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Toll in Iraq war a grim milestone

There have been more than 1,000 now, U.S. military personnel who have died in the Iraq war, their faces all too familiar in our newspapers and on television.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Their faces, smiling or solemn, have become all too familiar in our newspapers and on television. Their names sound a somber roll call — Smith, Falaniko, Ramos, Lee — a roster that seems to grow daily.

There have been more than 1,000 now, U.S. military personnel who have died in the Iraq war.

They are sons and daughters from city streets and rural hamlets. They are teens who went from senior proms to boot camp and battle and middle-aged family men who put aside retirement and grandchildren for the dangers of a war zone.

What they share is that they will not see home again.

What does the number mean? On D-Day alone, more Americans lost their lives. At the peak of Vietnam, hundreds of U.S. troops were dying every week. And in just one September morning three years ago, 2,792 people perished when two towers crumbled to the streets of New York.

Still, 1,000 is a grim milestone.

The conflict in Iraq has claimed almost three times the number of Americans lost in the entire Persian Gulf War. And this time, the vast majority of U.S. deaths — all but 138 — came after major combat operations were declared over. “Mission Accomplished,” read a banner on the aircraft carrier where President Bush spoke on May 1, 2003.

Sixteen months later, the fighting goes on. So do the funerals.

The lengthening casualty roster reflects a front line that shifted from sandy deserts to shadowy streets, a stubborn insurgency, a conflict far bloodier than many expected.

Back home, there is another growing count: towns that lost future firefighters and policemen, churches left without Sunday school teachers, families where infants will never meet their dads.

“It’s almost like losing a community,” says Luis Pizzini, an educator in San Diego, Texas. Two of his former students died in Iraq.

Ruben Valdez and Jose Amancio Perez grew up on the same block. Valdez, 21, was a Marine. Perez, 22, chose the Army. In their little community of fewer than 5,000, not once but twice, townsfolk lined the road to pay tribute as a hearse carried a native son home.

Now, the two men lie buried only a few feet apart.

The fallen: an American mosaic
The youngest was just 18. The oldest was 59. More than half had not seen their 30th birthdays, according to an Associated Press analysis of Defense Department statistics for those who died since the war started on March 19, 2003.

The number stood at 1,001 on Tuesday, including three civilian contractors working for the Defense Department. About 7,000 other Americans have been wounded.

Of those who have died, 97 percent were men; two dozen were women. While more than 600 were white, others were black, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian — including the first Indian woman killed in combat while fighting for the U.S. military and a Cheyenne River Sioux who traced his ancestry to two great chiefs, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.

There were kids who had never fired a shot at an enemy and veterans of Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo — even Vietnam.

They hailed from the urban bustle of Chicago, New York and Houston, as well as the cornfields of Silvana, Wash., and the coal mine country of Varney, W.Va. — and from every state but Alaska.

They represented U.S. territories: American Samoa, the Northern Marianas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

More than three dozen were born in foreign countries — including Thailand, India, Albania, Poland, Nicaragua, Colombia and the United Arab Emirates — but ended up fighting for a nation they embraced as their own.

While many had been naturalized, at least 10 died reaching for their vision of the American dream: to become U.S. citizens.

Army Pfc. Diego Rincon, a native of Colombia, was among them. After he was killed in a suicide bombing, his father, Jorge, lobbied Congress, which passed legislation giving posthumous citizenship to his 19-year-old son and other foreign-born soldiers killed in battle.

“It’s good it happened — but at the same time, he’s not here to enjoy it,” Jorge Rincon says. “He was supposed to be here.”

Jose Gutierrez grew up an orphan on the streets of Guatemala, rode rail cars to California, crossed the border illegally, obtained a visa and graduated from high school, then joined the Marines. At age 28, the lance corporal was buried in his native land, a U.S. flag covering his casket.

In a poem called “Letter to God,” Gutierrez once wrote: “Thank you for permitting me to live another year. Thank you for what I have, for the type of person I am, for my dreams that don’t die.”

(The Iraq war also has claimed the lives of more than 120 foreign troops who are part of the U.S.-led coalition; about half were in the British military. Nearly 100 Americans have died in operations in Afghanistan, along with 35 others in related action in Pakistan and other countries.)

Public memorials to those lost in the Iraq war have taken many forms: rows and rows of combat boots in a traveling exhibit; crosses covering a California beach; baseballs, each marked with a name, at a Massachusetts park. Anti-war protesters carried hundreds of flag-draped, coffin-shaped boxes through the streets of New York.

Although most — more than 700 — were in the Army, Americans who died wore the uniforms of every branch of service, including the first Coast Guardsman to die in combat since Vietnam.

More than three-fourths were in the active-duty military. But with the largest deployment of Guard and Reserve units since World War II, about 18 percent of those who died were part-time troops: 109 National Guard members and 74 reservists. Thirteen were from a single Army National Guard brigade based in Arkansas.

About 70 percent were killed in action, many in roadside explosions while on patrol or making supply runs, rocket-propelled grenade attacks that took down helicopters, sniper shootings and suicide bombings.

There were more than 160 accidental deaths, many involving vehicles, and at least 27 suicides. Twelve people were lost in so-called friendly fire incidents, Central Command reported.

Numbers are only part of the story
Those who died were as different as they were the same: Homecoming kings and class presidents, Scout leaders and Little League coaches. A young man from the projects who put a hip-hop beat to “Amazing Grace” on the bus to church camp. A lawyer fascinated with tanks. An Army specialist nicknamed Ketchup who would sneak food to Iraqi children. A National Guardsman who once dyed his hair blue and red for an Independence Day parade.

There was Trevor Spink, a 36-year-old staff sergeant in his third tour in Iraq. His steady, confident gaze was once the face on Marine recruitment posters. Now, his mother has decided, that portrait will adorn his tombstone.

His friends still marvel at his transformation when he donned his Marine uniform. “It was as if God had dropped Trevor into life’s slot of complete comfort,” one wrote in a condolence note to his mother.

There was Army pilot Aaron Weaver, 32, who had survived cancer and a rocket attack in the 1993 battle of Mogadishu, Somalia, that was recounted in “Black Hawk Down.” The Bronze Star recipient and father of a baby girl was so determined to go to Iraq that he secured special medical clearance so he could fly.

“Nobody wants to leave their buddies behind,” says his father, Mike Weaver. “Being an Army Ranger — it’s a close-knit family.”

So many were so very young, men and women just beginning lives filled with promise.

Marine Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin, 21, proposed to his fiancée, Tiffany Frank, by telephone from Iraq, then asked her to send him catalogues circling the engagement rings she liked best. They set a wedding date — Dec. 11. Tiffany had picked up her wedding gown the day she learned of his death.

“We had the church reserved, the pastor reserved, the reception hall reserved,” she says. “Everything was coming together. Now I can only dream about what we would have had.”

Roger Rowe already had everything he wanted: a 34-year marriage to his childhood friend, four children and seven grandchildren who called him “Papa” and for whom he planned to build a clubhouse. Still, at 54, the Vietnam veteran had no hesitation about serving in Iraq as part of the Tennessee National Guard.

“He said, ‘What a lifetime experience this will be to be able to help that country,’” remembers his widow, Shirley. “He was always an optimist.”

After Rowe was killed by a sniper, Guard members went to his home in Bon Aqua, Tenn., and built the clubhouse Papa promised.

The path to a better life
Army Pvt. Robert Frantz, 19, considered it a training ground for a career in law enforcement to support his young daughter.

“His buddies weren’t getting anywhere,” recalls his mother, Kim Smith. “I told him: ‘Son, you have a child. You have to do something.’ It motivated him. He wanted her to be proud of him.”

Brad Coleman had a job recommendation at a mine in Pennsylvania, but at 19, the Army private “wanted to get out and see the world,” says his father, Donald. “He felt with the war going on, he could lend a hand.”

James Adamouski also felt compelled to serve in Iraq, despite previous tours in Bosnia and Kosovo — and a bright future.

At 29, the Army captain already was accomplished: He was a West Point graduate and a former semiprofessional soccer player in Germany. He was about to start Harvard Business School, and he had his eye on a political career.

During a Memorial Day visit to the White House last year, his father, Frank Adamouski, spoke briefly with President Bush about what might have been. “I always knew I was going to have breakfast in the White House,” he recalls saying. “But I always thought my son was going to be president when I did.”

Army Pfc. Jesse Buryj had his own career plans — to become a Canton, Ohio, police officer. He enlisted because he was too young to be on the force.

The 21-year-old newlywed died a hero — one of many killed trying to help or protect others. Buryj was credited with saving fellow soldiers when he fired more than 400 rounds at a dump truck that was trying to crash a checkpoint near Karbala, Iraq.

“I know he went out in a blaze of glory,” says his mother, Peggy. “They say he showed no fear and gave no ground.”

Others expressed bitterness over the loss of loved ones in a war they considered unjustified.

“It just rubbed salt in the wound to hear them talk about ‘well, maybe they didn’t have all the information; maybe the intelligence was faulty,’” says Oliva Smith, whose 41-year-old husband, Bruce, was among 16 U.S. soldiers killed when a surface-to-air missile downed their helicopter.

If the war separated families, it also united them.

Michelle Witmer, 20, was serving in the Wisconsin National Guard with her twin, Charity, and a third sister, Rachel, when she was killed in an ambush in Baghdad. Her sisters returned home to complete their duty.

Kimberly Voelz, 27, and her husband, Max, both explosives experts, headed off to the war together. She died in his arms, killed by a makeshift bomb she was preparing to disarm. Max Voelz called her parents that morning, telling them: “She died 10 minutes ago.”

A void too great to fathom
More than 500 sons and daughters have been left without a father, and at least five boys and girls lost their mothers.

Sharon Swartworth, 43, was about to retire to Hawaii with her naval commander husband and their 8-year-old son when she was killed in a helicopter crash while on a mission to hand out medals. As lead adviser to the Army’s judge advocate general, she had a distinguished 26-year military career.

Her father, Bernard Mayo, says she wasn’t interested in discussing her work but would say: “Talk to me about my little boy, Billy.”

Two dozen soldiers had wives who were pregnant, men like 23-year-old Micheal Dooley, who had picked a name from afar for his first child.

Dooley was manning a traffic control post when the occupants of a car asked for help for a sick friend, then opened fire. His wife, Christine, was in her second trimester. Their daughter bears the name he chose, Shea Micheal Dooley.

“She’s so beautiful and she’s so much fun, and he’s not here to enjoy this,” says Christine, who lives with her parents in Murrysville, Pa. Sometimes, she and Shea go to the mausoleum where Dooley rests. Christine takes her daughter’s hand, presses it to her own lips and then to the wall of the crypt, telling her: “That’s the way we kiss Daddy.”

These 1,000 men and women are home again, their war over.

The Rincon house in Conyers, Ga., is filled with memories of Diego: His neatly pressed uniform is spread out on his bed, his drum set and his telescope are in his room, his yellow Mustang sits in the garage — just as he left them. His framed citizenship papers are on the wall.

Diego Rincon was cremated, but he has not been laid to rest. His family isn’t ready for the final goodbye.

“One day when I’m old,” his father says, “I’m going to bury him in Arlington. But not now. Not right now.”