It was lunchtime in a war zone, a sunny autumn day near Baqouba when the U.S. military was one-third of the way to 1,000 American dead in Iraq.
Nine American soldiers traveling in a small, dusty convoy knew the battle they were fighting was unconventional. Even so, the balancing act that Iraq demanded -- fight and rebuild, make friends and wage war -- had become routine.
In less than a year's time -- this past Wednesday -- the toll reached four figures, casting into sharp relief who was dying in the war and how they met their end.
It's clear that the American troops killed in Iraq are older -- averaging about 26, four years older than during the Vietnam War. While Vietnam relied heavily on the draft, this war is employing many members of the National Guard and Reserves, perhaps explaining the higher age of those killed. Nearly half have left spouses behind.
More women have died than in any other U.S. war. Hispanics' share of the dying is high: While they represent 9 percent of the military, they have made up 12 percent of the deaths.
Most of the 1,000 were killed by an unseen enemy who used roadside bombs, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
'A war of inches'
Back near Baqouba last autumn, the three Humvees and nine soldiers from an Army civil affairs team bounced over roads in the baking countryside on their way back from a meeting at a chicken farm, headed for a military civil affairs operations center downtown.
As they rumbled into Baqouba, a bomb tied to a tree came to life with a dusty, muffled pop. Deadly shards of hot metal sang into the Humvee that 31-year-old Army medic Capt. John Teal had ridden to the end of his war.
At Forward Operating Base Warhorse, 15 minutes south of town, Teal's friend and fellow medic Capt. Jason Sepanic remembers the Humvee screeching to a halt outside his aid station, the frantic shouts for medics and the bloody, scripted frenzy that followed.
Only a book in Teal's pocket identified the dying man to Sepanic.
"This was a war of inches," Sepanic said, still shaken a year later. "Every one of us has had a close call where it could have gone one way or another way."
More than a thousand times over a year and a half, there was a knock at the door and a soft message delivered to family members with heartbreaking formality.
"You're seeing more people and different kinds of people," said David Segal, who has studied military race relations, drug abuse and morale issues for the Center for Research on Military Organizations at the University of Maryland. "In the first Gulf War, the people engaged in combat were in combat units. There was a front line."
|Average age: 26 (compared with 22 in Vietnam)Leaving surviving spouses behind: nearly half.More women, 24, have died than in any other U.S. war. Half the women killed were white. A quarter of them were Hispanic. Almost as many were black.Hispanics represent 9 percent of the military, but have made up 12 percent of the deaths.Blacks represent about 13 percent of the military and 13 percent of the dead.Causes of death: The overwhelming cause of American deaths was "improvised explosive devices," often roadside bombs. They accounted for 318 deaths, or 33 percent of all killed. Gunshots were the next most common cause of death, with 208 killed. Car accidents claimed 87 lives. Airplane and helicopter crashes, another 85. Mortars and rocket-propelled grenades killed 63 Americans. Another 29 died from heart attacks, strokes, the heat and other medical reasons.The five states with the highest per-capita death tolls in Iraq are mostly rural: Nebraska, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Vermont.|
No more, he said.
Among those who died were 24 women -- as many women as were killed in service during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Vietnam and the Korean War combined.
The nature of this war is different, said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation.
"I was in Vietnam after the Tet offensive," she said. "Never was Saigon as dangerous a place as Baghdad is today. In Iraq, you can be at risk anywhere."
Terrified of the dangers posed to supply convoys, Master Sgt. Linda Tarango-Griess, 33, who manned a supply warehouse in Iraq, finally relented on July 11 of this year and hopped into one, fellow soldiers say.
It was the day she died.
"Her biggest concern was bringing her soldiers home," said Sgt. Belinda Harris, a National Guard veteran struck by Tarango-Griess' dedication to soldiers she had mentored in Nebraska and Iraq.
When a roadside bomb ripped through the Humvee that Tarango-Griess and fellow Guard Staff Sgt. Jeremy Fischer, 23, were sharing in Samarra, they became the first Nebraska National Guardsmen killed in war in 60 years.
Grief consumed her hometown in Sutton, Neb., a quiet town of 1,400.
Though their ranks were small, the 24 women killed in Iraq changed U.S. history in another way: They were the first women to die in jobs other than nursing or bringing up rear lines, assuming roles the military expanded for women in 1994.
Though half the women killed were white, a heavy burden also fell on minority women. A quarter of them were Hispanic. Almost as many were black.
For a glimmer of what is driving Latino enlistment, visit a wooded trailer park in Bexar County, Texas. To get there, pass the newly renamed Staff Sgt. Michael P. Barrera Veterans Elementary School on Texas Highway 16, beyond the country graveyard with the tomb obvious from the road for the red, white and blue plastic angels stuck into fresh grass.
Tucked into a wooded lot beyond it, among shaded streets named for kings, is a chain-link gate covered in yellow ribbons and American flags.
"He wanted to pay for school. I said, 'Well, son, what are you going to do out here (for money)?" said Hilda Guardiola, whose only son, Barrera, 26, was killed when his M-1 Abrams tank hit a buried mine on a road north of Baghdad.
Statistics for Hispanic deaths in past wars are unreliable because they often were counted as white or black. Estimates of Hispanics' share of deaths in Vietnam have run as high as 25 percent, but studies have been based on counts of Spanish-sounding surnames and other shaky methodology.
But it's clear that Hispanics have been on the front lines in this war, representing 9 percent of the U.S. military and 12 percent of U.S. deaths in Iraq.
Sept. 11 played role
In the case of blacks, their share of the dead -- 13 percent -- matches closely their participation in the armed forces.
Among those of all race and ethnicities who died, many joined the services out of post-Sept. 11 fervor, but a significant portion of America's fallen had joined much earlier, largely to pay for school or to learn a trade, their families said.
The military releases no reliable information about where its members grew up, or their economic background. But the five states with the highest per-capita death tolls in Iraq are mostly rural: Nebraska, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Vermont.
Many of the states bearing the biggest burden are those strongly supporting the Bush administration's policies.
The 20 states considered "red" or Republican in recent polling by PollingReport.com are home to 157 electoral votes and 334 troops who have died. The District of Columbia and nine states that are "blue" or Democratic -- many of them populous states such as California, New York and Illinois -- are home to 161 electoral votes and 275 of those killed.
A Defense Department tally through Aug. 28 shows the overwhelming cause of American casualties was "improvised explosive devices," often roadside bombs. They accounted for 318 deaths, or 33 percent of all killed. All happened after major combat was declared over in May 2003.
Gunshots were the next most common cause of death, with 208 servicemen and women killed. Car accidents claimed 87 lives. Airplane and helicopter crashes, another 85. Mortars and rocket-propelled grenades killed 63 Americans. Another 29 died from heart attacks, strokes, the heat and other medical reasons.