A Marine with local roots was killed in Iraq, leaving behind an extended family with differing opinions about the war
Out in the middle of bleak and desolate nowhere, in the badlands where Iraq meets up with the Syrian border at the Euphrates River, a war was being fought in the desert town of Al Qaim, Iraq.
In photographs taken by American soldiers stationed there, the town appeared flat and awful, like a scorched, rocky wasteland with a river snaking through it.
Marine Capt. Alan Rowe was not bothered much by the lack of scenery and awful heat. He was there to do work he felt charged to do on behalf of his country. In the early fall of 2004, as the war stretched out toward its second anniversary, Al Qaim—nicknamed “meadow of mines”—was an exceedingly dangerous place. Sunni insurgents continued to escalate their bloody campaign against U.S.-led forces and their local Iraqi benefactors.
As a commander of Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Rowe’s job was to stop insurgents from crossing into Iraq from Syria and to halt smugglers from getting black-market items, like weapons, across the border. Because the 400-mile-long shared boundary is unfenced and wide open, with only a few guarded checkpoints, the route can be crossed anywhere by foot, on donkey or by four-wheel-drive vehicles or tanks. The path through Al Qaim is the Middle East’s quickest western route to and from Baghdad. So, Marines like Rowe—in their desert cammies, body armor and Kevlar helmets—spent their time searching for, detaining and sometimes attacking Sunni insurgents who condemn American soldiers and U.S. policy in Iraq. In turn, the Marines had come under increasing attack from mortar and rocket fire and mines lurking about. The soldiers were also the target, randomly, of hidden, remote-triggered explosive devices.
Born in Woodland in Yolo County, Rowe, 35, had come to be in this dangerous place at this time because, at age 17, just out of high school, he had joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He served as a grunt soldier for a while and then let the Marines put him through college at Boise State University. He re-enlisted after that and, in 1991, was deployed to the Gulf War, where he fought, according to his father, “behind enemy lines,” presumably killing while trying not to be killed.
With his ruler-straight posture and buzz-cut blond hair, Rowe was said by friends to look like a human Ken doll or a living version of Buzz Lightyear, the animated character in Toy Story. Indeed, Rowe had a firm jaw and a hard body that looked like it belonged to someone who never left the gym. To add to it, he had a spotlight smile, a winning personality and intelligence, as evidenced by his academic achievements in college and in military training school. Certainly, Rowe could be considered one of those few good men.
In June 2003, Rowe was deployed to Iraq, where he told family members he was involved in civil-affairs projects such as rebuilding schools. After seven months there, Rowe was given leave and went back to his home near his unit’s Twentynine Palms base north of Palm Springs.
During this time, he and his wife and children made multiple trips to the Sacramento region to visit his 100-year-old grandmother and extended clan of dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins living nearby. Rowe did not know at that time that even the most trivial details of his actions and conversations during these visits would be remembered and would reverberate into family legend.
By the end of August, Rowe was deployed to Iraq again, this time to Al Qaim. He left his home on August 25 and spent several days getting to Kuwait and a couple more days in that country. Finally, he entered Iraq.
He had only been in the country three days when the worst happened.
It was September 3, 2004. The company Rowe commanded was taking over for a platoon that was set to leave within the week. As part of the transition, soldiers in Rowe’s platoon had to drive around in an armored Humvee and secure certain checkpoints, like bridges, in case explosives had been placed there by insurgents. Rowe knew his men were nervous that day; they’d just arrived in Iraq. So, he did what company commanders normally don’t do: To ease their worry, he accompanied them in driving to the checkpoints.
The Marines set out in the Humvee onto the bleak desert terrain, searched for explosive devices at two checkpoints and found nothing. Then they approached a third site, a floating bridge made of wood planks, which spanned from one side of the Euphrates to the other. They parked the vehicle a few hundred feet from the bridge, near a large sandbag-filled barrier used to block traffic.
Rowe and his men left the Humvee and waited near the bridge while engineers examined it to see if it was safe. When the bridge was declared OK, Rowe and the others returned, walking, to the Humvee. En route, a remote explosive devise was detonated inside the barrier that had not been checked.
The force of the blast created a lethal pressure wave that, experts say, moved toward Rowe at 6,000 mph. He was killed instantly, blown apart in ways unimaginable.
Dead alongside him were 1st Lt. Ronald Winchester; Lance Cpl. Nicholas Wilt; and Lance Cpl. Nicholas Perez, a Marine from another platoon who was just days away from finishing his tour of duty. The explosion did not result in a firefight, nor any arrests, since whoever set the improvised device had long since fled.
Those not injured in the explosion covered what remained of the four bodies with a tarp and called in soldiers who are specifically assigned the grim duties that follow. Either by helicopter or by Humvee, the human remains of these men then were taken to a “collection point,” where the bodies were zipped into rubberized canvas pouches to await transport home.
A Marine combat correspondent described the type of service that likely happened next. The ceremony, which is supposed to be held back at the base shortly after a soldier is killed in combat, was no doubt brief and regimented, as are all things military. A helmet would have been placed on top of a service rifle planted, bayonet down, into a sandbag behind a pair of combat boots. This makeshift monument would have been adorned with Rowe’s identification tags. The national anthem would have played. A chaplain would have made remarks.
Rowe’s family, obviously, was not present at this, his opening farewell. But none of them doubted that Rowe believed, up to the moment of his death, that he was present in Iraq to bring freedom to the people of that country.
On Friday, September 3, 2004, came a knock on the front door, the one a soldier’s family dreads most.
In some part of her mind, Dawn Rowe always knew it could be coming. But, deep down, she wasn’t prepared. Who could be? Her husband was powerful, indestructible, a force of nature. Like most young Marines, Alan thought he’d live forever.
She opened the door.
There were three of them there, two uniformed Marines wearing their dark green “alpha” uniforms and a chaplain. Once inside the family’s suburban home in the desert town of Yucca Valley, one of the Marines proceeded to deliver the formal, prepared speech that is set forth in a military booklet called the Casualty Procedures Manual. “The commandant of the Marine Corps has entrusted me to express his deep regret that your husband, Alan, was killed in action in Iraq on September 3, 2004,” said the Marine.
At first, Dawn, Alan’s wife of 11 years, thought it wasn’t true—it couldn’t be. They must have gotten her husband mixed up with another Marine. “I didn’t even know that Alan had arrived in Iraq yet,” she said. “You go through stages,” she explained half a year later. “It starts with disbelief.” But soon comes the crashing realization and dull shock. It was true. Alan was dead.
Dawn called her mom, who lives nearby, to come over. She composed herself. Then, one by one, with the Marines still present, she took up the awful task of telling her two young children, 5-year-old Blake and 3-year-old Caitlin—that their father would never again be coming home. “I told Blake first,” she said. “In the beginning, he was excited because his dad was in heaven. Then he got extremely upset.” According to Dawn, Blake soon became focused on whether “the bad guys killed his dad, or was it a random explosion.”
Next she told Caitlin, who was of an age at which she didn’t yet understand entirely what being dead meant. Dawn remained stoic and honest. She felt she had to keep it together for the kids. In fact, she didn’t cry, she said, until later that night alone in bed. The next morning, Caitlin came into her bedroom and asked if her dad was still dead.
A single parent, Dawn is now head of her family unit of three. Her large desert home, with its tall cactus plants in the front yard, has a kitchen and living room devoted to her late husband’s memorabilia. The walls are lined with awards and trophies Alan received during his military career and for his many hobbies. In the living room, a fishing rod is artfully strung up along the wall along with other tokens that reveal a family with a love of the outdoors. A large, framed glass case on the long kitchen wall holds dozens of medals Alan received for exemplary service as a Marine. A triangle-shaped glass box contains the American flag that was draped over his coffin.
It was Dawn’s mom who originally got the pair together. In 1991, she boarded an airplane and happened to get a seat next to a polite young Marine in uniform. Their conversation was respectful and lively and led to a friendship and correspondence. “Alan was a traditional type of gentleman,” Dawn said later. “My mom was surprised to meet such a perfect-picture Marine.”
Dawn eventually was introduced to Alan, and the couple fell in love. Dawn’s mother got her wish for her daughter to marry the man she’d been so impressed with in midair. The pair married in 1993, and then the husband and wife moved to Idaho, and she got her first post-college job in the publishing industry while he continued his career as a U.S. Marine. After Alan’s deployment in the Gulf War, the couple went on to have children—young ones who now must face the future without their father.
John Currey, a Dixon cousin and close friend of Alan’s, spent time with him when both were young. The two played “war games” together as children, said Alan’s dad. When they were 17 years old, they spent a summer during the wheat harvest at their aunt and uncle’s ranch in Winters. They spent time “four-wheeling, talking, hiking” and generally “chasing cows,” said John. “We were always just close,” he said. “We were always on the same page.” John and his wife, Tacy, have children near the same ages as the Rowe kids, and, in fact, the two young families dreamed of one day owning adjacent properties in the rural northwest of Idaho or Montana.
When John got the phone call telling him Alan was dead, he was stunned. “It was one of those times when you walk around in a dazed world. … We didn’t think of him being exposed as much,” he said.
“It’s hard to look beyond the sadness and tragedy,” said John, who, like Dawn and his own wife, voted for the re-election of the president. Despite some reservations about the war in Iraq (“you can see the good and the bad”), John hopes in the long run it will end up making lives better for the Iraqis.
On December 7, it was Tacy who accompanied Dawn and her kids to Camp Pendleton when, along with 39 other families of Marines who died in the Iraq war, Dawn met with then newly re-elected President George W. Bush.
Tacy described the day as both exhilarating and exhausting. The families, which all had lost loved ones, met in an expo-like auditorium on the grounds of the Marine base and knew they were in for a three- to four-hour wait. Bush flew in and addressed throngs of cheering Marines. He talked about the war and the importance of the still-upcoming election in Iraq. The families did not see the speech live but watched in their auditorium via a television relay. The press was not invited to cover what happened next.
The grieving families had been grouped up in four- to five-family sets and organized to wait in small trade-show-like booths, with high black curtains separating one from the next. There was catered food. The small children were given M&M’s and crayons to help them pass the hours. Young Blake kept asking his mom, “Where’s the pastor? Where’s the pastor?” He had confused the president he’d just seen behind a podium on television with the visual of a pastor behind a pulpit.
When Bush entered the cubicle with Dawn and the kids, he was gracious and unscripted, said Tacy. “He thanked us,” said Dawn, “and told the kids their dad was a hero and a patriot.” Blake had been scheduled to receive a citizenship award in school that day, so Dawn arranged for Bush to personally sign and bestow it on him. Dawn, the ever-composed mother, actually “cried a little bit,” said Tacy.
“Bush had tears in his eyes,” said Dawn. He told her it was “the hardest decision he’d ever made, to send troops over there,” she said. “For every relative who is angry and bitter, there are many more who remain resolute in our respect for our husbands and their missions,” Dawn said she told the president.
Tacy wasn’t supposed to take a photo, but the president told her to go ahead and snap one anyway. When she got home, Dawn sent the photo via e-mail to the soldiers stationed in Al Qaim, where her husband had been killed. She felt it would help Alan’s Marine buddies to know that Bush showed concern for his widow and children.
Dawn has kept busy since that terrible knock on the door—raising her kids, responding to the many e-mails and taking care of the myriad tasks that rushed into her life in the aftermath of her husband’s death. The military has been there for her, she said. In January, she and the children attended a ceremony where her husband was posthumously given a promotion to major. Her church family also has been “hugely supportive,” she said. “We’ll get to see [Alan] in heaven. … It’s comforting to know he’s there already.”
Dawn believes her husband’s death was “meant to be” and finds comfort in knowing that Alan felt strongly, in her words, that “the U.S. should not abandon the people of Iraq.” As for Dawn’s view of the war, she remains steadfast. “My view is in support of the president and the war and the mission,” she said five months after her husband’s death. “That hasn’t changed.”
Evelyne Rominger was first a Rowe—the eldest of six siblings born to a pioneering, fourth-generation Yolo County farm family.
When she married Richard Rominger, who also was raised on a local farm, her clan’s connection to all things agricultural was strengthened exponentially. Graduates of the University of California, Richard and Evelyne went on to champion agricultural issues for the next 40 years, with Richard serving as director of the state Department of Food and Agriculture from 1977 to 1982 under then-California Governor Jerry Brown and eventually working as U.S. deputy agriculture secretary for two terms under former President Bill Clinton.
To visit the Romingers’ ranch outside Winters today, one must drive long miles down county roads outside of Davis, past seemingly endless fields that have been turned over to make way for the spring planting of sunflower and tomato crops. At last, one comes up alongside a dirt road that leads to the residence. Surrounded by trees that give privacy and break the wind, this rambling ranch home has comfortable couches and unspoiled views of the family’s farm acreage.
This is the place where Evelyne last saw her nephew Alan. “When they go, and you know their whole life history,” she said, “it’s really hard.”
Evelyne thinks Bush made an error in sending American soldiers into Iraq. So does her distinguished husband. “I think it’s a mistake we made,” she said. “We suffer for it. … Someday we’ve got to learn to solve political problems without sending our children out to kill each other.”
Still, Evelyne has lived long enough to not let differing political opinions disrupt the family. “You have to separate the war from the warriors,” she said.
With her bright white hair and natural, engaging style, Evelyne is the picture of a woman who has experienced life fully and learned to age gracefully. She gets tearful talking about her brother James’ only son, Alan, and the wife and children he left behind.
She remembers when she and her husband, then working in the Clinton administration, lived in Washington, D.C., and attended one of Alan’s graduation ceremonies at Quantico, Va. She recalls school officials being extremely concerned about where she and her husband should be positioned in the regimented seating arrangements set up for the event. Though Richard was a civilian, his lofty title gave him a rank that was the equivalent of a military general. Evelyne remembers how proud she felt of her nephew at that time and, at another graduation, when Alan won three top awards: one for academic achievement; one for military prowess; and a final one for leadership, as voted on by his classmates. “He was exceptional,” she said.
Her nephew’s last visit to the Rominger ranch was in April 2004, when Alan and his wife and children attended the funeral of her mom, Alan’s grandmother, Lillian Barrett Wood Rowe. The matriarch of the family, dubbed “Grandmother Rowe,” died half a year after celebrating her 100th birthday. Her funeral and the following day’s annual Easter picnic on the farm are remembered in great detail by family members who were there. That’s because it was the last time most of them would ever see Alan alive.
Back at the ranch house after the funeral, Evelyne’s extended family gathered to share a meal; to tell Grandmother Rowe stories; and to honor a woman who, with her vigorous lifestyle and Quaker heritage (she used to ask, “Where is our Department of Peace?”), had managed to become a centenarian. A devoted grandson, Alan was famous for engaging his grandmother in long conversations, said Evelyne, because both liked talking about “the big issues” but were respectful of different viewpoints. Alan attended his grandmother’s funeral in a Marine officer’s uniform, as is customary at formal occasions. That afternoon, and the next day at the picnic, family members constantly seemed to circle around Alan, asking him questions about the war and his experiences there.
Evelyne’s eldest son, Rick Rominger, a UC Davis graduate and one of three sons who now helps run Rominger Brothers Farms and its offshoots, remembers it all well. “The sun was going down, and people were still crowded around Alan,” he said. “We knew plenty of people didn’t agree with the war, but in the family setting, nobody really wants to argue that much.”
“It’s safer to talk about sports,” he grinned.
But the questions went on. Alan’s father, James Rowe, who’d flown out from Idaho for his mother’s funeral, thought he’d get some one-on-one time with his son during the visit. But “I had to stand in line,” he said, laughing. Everyone wanted to talk to Alan.
Evelyne’s son-in-law challenged Alan about the war directly, but others just wanted to hear what it looked like over there, what Alan did with his time. “Dawn wanted him to play with the kids,” said Rick, “but he kept answering questions.” The family was well aware at the time that the Yucca Valley Rowes both felt strong support for Bush and the war in Iraq.
Rick, who served in the Peace Corps in his youth, said he felt America should not have gone to war in Iraq. His view now is “more like Senator John Kerry,” who believes, “now that we’re there, we’re obligated to bring some stability before we leave.” Rick’s brother Charlie Rominger, another of Evelyne’s sons who graduated from UC Davis and took up work for the family farm, concurred. “I thought the war was not the right thing to do,” he said. But he shares his brother’s admiration for Alan’s devotion to being a Marine and hopes the end result of the war will be an improved life for the Iraqis.
“We all have different views in this family,” explained Evelyne. Everyone has a different little place on the spectrum. “It’s just like in the country,” she added.
At the Davis cemetery after Grandmother Rowe’s burial service, Alan asked his father to walk him over to the grave of another relative, Jimmy Rowe, who had died in combat in Vietnam in 1968, the year Alan was born. So, the father and son strolled over to that grave, with some members of the family watching from a distance.
A 6-foot-5-inch basketball star at Davis High School, Jimmy graduated in 1964, enrolled in Sacramento State University, received his draft notice and then enlisted to go to Vietnam to “fight for liberty,” he wrote. He was 20 years old when he set foot in Southeast Asia.
His sister, who later died of cancer, published a book containing the many letters and drawings that her brother had sent home from Vietnam. In the book, Jimmy paints a sometimes-graphic picture of the war and its gruesome realities. In his letters, he often asked family members to send canned fruit, Jiffy pudding mix, film, stamps and copies of the Davis Enterprise and The Sacramento Bee. The small volume, titled Love To All, Jim—which is how Jimmy always signed off in his letters—is cherished dearly by members of the Rowe clan. Alan had read Jimmy’s book, says his father, who himself served in the U.S. Air Force. James said his son had been deeply moved by Jimmy’s patriotism.
James described the experience of them walking over to Jimmy’s grave. Alan approached it, stood solemnly at attention before the stone marker and lifted his right forearm sharply to his forehead in a military salute. “It was sort of touching,” said James about the incident. “He was giving Jimmy his due honor.”
For her part, Evelyne opposed the war in Vietnam and still mourns the loss of Jimmy in that war. The sight of her nephew Alan in uniform, standing near Jimmy’s grave, was therefore unsettling. “It was one of those really haunting moments,” she said. Later she added, “Now we’ve had two [killed] that we shouldn’t have had. … You cry for what is lost, and you cry for what could have been.”
Three memorial services were held for Alan B. Rowe.
The first was the one organized by the Marines in his platoon in Al Qaim, Iraq, shortly after he was killed. Another was held at the military base near his home in the high mountain desert of Twentynine Palms.
But the most noteworthy of Alan’s funerals was held on Saturday, September 11, in the Mountain View Cemetery near Soldier Mountain, Idaho, where he and his family used to ski and where he spent most of his young life. This is the part of the world where Alan’s father, mother, stepmother and sister still live.
The graveside service, with its flag-draped casket and full military honors, was a tribute to a man who was respected by fellow soldiers, revered by a large and diverse family clan and missed everyday by a wife and two children. Attending from the greater Sacramento region were Alan’s extended family—about 40 Rowes, Romingers, Curreys and the rest.
The governor of Idaho arrived. So did plenty of Marines. Friends from throughout Alan’s life stages were attendant. All present learned new things about this man during the course of the weekend, including the fact that Alan had been in three bad automobile wrecks in his lifetime, as a driver and passenger. He had managed to survive each crash, though others did not. “You’re gonna run out of those nine lives,” his father once told him.
Alan’s dad created a keepsake for those at the funeral: a booklet that featured photographs and news clippings, especially from his early years—his farm-boy days, his prize-winning cattle and Future Farmers of America trophies. In addition, multiple poster boards with mounted photographs of Alan’s life and loves were on display before the graveside service. Many of the images followed the course of his military career, with some of him in training, one of him hanging precariously off a rope out of a military chopper, and some of him with fellow soldiers during the Gulf War. Another photo showed Alan as a child, earnestly wearing his father’s oversized U.S. Air Force uniform.
Still, the display was dedicated mostly to images of Alan as a family man: him with his wife and children posing at Mount Rushmore and him holding his son and daughter after their births. One photograph showed him wrapped up head to toe in toilet paper—an impromptu mummy on Halloween. Each photo showed a man who seemed set on balancing a military career with being a good father, husband and friend.
Family members remember one woman at the post-funeral gathering talking unreservedly about the election that was soon to take place in the United States. The woman spoke of how Alan died defending freedom and how he would have wanted them all to support the war and re-elect Bush. Needless to say, liberal members of the family shuddered at this remark. It would not be the first or last time that a violent death in war was evoked to bring meaning, to continue the cycle, to sanctify the cause of a soldier’s demise.
For the Marines back in the desolate desert of Al Qaim, the violence continues unabated. In total, more than 1,500 American soldiers have died in Iraq since the war’s launch two years ago this month. Three weeks ago, another Marine who served in Alan’s regiment was killed by a homemade bomb in Al Qaim just as he was nearing completion of his tour of duty. But most members of Alan’s unit survived and will be returning home to Twentynine Palms shortly.
In the months following Alan’s death, his widow and father received piles of sympathy cards and letters from all corners of the country. Dawn has a thick Manila folder packed with condolences from people like former President George H.W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others. Maria Shriver sent a book she’d written about how to explain death and dying to children. Dawn framed one condolence letter, the one from President George W. Bush, and hung it in a place of honor in her home.
Perhaps the letters will find their way into the scrapbook Dawn is making for Blake and Caitlin, so that they can come to know their dad one day in most, but not all, of his dimensions. In the end, these two will grow up, learn to think for themselves and attempt to make sense, in their own way, of the terrible loss of their father.