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Winston-Salem Journal

Proud But Wary; The Parents Of 2 Marine Reservists Are Anxiously Waiting For Their Return


April 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Winston-Salem Journal, Piedmont Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 

Jose Vazquez Jr. and Blake Johnson are lance corporals with a Marine reserve company from Greensboro specializing in communications. They're both in their early 20s, lean men with confident smiles in the photos that their parents proudly display.

Vazquez is a Pentecostal pastor's son from Winston-Salem, and Johnson is a Baptist pastor's son from Elkin. Their families become nervous and scared watching the constant war images on their TV screens, and both anxiously await letters from their sons, who were last known to be in Kuwait.

Both families, like so many Americans, emphasize that they support the troops.

There, however, the many similarities between the two families stop.

For Jose's parents, Ruth Vazquez and the Rev. Jose Vazquez Sr. of Iglesia Nueva Vida church, supporting the troops means backing their reason for being in the Middle East: toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"We want to take this guy out, because his people have been suffering for years," Ruth Vazquez said.

For Blake's mother, Ruth Anne Johnson, supporting the troops means questioning a war that she believes is unjust, a war that should end so that the troops can come home. Her husband, the Rev. Bill Johnson of First Baptist Church in Elkin, declined to comment for this story. He did say in a March 30 sermon that war is evil, and that he wished U.S. leaders would have been tenacious "about getting a lot more people, especially Arab and Muslim people, to help us."

The families have never met, and it's uncertain if their sons are friends in their company of about 180.

One of the things the families share, like so many other families, is the empty spot their sons' absence leaves in their homes and hearts. And the rush of feelings left in the wake of that absence.

"You have to understand, we can't be happy until he's home," Ruth Vazquez said.

Both families wrestle with those feelings as they linger over their sons' photos. They think back over the lives of these two men who were boys during this country's first war with Iraq 12years ago.

'A job to do'

Jose Vazquez Jr. came here from Puerto Rico with his family when he was 4. From an early age, his parents said, he has been a talker and a joker.

"He talks and talks and talks," his mother said. "You know, he could be a real good preacher one day."

Blake Johnson, who spent his teen-age years in Elkin, is quieter, his family said, and his sense of humor is subtle.

Their parents said that neither man has ever been particularly rebellious, as so many preacher's children are.

Both families were less than pleased when their sons enlisted in the Marine Reserves.

Blake Johnson is a guitar player who once had a long ponytail, so his parents were surprised by his decision to enlist.

"This was a child who didn't want anybody to tell him what to do," his mother said.

When she reminded him of that after he enlisted, she said, "he just grinned and said, 'I know, Mom.'" He's always been very bright and very bored, she said.

Jose Vazquez Jr. is also smart, his parents said. They were not as surprised by his enlistment, they said, because he'd been in the ROTC program at Parkland High School.

Still, Ruth Vazquez and Ruth Anne Johnson, like mothers everywhere, were especially hard-hit by their sons' decisions. Johnson remembered how troubled she was by the death of a friend in the Vietnam War. Vazquez recalled how two of her brothers, one who fought in Vietnam and the other in Korea, were nervous for months afterward upon their return.

She and her husband worried, she said, about the chance their son would go to war.

"We knew he was going to sign, but we didn't like the idea," Jose Vazquez Sr. said.

His wife said she's bothered by something the recruiter told her: Since Jose Jr. was their only son, he wouldn't be sent to war. (He has two sisters.)

But no wars were on the horizon when the sons enlisted a couple of years ago. They went through basic training and displayed the traditional Marine pride when they completed it.

After their initial objections, their parents supported the sons in their decisions to enlist.

"It's not what I would have chosen for him, but I'm very proud of him for making his own choices," Ruth Anne Johnson said.

The sons did their monthly reserve duty, lived with their parents and studied at local community colleges, trying to figure out what they wanted to do with their lives.

Johnson was a gofer for a local company. Vazquez worked as the sexton at his father's church. He jokingly called himself a "maintenance engineer." His parents say they hope that he'll become a pastor at their church.

Neither son was particularly thrilled about being called to war, but their parents said that each saw it as their duty. The Vazquezes said their son supports the war's goal, but Ruth Anne Johnson said her son feels differently.

"He thinks it's the wrong thing at the wrong time, but he also said, 'I signed the papers, I must go.'"

Vehicles are kept waiting

So now, Johnson's red pickup is in a shed at his parents' house. Vazquez's red SUV is in the garage at his family's home.

In their service, the men help with all aspects of communication, from phones to e-mail. Their company has been split up, and it's not known whether Vazquez and Johnson are in the same unit now.

Johnson, who has access to e-mail, has been able to write his parents often. He knows how they feel about the war, and he has his own questions as well.

"Regardless of whatever personal beliefs I have as to the morality of this conflict, I have a job to do, and I will do my best to make sure it's done properly," he said in a recent e-mail to the Winston-Salem Journal. "... I hope that history will judge us kindly, I hope that much good will come out of this."

Jose Vazquez Jr. has called his parents and written letters, but they didn't hear from him from the day the war started, March 19, until he called Tuesday night, saying that he was safe and sound.

"He was happy as always," Ruth Vazquez said. "He's always giving us encouragement, always, instead of it being the other way around."

She and her husband cried tears of joy as they talked to their son, she said.

From the pulpit, Jose Vazquez Sr. has dealt with the war in prayers for peace. In conversation, he supports the war's goal. If the United States doesn't fight, Vazquez said, "we don't know what is going to happen later with this man, with Saddam."

In his March 30 sermon on war, Bill Johnson expressed his "unqualified support of the troops in the field.... I disagree with the policy, but I am 100 percent behind the troops whose job it is now to carry out that policy, at the peril of their very lives."

He also talked about his oldest son, Blake. "Whatever I may say that I believe about the politics of this war or the theology of war in general are spoken through the filter of a parent's concern for a child," he said. "... I believe in Blake, unreservedly, unabashedly, completely; I believe in Blake."

For both families, passion for their children outweighs all the endless arguments over the war. Rather than taking part in war protests or rallies, they sit hurting at home with memories of their sons, and with hopes for their safe return.

They're supporting their troops.

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