Oct. 16, 2004: Town united in grief, divided on war

  • Article by: JILL BURCUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 13, 2011 - 11:30 AM

On the way to the barbershop on Friday, 4-year-old Riley Palmer noticed that many people in North Branch were sad.

His dad, Ryan Palmer, gently explained that the town's former mayor, John Pinsonneault, had died in Iraq.

"There was a nice man from here who was killed in the war," Ryan Palmer, 29, said softly.

"Why?" asked Riley, peering up as he caught his dad's sad tone.

"Because he was trying to keep us free," his father answered. "He was helping keep us safe."

On Friday, the war in Iraq hit home in North Branch, a rapidly growing city of about 8,000 about 45 miles north of the Twin Cities.

News that Pinsonneault, who was also a popular PeeWee hockey coach and an assistant high school football coach, had fallen victim to a suicide bomber Thursday in Baghdad quickly swept
through the Chisago County town.

Craig Moline, 39, heard about Pinsonneault on Thursday night when a grandmother standing near him at a soccer game burst into tears after a cell-phone call. Bob VanAlstine, a local barber, heard
about it on the radio and felt like someone had "hit him in the chest."

Shock, then grief, settled in.

"It really gets to you when it's someone you know. It's like, this is real. This is really happening," said Tim Cropper, 20, who went to North Branch High School with Pinsonneault's stepsons. "Before it seemed so far away."

A former Marine, the 39-year-old Pinsonneault was one of at least three Americans to die when bombers hit a cafe and market inside the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad. Employed by the
private security firm DynCorp to guard diplomats, he is believed to be the first Minnesota civilian to die in the Iraq war.

He had been employed by DynCorp since May 1, according to Mike Dickerson, spokesman for DynCorp's parent company, Computer Sciences Corp., of El Segundo, Calif.

Pinsonneault leaves a wife, Lorie, a 19-year-old daughter, Ashley, and three stepchildren: Missy Kosky, 21; Teresa Kosky, 22, and Jake Kosky, 18.

On Friday, family and friends like Roger DeYoung, who shared an office with Pinsonneault, streamed into the family's home north of town.

"They're doing about as well as can be expected," said DeYoung, who took comfort in knowing "John died doing something he believed in."

Pinsonneault, who was elected mayor in 2000 and served a year and half before resigning to accept another job, was resolute in his support for the war and seemed to have told pretty much everyone of that before he left.

But his death came in the midst of a fiercely fought presidential campaign and a bitter national debate over the war. The same fault lines dividing the country appeared here in sharp relief.

At Bob's Barber Shop, where little Riley Palmer got his haircut, Pinsonneault's death was a reason for VanAlstine and his staff to rally around President Bush, saying it was important to stay the course.

"I'm for Bush 100 percent," said Cropper, who works there. "You can't say it's his fault. He's doing as much as he can. . . . It's easy for others to get in there and criticize when they haven't had to make the hard decisions."

Down the street, patrons at Caryl & Company hair salon grieved for Pinsonneault's family even as they asked hard questions about the war.

"How terrible to think that maybe a loved one died for something that may not be a winnable cause," said Patty Johnson, 66.

"Or a needless cause," said owner Caryl Nelson, 60.

Across town, farmer Kurt Swenson, 21, was mulling over some of those issues at lunch.

He played football for Pinsonneault and considered him a role model and an inspiration. After one practice where a bunch of young players were goofing off, Swenson said, he watched as Pinsonneault ordered the kids to run a mile dressed in all their pads and gear as punishment. Pinsonneault didn't just sit and watch, however. He jogged alongside his young charges, earning a grudging respect from them.

Now, Swenson's friend and coach is gone. And it has caused him to take a hard look at the two presidential candidates. He doesn't want to abandon the cause Pinsonneault believed in. But at the same time, he's alarmed by the growing violence and the cost in American lives.

The Defense Department "didn't plan out before how they'd handle it," Swenson said.

Like many rural towns, North Branch has its share of young people in the armed forces. Yellow ribbons flutter from many trees and "Support our troops" signs sprout from many yards.

Mark Thelander, a computer systems expert, recently welcomed home his 26-year-old son Matthew Thelander, an Army Reservist who served an extended tour of duty in Iraq.

When he heard of Pinsonneault's death on the radio, grief washed over Thelander in the same way he felt relief that his son had returned home safely.

"Without a doubt, there was . . . the phrase, `There but for the grace of God,' " Mark Thelander said. Pinsonneault's death "sure makes it more personal and brings it close to home, but it was already personal."

Bush/Cheney signs decorate Thelander's yard, and he believes Pinsonneault's death is a reason to leave them up.

"John recognized the danger but he was there for a reason . . .to complete what we have done and to give the Iraqi people a chance to move forward," said Thelander, a Vietnam veteran.

Still another veteran, Milt Krona, 76, who served in Korea, saw Pinsonneault's death in a different light.

"We really don't have any business being over there," said Krona, who retired from the Department of Natural Resources 19 years ago. "This is not being unpatriotic. It's actually the other way around."

Back at the barbershop, Riley and Ryan Palmer's discussion soon included another word: hero.

Pinsonneault helped keep the "bad guys" from hurting more people, Ryan Palmer told his young son.

Pinsonneault, Palmer said, was one of the "good guys."

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