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Many Faces, One Heartache

From coast to coast and beyond, families are torn over love and patriotism as the list of Iraq war dead grows.

September 08, 2004|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

He was older than we expected. But not really older, because that's the way of war. Given the era in which he served, "he" was a "she" sometimes. Lacquered in grimy coats of sand and sweat and dust and sometimes tears of pain, he wore a rainbow of skin colors. Not that it mattered a whit. Through the din of shellfire, the clatter of war's machinery and the scream of battle, he spoke with many accents. This didn't matter either, except to tell of the culture of his homeland. He was a full-timer, and he was a part-timer too. Driven by hope, driven by duty, driven by both, he volunteered for this, yes.

But he didn't volunteer for this. And now he is gone.

A thousand times over, one by agonizing one, or sometimes together as parts of a group, his life was cut short in the cause of his country.

On Tuesday, Sept. 7, homeland time, American fatalities in Iraq reached a milestone of 1,000 -- 997 uniformed troops and three civilian employees of the Department of Defense, the White House said. Associated Press, using informal as well as official sources, reported early today that the toll had risen to 1,003.

In mythical America, that's equivalent to an entire heartland farming town. Or the student body of a big-city high school.

In the real-life of the country, the toll has meant loss from coast to coast and beyond to distant territories at the rate of 13 dead each week for nearly 18 months now.

California's loss has been greatest, 118 and counting.

Because the names and circumstances of the most recent casualties have not been released, the portrait of American war deaths accounts for 983 of the 1,003.

Of these, 24 were women. An Associated Press analysis and its "War Casualty Database" list 711 combat deaths. The rest resulted from accidents, friendly fire, illness or suicide.

The oldest was 59 and the youngest 18, too young to legally consume a beer in many states. More than half were felled before they reached the age of 30.

All but 138 deaths occurred after May 1, 2003, when President Bush stood under a banner that declared "mission accomplished." He announced an end to major combat operations in Iraq.

Tuesday's casualty count included one soldier killed in a rocket-propelled-grenade attack in Baghdad's Sadr City, a military police officer shot to death in western Baghdad, a soldier who died in an attack in eastern Baghdad and yet another who died of wounds sustained during a bombing the night before.

On Monday, seven Marines were killed in a car bomb attack near Fallouja and three soldiers died in other scattered attacks.

In the half-century-plus since World War II, America's armed conflicts have been, like this one, controversial. But not, for the most part, the nation's reverence for its battlefield deaths. The fallen continue to be honored by the long-lasting echo of Winston Churchill: " 'Not in vain' may be the pride of those who have survived and the epitaph of those who fell."

"My heart is broken every time I hear another family is going to have to face what we've faced," said De'on Miller of Lovington, N.M. Her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Aaron Austin, was killed in April. "I just hope that they're as proud of their son's service as we were for Aaron."

Asked what advice she could offer families who will next endure the dreaded knock on the front door from the military's casualty notification teams, Miller replied, "Find comfort in each other and your faith and the fact that the world is with you. These times really hurt, but you're not alone."

Families aren't the only ones shaken by the rising casualty numbers.

"We're losing so many boys. It isn't only one Marine that's killed -- it affects a whole family. Even my neighbors were affected," said Liz Ceniceros, a resident of East Los Angeles and the widow of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Manuel Ceniceros, who was killed in hostile action June 26.

"I understand why we went over there. I'm torn between the love of my husband and the honor of being an American," she said. "By all means, whatever it takes to protect our country and our freedom. But if we're going to lose so many men and women, maybe we ought to step back and take a harder look at this."

Eric Blickenstaff, of Portland, Ore., said the time for looking had passed. His younger brother, Army Spc. Joseph M. Blickenstaff, drowned in December when his Stryker armored vehicle tumbled into an irrigation canal. Eric has since joined the antiwar group Military Families Speak Out.

"I think up until now people have tried to ignore the death toll," Blickenstaff said. "I don't think people really want to know. They don't want to know what the true cost of this war is.... They will tell you that your relative died for a good cause, but I think they say that to make themselves feel good. They don't want to feel like they were deceived."

America's modern military beckons volunteers for a host of reasons, from patriotism to job training. For a few, there is another motive.

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