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June 17, 2004

Sacrifice In the In-Box

This is an opinion piece from the Washington Post:

Sacrifice In the In-Box

By Thomas E. Ricks
Friday, June 11, 2004; Page A25

The death notices from Iraq come across my computer screen by e-mail and always follow the same format. Each states the name of the dead soldier and his or her rank, age and hometown, as in: "Pfc. Melissa J. Hobart, 22, of Ladson, S.C." It also identifies the unit, and so tells you whether this was an active-duty soldier or a part-time reservist or a National Guard member.

As a military reporter for The Post, I get copies of all of them. On good days there are none, or one. On some bad days, such as this past Monday, there are several.

If the soldier was in the Army, there also is usually a sentence giving a bare-bones account of the means of death -- mortar attack, roadside bomb, small-arms fire or vehicle accident account for most. June 2: "Capt. Robert C. Scheetz Jr., 31, of Dothan, Ala., died May 30 in Musayyib, Iraq, when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device" -- the U.S. military term for a roadside bomb, frequently made with an old artillery shell and a remote detonator. The Marine Corps notices are shorter, because they don't disclose the cause of death, on the grounds that -- as those news releases sometimes state -- such information could aid the foe in Iraq.

In other conflicts I've covered -- Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti -- the death notices were fewer or came in bursts and stopped after a few weeks or months. Now the notices have gone on for more than a year, providing a continual but uneven drumbeat.

There have been lots lately. I read them all. Even on the busiest of days, when I am on deadline writing an article, I pause when an e-mail pops up on my screen with the subject line "DoD Identifies Army Casualty."

I do this partly for my job, tracking the casualties to maintain a sense of where the fighting is hot. I also look to see if the person was from Virginia, Maryland or the District, so I can let The Post's Metro section know if it needs to do a story.

But I read them as much for personal reasons. In 15 years of covering the military, I've interviewed thousands of soldiers. So, with that feeling of being suspended at the top of a roller coaster just before it plummets, I look to see if I knew the soldier or his unit, especially from my time knocking around Iraq with the 1st Armored Division, the 1st Infantry Division and other outfits. I keep my fingers crossed: So far, no one I've interviewed during several "embedded" reporting trips has appeared in the KIA notices. But there frequently are losses from brigades and battalions I've spent time with in Baghdad, Baqubah and Baiji and outside Najaf.

I also do it because I feel I owe it to each soldier to pause and read this short notice of his or her passing. It isn't much to ask.

So often the notices are about young men from small American towns I've never heard of dying in small Iraqi towns I've never heard of. May 26: "Pfc. Owen D. Witt, 20, of Sand Springs, Mont., died May 24 in Ad Dawr, Iraq, when his armored high-mobility-multipurpose-wheeled vehicle rolled over." Where is Sand Springs, Mont., I wondered. I couldn't find it in a road atlas.

Sometimes the names just strike me. "Lance Cpl. Elias Torrez III, 21, of Veribest, Texas." I think of a father and grandfather bearing the same name, and the grim news they've just received.

"Spc. Beau R. Beaulieu, 20, of Lisbon, Maine, died May 24 in Taji, Iraq, during a mortar attack on Camp Cooke." I would have liked to have met him, I thought.

Together, the notices amount to a mosaic of sacrifice, showing what parts of America have sons and daughters dying in Iraq. May 21: "Sergeant First Class Troy L. Miranda, 44, of DeQueen, Ark." They remind me that what goes on in Iraq isn't just a matter of President Bush's political future, or the billion dollars being spent there every week by the U.S. military, or the role of the United States in the world. It also is about the nearly unbearable price paid almost every day by some American family.

They aren't all from small towns, of course. There are Hispanics from big cities -- "Lance Cpl. Benjamin R. Gonzalez, 23, of Los Angeles, Calif., died May 29 due to hostile action in Al Anbar Province, Iraq." There have been more of these since the Marines went back into Iraq this spring -- the Corps seems to attract a lot of Hispanics from the coasts and from the Southwest, such as "Staff Sgt. Jorge A. Molina-Bautista, 37, of Rialto, Calif." and "1st Lt. Oscar Jimenez, 34, of San Diego, Calif."

Also, with more front-line units from the National Guard serving in Iraq, there lately have been more aging sergeants, fathers and grandfathers, such as "Command Sgt. Maj. Edward C. Barnhill, 50, of Shreveport, La."; "Sgt. Frank T. Carvill, 51, of Carlstadt, N.J."; and "Staff Sgt. William D. Chaney, 59, of Schaumburg, Ill."

The Guard units, based as they are in communities, also bring painful clusters of casualties. This was the notice that appeared on my screen at 6:12 p.m. Monday:

"Assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, headquartered in Cottage Grove, Ore.:

1st Lt. Erik S. McCrae, 25, of Portland, Ore.

Sgt. Justin L. Eyerly, 23, of Salem, Ore.

Spc. Justin W. Linden, 22, of Portland, Ore."

They are all losses, but the youngest ones haunt me most -- those Justins, Dustins, Brandons, Shawns, Kyles, Corys and Codys barely out of their teens, or sometimes still in them.

"Pfc. Cody S. Calavan, 19, of Lake Stevens, Wash., died May 29 due to hostile action in Al Anbar Province, Iraq." He was younger than my own son, I think -- born when Ronald Reagan was president, and probably still in kindergarten during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. And now he is dead somewhere in western Iraq.

I hope history finds their sacrifices worth it.

The writer covers the military for The Post.


...and this is exactly my fear of Bush being re-elected. Seeing the names of any of the kids I've fed over the years as he leads the US into more cowboy-borne conflict in the years ahead and the inevitable conscription that's sure to follow.

Posted by: Karen at June 18, 2004 08:26 AM