Published on
the San Francisco Chronicle

Death Leaves Family with Grief, Questions

Daughter who left college to join Army killed in Iraq attack

Julian Guthrie
Karina Lau, 20, had won a four-year music scholarship to the University of the Pacific. High School Senior Class Photo

Karina Lau, 20, had won a four-year music scholarship to the University of the Pacific. High School Senior Class Photo

LIVINGSTON, Merced County, California -- Seven minutes. That's how long it took for 6-pound Karina Lau to enter world. It was the happiest moment of her parents' lives.

Seven days. That's how long it took for Lau's 120-pound body to be flown with a military escort from Iraq to her hometown of Livingston. It was the beginning of the family's darkest days.

Pfc. Karina Lau was 20 years old when the Chinook helicopter she was riding in was shot down on Nov. 2. She was among 16 Americans killed when a shoulder-fired missile struck the transport helicopter near Fallujah.

She is among the nearly 570 U.S. service members who have lost their lives since the start of war a year ago.

Like other fallen soldiers, Lau's picture ran postage-stamp-size in newspapers. Reporters descended on her family's modest ranch-style home in Merced County. Then they left. Flags lowered to half-staff were raised again. Letters, gifts and proclamations that had poured in from friends, strangers and elected officials eventually stopped.

Grief, though, remains. Sharp, heavy and unshakable as the day it arrived in the Lau's lives. It is visible in the father's hands, which shake when showing off photos; the mother's voice that cracks when remembering a happy vacation; weary eyes that have given up on holding back tears.

For the Laus, like the other families that have lost loved ones in Iraq, there are attempts to make sense of the senseless. There is a rethinking, too, of the validity of the war. The political rhetoric and reality of freeing a far-away nation from tyranny means little to a family sitting at home without a daughter.

"The first week we waited for news, for the body,'' said Ruth Lau, sitting on a blue sofa at a coffee table bearing an American flag folded into a tight triangle and kept in a wood case inscribed, "In loving memory of Karina Lau." A warm breeze rattled the screen door. A tractor passed as children streamed from an elementary school across the street.

"There was no sleep," Ruth Lau continued, wiping her eyes. "I only sit and look at Karina's pictures. I still believe she's there somewhere, that some day she's going to call me or come home."

Agustin Lau, tracing the outline of his daughter's face in a photo, said, "I had always wanted a daughter. She was my gift." The two have a son, Luis Lau, 29, who works in nuclear engineering in the Navy. Ruth Lau had two children from her first marriage.

The Laus, who met in 1971 in Mexico and married two years later, wonder whether they could have done more to stop their daughter from leaving college and joining the military. Karina Lau was something of a prodigy: She graduated eighth in her high school class of 200, sang the national anthem at the June 2001 graduation ceremony and had a four-year music scholarship to the University of the Pacific in Stockton.

Two months into college, she told her parents she had enlisted in the Army. Her enlistment photo shows her smiling broadly and wearing a Pacific Tigers sweatshirt. The Polaroid photo came with a paper frame reading, "The Army's Force of the Future.''

"We tried to stop her from going into the Army,'' Ruth Lau said, leading the way into her daughter's room, which is kept locked. The Laus say they will never change anything in the room, painted in their daughter's favorite color, lavender.

Karina was the daughter they'd always wanted, full of joy, warmth, discipline, talent -- and more than a modicum of independence. The Laus kept every report card, every class photo, every silly memento, even the "Missing Tooth Award" given to their daughter when she was 5 to mark "A special day because Karina lost a tooth!" They watched their daughter graduate with honors and sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." She played a dozen or more instruments, including the clarinet and saxophone. Since her death, teachers and students at Livingston High have raised nearly $25,000 for a Karina Lau music scholarship fund.

The daughter of Chinese and Mexican immigrants would have been the first in the family to graduate from a four-year university.

"I would tell other parents who have children who want to go into the military -- in my opinion -- don't let them go," Ruth Lau said. "Do everything you can to stop them.''

Her husband added, "They are too young, 18, 19 years old, inexperienced, still just babies."

Solace eludes the Laus. As devout Catholics, they try to tell themselves it was their "daughter's time," or "God's will." The next moment, though, they are angry and lost. Blame is spread around, never really landing anywhere. They talk of the Iraqi insurgents who fired the missile or missiles and of the Army that they feel did not provide adequate protection for the departing helicopter, reportedly shot down five minutes after takeoff. They regard the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and condolence letter from President Bush with detachment.

The letter from the White House, dated Nov. 17, 2003, and signed by Bush, reads, "Karina's noble service in Operation Iraqi Freedom has helped to preserve the security of our homeland and the freedoms America holds dear."

"We are proud of our daughter for serving, but we were not in favor of this war," Agustin Lau said. The letter from the president is one of the few things relating to their daughter that they don't plan to frame.

Ruth Lau said, "If I could talk to the president, I would say, 'Why start this war without the proof?' "

As if to contain her anger, she stood up and went into the kitchen, returning with a stack of e-mails sent from Karina to her stepsister, Martha Noel.

"I have the last e-mail she sent two hours before getting onto the chopper," Ruth Lau said. Although initial news reports said Karina Lau was heading home for a two-week visit, the Army later told the family she had only four days off at another military base.

Lau's last e-mail reads: "I'm going on R & R. I'll be back Friday. Don't worry. I'll be careful. I need some time off. Love, your baby sis."

Other e-mails sent from Iraq illuminate the reality of everyday life.

"What I would give to just be home or go outside and see something pretty, " Karina Lau wrote. "I'm here in the hot desert with nothing but sand flies. I miss home, my family, real food, my college buddies. We can't go anywhere without our guns."

A notebook recovered from her belongings in Iraq includes letters written but never sent. A letter to her parents reads, "Rest assured your daughter is in good leadership" and ends with "Love, your baby girl, Kari."

Other missives show her age, detailing her passion for pizza, music by Matchbox 20 and No Doubt and a weakness for Hollywood hunks.

"I just watched 'Fast and Furious' and I fell madly, crazy, for Vin Diesel," she wrote.

After completing basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., she went to Fort Gordon, Ga., and later Fort Hood, Texas, where she graduated at the top of her class in communications and switchboard operations. She left for Iraq on April 7. Ruth and Agustin Lau visited her in Texas shortly before she was deployed. Agustin Lau cooked his daughter's favorite dish, sauteed chicken with pineapple. They took her shopping at the local mall. Everything was recorded on home video, which they watched in silence.

"She left too soon," Ruth Lau said, her cheeks marked by streams of tears. "We don't know why."

Later in the day, as the bright sunshine softened into a kind of liquid gold, Agustin Lau visited the cemetery where his daughter is buried.

"My wife and stepdaughter come here almost every day," he said. "If I want to see my daughter, I look at pictures. I stay home. I speak to her in my mind."

Covering his eyes with one hand, Agustin Lau looked at the plot and said, "My daughter is right there, and I can't give her a hug or a kiss."

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