children.
"Look at those eyes," Ruth said, gazing at her daughter's portrait.
After the ceremony, the Laus went back to the house where Karina grew up, the yard where she played, the room where she slept.
The room, which she painted herself, is purple and filled with stuffed animals and prom pictures and a rocking chair from when she was a little girl.
So much here triggers good memories.
Karina loved to sing so much that sometimes she sang all day. She wanted to go to Broadway, become famous.
Ruth smiled when talking of that.
The saxophone was Karina's favorite instrument, but she could also play the guitar, the piano, the flute, the trumpet, the xylophone . .
Her parents paused. They couldn't remember them all.
On one shelf is a videotape of the musical "Grease," one of her favorite movies. She collected musicals. She liked Frank Sinatra, too, and the buff actor Vin Diesel and monster trucks.
She was a perfectionist, her father said, smiling. One day, late for school, Karina cried all the way because she was upset about being late. If she got anything less than an A, she pouted.
The room has other touches – the kind that bring winces.
There's a red, white and blue quilt from an Alaska woman who has vowed to make quilts honoring each member of the armed forces lost in Iraq. A big picture of Karina in her Army uniform is propped on the bed. A collage of pictures her high school friends assembled for the funeral is tacked to a wall.
A folded U.S. flag, protected by glass, sits on a windowsill.
Ruth said Sundays aren't good for her. She learned of Karina's death on a Sunday.
It was a nightmare, she said, but family and neighbors rallied. A friend came over and comforted Ruth and cooked meals.
Calls came in from people wanting to help.
And at the funeral, 500 people came to say goodbye.
Union-Tribune researcher Merrie Monteagudo contributed to this report.