POWELL, Wyo. — On a warm, sunny spring day, with the only snow atop the peaks of the gray-blue Bighorn Mountains in the distance, Joseph Childers nodded toward a large, green old-fashioned wooden sleigh with red runners in the yard. "It's things like that that make you think of him," he said softly, his eyes rimmed with tears. "He was home at Thanksgiving, and it snowed, and we hooked up the draft team."
The reality of the war in Iraq hit home in this town of about 5,000 in the badlands of north-central Wyoming when people learned that one of the first Marines to die was the son of a couple who had moved to a 124-acre farm nearby 10 years ago. Though he did not grow up in Powell, 2nd Lt. Therrel S. Childers, known by his middle name, Shane, came often from Camp Pendleton, Calif., to visit his family, and the talk in the cafes and other public places was that the first casualty in the war was a Wyoming son.
"It shocked me; it totally shocked me," said Eddie Oldman, the commander of the local chapter of Disabled American Veterans, who was wounded in Vietnam. Oldman was taking groceries to the Childers family. "We're never ready for this," he said.
Shane Childers, 30, was shot in the stomach on Friday while leading his platoon in an the assault on an oil pumping station in southern Iraq. He died in a surgical unit in Kuwait.
Powell is in ranch country, where cattle outnumber people and the local two-year college has a rodeo team. The people of this region, like those in much of Wyoming, are intensely patriotic, and many American flags flutter in the stiff March wind. Childers was born in West Virginia, went to high school in Harrison County, Miss., and joined the Marines in 1990 "a week before Hussein invaded Kuwait," his father said. He was from a family steeped in military service. Richard Brown, his brother-in-law, is in the 4th Infantry Division in Fort Hood, Texas, and is headed to the Persian Gulf. Joseph Childers is a retired Navy Seabee who served in Vietnam and maintained locks, closed-circuit television and other security systems for the military in Iran, Kuwait and Qatar. He was held briefly by Islamic fundamentalists in Iran. Joseph Childers has been active in veterans affairs and helped organize efforts to create a memorial in Powell to those who died in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, their names carved into granite from the Bighorn Mountains.
Shane Childers moved to the Middle East with his family when he was 5 and "saw his first Marines and decided he wanted to be one," his father, now a mechanic at a gas plant, said.
Shane Childers, who was not married, loved the remoteness of the farm, Joseph Childers said, and his last visit was in February.
"Shane was ready for the war," he said, referring to his son's last letter. "He wrote on a little tiny piece of notebook paper — you could hardly read it, it was so tiny — but he said he was as ready as he could be."
Childers said his family had no doubts about the mission in Iraq. "It needed to be done," he said. "We're letting too many dictators be created. The U.N. is too damn political and worthless for the most part."
It was hard to be the first family notified of a loss and the focus, however briefly, of the world's attention, Childers said. Knowing that they would not be the last family to get the word was also painful, he said. "Our thoughts and sympathies go out to other families. Prayers need to go out to those that have fallen and more earnestly for those still fighting."