Lompoc mom hopes to honor son's memory in trip to Iraq
Santa Barbara (Cal.) News-Press  | January 23, 2006 | NORA K. WALLACE

Eight months after her son Derek's death in Iraq, Lompoc resident Debbie Argel Bastian is raising money in hopes of visiting the war-torn country where the decorated Air Force captain lost his life.

Mrs. Bastian wants to join a tour to Iraq organized by the conservative nonprofit organization "Move America Forward" sometime in late spring. She and other Gold Star families -- those who've lost a family member in the war -- plan to visit military bases and try to connect with soldiers.

She will not, however, visit the region where her son was killed last Memorial Day. The Air Force commando died in the crash of an Iraqi Air Force plane just hours after he'd been promoted. The 28-year-old, a former Cabrillo High School water polo standout, was assigned to the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron and killed along with three other U.S. airmen and an Iraqi pilot during a training mission in the eastern Diyala province northwest of Baghdad.

Since her son's death, Mrs. Bastian has become involved with numerous pro-troop organizations. Unlike Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in Iraq and has become the symbol of the anti-war movement, Mrs. Bastian is unabashedly pro-military and fervently supports President Bush.

"I think Derek would want me to do this," Mrs. Bastian said. "We want to go there to see for ourselves what is going on and to offer support for the troops there. A lot of Derek's friends are there."

Move America Forward is promoting the trip as a way for Gold Star families to "send a message to the people of this nation -- and to the leaders of nations around the world: Their children did not die in vain. Their children gave their lives for a heroic and just cause that will help to spread a wave of peace and security through the Middle East for generations to come."

Mrs. Bastian thinks she and others can showcase the work of the U.S. military in Iraq, which she believes is not getting enough attention.

"The media is not portraying what's happening in Iraq," Mrs. Bastian asserted.

"I'm tired of hearing only the casualties. We're not hearing about the schools, the hospitals, the clinics, the new sewage systems."

It is unknown how many family members will be going to Iraq with Move America Forward, because every day more people express an interest, said Melanie Morgan, a San Francisco radio personality and founder of the organization.

Last September, Ms. Morgan organized a "Support the Troops and Their Mission" nationwide tour to counter the attention received by Ms. Sheehan during her protest outside the gates of Bush's Crawford, Texas ranch. Mrs. Bastian joined the tour in Washington, D.C., with her husband Todd.

Tired "of the steady drumbeat of negative news coming out of Iraq," Ms. Morgan traveled to Iraq in July with other talk show hosts and documentary film producers. Since then, she said, she's met with Gold Star families and "held them and hugged them and cried with them. They kept asking Move America Forward to find a way to get to Iraq, either to see where their sons have been stationed, or most importantly to thank the soldiers for their sacrifices."

Ms. Morgan, who works on the KSFO 560 AM morning show in San Francisco, believes the families' trip is critical to the war effort.

"There's no question in my mind that Gold Star family members have credibility nobody else has," she said. "We've all heard relentlessly about Cindy Sheehan and how much she hates George Bush. This is not how a majority of Gold Star families feel by any stretch of the imagination. There are powerful stories that need to be told.

"People feel dishonored by what happened (with Ms. Sheehan). The only way terrorists will win this war is if they (protesters) cause the American public to turn against it."

To pay for the trip, which is expected to cost about $7,000 per person, Mrs. Bastian has already participated in a fundraiser with a Los Angeles radio station, along with other Gold Star family members. They raised $10,000 in one day.

The trip is not the only way Mrs. Bastian is honoring her son's memory. Last year, she demanded the Santa Barbara chapter of Veterans for Peace remove Capt. Argel's name from a cross at the Arlington West memorial near Stearns Wharf.

She also is working to have the military allow service members, before they're deployed, add an addendum to their wills indicating their name and image belong to their families only, to be used at their discretion.

The idea came about after she became enraged at the use of her son's name on the Arlington West cross.

She's also become involved in another organization, Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission.

Each week, Mrs. Bastian participates in a conference call with other Gold Star families. And when another family loses someone in the war, Mrs. Bastian and others call the families.

"We've lost not only a soldier, but our child," she said, explaining her involvement. "Sometimes it's very difficult to deal with if you're not on this side of the fence. It's very new to me. These families are on the same page."

Her main focus this year, in addition to the Iraq trip, is helping create a legacy for her 18-month-old grandson, Logan. She's writing a book called "Letters for Logan," filled with the hundreds of letters she and Derek's widow, Wendy, received after the captain's death.

"I want to make sure Logan remembers his father, the man he was, is and always will be," Mrs. Bastian said.

She plans to use the proceeds from the book's sales to build on 25 acres the family owns in Kern County. Capt. Argel saw the land and had hoped to build his son a cabin there. Now, Mrs. Bastian said, the family would like to build a bed and breakfast retreat for the families of fallen soldiers.