Awaiting a safe return

Dale City resident Helen Manchas watched television Sunday and learned with the rest of the nation that U.S.-led forces had suffered their worst casualties so far in the war with Iraq at a town called An Nasiriyah.

But Manchas knew more than most.

Marine Cpl. Daniel Strong, Manchas’ 20-year-old son, had sent a taped message home earlier telling his family that his unit was assigned to take that particular town and its bridges.

Strong, a 2000 graduate of Osbourn Park High School, is a Humvee .50 caliber-machine gunner with the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

“You can imagine how I fell apart on Sunday,” she said. “And am still falling apart because they’re still fighting.”

Manchas is like many family members and friends of service members left homeside watching television news reports of the war — unable to do anything but wait.

“One of my friends said, ‘Helen turn the news off.’ I said that’s the only way I feel close to him,” she said.

CNN correspondent Alessio Vinci is embedded with Strong’s unit and Manchas watches his reports from the field hoping each time to catch a glimpse of her son.

“We haven’t gotten a phone call. No news is good news,” she said.

Manchas supports both of the main allies in the war — America and England. She is British by birth and American by her first marriage to Strong’s father who is also a Marine. Strong was born in Nahariya, Israel.

Strong is one of many Prince William service members in the Middle East who have been adopted by area schools.

One of his former teachers told Manchas she was surprised to find her class was writting to one of her previous students.

“There’s only one Daniel,” she told his mother.

Capt. Tim Porter, head of the Navy ROTC program at Osbourn Park, said there are many moms like Manchas in Prince William. Strong is one of probably 25 of his former students that have gone into the military over the past five years, he said.

“I watch them grow from being skinny little ninth-graders to being fairly mature 12th-graders,” Porter said. “As parents and teachers, you armed them with the stuff that they need to go out into the world. In my case, I hope the things I taught them about leadership and character are useful to where they are now.”

Manchas’ home in the Nottingdale neighborhood displays two yellow ribbons and an American flag on the front porch. She wears a golden Marine Corps mother’s rose she will take off when he comes home.

The children of the neighborhood grew up with hers, so neighbors keep in touch, she said.

“I don’t feel alone in a sense because I have my family around me, and friends … there’s a bond, there is a definite bond,”

The Marine Corps has been “incredible” to Strong’s wife Cessie Strong, Manchas said.

Manchas’ husband, Michael Manchas, is her rock during this time, she says. “The longer they’re there, the more scared I get because the guardian angels are working overtime,” Manchas said.

Strong encouraged many of his friends and neighbors to join the Marines, and Manchas’ stepson, Edward Manchas, 19, just enlisted. He begins 18 months of radar training next week.

Manchas does not watch peace demonstrations on the TV. She draws on her experiences growing up in the Middle East when reflecting on whether this war will prevent another Sept. 11. Her dad worked for the United Nations.

Wars have been fought for many years and each time it’s always the higher-ups who make the decisions, she said. The people on the street do not necessarily want to conquer the others. The Arabs and Jews she became friends with in the Middle East, both have legitimate positions, she believes.

“All I can say is, walk a mile in an Israeli’s shoes and walk a mile in a Palestinian’s shoes and make up your own mind,” she said.

The reality of war did not sink in at Christmas when Strong was home nor when he shipped out, she said.

But it came to her three weeks ago when she got a letter.

Manchas carefully unfolded the looseleaf sheet of paper and read again the last lines Strong wrote. He told her he loved her and if he died he did not die alone and unhappy.

“This is not a letter that a mom wants to get,” she said, breaking up a little. “I think it’s one of those letters that you probably have to write. And he says, everybody is scared, but their training — that’s their job. That’s what he does every day, he trains. So I got some comfort out of that.”

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