It was the eve of an election in which most Americans were preparing to pass judgment on the war in which Bertha Blake's two sons are soldiers, but she politely declined to talk about that election.

Except to say this: "I respect the right of people not to support the war. We all are entitled to our own beliefs, and my sons hold up that freedom for us."

That's as succinct an expression as any, in this week of both the mid-term elections and Veterans' Day, of the distinction between politics and democracy, warriors and war.

And how else, unless you make that distinction, do you rationalize the risks taken, hardships endured and sacrifices made for a war which most of your fellow citizens now think was a dreadful mistake?

Her son, staff Sgt. Michael Blake, now back in the country after his second tour of Iraq, remembers Viet Nam, and what happened when people did not make it and blamed the troops. And while he still believes in the rightness of the war, he stresses that his beliefs are not what matter.

"I don't get into the rights and wrongs of it," he said. "That's not my place. I don't have an Ivy League education, I put a lot of trust in our nation's leaders. And the fact is, we're there. So people should support us, the guys and girls who are there."

The good news, he and others said this week, is that in the case of this unpopular war, as opposed to the one 35 years ago, the troops are not the scapegoats.

"When I come home to the Vineyard, I literally get a hero's welcome every time," Sergeant Blake said. "It's a free dinner here, ‘Have a drink on me, You're doing a great job,' you know?"

It tickles him, he says, because where he's now stationed, in Fort Knox, Ky., people think he wouldn't be welcome back on the Vineyard, "because everyone assumes that it's real liberal."

"Want to talk about supporting the troops? I was attached to a special operations group for our first push into the war, so we didn't get mail for a month. When I did finally get it, I counted, I had 12 toothbrushes," he said.

"Second tour, my second grade teacher from Oak Bluffs school got her class involved and sent me all kinds of stuff. It's great. I've always felt the Island backs me 100 per cent.

"Everyone knows my views on the war. I'm a combat guy and I've killed people, yeah, and I don't feel bad about it."

He's seen lots of fire; he lost a good friend who was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired down the hatch of his tank. It troubles him that the war has divided the nation, but he's a career soldier about halfway through his 20 years' service, and he's content to serve as ordered.

"I expect to go to Iraq and Afghanistan three or four more times before I retire," he said matter-of-factly. He is due to head overseas again to "God knows where" next June, and his brother Daniel will deploy to Afghanistan in January.

Their mother tries hard not to think about the risks, and about the popular view of the war.

Although she admits to anger about some war opponents - such as the ones who go so far as to protest at servicemen's funerals - she is grateful at least that most who do not agree with the war are making an effort to not target the soldiers.


"I don't publicly let my view go out there. I have two kids fighting. My opinion I keep to myself," she said.

Another conflicted mother of a serviceman is Fran Bradley, whose naval reservist son Matthew has been in Iraq for about three and a half months, serving as a medical corpsman with a marine unit.

"He's been an EMT [Emergency Medical Technician] on the Island for quite a number of years," she said. "I guess he just wanted to get over there and help out."

She and others in the family tried to talk him out of it.

"I hate it, but it's his chosen path. And he seems to be holding up fairly well," Mrs. Bradley said.

At first, she said, she coped with her fears by denial - ­ not listening to news of the war. But now she is immersed in it, at her son's request.

"They don't get any news of what's going on. He begs for Newsweeks and clippings because they haven't heard in the pocket he's in - some little place in Al Anbar province, which he calls the wild west. It's west of Baghdad."

So now she clips three newspapers and sends them over, along with other items like socks, baby wipes, cereals, granola bars. "They don't have running water, they can't even wash out their clothes," she said. Her son's most recent request was for chocolate to distribute among the Iraqi children.


Her coworkers at the Oak Bluffs fire department, where she works as a volunteer EMT, also send aid packages.

Mrs. Bradley is no longer a supporter of the war, but she is anxious that it be understood she respects the motivations of those who do and admires her son and others who are trying to make the best of the situation for themselves and the Iraqi people.

"Mattie wants me to get a visa so I can go over and stay with his translator," she said. She thinks she might even do it, after the heat dies down in Iraq. The way to peace, she believes, is in establishing such personal relationships.

"I spoke to the translator and the first thing he said is ‘Your son is a very good man,' " she said.

"It's his journey that he's meant to be on."

She copes, she said, with the help and good wishes and prayers of friends. And strangers.

"I'll tell you a story," she said. "I was doing this transport [she is coordinator for off-Island medical transports], and we were taking a mother to a nursing home in Falmouth.

"The son and daughter in law went with us. They had a little boy and I asked his name and they said Matthew, and I said ‘Oh, I have a Mattie.' And they asked about him and when I said he was in Iraq, they both said in unison: ‘He's in our prayers'.

"It's worth more than gold when people do things like that."

The annual Veterans' Day parade steps off from Our Market in Oak Bluffs at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow.