Wednesday, May 2, 2007

It was just a regular, black-inked ballpoint pen that President Bush used to sign his veto yesterday, instead of his usual personalized Cross pen.

The pen was a gift from the father of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq, who asked Mr. Bush last month to use it when he vetoed a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.

Robert Derga, of Uniontown, Ohio, gave Mr. Bush the pen after an April 16 speech by the president at the White House.

Mr. Bush invited a number of “Gold Star Families” — families who have lost a U.S. military member in Iraq — to the speech, and met with them afterwards in the Oval Office.

Mr. Derga, 53, had brought the pen with him. It was the pen he had used to write letters to his son, Marine Cpl. Dustin A. Derga.

“It was just a common run of the mill … I don’t even remember the brand name,” Mr. Derga said, in a phone interview last night. “It was just a $2 pen. Nothing special.”

Mr. Bush met with the Dergas and other families for about 45 minutes, and spoke directly with each family.

“I looked the president square in the eye,” Mr. Derga said. “I looked at him and said, ‘Mr. President, if this Iraq supplemental comes down to a veto I want you to use my pen to do it.’”

Mr. Bush “kind of looked at me funny for a moment and then said, ‘Absolutely,’ and then handed the pen to his assistant,” Mr. Derga said.

“He assured me he would use it,” Mr. Derga said.

Dustin was killed in Iraq on May 8, 2005, while leading house-to-house searches in Ubaydi, Iraq. He was 24.

Dustin was the first Marine killed in Lima Company, with the Marine Force Reserve’s 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, out of Columbus, Ohio.

But Lima Company, a group of 160 reservists, suffered the highest casualty rate of any company so far in the Iraq war.

They lost 23 Marines during their seven-month deployment in 2005.

Yesterday afternoon, Mr. Derga was shutting off his computer at work, around 5:30, when he received a call from Jared Weinstein, Mr. Bush’s personal aide.

Mr. Weinstein was calling “to tell me that the president had signed the veto with my pen.”

“They wanted to again give their heartfelt condolences on our loss of Dustin,” Mr. Derga said. “I was pretty blown away is one way of putting it. I couldn’t believe he actually did it.”

Mr. Derga, a manager for Diebold, Inc., said that it was gratifying to be able to show his support for Mr. Bush and for the war, even if it has not always been easy to support the U.S. mission in Iraq.

“It’s been painful for this nation and me personally but I still feel strongly about getting the job done over there and getting it done right,” said Mr. Derga. “It meant a lot to us that we were able to make our position known, that we continue to support him.”

But Mr. Derga said he is frustrated that many Americans do not believe Iraq is part of the U.S. fight against terrorism.

“I really feel strongly that this nation needs to wake up and understand what’s at risk here and what’s in the balance,” he said.

As for Dustin, his son, Mr. Derga visits his grave in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, about two hours away, every few weeks, he said.

“He had a wonderful smile and a great dimple. He was a great kid. He loved to play baseball. He just loved working with his hands. And he was always interested in military service and public service,” Mr. Derga said.

Dustin was a volunteer firefighter and steel worker. He was working toward a degree in EMS and fire science from Columbus State University.

“Probably his smile I miss more than anything,” Mr. Derga said. “I think about him every day. I know I’ll see him again, so it’s just a matter of time.”

Mr. Derga said that about 80 percent of the other Gold Star Families he knows agree with the president’s decision to send more troops to Iraq to try to stabilize the country.

“We have given the ultimate sacrifice in terms of our sons, and if we can still stand in the trenches with the president and support him, why can’t the rest of the nation do it?” Mr. Derga said.

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