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Hundreds Mourn Their Fallen Sister in Arms

Pfc. Analaura Esparza is the fourth U.S. female soldier to die in Iraq. She is remembered by comrades in Tikrit and by family in Houston.

October 04, 2003|Laura King and Scott Gold | Times Staff Writers

TIKRIT, Iraq — The mournful notes of a solitary bugler blowing taps rose into the breezeless desert air. In a final roll call, her name -- Analaura Esparza -- was intoned three times, with long pauses between, as if she might answer.

Hundreds of soldiers from the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division lined up in long, silent rows Friday to pay tribute to Esparza, a 21-year-old private first class killed two days earlier when a bomb went off almost directly beneath the Humvee she was driving, ripping into her left leg and chest.

A member of a forward support company, she was returning to base after a supply run in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's restive hometown.

A world away, in a tidy middle-class neighborhood outside Houston, where wildflowers line the sidewalks and every other house seems to have a basketball hoop in the driveway, the cries of a mother who had lost her only child echoed through a cul-de-sac Friday.

"Que paso?" Armandina Esparza screamed again and again. "What happened?"

Her husband, Augustin, his red-rimmed eyes peering through bifocals, remembered "a good daughter, a brave daughter."

"She was proud of what she did," he said, "not because she was a woman but because she was a soldier."

Esparza, known to her friends as Lissy, was the 315th American soldier to die in Iraq or Kuwait since the start of the war. But she was only the fourth female fatality, and her death underscored the lack of distinction between traditional combat and support roles in a war in which the front lines are everywhere and nowhere.

That is particularly true in places like Tikrit, where U.S. troops are aggressively hunting insurgents loyal to the deposed Iraqi leader, and where every American soldier leaving the gates of highly fortified U.S. compounds is under orders to consider himself -- or herself -- to be on combat footing.

In Iraq, women serve in all units except those specifically designated for combat: infantry, artillery and armor.

Besides triggering an outpouring of grief for a young woman who was, by all accounts, a particularly well-loved daughter and comrade, Esparza's death renewed a long-standing debate about Americans' psychological readiness to sustain female casualties -- inevitable in a conflict in which women fill a plethora of hazardous roles.

The women who served alongside Esparza in Tikrit insist, with fierce and wholehearted pride, on their status as soldiers first, with gender inconsequential.

"I'm the leader of my platoon, and that's how my platoon thinks of me -- not as a female," said 1st Lt. Amanda Lee Dorsey, a no-nonsense military police officer who regularly goes out on patrols and convoy-escort missions around Tikrit.

But these same soldiers acknowledge that their loved ones, and the public at large, tend to view them a bit differently, if only because of their status as a minority. The 4th Infantry, based at Ft. Hood, Texas, is about 12% female, said public affairs officer Maj. Josslyn Aberle.

"Because the number of us is smaller, one of my female soldiers said today that her parents had been terrified when they heard a woman soldier was killed here in Tikrit," said Dorsey, a 25-year-old from Hickory Hill, Ill. "She asked me, 'Did you call your parents?' "

"A female's death gets more attention," said 1st Lt. Mary Shannon Newell, who, like Dorsey, serves in the 720th Military Police Battalion.

"You hear the argument that this war will be different, because people can't handle the idea of their daughters coming home in body bags," said Newell, 24, of De Kalb, Miss. "My brother's serving here in Iraq too, but everyone always seems more worried about me.

"Me, though -- I'm worried about him!"

Esparza's death, the third in the 700-strong task force in which she served, appeared particularly wrenching for fellow soldiers.

The Army was supposed to be a means to an end for Esparza, who at age 7 immigrated with her family to the United States from Monterrey, Mexico. She earned mostly A's before graduating from Cy Falls High School in 2001. In school, she was a member of the French honor club and developed an eye for photography.

She wanted to go to college to become a psychologist, but she knew the family couldn't afford it on her father's wages as a machinist. So she enlisted in the Army in May 2002 as a supply specialist. She figured she would serve a couple of years, come home and maybe go to Rice University or the University of Houston.

Her 4th Forward Support Battalion had been in Iraq for six months, mostly around Tikrit.

"When she joined the Army, none of this was going on," said her aunt, Meyra Esparza. "She was sent to Iraq so fast."

Esparza trained at Ft. Jackson, S.C., and Ft. Lee, Va., before shipping out to Kuwait. Along the way, she had found love -- with Spc. Jose Gomez, an infantryman from the Bronx in the 122nd Task Force, to which her supply company was attached. He had already returned to the U.S., and she intended to join him when she could. They planned to marry.

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