Turning tragedy into service

first_imgCANYON COUNTRY – The 20-year-old college student needed to find the perfect way to honor his lifelong buddy, Army Pfc. Cole W. Larsen, who died in November 2004 in a vehicle accident in Iraq. The assemblage of mementos neatly pieced together in his room was one way, but it lacked a certain something. So Chad Whitaker upped the ante: He enlisted in the Army Reserves. “I talked about joining with my buddy Cole,” Whitaker said recently, the day after returning from five months of basic training in Missouri. But a relationship with a girlfriend intervened. “After he passed, I made my final decision.” The punk rock-loving teen turned 20 while he was away, on Nov. 6. His superiors helped him celebrate by demanding 20 push-ups. His enlistment came as news to his parents, who were on vacation when he joined. “It was pretty much a shock,” said Chad’s mother, Lynette Whitaker. “We said, you can’t bring him back by doing this. We were scared to death the same thing could happen to our son.” The Whitakers and Larsens, who live a couple of homes apart, moved in at the same time, when Chad was 2 1/2 and Cole was 3. Whitaker said Chad had always been college-bound and never talked about joining the service. For Whitaker, her son’s decision to follow Cole to the military brought fear that gave way to acceptance and respect for her son’s choice. “I admire him – seeing the pain of Cole’s loss, how devastating that has been to us as a community on this street – that he’s willing to do this.” Larsen was 19 when he died, the second of three soldiers from Santa Clarita claimed by the Iraq war. Two other friends enlisted in the Army at about the same time as Whitaker, but one was rejected because of a knee injury. Cole’s anecdotes about basic training have come to life for Chad, who found himself doing some of the same things his friend did “without realizing it.” Things like sneaking a catnap under the bunks because he was sleep deprived. While Chad was away, Lynette gathered up the mementos – which include pictures of Cole in Iraq, at his memorial service, his graduation – and mounted them in a shadowbox frame. Whitaker’s enlistment reverberated beyond his own house. It churned up an emotional minefield at the Larsen home. “In a way I feel like I’m reliving it again. He’s an MP in the same boot camp,” said Christi Larsen, Cole’s mother. She knows the drill for when Chad is on active duty. “I’ll probably deal with it the way I (dealt) with our son. I’ll bake cookies, send care packages, write letters.” Unlike Whitaker, Cole talked nonstop about joining the military, Larsen said. “From the day he could talk,” she said. “He started going to the recruiting office when he was 15. I think he bled camouflage.” Larsen still unearths her son’s little green Army figurines when she gardens. On Tuesday nights, she enters a cyber-world with other women who have lost children or husbands in war. In a chat room they bare the thoughts and frustrations that only people in their circumstances can feel. Whitaker will continue his studies as a business major at California State University, Northridge, until he is called up for active duty. — Judy O’Rourke, (661) 257-5255 judy.orourke@dailynews.com160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img

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