A sorrow that never ebbs

  • Article by: Chuck Haga
  • Star Tribune
  • April 10, 2006 - 1:05 PM

KERRICK, MINN. -- It remains as idyllic a scene today as three decades ago, when Gene and Becky Lourey arrived at the farmhouse with 8-year-old Matt, the boy soldier, and four other youngsters.

Marshland rich with wildlife and thick stands of oak, maple, ash and pine fall away from the house to the Willow River, as unseen as country neighbors but just as reassuringly there. Scattered benches in sun and shade bid an easy welcome, and a three-legged dog named Buster, a cancer survivor, gamely hops to for a treat he knows is coming.

But at the front of the house, flags of the state and nation flap in a subdued late-winter breeze, the colors lowered still -- nine months later -- to mark the combat death in Iraq of Army helicopter pilot Matthew Lourey, 40.

"How long will the flags stay at half-staff?" a visitor asks, and a great choking sigh comes from Matt's father, who reaches impulsively for sunglasses. He keeps a pair of dark glasses in the house, another at his office, another in his truck. Unable to hide his eyes, he tries to compose himself enough to answer without crying.

But he can't.

'Good for each other'

Gene grew up on the Iron Range, Becky in Park Rapids and Little Falls, where they met and were married 43 years ago. Gene was 21, Becky 18.

"Becky is a cheery person, a happy person," he said. "I'm not like that at all. She was born to be a mother, and now she is the world's greatest grandmother. I'm not good at children's things -- I wasn't good at children's things when I was a child.

"But we're good for each other. Being around her makes me happier."

Becky had borne four children -- Matt was the second boy -- when they moved into the old farmhouse in 1974, and they planned to adopt four more. They adopted eight.

"We gravitated to hard-to-place kids," Gene said. "We went to the adoption meetings and there were all these parents there who had no kids at all, so we said we'd just take the kids nobody wanted. It turned out there were a lot of them. The adoption workers kept coming up here with cute pictures and sad stories."

The Loureys lost their first adopted child, 5-year-old Jay, who didn't survive heart surgery in 1973. And Fernando, adopted from Guatemala at the age of 3 or 4, died at 25 just six years ago in a diving accident.

While Becky, a DFL senator running for governor, attends to legislative business and her campaign, Gene spends much of his free time alone in their house. He alternates between two easy chairs, one in a small room lined with books, the other set in a sun-splashed bay window, where he passes hours with the history-tinged thrillers of Ken Follett and Nelson DeMille.

His office in Bruno is a 9-mile drive from the house, but there's an alternate route three times the distance. He drives it to think things through, and he carries pages torn from a desk calendar, each highlighting a book he'll try to find on a weekly visit to a Duluth bookstore. He also carries binoculars to scan for timberwolves, bobcats and bald eagles. He rarely sees other people, which is how he wants it.

"The more sorrowful I get, the more time I need to spend alone," he said. "I try not to do anything that calls attention to me. I've always been that way, but now I use it as a shield."

He is reluctant even to talk with the few score people who might best understand his grief and appreciate its still-jagged depths: the parents of 31 other Minnesota servicemen who have died in Iraq since the war started three years ago. Becky has found some solace in that, he said, but for him to talk is to ache and cry.

On precinct caucus night, Gene attended his DFL caucus, then drove two hours to St. Paul. At midnight, as they talked about how she'd done, Becky cut his hair and trimmed his beard. By dawn he was on his way home.

"I never stop," he said. "I don't eat in cafes. If you stop, you have to see people, and they'll ask about Matt. They mean well, but I ... "

He reaches for the glasses.

"I can't."

'He knew I worried'

As he drove to work that day last May, he heard on the radio that a helicopter had crashed in Iraq. Arriving at his office, he rushed to his computer, hoping to find an e-mail from Matt. "Whenever something happened over there, he'd try to let me know he was all right. He knew I worried."

There was no e-mail. Instead, daughter Maria appeared at his door.

"It was Matt's helicopter," she said.

In that instant, Gene said, he remembered the face of the surgeon who told him that Jay had died on the operating table. He heard the voice on the phone telling him that Fernando had broken his neck.

Becky got the horrible news about Matt at the same time. "My son is dead," she said to someone as she raced from the State Capitol, her immediate instinct to get to Gene, knowing how devastated he would be.

"She's much tougher than I am," Gene said.

At the funeral, he sobbed in his wife's arms.

"We know how each other grieves," Becky said, "and we've learned how to support each other, how not to trigger each other's buttons.

"We've lost three sons, we've lost two businesses, and we've had a farm auction. Those are things that can destroy a marriage. The intensity of the grief ... he is struggling. But I love him so much for who he is."

Gene had been a code breaker at the National Security Agency. Disturbed by the course of the war in Vietnam, he left to do software work for schools. Later he got into health care, helping local governments maximize their federal funding. That led to creation of the family business, the Nemadji Research Corp., which employs 70 people.

They bought most of their 2,000 acres by Kerrick relatively cheap because only a few hundred acres could be farmed. But the land's value has multiplied and provided the equity to develop their company and buy empty school buildings in Askov, Bruno and Sandstone, where they're creating a sort of regional small-business incubator. Old classrooms, labs and kitchens will house a music studio, silk-screening business, organic greenhouse and fish farm, wood products company, salsa operation and upholstery shop. Employees will have access to insurance, day care and other benefits.

"It's pretty good, rewarding work for a knee-jerk liberal like me," Gene said, smiling.

"I'm trying to make a great community for my grandchildren to grow in."

Five children, two sons-in-law and two nieces work at Nemadji, and Gene's office overlooks an outdoor play area attached to the day-care center. "Most of the time, a half-dozen of my grandchildren are playing out there," he said.

A father's tearful pride

Scattered about the farmhouse are pictures of Matt as a child: waving a wooden sword, or piloting a wooden airplane hung from a tree. In the basement, toy soldiers maneuver across a plywood diorama, a battle scene Matt designed.

"He loved toys, games and physical things, and he was always full of joy when he played," his father said. "He liked to draw, too. I thought he might grow up to design toys."

Matt's parents tried to talk him out of returning to Iraq for a second tour.

"We were war protesters," Gene said. "But Matt knew what he was born to be."

Matt was 19 when the Marine barracks in Beirut was bombed. He joined the Marines but switched to the Army Reserve so he could fly. When high cholesterol threatened to ground him, he became a vegetarian and distance runner.

Becky, who last year joined a war protest outside President Bush's Texas ranch, said she treasures the stories other soldiers told her of "hearing the whir of the helicopter blades and then Matt's voice and knowing the cavalry was on the way."

Pride jockeys with grief in Matt's father, too.

"I know better than anyone in the world that he was doing what he wanted to do," he said. "I did everything I could to get him not to go in the military, and I did everything I could to get him not to go back to Iraq.

"But he thought it was his duty. He told me he was the most experienced pilot in his unit. He trained the others.

"I think he would have gone back even if he knew he'd be shot down. And, truthfully, I admire him for that. You have to admire that dedication."

Chuck Haga • 612-673-4514

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