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Northland parents who lost sons in war react to bin Laden news

Parents of Northland troops lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan said they were pleased and relieved to hear of Osama bin Laden's death. "We lost a son. It's a great relief. Our son went to battle to fight this enemy and to see him gone right...

Reaction at Carmody's
Ray Whitledge of Duluth was the first to announce the news of Osama bin Laden's death Sunday night while at the Carmody Irish Pub. He heard from a friend on his phone that bin Laden had been killed. He shouted the news to the bar patrons. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Parents of Northland troops lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan said they were pleased and relieved to hear of Osama bin Laden's death.

"We lost a son. It's a great relief. Our son went to battle to fight this enemy and to see him gone right now; it's a victory," Duane Pionk of Oliver said of his son, Army Sgt. First Class Matthew Pionk, who was killed with five other soldiers Jan. 9, 2008, when they entered a building in Iraq wired to explode.

"He fought for this country and fought for our freedoms. We're very happy that (bin Laden's) gone. It's symbolism, that's what it is. And it's a victory for the United States," Duane Pionk continued. "I'm just so happy that that part of it is done. My son went to battle to fight for that. He was called up right after 9/11 and he lost his life for that cause. It shocked me tonight when I heard that ... I was pleased. It gave a little conclusion. On the other hand, it'll never bring our son back."

Among those who have become close to the Pionks in their shared grief are the parents of Army Staff Sgt. Jeremy Dale Vrooman of Superior, who lost his life while saving those of 59 other Palehorse Troop members in 2008. The Vroomans responded with mixed feelings of what the terrorist leader's death would portend.

"At least they got the right guy," his father, Bruce Vrooman, told the News Tribune. "Symbolically, it's going to go a long way. Now the terrorists know we're going to get them."

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His mother, Sue, was more cautious, saying "Finally, they got him," but adding: "I don't think it's going to make any difference. He has too many insurgents under him."

Former Minnesota state Sen. Becky Lourey of Kerrick, whose son Army Chief Warrant Officer Matthew died in May 2005 in in Iraq, said she had not heard until early this morning.

"I don't think it is comparable," she said of the news compared to when she learned her son was lost.

Then, she said, "I felt what I think all parents feel. It's such an amazing shock and so deeply personal that all parents feel and live with. We honor their commitment.

"But this day of Osama bin Laden's death may bring us to a better world. I really have hopes that we're entering a better time."

A family member of another serviceman soon to be sent to the Middle East responded with hope that the wars would be ending.

"My reaction is we finally won," said Terry Cockerham of Hawthorne, Wis. "My daughter's husband is getting deployed in a couple of weeks. I hope this settles down the war and the soldiers can come home."

She also noted an historic irony in the date of bin Laden's death.

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"On May 1, 1945, Hitler was confirmed dead. On May 1, 2011, bin Laden was confirmed dead. Wow, what a coincidence. The two most hated and hunted men. May they sit and rot in hell together."

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., also shared the celebratory mood.

"I'm feeling good," he told the News Tribune early this morning. "I think there's a lot of emotion going around of pride and gratitude to anyone who was involved in bringing bin Laden to justice, as well as all our troops."

He tempered that with the possibility of a retaliatory attack.

"This could be a dangerous period. We have to be on our guard right now."

Franken said he was not forewarned about the operation and learned about it no more than 20 minutes before most Americans.

"I was on the phone with someone in Washington and they told me the president was going to be on in about an hour or so. I started talking to other people in Washington and heard that it might be about bin Laden."

Franken said the discovery of bin Laden in such an ostentatious location in Pakistan raises questions about how secret his whereabouts really were.

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"We'll be finding out who in Pakistani intelligence knew he was there. Evidentially, it had 18-foot walls, barbed wire and was four times bigger than anything else around there. It was like a flashing neon sign saying 'I'm here.'"

But his death was "a great day," the senator said -- one that could help heal political divisions, if for only a moment.

"I thought what the president said that really struck the right note was reminding us how unified we were after 9/11. At least for this moment, I'd like to savor that again. Maybe even for more than a moment."

Tempering the celebration is the memory of those lost in the wars, including Matthew Lourey.

"I know Becky and Tony very well," Franken said of Lourey's mother and brother, the past and present state senators from Kerrick. "I've gone to a lot of funerals and when I do that, I'm there with the families. I'm not there with the soldiers who died."

Reactions around Duluth to the death of bin Laden echoed those around the country.

At the Copasetic Lounge on Central Entrance, Sam Gransee of Hurley, Wis., and Eric Wegner of Medina, Minn. -- both 22, seniors at UMD and Air Force ROTC members -- had stopped in to celebrate after hearing the news.

"It's a huge morale boost for the war in general, and our troops," Gransee said. "For the families of the victims of 9/11, it's huge for them, finally bringing him to justice."

Gransee said he first heard the news in a text message from his dad -- Gransee texted back, "Are you serious," not quite believing the news at first.

"I kind of felt it would eventually happen, but wasn't sure how long it would take," he said.

Wegner said he also first heard the news via text messages, then turned on the television to see more. Gransee and Wegner -- who both have active-duty military service in their future -- both said they expect to see some retribution from al-Qaeda or associated groups.

"Things might heat up for a little bit; it all depends if al-Qaeda can find another leader," Wegner said. "Hopefully they'll just fade into the history books."

"I'm just glad it finally happened -- 10 years in the making," Gransee said.

Amid the celebration, though, there were some tinges of concern.

"I'm extremely proud of our troops," said Dave Wilcox of Brainerd, who was at Twins Bar in Duluth early today. "I think it's great that our troops finally got him. But what I keep thinking is, do we know it's him?"

At Erbert & Gerbert's Sandwich Shop on First Street in downtown Duluth, employee Tyler Rygh, 22, heard the news on public radio, then received text messages from friends. He wondered if bin Laden's death would have a meaningful impact on the wars being fought overseas.

"I think it's kind of irrelevant at this point... to what the real problems are now," he said.

He said he wasn't sure, as time went on, whether bin Laden -- if he was even still alive -- ever would be caught. But, he noted, "you can't hide forever."

News Tribune Sports Editor Rick Lubbers contributed to this report.

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