PORTLAND — Christine Dybevik remembers blinking back tears as Gov. Ted Kulongoski handed her a carefully folded Oregon flag in a wind-swept cemetery in Coos Bay.
Kulongoski spoke at the funeral of Dybevik’s son, Marine Lance Cpl. Gary Van Leuven, killed by a sniper’s bullet in Iraq, and later attended the burial.
Christine Dybevik was impressed with the governor’s eulogy, in which he called her son “a hero.”
“He wasn’t pretentious. He wasn’t political. He was a man sending his condolences to our family,” she said.
A former Marine corporal, the Democrat tries to find time to attend the funeral of every Oregon soldier who dies in the war in Iraq, and says it “probably means more to me than anything I have done.”
Kulongoski has attended funerals or memorial services for 10 out of the 18 soldiers with strong Oregon ties, at times taking the podium. It’s the grieving parents that affect him the most, said the governor, a father of three.
“It’s pretty tough,” said Kulongoski, who is normally reluctant to talk about his involvement in such events.
“I have sat and looked at these mothers and it breaks my heart because … I just know how difficult it would be,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press.
Kulongoski is among a handful of governors who have made it a priority to attend as many memorial services as they can, even as President Bush has faced some criticism for not attending any soldier’s funeral since hostilities began in 2003.
“The president mourns the loss of each and every soldier,” said White House spokesman Ken Lisaius. “He doesn’t want to elevate or diminish one over the other.”
The country’s governors have adopted their own personal ways to honor fallen soldiers. Some, like Kulongoski and Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, have attended several funerals for soldiers.
Oregon soldiers serving in Iraq have been one of Kulongoski’s biggest concerns since the start of the war.
A supporter of the war, Kulongoski visited Iraq along with five other governors in January. It was the first time an Oregon governor had visited a war zone since Tom McCall traveled to South Vietnam in 1967.
Kulongoski spent about two years in Thailand as a young Marine during the American military buildup leading to the Vietnam War.
Oregon soldiers see the governor as one of their own, said Col. Mike Caldwell, deputy director of state affairs for the Oregon National Guard.
“Here’s a person who’s actually had those miserable nights out in a rainstorm or a dust storm, ate that lousy food,” Caldwell said. “The governor can say, ‘I’ve been there. I’ve done that.’ ”
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