Monday, February 26, 2007

Brett A. Witteveen killed during combat operations

SHELBY -- The bedroom in Brett Witteveen's rural home is just as he left it when he went to Iraq. Dirty clothes that he shed after a day of tagging trees with his forester father, Rick, remain piled high in a corner.

A dusty shelf displays all of his favorite things -- a signed football from his playing days at Hart High School, a picture of Trisha Kokx, the woman he proposed to last July, and a faded silk rose in a vase.

Over the doorway is a shiny license plate that reads: U.S. Marine Corps.

But the door to Brett Witteveen's room is closed now.

The 20-year-old, happy-go-lucky private in the Marine Reserves will not be coming home.

He was killed Sunday while on patrol with his unit near the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Kokx said the family was told he died while on patrol with 13 other men.

She said her fiance was the point man in the squad and was returning to base when he stepped on something that set off a bomb, killing him instantly. No other troops were killed.

"He was proud to be a Marine," said Kokx. "But he hated it over there."

"The last time I talked to him was (Feb. 14). He called 20 minutes before midnight and when I answered the phone, he said, 'Happy Valentine's Day.'"

The last time Rick Witteveen talked to his son was Feb. 11.

"He didn't like the country, but he knew what they were doing was a good thing," the father said. "He was happy on the phone. He talked about football and wedding plans and coming home for a leave the last part of March or first of April.

"He was excited. He said he was looking forward to coming home to 'Witteveen's Happy Place,' which is what he called it here."

Brett Witteveen lived the past several years with his dad and half-brother, Jason, in a pole building they built together.

Last summer, Brett Witteveen left the house for what his father thought was a trip to sign up for college. Instead, he came home and announced proudly that he had joined the Marines.

"It was a shock, but that was Brett," he said. "After chewing him out for a half-hour, I congratulated him and told him I understood."

Rick Witteveen said his son was inspired to serve his country because of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the fact that some of his hometown friends were in military service.

He completed training in September and shipped out with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment out of Grand Rapids in October.

Kokx said when Brett's mind was made up, there was no stopping him.

"I didn't know he was going to sign up and I didn't like it. I worried about him," said Kokx. "He told me not to watch the news because they only show the bad stuff."

Last week, after talking to her fiancee, Kokx went window shopping for a wedding dress. The couple hadn't set a date, but they were looking forward to marrying and possibly someday taking over her father's farm.

"He was so outgoing, not quiet and shy like me," said Kokx. "He could talk to anyone."

The loss of his son has made Rick Witteveen question the way the war is being fought.

"I don't have anything against the service," said Rick Witteveen. "But the government -- I have a lot of problems with that. No war is a good war, but if you're going to do it, don't pull back and just police it.

"You go over there to win and get out of there. If you're going to go there, you know what needs to be done and you need to do it."

The Marines expect to return Brett Witteveen's personal effects and fly home his body for burial next week.

The shared some memories of the young man with his father.

"Brett was raised properly, you could tell that right from the beginning," said Scott Richardson, a staff sergeant out of Grand Rapids, who helped train Witteveen for Iraq combat. "He respected his elders and respected his rank and had that team spirit that he probably got from his football years that is so valuable in the Marines.

"That's probably why he was put out in a dangerous place to serve."

The Witteveens have known loss. Brett's mother, Edie, died of cancer when he was 11. Brett Witteveen immersed himself in football, eventually playing for his dad, who was the Hart offensive coordinator.

"He loved football more than anything," said Kokx. "All he ever wanted to talk about was football."

Witteveen said on the football field, he was tough on his son.

"I told him in the beginning how it was going to be and he knew it," said Rick Witteveen. "I remember early in practice one time, I told him to apologize publicly to me or he would run the entire practice. He ran the entire practice.

"Then it was forgotten. We did not talk about the football team at home. But Brett was not afraid to tell you what he thought about things."

Brett wore the No. 84 jersey of his older brother, Trent.

Trent Witteveen remembers talking to Brett last month in Iraq and telling him that a pine tree had fallen on their father while he was cutting it down and it had put a gash in his head.

"He laughed hysterically for about 1.5 seconds and then asked if (their dad) was all right," said Trent Witteveen. "When I said he was, he laughed for about five more minutes.

"He just loved to laugh and have fun."

From the Grand Rapids Press