HOLMEN, Wisconsin - It's the sight of body bags labeled with the names of dead soldiers that bothers Major Mark Parker the most about his missions to Iraq.
"In an e-mail, he said that over here (in the U.S.), we think of numbers, but when you actually see the body bags, the reality of war sets in," Parker's mother, Jean, said from her home in Holmen.
Parker, a 1979 graduate of Onalaska High School, is in the Air Force Reserve and was recently sent to Kuwait as part of the crew of a C-130 transport plane.
"Yesterday, I flew my first dead soldier out of Iraq," Parker wrote Dec. 20 in an e-mail to his mother. "I don't know his exact age, but I'm sure he was just a kid."
The young private died three days earlier when an improvised roadside bomb exploded beneath the Humvee he was driving in a convoy in northern Iraq, Parker said.
"There was no ceremony when the Army delivered his body to our C-130," Parker wrote. "He was in a body bag, strapped to a (stretcher), which was on the back of an open Humvee."
The body was loaded into the plane and secured to the floor, and the 60 soldiers who boarded afterward "had to endure the two-hour flight from northern Iraq to Kuwait with the remains of the private right there at their feet," he wrote.
"I still get teary-eyed once in a while when I think about this young man and his family," he wrote. "It's visions like that which remind me that war is not glamorous, that war is not a video game."
When the huge transport landed in Kuwait, all the soldiers and the plane's flight crew stood at attention and saluted as the private's body was removed, he said.
In addition to transporting the dead, Parker's missions often include picking up troops going home and bringing in their replacements.
"There were smiles on the faces of the soldiers who were coming out and frowns on the ones going in," Parker wrote of one such assignment.
"I feel a lot of sympathy for these poor troops we're taking into Iraq," he wrote. They go on patrol and are being shot and killed every day, yet they never know who the enemy is."
According to Jean Parker, her son, too, has been shot at.
"I'm very concerned for him, but he says he is more worried about the troops on the ground," said Parker's mother. "He said that at least he has some equipment for protection."
Parker is not new to warfare. He flew cargo planes in the first Gulf War and Kosovo while in the Air Force.
Parker's reserve unit is based in Milwaukee. Aviation is also Parker's avocation - he's a pilot for Delta Airlines.
Jean Parker said she's not sure when her son will be coming home, but being able to exchange e-mails with him has been wonderful.
"We're a military family. I was a flight attendant during the Korean conflict and my husband was in Iceland at the time. The only way we had to communicate was by regular mail," she said. "But having e-mail now is just so absolutely incredible."
Mark Parker has only one wish as a new year gets underway, his mother said. It came at the end of one of his e-mails.
"I hope you join me in praying and hoping that this conflict will come to a speedy end and that all of us will be able to return home soon," he wrote.
Parker added one more closing thought.
"Please put the private and his family in your thoughts and prayers."
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