Michael Vernon Lalush
Sergeant, United States Marine Corps
March 19, 2004:
Parents still in mourning.
It's been a long time passing since their only son came home in a coffin.
He lies in his dress blue Marine uniform, deep in the earth, under one of the stark white headstones in Arlington National Cemetery, the fresh dirt grown over with grass now, the echoes of taps faded.
His parents, Becky and Dave Lalush, mourn almost as though the Marine death liaison officer had just knocked at their door, bearing the fate of their son, Michael, who was killed March 30, 2003, when his helicopter crashed in Iraq.
He was 23 years old, the first casualty of the war from Western Virginia.
For his parents, Michael will be always young, not just in their memories but in an oil portrait in their house in the hills of Botetourt County.
A Vinton artist, Patsy Arrington Dorsett, was moved to paint the sergeant's portrait with a collage of images that includes a Purple Heart and helicopters in the Iraqi desert.
His parents hung the painting so the top of his head is precisely 6 feet, 4 inches off the floor - his height in life - to further engender his presence in their lives. His mother loves the eyes in the painting.
"I can feel him looking at me," she said, her own eyes welling up.
Becky Lalush works in a bank. Her husband builds houses. Sometimes, they can concentrate on work. But tears still come - driving down the road, lying in bed, listening to the radio. They carry tissues in their pockets like other people carry spare change.
When the Lalushes visit Arlington National Cemetery, they notice the rows around Michael are filling up with new graves. A few are old veterans, but most are from America's latest wars, about one body a day coming from Iraq, one a week from Afghanistan.
The Lalushes support President Bush.
"I wish people would get past the [failure to find] weapons of mass destruction," Becky Lalush said, confident her son didn't die in vain. "It's called Operation Iraqi Freedom and that's exactly what happened and that's what Michael went for."
At home, the Lalushes are surrounded with reminders of a life lost and the Semper Fi tradition - there are triangular glass boxes with flags from his squad, from Camp Pendleton, from his coffin. There is a framed letter of condolence from President Bush. There are Marine Corps coasters on the coffee table, a Marine window decal in his father's old blue pickup.
Upstairs are medals, newspaper clippings, awards, handmade quilts. There are hundreds of condolence letters from family, friends, strangers, politicians, secretaries of Defense and the Navy, and Marines who served with Michael.
His mother's favorite is a painfully heartfelt note from Major General James Amos: "I am very sorry that I cannot return your son to you the same way that you loaned him to me."
In one bedroom is Michael's hope chest. It is filled with mementos from infancy, adolescence and young manhood, the whole of his life in a sweet-smelling cedar box. His mother picked up his old teddy bears. They were tattered and limp, their ears chewed up from when he was a baby teething. She held them gently, these bookends of his life - a teddy bear from his birth, a General's letter at his death. She held them gently and wept.
They went downstairs. His mother looked at the glass-boxed flags sitting on the table. One day, they might put the flags away.
"Sometimes it's hard to keep looking at" - she searched for the right word - "death," she said, quietly. "Because that's what it is, being constantly reminded of death."
They sat on the couch and watched war news on the television. Between them, propped on the middle cushion, was a framed 8x11 photo of their son in uniform. That was his favorite spot on the couch. No one sits there.
They sat there for a while - the mother on one end, the father on the other, the image of their dead son in between, a family fractured but together again.
The photo is her favorite one. She takes it everywhere, her security blanket - next to her on the couch, by her bedside, in her suitcase when she travels, tucked under her arm when they visit his grave.
They cried a little more. He was their baby. They cannot let him go.
"It hasn't gotten better,
but there's more acceptance," his mother said, her tears spilling over.
"I just miss him. I just miss him."
Growing up in rural southwestern Virginia, Michael Vernon Lalush's passion was his maroon pickup truck with the 53-inch tires, jacked-up body and bumper sticker that read, ``Redneck Customs.''
When Lalush joined the Marines out of high school, he sold the truck. "I still see it going down the road sometimes,'' friend Bryan Atkinson said at a memorial service for Lalush on Sunday.
Lalush, 23, died March 30 with two other Marines when their Huey helicopter crashed at a forward supply and refueling point in southern Iraq. Family and friends gathered Sunday to remember him and to say a final goodbye.
Atkinson sat with other friends on folding chairs watching a video of Lalush's casket being lowered into the ground at Arlington National Cemetery, where he was buried earlier this month. With a sigh, Atkinson said, "Out of everybody who went over there, it's hard to believe it was your best friend that had to be the one killed.''
Another high school friend, Adam Keith, said Lalush was just one of the boys growing up, "doing teenage redneck stuff -- four-wheeling, drinking and raising hell.''
Lalush (pronounced LAW'-lish) grew up in California, and his parents and friends said he was always interested in working with his hands. He loved to try and fix things, especially cars. As a teenager, Lalush rebuilt and repainted a pink 1965 Volkswagen Beetle.
In 1994, Lalush moved with his family from Sunnyville, California, to the mountains of western Virginia, settling in a quiet house on a hilltop about 20 miles north of Roanoke. Tall and gangly, he sprouted several inches above his parents in high school.
After graduating from Lord Botetourt High School in Troutville, Lalush joined the Marines. He left for boot camp at Parris Island in South Carolina, then transferred to Camp Lejeune, N.C., and then to Camp Pendleton.
During his brief military career, Lalush told his family he had discovered his calling in life. In the Marines, he said he was using his skills to help people.
Across the room from Lalush's old high school buddies, a group of World War II veterans sat beside an arrangement of red, white and blue carnations.
"It's hard to see somebody so young die. It's one thing for somebody my age who's already lived his life, but he was just starting out,'' said Pat Pedrick, 83, of Troutville, who also served in the Marines.
Added 73-year-old former Navy seaman Raymond Perry: "It's a terrible thing to lose a man like that.''
Near the entrance to the hall, David Lalush, Michael's father, stood beside a bulletin board of photographs, greeting friends and neighbors. In one photo, he is pulling his 2-year-old son across the living room floor in a makeshift go-cart fashioned out of a Pampers diapers box. Michael Lalush's face is lit up with a smile, similar to the one he wore in a later photograph in his military uniform.
Lalush is survived by his parents, David and
Becky Lalush of Troutville; his sister, Danielle Lalush of Los Angeles;
and grandparents, Lou and Jane Lalush of California.
Botetourt County, Virginia - The dangers of war are abundantly clear after the death of a Marine from the Roanoke area. Sergeant Michael Lalush of Botetourt County and two other Marines were killed on Sunday when a Huey helicopter crashed during takeoff in Southern Iraq.
At Lord Botetourt High School, teachers, administrators and students are remembering Michael Lalush. They say even as a high school student he was committed to helping his fellow man. Thousands of students have attended Lord Botetourt High School since Michael Lalush graduated here six years ago, but he still stands out in teacher Bill Kohler's mind.
Bill Kohler, LBHS Teacher - "He was just a real nice kid. Hard worker, considerate of other kids, give him a job and he'd go ahead and do it. Just a fine young man."
Sergeant Lalush, was just Mike back then. A helpful student who was on the golf team and enjoyed Kohler's shop class.
Kohler - "I could see that in his work. That he obviously had tool skills and enjoyed using his hands."
He took those skills to the Marine Corps, but left behind a lasting impression.
Kohler - "When you're talking about the war and you're watching it on TV, you don't feel that closeness, but when someone like Mike gets killed, then of course it brings it right home."
The news hit home for Chris Rouse too. He gave Lalush his first job working at the Botetourt Country Club.
Chris Rouse, GM Botetourt Country Club - "Eyes wide open and excited about life. Good hard worker. Did everything we wanted him to do."
Rouse hired Lalush to take care of the golf carts, when he was just 16.
Rouse - "Tears your heart out. I've got kids and I just can't even imagine them being there and have that happening."
The golf playing, woodworking, Lord Botetourt student could hardly have imagined it either.
Rouse - "I remember having him at 16 and just he couldn't even imagine what he was going to go through in 7 years."
The Lalush family has requested privacy so they can deal with their loss. They are planning a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery where their son will be buried.
Lalush is the second Virginian reported killed
in the War with Iraq. He was stationed at Camp Pendleton in California.
Marine Corps 'totally changed' young man's life
In the days before Michael Lalush shipped out for the Persian Gulf, he decided what he wanted done with his remains in case anything happened. He wanted to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
TROUTVILLE - The doorbell rang at 7:30 Sunday night.
The father opened the door.
Two Marines were there, wearing dress blues in the dark, standing on the stoop, a spring snowstorm covering the green Botetourt County countryside behind them.
The father looked at them. Cold air flooded in.
"It's bad news, isn't it?" he said.
"Yes, sir," they said.
Becky and Dave Lalush looked over their son's life, spread out in old photographs, letters, awards and papers covering their kitchen table.
She cried. His voice quivered.
"When the doorbell rang, I was so scared," she said. "Sunday was horrible. We'd heard on the news that a Huey went down and ... people died, so we were just waiting. And then the bell rang. Nobody rings the bell in the woods out here."
Her husband nodded: "I knew. I just knew."
Michael Vernon Lalush, 23, a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, died Sunday when his helicopter crashed during a support mission in Iraq. Two other Marines died and another was injured in the accident. Lalush is the first casualty of the war from Western Virginia.
Dave Lalush remembers soon after his son enlisted - a teenager who found his calling in the semper fi tradition - they visited the Marine Corps War Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknowns and Arlington National Cemetery.
"I remember Mike was proud," he said, "just very proud."
His wife nodded.
Their son will come home from the war within the week, his dress blues pressed, brass buttons polished, shoes shined perfectly, his casket waiting.
In the days before he shipped out, he decided what he wanted done with his remains - Arlington.
"We were surprised," his father said, quietly. "We always thought he wanted to be cremated. I guess that visit [to Washington, D.C.] changed his mind."
The Lalushes, California natives who moved to Botetourt in 1994, say their son was a daredevil as a kid. He played baseball and soccer and rode dirt bicycles.
"He'd do anything," Becky Lalush said. "He definitely wasn't shy."
By high school, Mike Lalush was more interested in mechanics than sports. His passion was his pickup truck, driving it off road and working on the engine. He worked odd jobs to make enough money, most of which went into his truck.
An average student - something he later regretted when he realized the value of an education - he had no plans for college, and before his senior year he enlisted in the Marines as a step toward a career in law enforcement.
"I thought it was a little extreme, but it was him taking charge of his future," Dave Lalush said.
In the Marines, he gravitated toward mechanics. He worked his way up from helicopter mechanic to crew chief to inspector and instructor. He recently enlisted for four more years.
He was not married, something he decided to put off.
"He saw how hard it was on the young wives and children, being away from home for so long," his father said.
Over the years, Lalush changed from a gangly youth to a mature, muscled young man, growing to 6 feet 4 inches and riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He visited with his parents and sister, Danielle, 28, once or twice a year.
"He matured very fast," his mother said, "because of all the responsibilities he had over the younger guys and even some older ones."
"He totally changed," his father said.
Michael's unit, the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron based in Camp Pendleton, California, deployed to the Persian Gulf in February. His helicopter flew support missions, ferrying troops, the wounded, ammunition, food, water and other supplies.
"So many accidents seem to happen to the helicopters," his mother said.
The family television flashed the faces and names of recently killed troops. Becky Lalush gasped, her hand covered her mouth - but her son was not among them.
The phone rang again. It was friends, relatives, neighbors, expressing condolences. Reporters calling. Townsfolk telling the Lalushes their son is a hero. Some former Marines in Roanoke called to say they feel they have lost a comrade.
"Michael always said, 'I'm just doing my job,'" his father remembered.
Some third-graders in Ohio do not yet know "Sergeant Mike" - their pen pal and the Marine they prayed for - has died.
Like many schoolchildren nationwide, they "adopted" a Marine or soldier or sailor or airman sent into battle in Iraq as part of America's effort to support its troops.
An old family friend of the Lalushes works at a school in Ohio, and a group of 8-year-olds there decided to adopt the big, friendly leatherneck from Virginia.
"The kids sent him cards he'll never get now," his mother said. "Hopefully, their letters and cards will come back to us."
Dave Lalush's eyes welled up.
"I have my own grief," he said, "but what's hardest for me is how his death affects other people."
His wife stared out the kitchen window. She looked over the green pastures re-emerging from under the melting snow.
"I can't believe it," she said, softly. She cried a little more. "I just can't believe it."
In one of his last letters home, Mike Lalush wrote about his helicopter crew rescuing an injured soldier.
12 March 03:
Hey, Things here are good. How are things there?
Last night I think I did one of the best things I've done in a long time.
... We took a guy that had a broken neck and a possible skull fracture.
We flew the guy to the army base and put him in the ambulance. ... It feels
good to know that I was part of something that could have saved two people's
lives. Well, I'm going to get going. It's time to go to work. I hope everything
is well at home.
He could rebuild a lawn mower from a pile of bolts. He learned to weld and had a talent for woodworking. After he learned to drive, he rebuilt a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle so he'd have a car.
But as good as he was with his hands, he was better with his heart.
In a letter home from Iraq that his family received last week, the 23-year-old Marine sergeant from Troutville, Virginia, was effusive about his work as a Huey helicopter crewmember, helping evacuate wounded soldiers from the battlefield. "This is what it's all about," he wrote.
Lalush was one of three Marines killed in a helicopter accident Sunday at a forward supply and refueling point in southern Iraq.
"He was a wonderful child," his mother, Becky Lalush, said Tuesday. "He was going to be career military. He felt they were doing the right thing."
Lalush graduated from Lord Botetourt High School in 1997 and immediately enlisted. He was most recently based at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego.
"Here was a young man who enjoyed what he did and was proud to be a soldier and wanted to make a difference with skills he had," said Alan Brenner, the high school principal. "And he did."
Lalush also played on the high school golf team and worked part-time at the Botetourt Country Club. Club pro Chris Rouse remembers Lalush getting excited over an ESPN SportsCenter video clip of a last-minute, length-of-the-court basket during one of his high school games. Lalush was on the bench, but the camera clearly catches him celebrating.
"He watched it over and over," Rouse said.
"It just hits me now how quick life is."
It is a measure of Marine Sergeant Michael Lalush's character that his high school wood-shop teacher, who over 35 years has guided thousands of students through their jewelry-box projects, remembers him, and remembers him with fondness.
"As soon as I saw his name ... I immediately flashed to the kid I had here in class," said Bill Kohler, who teaches at Lord Botetourt High School in Daleville, Virginia, not far from Lalush's parents' home in Troutville. "He was serious, but smiling. He was one of those helpful kids."
Lalush, 23, attached to the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 169 at Camp Pendleton, California, was killed with two other Marines on Sunday when a UH-1N "Huey" helicopter they were riding in crashed on takeoff in southern Iraq. The cause remains unknown, though the Pentagon said enemy fire played no role.
Lalush joined the Marines shortly after graduating from high school in 1997. A quiet young man, he seemed to others to be more engrossed with the gadgetry and machinery of war than with the fighting.
"He was a wonderful child," said his mother, Rebecca Lalush. "He was going to be career military. He felt they were doing the right thing."
Lalush's family moved to Troutville in 1994 from California. Mike Lalush appeared to have little trouble adjusting.
"He seemed to be one of those kids who's gifted with his hands, who has a great attitude and wants to make a difference in the world," said Alan Brenner, the high school's principal.
Lalush played football, baseball and golf at Lord Botetourt High. But in a statement he wrote in 1997 about his interests, Brenner said, Lalush said he enjoyed rebuilding cars (a 1965 Volkswagen, as his neighbors well knew), woodworking and welding.
His death has resonated in Daleville and Troutville. They are suburbs outside Roanoke, Virginia, that nevertheless retain the atmospheres of small towns. "It's a numbers game until it actually hits you," said Chris Rouse, the golf pro at Botetourt Country Club who hired Lalush for a part-time job in 1995.
Yesterday, the message board of Lord Botetourt
High, decorated with black and yellow ribbons, read: "Remember Michael
Lalush. Support Our Troops."
Posted: 2 April 2003 Updated: 6 July 2003 Updated: 20 March 2004 Updated: 30 October 2004 Updated: 11 February 2006 Updated: 14 May 2008
Photo By Michael Robert Patterson, May 2008
Photo By M. R. Patterson, 27 June 2003
Photo By M.R. Patteson, 24 April 2004