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Losses in Iraq hit hardest at home

Of all of the states, Pennsylvania, Texas and California have lost more men and women in Iraq.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sandra Puello is strong for her children. But when they’re at school and she’s alone in her big new house in the Poconos, she inevitably thinks about her husband, and breaks down.

Six months ago, Army Sgt. Jaror C. Puello-Coronado, a military policeman, was guarding a base in southern Iraq when an out-of-control dump truck hit and killed him. He is one of 28 from Pennsylvania who have died in the war with Iraq, where the U.S. death toll reached 500 Saturday.

It is the largest number of American military casualties in a single conflict since Vietnam.

“We are losing all these lives, for what?” Puello says. “They bring back soldiers in body bags and what do you get from the government, the president? ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s not going to bring him back.”

The dead hailed from every state except Alaska, and also came from Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and American Samoa. But Puello-Coronado’s adopted state, Pennsylvania, has paid an especially steep price. Only California and Texas, the two most populous states, have lost more men and women in Iraq than Pennsylvania, which ranks sixth in population.

“The people from Pennsylvania come from a veteran’s tradition — our fathers were, our grandfathers were, our brothers were, our uncles were,” said Keith Martin, a decorated Vietnam veteran and the state’s homeland security director.

Of the nation’s 26 million veterans, 1.2 million live in Pennsylvania. And the Veterans of Foreign Wars claims more members in Pennsylvania, at 134,000, than in any other state.

The ultimate sacrifice
The U.S. death toll in Iraq reached 500 Saturday when a bomb exploded under an armored vehicle that was searching for land mines and roadside bombs north of Baghdad. Three American soldiers and two Iraqi civil defense fighters were killed, and two U.S. soldiers were wounded.

Others were killed in combat during the early stages of the war, others by Iraqi insurgents after Saddam Hussein’s regime crumbled. More than 150 deaths were accidental, including an Army captain who was electrocuted; illness and disease claimed others. More than 20 committed suicide.

The first coalition casualties of the war occurred March 20, the day the U.S.-led invasion began, when a U.S. Marine helicopter crashed in Kuwait, killing all eight British soldiers and four Americans aboard.

Two days later, Sgt. Hasan Akbar allegedly tossed a grenade into a military tent in Kuwait, killing two members of the 101st Airborne Division and wounding 14 others. Akbar faces two counts of premeditated murder.

The toll also includes 11 of rescued POW Jessica Lynch’s comrades, killed in an ambush on their maintenance convoy.

Several of the recently widowed have called Gold Star Wives, an organization for spouses of military dead, seeking to share their grief with someone who has been through the ordeal, said Rachel Clinkscale, the group’s chairwoman, whose husband was killed in Vietnam.

“I know how (a new widow) feels,” Clinkscale said. “Unless you’ve gotten that telegram, you really don’t know.”

Most of the deaths in Iraq occurred after President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1.

'You can always find me in the star'
On July 13, Puello-Coronado was guarding the entrance to a military base in Ad Diwaniyah, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, when he spotted a dump truck whose driver had lost control. Puello-Coronado pushed one soldier out of the way and warned another, but was unable to save himself, according to the military. “His ultimate sacrifice saved the lives of his friends,” a military account said.

In his last letter home, Puello-Coronado urged his wife to look to the heavens.

“When you sit quietly under the moonlight sky, look up and find the North Star. I will be looking at it also, and imagine me next to you, even though we are far apart,” he wrote. “You can always find me in the star.”

Puello calls her husband a hero, but that hasn’t made his death any easier to bear. She said she was so angry one day that she went outside and chopped down all the trees in front of the house.

For her children, the loss of their father was a tremendous blow. Seven-year-old Jade cries often. Sean, 10, writes in his journal that their family got a raw deal. Like his two younger siblings, 15-year-old Victor gets counseling at school.

Two days before Christmas, more than 20 men from Puello-Coronado’s unit showed up at his wife’s house to pay their respects. Puello said she hopes for the safe return of the rest of the 125,000 troops still stationed in Iraq, grieving anew when she hears of each new fatality.

“I think I’ll be happy, at ease and at peace when I hear they’re coming home,” she said.