His mates found him near the top of a pile of rubble, covering two of his charges, their lives saved because in an instant the hulking sarge shoved them hard to the side, just far enough away that he, not they, took the brunt of the bomb blast.
They called him Superman. That’s what Staff Sgt. Thomas E. Vitagliano seemed to the men he led — invincible, hard as steel, larger than life.
Outside of his hometown of West Haven, Conn., Vitagliano was just another in the ever-mounting total of American fatalities in Iraq: 140 at the end of major combat, 1,000 after 18 months. And now, 31 months after the start of the war, 2,000.
To most of us, the number is merely an abstraction. As each casket comes home, we hear a few details: the deceased’s rank, branch of service, hometown. We don’t see them as individuals until we hear that someone called them Superman.
Or Dice ... Sweet Pea ... Rat ... Willy.
These are just some of the nicknames of the dead, portholes to their identity. Some carried their nicknames almost all their lives. Others carried them only briefly, used only by the soldiers with whom they went into battle.
But each nickname had meaning, and each one suggested a fuller life, a relationship with the people important to them be it for a lifetime or for the time they spent in Iraq. Each nickname was, in ways large and small, evidence of love.
Willy was what Paula Zasadny called her baby girl, Holly. It was the random result of a silly rhyming game she played with her daughter. “Holly, wolly, bolly” eventually became “Willy” and for some reason the name stuck.
To the day Spc. Holly J. McGeogh died — on Jan. 31, at age 19, victim of a roadside bomb near Kirkuk — she was Willy, if only to her mother.
That is how she signed the Christmas card last year — “Love Willy.” It arrived about two weeks after she died, in a box with other items.
“It was devastating,” said Zasadny, who lives in Taylor, Mich., “but at same time it was comforting because I knew she had touched everything in the box.”
Willy was her youngest child and only daughter. She was a fearless kid who always wanted to ride the newest, biggest, fastest roller coaster at Cedar Point and did not flinch when she tried bungee jumping. She was 5-foot-1 and the company commander in Junior ROTC.
In Iraq, she was a meticulous truck mechanic and drove a troop transport truck with a grenade launcher mounted on the back. She eagerly volunteered for every mission and patrol and was disappointed when she was not picked. She once apprehended a fleeing man in a dark alley, threatening to shoot him dead if he didn’t stop, then throwing him against a wall.
But she also taught Iraqi kids the game duck-duck-goose, and gave them licorice. She could never get her mom to mail enough candy. Or hot sauce from Taco Bell. Willy put it on everything. Unable to convince her local Taco Bell to sell her a box of hot sauce, Zasadny ate there every day, collecting enough packets to mail to Iraq.
When Willy helped bring running water to a village, she splashed and played in the spray.
Like the kid she was, not that long ago.
Deyson Ken Cariaga was his name, but they called him Dice. He grew up in the Honolulu neighborhood of Kalihi, close to downtown, in a section where most residents were working-class folks of Filipino or Samoan descent. It is a place of housing projects, gangs, and drug deals.
Dice was the youngest of two boys, raised by a single mother and his grandparents. All three generations lived in the same house on one income. Dice served meals at a retirement home and always thought of his grandparents; he brought leftovers home whenever he could.
The lean and lanky Dice was very athletic. He surfed and excelled at judo; he was a youth leader at the YMCA, and he joined Junior ROTC when he was a freshman at Roosevelt High School.
With kids, he was always the pied piper. So it was in Iraq. He always carried a purple backpack with him on patrol, filled with stuffed animals, toys and candy.
“Somehow, this doesn’t surprise me at all,” said his mother, Theresa Inouye.
Sgt. Deyson Ken Cariaga was only 20 when he died July 8, the first member of the Hawaii National Guard lost in combat since Vietnam. He was driving a Humvee on patrol when he drove over a bomb.
Crit, short for Critter, was the name Sgt. Carl Thomas’ Aunt Diann gave him when he was a baby because he looked so tiny. Everyone knew him as Crit. He grew up skinny and scrawny and shy, a Boy Scout and a computer geek.
The name stuck, even after he joined the Army in 1996 and filled out, became more assertive. He became an infantry motorman and was deployed in Panama, South Korea and Kosovo. The family lived in Germany and in Texas. He rarely was home for more than six months at a time. His three children were accustomed to his absence. They did not know any different.
He was 29 when a bomb exploded near his observation post in Baghdad on Sept. 13, 2004.
Before he left for Iraq, Thomas made his wife, Lanae, watch the movie “We Were Soldiers,” about the soldiers who fought on both sides of an early battle of the Vietnam War. He wanted to prepare her for the worst; if he died, he told her, he wanted to be buried next to his grandfather in Michigan, where he was born.
Are you scared to go? Lanae asked.
No, he said. This is what I trained for.
He was not born to the Army like some soldiers. He was able and proud, but it was more of a means to an end. He liked that it allowed him to spoil his children, Dariaun, 11, Nataisha, 10, and Rayqwaun, 6, to buy them the latest toys, even ones they were too young to play with. So every three years, he considered the options and re-enlisted.
When he was in Iraq, he called Lanae on a mobile phone in the middle of every night and sent instant messages every morning.
“I’m fine. You guys don’t watch the news,” he often wrote.
She was waiting by her computer the morning the two officers came by and knocked on her door. She did not cry. She did not let them see her break down. “Suck up and drive on,” she heard Crit say in her head.
Crit went to high school in Arizona, but home was still Michigan, and the home team was still the Detroit Lions. The day before Crit died, the Lions beat the Bears 20-16 in the season opener, and the family just knew that he woke up his last morning with a smile on his face.
After he died, the team hosted his family at Ford Field and dedicated the game — and the game ball — to Crit Thomas.
Maj. Jay Thomas Aubin was among the first casualties of the war. He was piloting a helicopter with three other U.S. Marines and eight British Marines aboard when it crashed in Kuwait, two days after the war started.
The chopper was emblazoned with his nickname, Sweet Pea. It was a name given to him by a subordinate, inspired by the way Aubin responded to a favorable report: “Oh, sweet!”
“No one could find a name to suit him,” said his mother, Nancy Chamberlain of Winslow, Maine. “They kept coming up with these macho names, but they didn’t fit.”
He was not an imposing man, possessing a slight build and an easy smile. His was more of a nurturing personality. After the Marine Corps ball, he took his wife home, then checked out a van and drove back to the party, waiting for drunk Marines to exit, offering them a ride home.
Aubin, 36, enlisted in the Marines, first, as a way to pay for college, where he earned a business degree, then, so he could pursue the dream he had had of learning to fly, ever since he was an infant and his pilot father strapped him into his two-seater.
The crash that killed Sweet Pea was ruled an accident — there was no gunfire. Blowing sand and smoke from burning oil wells were thought to be a factor, his mother said.
“The thing that bothered me the most was I thought he was going to be blamed,” Chamberlain said. “But he wasn’t.
“He always said if he was flying a helicopter that went down, he wanted to go down, too. I miss him more than I can tell you, but sometimes there are things worse than death. We’re the ones suffering now. But if he had lived, he would really be suffering.”
Sgt. Ben Morton, 24, picked up the nickname Rat in the Army, because he could never throw anything away. If he stood in one place for more than a few minutes, he would eventually be surrounded by refuse. He drove a Humvee for a Stryker brigade based in Fort Lewis, Wash.; his seat was usually covered with food wrappers and containers of all kinds.
He grew up in rural Wright, Kan., the adoring big brother to two boys and two girls. His mother was a teacher; his father worked at an ammonia plant. He played football and ran track and joined the 4-H Club.
He was a few years out of high school, operating a grain elevator, when he joined the Army and trained as a paratrooper and sniper.
His dad, Allen Morton, didn’t talk too much to his son about the war — Ben kept a lot to himself. The one thing his son often told him was that “people living here do not realize how blessed they are.”
He knows Ben and a comrade once pulled wounded soldiers out of a burning Humvee and put out the flames while taking small arms fire. He thinks his son came under fire other times before he was killed during a May 22 raid, shot while searching the home of a suspected bomb maker.
Ben married a year before he died. His wife, Elaina, was an indirect casualty of the war, too. Three months after Rat died, she took her own life.
“She couldn’t live without him, I guess,” said his father.
Thomas Vitagliano was Sgt. V to some, Superman to others, Kindergarten Sarge to a few who had occasion to notice his rapport with small children. To his nephews and nieces the 6-foot-4, 240-pound uncle was a moveable jungle gym. All four would grab a leg, or climb up an arm as Vitagliano walked, all of them clinging to him like he was a carnival ride.
He joined the Marines after one year of college. He enlisted in the Army five years later, joining the Rangers. He was born to the military, his family said. He was a military history buff growing up, played military board games and attended military academy.
But at age 33 he was looking at retirement when he might work in his family’s real estate business and start a family of his own.
Superman was a principled guy who showed his heart with actions more than words. He did not exactly have “the gift of gab,” said his wife, Nerina Giolli.
When the collection plate came his way at church, he always left a roll of bills, never letting Nerina see exactly how much he gave. When others passed by a stalled car with an elderly driver, he stopped, pushed the vehicle into a lot and gave it a jump start.
While on patrol in Ramadi on Jan. 17, he noticed with suspicion a taxi circling the area oddly, apparently headed toward a group of 36 soldiers, said his sister, Tammy Ronan. Vitagliano approached the taxi with two other men. Realizing it was a suicide attack, he tried to protect and shield his men, and lost his life.
For this he was awarded the Silver Star.
“He surprised that car bomber,” Ronan said. “That bomb wasn’t intended for him. The car was heading up the street for the other guys. If it wasn’t for my brother, 36 men would have died.”
At that moment, and always, he was Superman.