– The contents of a fallen warrior's foot locker tell a story that can be
wrenching for those cataloging the items to ship to grieving families.
Chief Warrant Officer William Couch recalled a poem he found among the
belongings of a slain service member. It was penned by the man's wife or
girlfriend in the voice of their baby daughter — a child he would never
"It's at those points in time, where, I don't care who you are, human
nature kicks in," Couch said. "I shed a few tears, backed up, gained my
composure, went back and did the case because it was the right thing to
do for the family."
Such moments come so often for workers at the military's Joint Personal
Effects Depot that the unit has two staff counselors to help them stay
focused on their sad but noble mission of sorting, photographing,
cleaning and shipping the belongings of service members killed overseas.
"This team we have is a very special group that provides this service to
the families with the utmost dignity, integrity and respect because we
know these items mean so much to the families," said their commander,
Lt. Col. Kelly Kyburz. She led reporters on a tour Thursday of the
unit's new, permanent home at Dover Air Force Base.
ribbon-cutting ceremony was planned Friday.
center will move by the end of June from Aberdeen Proving Ground, where
it has occupied three World War II-era warehouses since 2003. The unit
was created in 2001 to recover the belongings of those killed in the
Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
new, $17.5 million building stands beside the Air Force Mortuary Affairs
Operations center at Dover, the U.S. entry point for the remains of all
service members killed overseas. Its linear layout is designed to allow
staff to more efficiently handle personal effects and shorten the 30-day
timeline for returning the items to families, Kyburz said.
Most steps in the process, from opening incoming foot lockers to
repacking them for shipment, are done in one, gray-walled room. Kyburz
said this saves time compared with Aberdeen, where items are shuttled
from room to room or building to building.
will also save money, although officials said they don't know how much.
The military says the new unit is authorized for 148 workers, down from
190. Most of them are civilian employees of contractor Serco Inc., of
Worker requirements, according to a recent Serco job posting, include
the "ability to remain calm during highly emotional or crisis
Some families long for even the scent of their lost loved one — and they
can have it. Couch said families can place a "do not wash" request to
have clothing returned dirty but still smelling of the fallen service
Jeff Davis, a retired railroad worker in Cumberland, Md., said he was
pleased with the center's handling of his son's belongings after Army
Pfc. Brandon Lee Davis was killed by an explosion near Fallujah, Iraq,
in March 2004.
Davis said he especially treasures the photographs of his son that were
on a returned camera. The camera also contained some video of an Iraqi
shop that Brandon shot and narrated before the soldiers were abruptly
ordered to move out, Davis said.
said, 'Gotta go get in a car going across the bridge. We could be blown
up,'" Davis said. "To hear him say that, and then later on that's how he
dies ...." Davis' voice trailed off.
It's still painful to hear his son's voice, Davis said, "but it's
something to have, you know?"
May 18, 2010
The New York Times
By JAMES DAO
and ANDREW W. LEHREN
He was an irreverent teenager with a pregnant girlfriend when the idea first
crossed his mind: Join the Army, raise a family. She had an abortion, but the
idea remained. Patrick S. Fitzgibbon, Saint Paddy to his friends, became Private
Fitzgibbon. Three months out of basic training, he went to war.
From his outpost in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan, he complained to his
father about shortages of cigarettes, Skittles and Mountain Dew. But he took
pride in his work and volunteered for patrols. On Aug. 1, 2009, while on one of
those missions, Private Fitzgibbon stepped on a metal plate wired to a bomb
buried in the sun-baked earth. The blue sky turned brown with dust.
The explosion instantly killed Private Fitzgibbon, 19, of Knoxville, Tenn., and
Cpl. Jonathan M. Walls, a 27-year-old father from Colorado Springs. An hour
later, a third soldier who was helping secure the area, Pfc. Richard K. Jones,
21, of Roxboro, N.C., died from another hidden bomb. The two blasts wounded at
least 10 other soldiers.
On Tuesday, the toll of American dead in Afghanistan passed 1,000, after a
suicide bomb in Kabul killed at least five United States service members. Having
taken nearly seven years to reach the first 500 dead, the war killed the second
500 in fewer than two. A resurgent Taliban active in almost every province, a
weak central government incapable of protecting its people and a larger number
of American troops in harms way all contributed to the accelerating pace of
The mayhem of last August, coming as Afghans were holding national elections,
provided a wake-up call to many Americans about the deteriorating conditions in
the country. Forty-seven American G.I.’s died that month, more than double the
previous August, making it the deadliest month in the deadliest year of the war.
In many ways, Private Fitzgibbon typified the new wave of combat deaths.
American troops are dying younger, often fresh out of boot camp, military
records show. From 2002 to 2008, the average age of service members killed in
action in Afghanistan was about 28; last year, it dropped to 26. This year, the
more than 125 troops killed in combat were on average 25 years old.
In the last two years, the number of troops killed by homemade bombs, which the
military calls improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s, increased
significantly. Earlier in the war, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire
took the largest number of American lives. But in 2008, for the first time, more
than half of American combat deaths were the result of I.E.D.’s, which — just as
they did in Iraq — have become both more powerful and more plentiful in
Those I.E.D. deaths have increasingly come in batches: Last August, for
instance, 17 of the 25 deaths caused by I.E.D.’s — including the one that killed
Private Fitzgibbon and Corporal Walls — involved attacks in which more than one
soldier or Marine died. In future histories, the summer of 2009 may stand as a
turning point in the war, a moment when not only the American public began
paying attention again to Afghanistan, but when the Obama administration felt
compelled to review and revise its entire approach to the war.
The warm months have long been the prime fighting season in Afghanistan, when
insurgents have emerged from mountain havens to plot ambushes and recruit new
fighters. But in the run-up to the August presidential elections last year, the
Taliban’s reach was wider and more potent than at any time since they were
driven from power.
Not only did the number of I.E.D. attacks and suicide bombings jump, but the
devices themselves became more powerful, capable of flipping or tearing holes
into heavily armored vehicles that had once seemed impervious. A bomb estimated
at 2,000 pounds killed seven American soldiers and their interpreter riding in a
troop carrier last fall.
July, August, September and October went on record as the four deadliest months
for American troops since the war began.
After receiving an alarming report about the war from his top commander in
Afghanistan, President Obama last fall ordered 30,000 more troops into the war,
most of whom will be in place by this summer.
But in calling for more troops, Mr. Obama and other supporters of the new surge
warned that casualties, American and Afghan, were almost certain to rise before
security improved. The fierce fighting in Helmand Province this year has proven
them right, with 16 combat dead in February, compared with just 2 the previous
“If the Taliban has obtained political control over important parts of the
country, the only way it will get better is if we introduce military forces and
contest their control,” said Steven Biddle, a defense policy expert at the
Council on Foreign Relations who was part of a group that reviewed American
strategy last summer. “And that’s going to get people killed: their people, our
people and civilians.”
Good Days and Bad
They did not know each other well. But the three soldiers from Charlie Company,
1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division out of Fort Carson,
Colo., shared a few things in common. All had weathered the breakup of their
parents’ marriages. None liked school much. And all viewed the Army as a path to
a better life.
Pfc. Richard K. Jones had been a star high school wrestler in Person, N.C., near
the Virginia border. All arms and legs at 6-foot-2 and 152 pounds, he made it to
the state championships one year. The sport gave his life discipline, his mother
said, and he thought the Army would be the perfect place to channel it.
His mother, Franceen Ridgeway, prevailed on him to try college instead. But
after earning an associate’s degree and working as a diesel mechanic for a short
time, he asked his mother to support his military ambitions. She consented,
saying: “Maybe it’s what God wants you to do.”
He graduated from basic training in late January 2009 and was in Afghanistan by
May. In one firefight, Private Jones fell and dislocated his shoulder. But the
medics popped it back in, gave him a few days off and then returned him to duty.
“He wasn’t into death or dying,” Ms. Ridgeway said. “To him, it was an honor to
be a soldier. And it was a chance to see the world, to get away from a small
town. Maybe he was thinking he might never have that opportunity again.”
Cpl. Jonathan Walls was the son of a Navy man, but he played soldier from the
time he could hold a toy gun, his mother, Lisa Rowe, said. In the woods outside
Reading, Pa., he spent innumerable hours hunting, target shooting and playing
paintball. After high school, he tried community college and worked at a Lowe’s.
But only the military captured his imagination, and he enlisted in 2005. By
2007, he was in Iraq.
Roadside bombs there gave him a mild traumatic brain injury, Ms. Rowe said, and
he returned home suffering migraine headaches that made it difficult to sleep.
Nevertheless, he received orders to deploy to Afghanistan, arriving there last
May, three months after the birth of his third child.
“I thought they might not send him so that his brain could simmer down,” Ms.
Rowe said. “But we’re in a time of war. He said, ‘Ma, it’s my duty.’ ”
On the day before Charlie Company deployed last summer, Private Fitzgibbon took
a bunch of soldiers to a strip club near Fort Carson, running up a $3,400 tab
that his father paid off. It was typical Patrick. Charmingly roguish, he wore
his hair in a brightly tinted Mohawk, drilled holes the size of nickels into his
ear lobes and posted comedic homemade videos on YouTube. The military didn’t
seem a natural fit.
But after his girlfriend got pregnant two years ago, he vowed to support her and
the child by joining the Army. He was devastated when she had an abortion, his
father said, and decided to enlist anyway. Boot camp changed him.
“He went from not caring about nothing to knowing he had responsibilities,” his
father, Donald Fitzgibbon, 39, said. “All in a matter of months.”
The day the three men died began with a reconnaissance patrol along dirt paths
lined by grape arbors in a place called Mushan Village. By 8:30 a.m., the
temperature was already over 100 degrees. After resting in the shade of a
mud-brick compound, the soldiers gave brief chase to a pair of
suspicious-looking men. But their sergeant ordered them to fall back, worrying
about an I.E.D. trap. A few minutes later, Private Fitzgibbon stepped on the
One of the first medics on the scene was Private Fitzgibbon’s best friend in the
unit. For weeks afterward, the medic felt ripped by guilt because he could not
save Private Fitzgibbon or Corporal Walls. Mr. Fitzgibbon tried to ease his
grief, telling him: “God knows when it’s your turn.”
Now and again the private’s father consoles himself with the same thought.
“I feel he would have died whether he was here or in Afghanistan, and that gives
me peace with it,” Mr. Fitzgibbon said. “But I still have my good days and bad
“A Resilient Insurgency”
Just as Private Fitzgibbon’s platoon was making its first forays into Kandahar
province last year, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American commander in
Afghanistan, was dispatching a team of experts to review American strategy.
As the group traveled the country last June, they were troubled by how little
American intelligence officers seemed to know about local conditions, some of
the members said in interviews later. The Taliban had established shadow
governors in many provinces and were waging intimidation campaigns against
village leaders who defied them.
Yet American commanders did not seem to have answers to some basic questions,
group members said. How many district governors spend the nights in their
districts? How many police checkpoints are manned on a given day? No one seemed
To many on the panel, the poor intelligence was a sign that American forces
could not secure their operating areas and lacked strong relationships with
Their final report, endorsed by General McChrystal, concluded that “the
situation in Afghanistan is serious” and that American forces faced “a resilient
and growing insurgency.”
The solution, many panel members felt, was to increase the presence of American
troops. They argued that the situation could be reversed with a new commitment
to protecting population centers, a strategy known as counterinsurgency.
Not all of the members agreed. Some argued that sending more troops would simply
increase civilian casualties and ultimately aid Taliban recruiting.
“McChrystal’s assessment of what went wrong is accurate but his solution is
180-degrees wrong,” said one of the dissenters, Luis Peral, a research fellow at
the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies in Paris, in a recent
But that view did not prevail. Under General McChrystal’s signature, the final
report landed on Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ desk on Aug. 30.
The next day, three more American soldiers died in southern Afghanistan.
‘To Grow Me Up’
Pfc. Jordan Brochu was one of them.
An adopted child, he had lived in many places but carried himself with a
confidence, some said swagger, that belied the disruptions in his life. Perhaps
it was his build: 6-foot-1 and muscular, he was a natural athlete who threw the
discus for the first time as a senior in high school yet still qualified for the
But he had another side as well, writing poetry, playing the violin — lovingly,
if not proficiently — and cooking. He considered becoming a chef, but jobs were
scarce in western Maine, where he attended high school. So upon graduating in
2008, he chose the Army, “to help make a difference and to grow me up,” he
declared on his MySpace page.
Before deploying to Afghanistan last year, his culinary arts teacher asked him
for a photograph to hang in the classroom as a reminder of the war. With a smile
and a touch of bravado, Private Brochu declined.
“Don’t stress it Mr. B,” he told the teacher, Eric Botka. “I’ll see you when I
On Aug. 31, while Private Brochu was on foot patrol in the Arghandab River
Valley of Kandahar Province, a mine detonated and killed him at the age of 20,
along with another soldier, Specialist Jonathan D. Welch. Before the day was
over, a third soldier from their unit, the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment
out of Fort Lewis, Wash., would be killed. By this week, the battalion had lost
21 soldiers in Afghanistan in less than a year.
Raised in Orange County, Calif., Specialist Welch, 19, was from a close-knit,
deeply Christian family. But he rebelled in his freshman year of high school,
drinking heavily, using methamphetamine and living on the streets for weeks
before his parents sent him to a rehabilitation clinic in Mexico.
When he was 17, Specialist Welch and a good friend decided to visit a military
recruiting station. His friend joined the Navy but Specialist Welch chose the
Army, declaring, “I just want to shoot a gun.” His parents grudgingly consented.
“You see your child so lost with the drugs, and then you see him saying: ‘I’m
passionate about this,’ ” recalled his father, Ben Storll, 47. “The only thing
he was passionate about before was punk rock music.”
In Afghanistan, he became close to his fire team leader, Sgt. Drew McComber, who
was badly wounded in the explosion that killed Specialist Welch. In a letter to
the specialist’s parents, Sergeant McComber described the soldier as his “go-to
guy for everything.”
“Thank you so much for supporting him through his wilder days when he was
younger,” Sergeant McComber wrote from his hospital bed. “I’ve seen the
pictures. He certainly has come a long ways in a very short time.”
October 30, 2009
The New York Times
By JEFF ZELENY
President Obama traveled to Dover Air Force Base early Thursday morning,
where he met with family members and paid his respects as the bodies of 18
Americans killed this week in Afghanistan were returned to the United States.
It was the president’s first trip to the Delaware air base, the main point of
entry for the nation’s war dead to return home. The trip was a symbolic one for
Mr. Obama — intended to convey the gravity of his decision as he moves closer to
announcing whether he will send more troops to Afghanistan.
The overnight trip was not announced in advance. The president, wearing a dark
suit and long overcoat, left the White House at 11:44 p.m. A small contingent of
reporters and photographers accompanied Mr. Obama to Dover, where he arrived at
12:34 a.m. aboard Marine One. He returned to the South Lawn of the White House
at 4:45 a.m.
October has been the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the
war began eight years ago, with at least 55 troops killed in action. This week
alone, about two dozen soldiers have died in attacks and accidents. The bodies
returning to Dover Air Force Base shortly after midnight included seven Army
soldiers and three agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration who were
killed when their helicopter crashed on Monday in rural Afghanistan. The bodies
of eight soldiers killed in an attack on Monday also arrived on an Air Force
On a clear fall morning, Mr. Obama boarded the back of the gray plane at 3:40
a.m., standing watch as Air Force Chaplain, Maj. Richard S. Bach, offered a
brief prayer over the cases containing the remains of the 15 soldiers and three
The family of Army Sgt. Dale R. Griffin, 29, of Terre Haute, Ind., agreed to
have the transfer of his remains photographed early Thursday morning. The other
families chose not to, officials said, under a new Pentagon policy that lifted
an 18-year ban on media covering the return of U.S. service members killed in
action if families provide permission.
As the Commander-in-chief stood on the darkened tarmac and saluted, the
flag-draped case was unloaded from the cargo plane in what the military calls a
“dignified transfer,” as six soldiers in white gloves and camouflage fatigues
carried the remains in precision. Mr. Obama and uniformed officers stood at
attention as the case was placed in a white mortuary van parked nearby.
The transfer of the bodies — a solemn, 15-minute proceeding — took place after
Mr. Obama spent nearly two hours meeting privately with several family members
in the chapel of the Air Force base.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, traveled with the president to
Dover. He told reporters earlier that Mr. Obama was “probably getting to the
end” of his decision-making process on his military plans for Afghanistan. The
recent rise in violence would not necessarily influence the strategy, he said,
but it was weighing on the president.
“The hardest task that he has on any given day is signing the condolence letter
to a loved one who’s lost a son or a daughter or a husband, a wife, in Iraq or
Afghanistan, or serving our country overseas,” Mr. Gibbs said.
The trip early Thursday morning came several hours after Mr. Obama signed a
defense spending bill, which he said “reaffirms our commitment to our brave men
and women in uniform and our wounded warriors.” Three days ago, Mr. Obama spoke
to soldiers and Marines at a Naval Air Station in Florida, where he defended
himself against critics who have suggested that he is taking too long to
announce a new military strategy in Afghanistan.
“I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm’s way,” Mr.
The images and the sentiment of the president’s five-hour trip to Delaware were
intended by the White House to convey to the nation that Mr. Obama was not
making his Afghanistan decision lightly or in haste.
The president returned to the White House less than three hours before sunrise
on Thursday morning. He will meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Friday, his
seventh major session on Afghanistan since beginning his review.
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — Tonight, as always, the passengers stop talking
when the van makes a sharp left on the tarmac and rolls toward the rear hatch of
the C-17 transport. Now they see its cargo: two gleaming, 7-foot-long aluminum
cases, each covered with an American flag.
Aaron Fairbairn, 20, and Justin Casillas, 19, who met at Army basic training
last year in Georgia and died together this Fourth of July in Afghanistan, rest
side by side on a lonely runway under a nearly full moon.
Aaron's half-brother, Beau Beck, is in the van with other members of the two
privates' families. They have traveled across the continent to witness one of
war's rawest moments — the return of the fallen to native soil.
Since hearing the news, Beck has half-believed there had been a mistake, that
Aaron wasn't really killed in a Taliban attack. But now, seeing the cases, he
almost gasps. This was the kid to whom he'd spoken on the phone 72 hours ago.
"At first you don't want to believe it," he said. "You think, 'It's not true,
it's not true.' But that sight made it true. It was final."
The nation is approaching a combined total of 5,000 military deaths in Iraq,
where the pace of U.S. casualties is declining, and in Afghanistan, where it is
rising. All the remains have come through this air base, site of the nation's
Since April, journalists have been permitted to cover what the military calls
"dignified transfers" of bodies from incoming flights to the mortuary. And, in a
less-publicized change at the same time, the government began to pay for
relatives' travel here for such arrivals.
News organizations' interest or ability to cover routine transfers quickly
faded; only the Associated Press regularly assigns a photographer.
But relatives — who previously were not encouraged by the military to attend the
arrivals and rarely did — now are coming to more than 70% of them.
On one level, the families' presence has changed nothing.
Each transfer is carried out with the same exacting choreography, regardless of
who's watching. But in feel, if not form, their presence changes everything.
His brother's homecoming was the toughest sight of Beau Beck's 32 years, but
he's glad he was there.
"There was this overwhelming sense of honor and respect. You didn't have to know
those two kids on the flight line to feel that," Beck says.
The blue van pulls up behind the transport plane, 25 feet off the tail. To the
left, through the tinted windows, the soldiers' relatives can see a few
journalists standing on the tarmac.
Because the families will watch while standing on the other side of the van, the
journalists can't see them.
Fairbairn's mother and sister would decline to discuss the transfer, and efforts
to reach Casilla's relatives for comment were unsuccessful. Beau Beck later
agreed to talk, explaining, "It was terrible, but it was amazing."
'The Dover Test'
During the Vietnam War, images of flag-draped cases arriving at Dover (and
Travis Air Force Base in California, until 2001 the military's other domestic
mortuary) symbolized the war's terrible cost.
After Vietnam, American leaders contemplating military action began referring to
"the Dover Test:" How would Americans react to those grim sights on the air and
During the Gulf War, the first Bush administration prohibited news media
coverage of returning casualties, supposedly in the interest of privacy. When
the policy continued during the Iraq war, critics cried coverup.In 2004, Joe
Biden, then a senator from Delaware, said the fallen "are essentially snuck back
into the country under the cover of night, so no one can see that their casket
This year the Obama administration re-opened the arrivals to journalists,
provided families approve. (About seven in 10 have.)
Defense Secretary Robert Gates had expressed concern that if the news media
covered transfers at Dover, relatives would feel compelled to attend — a
financial hardship for some who lived far away. So his department decided to pay
and help arrange travel, food and lodging for up to three people per family.
Beck was surprised by the offer, which he and his family quickly accepted.
To his right tonight on the tarmac is a white truck, waiting to move the
transfer cases to the base mortuary. Beck thinks it looks like a bread truck.
Seven members of an Army ceremonial unit — six bearers and a team leader — march
past him and up a ramp into the hold of the huge steel-gray aircraft.
They're joined by a chaplain, an Air Force colonel and an Army brigadier general
from the Pentagon, Francis Mahon.
Mahon is director of the Army's Quadrennial Defense Review — a big-picture guy,
who works far from the battlefield.
He's there because the Army chief of staff has ordered that a general officer be
present for the arrival of every soldier's remains.
"This reminds you there are lives at the end of decisions," Mahon says.
"Everything you do affects a soldier."
In 30 years in the Army, Mahon has seen a lot of pomp — 21-gun salutes, Taps,
flag presentations. This is different.
It's not a ceremony, in military terminology, but a "dignified transfer."
The remains are not in coffins but "cases." They are escorted not by an honor
guard, but a "carry team."
Everything is functional — no speeches, music or dress blues. The carry team
wears camouflage fatigues, combat boots, black berets and, in one concession to
ceremony, white gloves.
That, Beck thinks, is what makes this so powerful — it's so real.
'America cares deeply'
In the cargo hold, a chaplain, Maj. Klavens Noel, reads a prayer over the bodies
of Fairbairn and Casillas, which have come from Afghanistan via Kuwait and
Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.
The families cannot hear but see heads bent in prayer as Noel begins: "Almighty
God, we thank you for the freedom we enjoy in our nation as we welcome Privates
Casillas and Fairbairn home this evening. We pray that they may rest in peace.
We pray for their family members, that they may find comfort in knowing that
America cares deeply. We pray for their comrades on the battlefield ..."
Time to move the cases. First is Casillas, a former high school football lineman
from Dunnigan, Calif., who always played bigger than his 175 pounds, and played
hurt if he had to.
Friends and former teachers recall the teen's patriotism — he hung a flag in his
room — and passion for the military.
A month before he left for Afghanistan, he dropped by his high school. His
coach, Roy Perkins, said he thought it was good to see someone achieve what he'd
Packed with ice, his case weighs about 400 pounds. The team leader calls,
"Ready, lift" and the team members, facing each other, grasp the case. On
"Ready, up" they straighten, lifting it. On "Ready, face," three soldiers do a
left face, the other three a right face. Now all are facing toward the tail and
out into the night, toward the bread truck, whose doors are open, waiting.
On "Ready, step" the team moves forward toward the ramp.
On the ground, the colonel says "Present, arms!" His voice is low, crisp. Each
military servicemember slowly lifts a right arm in salute — three seconds up —
and holds it as the team carries the case 46 steps across the tarmac to the
Their pace is exaggeratedly — almost agonizingly — slow.
The families stand behind a rope line, like outside a nightclub. They've been
told not to try to come forward to touch the case. But they never take their
eyes off it.
This is the moment in the transfer when knees buckle and hearts flutter, when
children wail and mothers scream. Tonight, there are racking sobs — "the sounds
that ring in my nights," says David Sparks, a military chaplain standing with
Most of the relatives, he says, arrive on the flight line still in shock:
"Someone's come to the door and told them something, but they don't really
believe it until they see for themselves." They haven't even begun to grieve, so
he doesn't go much beyond a greeting, a hug and, 'I'm so very sorry.' "
As the carry team approaches the truck, they stop, march in place, turn toward
each other and, on the command, "Ready, step!" push the case forward into the
truck and onto its metal rollers, which make a clanging sound as the case moves
At the command, "Order, arms" salutes are lowered — three seconds down.
The team takes six steps back, does an about face and marches back to the plane
for the second case — Aaron's.
'Always with a smile'
Aaron Fairbairn joined the Army because he wanted to make a difference, because
he wanted to learn a skill and because he didn't really have any better options.
"He was just a nice kid — hard-working, fun-loving, always with a smile," Beck
says. Because he was 12 years older and Aaron's biological father was "out of
the picture," Beck says he felt as much like the kid's dad as his brother.
Aaron had drifted a bit after high school, working at a pizza shop and a car
dealership. When Aaron told him he planned to enlist, Beck was surprised and
unenthusiastic: It was wartime.
"He wasn't gung-ho," Beck recalls. "He was a pretty peaceful kid. He didn't want
to fight unless he had to. He just wanted to do his job. ... He'd do what you
told him to do, and he wouldn't show a lot of emotion."
Aaron left for Afghanistan in March and wound up at a combat post in the eastern
province of Paktika. Except for one mission early on, he told his family that
military life consisted mostly of post duty, watching videos they'd sent him and
working out. He was never athletic but had bulked up to 155 pounds from his
induction weight of 115, and boasted of bench-pressing 275 pounds.
Beck got a call from Aaron late Friday afternoon, July 3. Things were quiet; the
action was down south, in Helmand province, where the Marines were on the march.
If anything, he was a little bored.
Later that day, the Taliban attacked.
Saturday morning, an Army chaplain and sergeant were on his mother's porch in
Aberdeen, Wash. When she saw them standing there, Shelley Masters thought that
because it was Independence Day, maybe they were there to raise funds or
That night she, Beau and her 21-year-old daughter, Sascha, took the red-eye to
When the last case is placed in the bread truck, Senior Airman Joseph Holton
must close the truck's door — given its symbolism, the most sensitive part of
Transfer detail team members are selected by their predecessors, after watching
them perform a test drill. Holton and another airman were chosen from a group of
He must make unnaturally slow movements look natural, even though the tendency
is to speed up — especially with the families and the news media watching, and
his adrenaline pumping.
So as he walks, Holton later explains, he paces himself by counting in his head.
He times his steps to his breathing — inhale on heel down, exhale on heel up. He
moves so deliberately as to seem to extend time itself.
Without appearing to, Holton must brace for the unforeseen, such as a gust of
wind that could blow the door shut.
He tries to block out anything that might distract him from the precise
execution of his otherwise workaday task, including the families. Recently, a
mother fell to the tarmac, pounding the ground and screaming, "Don't close the
Holton tries not to look, but he sees the relatives when he does a left face to
close the left door and a right face to close the right door.
Finally, the doors are closed. When the driver turns the ignition, the colonel
orders, "Present arms" to signal a final salute. The truck rolls forward. At
"Order arms" the salutes are lowered.
The truck rolls slowly off to the mortuary, where the bodies will be scanned for
explosives, checked for personal effects, positively identified, autopsied,
embalmed, dressed in a blue Class A dress uniform bearing the Purple Heart,
Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge and airborne wings, and placed in a steel
Back on the tarmac, Aaron Fairbairn's mother, brother and sister form a tight
circle, hugging and sobbing. Their soldier is home.
Toll of Iraq, Afghanistan wars
Milestones in the combined U.S. death tolls for the wars in Iraq and
Death Milestones Iraq death toll Afghanistan death toll
June 19, 2009
From Times Online
Deborah Haynes, Defence Correspondent
The families of four soldiers killed by roadside bombs in Iraq and
Afghanistan are suing the Ministry of Defence, claiming that the lightly
armoured Snatch Land Rovers their loved ones died in should never have been on
Their lawyers want the relatives of other servicemen and women killed or injured
in the combat vehicle to come forward as they too might be eligible to seek
Karla and Courtney Ellis, the sister and eight-year-old daughter of Private Lee
Ellis, 23, today became the fourth family officially to serve a claim. Private
Ellis was killed in a roadside bomb in southern Iraq in February 2006.
Lawyer Jocelyn Cockburn, of Hodge Jones & Allen, said: “It is a claim for
negligence and under the Human Rights Act that the Snatch Land Rovers were too
vulnerable to the roadside bombs and other explosives used by the insurgents,
and should never have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Her firm is also representing the other three families who have issued claims
since last year against the MoD, on behalf of Marine Gary Wright, who died in
Afghanistan in October 2006, Lance Corporal Kirk Redpath, 22, who was killed in
Iraq in August 2007 and Private Phillip Hewett, 21, who also died in Iraq in
“If there are other families of those killed or even injured in a Snatch who
think they may have a claim, they should get in touch,” Ms Cockburn told The
Once all cases are served they will be put on hold until the High Court makes a
decision on whether the Secretary of State for Defence was wrong to refuse last
year to hold a public inquiry into the Snatch Land Rover.
A preliminary request for a judicial review is due to be held in the next two or
The families believe the combat vehicles lack sufficient armour and the Defence
Ministry should never have allowed their continued use. Snatch Land Rovers are
good for providing quick transportation but do not offer the same protection
against bomb blasts as the better-armoured Mastif.
A Ministry of Defence Spokesman said: “Over the past 14 months, the MoD has
received four compensation claims following deaths involving Snatch landrovers
in Iraq and Afghanistan. The MoD pays compensation wherever there is a liability
to do so. In these cases we remain profoundly aware of the enduring grief of the
four families who lost their loved ones in combat."
Over the past four years at least 37 military personnel have been killed in
Snatch Land Rovers during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The toll raised
concerns about the protection the vehicles provide against the threat of
roadside bombs - the greatest risk in both conflict zones.
A former senior SAS officer in Afghanistan, who resigned from his post last
October, has said the Government has “blood on its hands” over the deaths of
four soldiers killed when their Snatch Land Rover hit an anti-tank mine in
Helmand province, southern Afghanistan in June 2008.
Among the dead was Corporal Sarah Bryant, the first British servicewoman to die
in the country.
Major Sebastian Morley said army commanders and Whitehall officials ignored his
warnings that “unsafe” vehicles would lead to the deaths of soldiers.
Ms Cockburn hopes that a landmark Court of Appeal decision last month that
troops serving overseas were covered by the Human Rights Act even in the
battlefield would help to strengthen the families’ cases.
May 26, 2009
The New York Times
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
ARLINGTON, Va. — President Obama observed Memorial Day on
Monday just as his predecessors had, by placing a wreath at the Tomb of the
But Mr. Obama added a twist: he sent a second wreath to a memorial honoring
blacks who fought in the Civil War.
“They felt some tug; they answered a call; they said, ‘I’ll go,’ ” Mr. Obama
said after the wreath-laying ceremony in a 12-minute address paying tribute to
veterans and fallen soldiers. “That is why they are the best of America, and
that is what separates them from those of us who have not served in uniform:
their extraordinary willingness to risk their lives for people they never met.”
The president asked all Americans to pause at 3 p.m. on Monday for a moment of
“national unity” to honor the war dead. “I ask you to ring a bell, or offer a
prayer, say a silent ‘thank you,’ ” Mr. Obama said, “and commit to give
something back to this nation, something lasting, in their memory.”
Presidents since Warren G. Harding have commemorated Memorial Day by visiting
Arlington National Cemetery, where white rows of tombstones represent more than
seven generations of America’s war dead. But with the nation’s first
African-American president in office, a race-related controversy erupted over
Mr. Obama’s appearance this year.
Last week, a group of university professors petitioned the White House to end a
longstanding practice of sending a wreath to a monument to Confederate soldiers
on the cemetery grounds. The petitioners, including William Ayers, the
University of Illinois at Chicago education professor whose acquaintance with
Mr. Obama has been controversial, said the monument was “intended as a symbol of
white nationalism” and gave “encouragement to the modern neo-Confederate
Despite the professors’ call for him to “break this chain of racism,” Mr. Obama
continued the Confederate monument wreath tradition. But he also started
another, the White House said, by sending a second wreath across the Potomac
River to the historically black neighborhood in Washington where the African
American Civil War Memorial commemorates more than 200,000 blacks who fought for
the North in the Civil War.
A 21-gun salute, the honor accorded all heads of state, greeted Mr. Obama upon
his arrival here. After placing the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, the
president arrived at the ceremony’s majestic marble-columned amphitheater,
where, against the backdrop of three giant American flags, he paid tribute to
“those who paid the ultimate price so that we may know freedom.”
Mr. Obama did not mention the wreath-laying controversy in his remarks to the
4,000 veterans and family members in the audience. In one of the few passages
that brought applause from the crowd, he spoke of his appreciation for being
commander in chief despite not having served.
“My grandfather served in Patton’s Army in World War II; I cannot know what it
is like to walk into battle,” Mr. Obama said. “I’m the father of two young
girls, but I can’t imagine what it is like to lose a child. These are things I
cannot know. But I do know this: I am humbled to be the commander in chief of
the finest fighting force in the history of the world.”
Before the ceremony, Mr. Obama had a private breakfast at the White House with
families of soldiers who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After the ceremony the president went to play golf at Fort Belvoir, Va. He was
on the course at 3 p.m., during the moment of national unity he had called for.
The White House said he paused for a moment of silent prayer.
Within an hour after the bodies arrive in their flag-draped
coffins at Dover Air Force Base, they go through a process that has never been
used on the dead from any other war.
Since 2004, every service man and woman killed in Iraq or Afghanistan has been
given a CT scan, and since 2001, when the fighting began in Afghanistan, all
have had autopsies, performed by pathologists in the Armed Forces Medical
Examiner System. In previous wars, autopsies on people killed in combat were
uncommon, and scans were never done.
The combined procedures have yielded a wealth of details about injuries from
bullets, blasts, shrapnel and burns — information that has revealed deficiencies
in body armor and vehicle shielding and led to improvements in helmets and
medical equipment used on the battlefield.
The military world initially doubted the usefulness of scanning corpses but now
eagerly seeks data from the scans, medical examiners say, noting that on a
single day in April, they received six requests for information from the Defense
Department and its contractors.
“We’ve created a huge database that’s never existed before,” said Capt. Craig T.
Mallak, 48, a Navy pathologist and lawyer who is chief of the Armed Forces
Medical Examiner System, a division of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.
The medical examiners have scanned about 3,000 corpses, more than any other
institution in the world, creating a minutely detailed and permanent
three-dimensional record of combat injuries. Although the scans are sometimes
called “virtual autopsies,” they do not replace old-fashioned autopsies. Rather,
they add information and can help guide autopsies and speed them by showing
pathologists where to look for bullets or shrapnel, and by revealing fractures
and tissue damage so clearly that the need for lengthy dissection is sometimes
eliminated. The examiners try to remove as many metal fragments as possible,
because the pieces can yield information about enemy weapons.
One discovery led to an important change in the medical gear used to stabilize
injured troops on the battlefield.
Col. Howard T. Harcke, a 71-year-old Marine Corps radiologist who delayed
retirement to read CT scans at Dover, noticed something peculiar in late 2005.
The emergency treatment for a collapsed lung involves inserting a needle and
tube into the chest cavity to relieve pressure and allow the lung to reinflate.
But in one case, Colonel Harcke could see from a scan that the tube was too
short to reach the chest cavity. Then he saw another case, and another, and half
a dozen more.
In an interview, Colonel Harcke said it was impossible to tell whether anyone
had died because the tubes were too short; all had other severe injuries. But a
collapsed lung can be life-threatening, so proper treatment is essential.
Colonel Harcke pulled 100 scans from the archives and used them to calculate the
average thickness of the chest wall in American troops; he found that the
standard tubing, five centimeters long, was too short for 50 percent of the
troops. If the tubing was lengthened to eight centimeters, it would be long
enough for 99 percent.
“Soldiers are bigger and stronger now,” Colonel Harcke said.
The findings were presented to the Army Surgeon General, who in August 2006
ordered that the kits given to combat medics be changed to include only the
“I was thrilled,” Colonel Harcke said.
The medical examiners also discovered that troops were dying from wounds to the
upper body that could have been prevented by body armor that covered more of the
torso and shoulders. The information, which became public in 2006, led the
military to scramble to ship more armor plates to Iraq.
It was Captain Mallak who decided that autopsies should be performed on all
troops killed in Afghanistan or Iraq. Federal law gives him that authority.
“Families want a full accounting,” he said. During World War II and the Vietnam
War, he explained, families were told simply that their loved one had died in
service of their country.
“Personally, I felt that families would no longer just accept that,” Captain
The examiner’s office has not publicized the autopsy policy and has not often
discussed it. Families are informed that autopsies are being performed and that
they can request a copy of the report. Occasionally, families object, but the
autopsy is done anyway. About 85 percent to 90 percent of families request the
reports, and 10 percent also ask for photographs from the autopsy, said Paul
Stone, a spokesman for the medical examiner system. Relatives are also told they
can call or e-mail the medical examiners with questions.
“Every day, families come back for more information,” Captain Mallak said. “The
No. 1 question they want to know is, ‘Did my loved one suffer?’ If we can say,
‘No, it was instantaneous, he or she never knew what happened,’ they do get a
great sense of relief out of that. But we don’t lie.”
Indeed, the reports are sent with cover letters urging the families not to read
The possibility that a relative burned to death is a particular source of
anguish for families, and one area in which CT can outperform an autopsy. In a
body damaged by flames, CT can help pathologists figure out whether the burns
occurred before or after death. The scans can also tell whether a person found
in water died from drowning. Families who request the autopsy reports often put
off reading them, said Ami Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for the Tragedy
Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit group for people who have lost
relatives in war.
“I think people feel, ‘We should request it; we may not want to read it today,
but we may want to read it 10 years from now,’ ” Ms. Neiberger-Miller said. Her
brother was killed in Baghdad in 2007, she said, and her family has never opened
his autopsy report.
Liz Sweet, whose 23-year-old son, T. J., committed suicide in Iraq in 2003,
requested his autopsy report and read it.
“For our family, we needed it,” Mrs. Sweet said. “I just felt better knowing I
had that report.” T. J. Sweet’s coffin was closed, so Mrs. Sweet asked Captain
Mallak for a photograph taken before the autopsy, to prove to herself that it
really was her son who had died.
“He was one of the most compassionate people throughout this whole process that
I dealt with from the Department of Defense,” Mrs. Sweet said of Captain Mallak.
The scans and autopsies are done in a 70,000-square-foot facility at the Dover
base that is both a pathology laboratory and a mortuary. Journalists are not
allowed inside. The CT scanning began in 2004, when it was suggested and paid
for by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, part of the
Defense Department. Darpa got the idea of using CT scanners to perform virtual
autopsies from Switzerland, where it started about 10 years ago.
Now the idea of virtual autopsies has begun to catch on with medical examiners
in this country, who are eager to use it in murder cases but also to learn the
cause of death in people from religious groups that forbid traditional
autopsies. Scans can also help pathologists plan limited autopsies if a family
finds a complete one too invasive.
John Getz, the program manager for the Armed Forces medical examiners, said
mobile CT scanners could also be used to screen mass casualties during disasters
like Hurricane Katrina, to help with identification and also to determine if any
of the dead were the victims of crimes rather than accidents.
The Armed Forces CT scanner, specially designed to scan entire corpses one after
another, is the envy of medical examiners and crime laboratories around the
country, and several states have asked Captain Mallak and his colleagues for
advice on setting up scanners.
Colonel Harcke said he hoped the technology would help to increase the autopsy
rates at civilian hospitals, which now perform them only 5 percent to 10 percent
of the time.
“We hope to return to a time where we were 50 years ago,” he said, “when
autopsies were an important part of the medical model, and we continued to learn
February 26, 2009
Filed at 12:57 p.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON (AP) -- News organizations will be allowed to photograph the
homecomings of America's war dead under a new Pentagon policy, defense and
congressional officials said Thursday.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has decided to allow photos of flag-draped
caskets at Dover Air Force Base, Del., if the families of the fallen troops
agree, the officials told The Associated Press.
Gates planned to announce his decision later Thursday, they said. The current
ban was put in place in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush.
At least two Democratic senators have called on President Barack Obama to let
news photographers attend ceremonies at the air base and other military
facilities when military remains are returned to the United States. The Dover
base is where casualties are brought before they are transferred on to the
hometowns of their families.
Gates told reporters earlier this month that he was reviewing the policy and
that if the needs of the families could be met, and the privacy concerns could
be addressed, he favored honoring fallen troops as much as possible.
Gates said he initially asked for the ban to be reviewed a year ago, and was
advised then that family members might feel uncomfortable with opening the
ceremonies to media for privacy reasons or that the relatives might feel
pressure to attend the services despite financial stresses.
Shortly after Obama took office, Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts
and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey also asked the White House to roll back the
Over the years, some exceptions to the policy were made, allowing the media to
photograph coffins in some cases, until the administration of President George
W. Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A leading military families group has said that the policy, enforced without
exception during George W. Bush's presidency, should be changed so that
survivors of the dead can decide whether photographers can record their return.
As of Wednesday, at least 4,251 members of the U.S. military had died in the
Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
As of Tuesday, at least 584 members of the U.S. military had died in
Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of
Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the Defense Department. The department
last updated its figures Friday at 10 a.m. EST.
Mary Mowl were shocked by what they saw when they first visited their son,
Kevin, in the intensive care unit at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda,
bomb had exploded under Kevin's vehicle in Baghdad on Aug. 2, 2007. The blast
broke his left arm and leg, his back, ankles and feet. His face was swollen; his
eye sockets, nose and jaw were shattered. Doctors later removed some of his
skull to allow his brain to swell.
"We didn't know where to touch him," Harold Mowl said.
Clearly, the 21-year-old son he had brought up in Upstate New York had been
largely erased by the roadside blast that killed three other soldiers and
wounded 11, the father said. The massive brain damage had taken so much away.
"If he recovered, he would be someone else," Harold said. "We said to each other
right away: 'We will take care of him no matter what.' "
Kevin Mowl and critically wounded troops like him are symbols of a new type of
war casualty on this sixth Veterans Day since the United States invaded Iraq.
They are wounded troops who probably would have died on the battlefield in
conflicts of previous generations, but thanks to advances in emergency medical
care by the military, they come home alive. More than a dozen have lingered for
months or even years before dying, usually of infection.
It's a situation that puts families, doctors and military officials in the
difficult position of balancing slim hopes of a partial recovery with the desire
not to see their loved one, patient and servicemember suffer any more.
"These families have had their hearts wrenched out of them," Marine Lt. Col.
Grant Olbrich says of the relatives of the most severely wounded troops. Until
recently, Olbrich was an advocate for families of severely burned patients as
part of the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment.
Families are "looking at the choices and saying, 'What should I pray for?' "
Olbrich says. " 'Should I pray that my child dies quickly and doesn't suffer
anymore? Or should I pray that they survive and have as normal a life as
Kevin Mowl's case was typical — months of desperate treatment, brief hope for
his family, and then death in February.
"This is not your father's war. The families now are involved almost literally
from the point of injury," says Philip Perdue, trauma surgeon and chief of
general surgery at Bethesda naval hospital and the doctor who treated Kevin
"They see their loved ones in the ICU with the breathing tubes, as sick as can
be. … They're at the bedside all day long. Sometimes, the patients don't get
better. And they see the person across the way get better. And they see someone
else come and go. And it's very wearing."
The Army and Marine Corps have created programs aimed at helping relatives of
severely wounded servicemembers. Patient advocates from each service's wounded
warrior program work with non-profit groups to pay for family transportation and
find lodging for extended family and friends.
"When something happens (to a servicemember), it's like a member of the family
getting hurt, especially the critically injured. Because you see them suffer and
you see them fight," says Marine Col. Gregory Boyle, commander of the Wounded
Despite such programs, family members of severely wounded servicemembers "don't
know what they're stepping into," Olbrich says.
For the Mowls, doctors at the Naval Hospital encouraged them to give their son a
chance to get better, Harold Mowl says.
The doctors said the brain remains a mysterious organ with untapped capacity for
"We wanted Kevin to have every opportunity to succeed," Harold says, adding that
his son's doctors never talked about a major setback until the very end, when
Kevin began to fail quickly after seven months of treatment.
"That last day," the father says, "we agreed to just let him go."
Helping families cope
Harold Mowl, 61, is superintendent of the Rochester (N.Y.) School for the Deaf
and the third generation of his family born without hearing. He and his wife
were interviewed for this story through a sign-language interpreter.
Mary Mowl, 57, also is deaf, and is a volunteer executive directorof a group
that advocates for abused deaf people.
Their children, Carlene and Kevin, were born with normal hearing and learned
sign language before they could speak, first signaling words such as "milk,"
"water" and "sleep."
After Kevin was wounded, Bethesda Naval Hospital hired interpreters to help the
Mowls every day at an overall cost of $60,000.
Jeannie Jones-Flanagan, a family advocate from the Army Wounded Warrior Program,
tapped military and charitable resources to pay for the Mowls' lodging, travel,
meals, laundry, medications and myriad other expenses as Mary moved onto the
hospital campus to be with her son and Harold traveled there every weekend.
"I'm helping them take care of their business, get through the day, work through
situations, make small decisions, sometimes make big decisions," Jones-Flanagan
says. "It's a lot of networking, knowing people in certain departments so that
you can cut through the red tape and get things done."
She and other advocates are backed by staffs of soldiers, social workers,
chaplains and mental health caregivers.
They work with charitable groups to cover mortgage payments, utility bills, lost
income and family medical needs.
The government covers daily expenses and lodging for up to three family members
attending in-patient relatives.
Advocates must arrange charitable support for extended family and friends.
"What is new for the (advocates) is that they've been in place long enough now
to get the system down and be more effective case managers and advocates," says
Liza Biggers, whose brother, Ethan, lived for a year after he was shot in the
head by a sniper in 2006. She is an appointee to a Department of Veterans
Affairs committee examining the treatment of wounded.
"Being in the military medical system is incredibly complicated," Biggers says.
"It's absolutely essential to have someone help navigate the veterans and their
families through it."
A message from the Army
Spc. Kevin Mowl was about six weeks into an extension on a year of duty in Iraq
when insurgents detonated 150 pounds of explosives inside a storm drain under
the Stryker vehicle in which he was riding Aug. 2, 2007. The Stryker was ripped
apart and overturned.
The next day, Harold and Mary Mowl returned from her first trip to Europe when
they found a torn slip of paper in the door of their home in Pittsford, N.Y.,
outside Rochester. Scribbled words said to call the Army.
Using a video interpreter service provided by the phone company, Harold Mowl
used sign language to speak with an operator who made the call. He learned that
his son was "seriously hurt" and heading home.
He called his daughter, Carlene, 25, in Manhattan. The operator passed along the
news to Carlene. Harold Mowl watched the operator sign back, drawing imaginary
lines down her cheeks. She was saying his daughter was weeping into the phone.
The Army flew Harold, Mary and Carlene to Washington, put them up in the Navy
Lodge, a hotel on the hospital campus and provided each $64 in expense money for
every day they were there.
Harold Mowl commuted to Bethesda every weekend or whenever his son was in
surgery. His son underwent 12 major operations and countless lesser procedures,
Carlene arrived every other weekend. Two charities, Operation Hero Miles and Air
Compassion for Veterans, used donated frequent-flyer miles to buy the Mowls'
The non-profit Armed Forces Foundation covered lodging for Kevin Mowl's
grandmother, Jane "Betty" Mowl, and extended family and friends who visited.
Navy doctors worked for weeks mending Kevin Mowl's many fractures and defeating
multiple infections in his body.
Like other severely wounded servicemembers, Kevin Mowl could not speak because
of a tracheotomy that helped him breathe. But he could sign.
Doctors watched with amazement as he communicated, confusingly at first, but
then in periods of lucidness, with his hands.
It was rare insight into a brain-damaged patient's progress, doctors told Harold
In a blog they began to discuss Kevin's situation, family members seized on such
reasons for hope.
An entry from Sept. 1, 2007, says, "Today was a most exciting day for us … he
flashed an 'I love you' to Carlene."
'He is very quiet'
Kevin was in ICU for five months before he was moved to a ward, to the
frustration and exhaustion of his family.
"Kevin continues to be a mixed bag psychosocially," his father blogged last
January. "He is very quiet, and he does not respond consistently."
"We often asked the doctor what would be his quality of life," Mary Mowl
recalls. "They couldn't give the answer, but they were optimistic."
She remained with her son every day, preparing her own meals in the kitchenette
in her hotel room or lunching at the hospital's restaurant.
In January, she moved to a hotel in Richmond, Va., paid for by the Army, when
Kevin entered a rehabilitation program at a VA clinic there.
The end was very fast: infection.
Kevin Mowl had been returned to Bethesda for brain surgery. A week later, he was
wracked by fever and growing weaker. It was sepsis.
Doctors told the family that recovery was nearly impossible. Kevin had
previously signed a do-not-resuscitate order. His father directed that life
support be removed.
Kevin died Feb. 25.
"We got to see him a little bit longer," Harold says of the anxiety the family
endured during Kevin's treatment.
"I wanted to see the doctors taking care of him. I wanted to see him taking
every chance to succeed. It was not successful. OK. I think, for me, that was
better than getting a call saying that he died."
His wife nods in agreement.
"It's hard," says Carlene Mowl, "because you're in between" a combat death and
"In one sense, it's nice to have the time to say goodbye on your own terms," she
"But it's also hard to watch somebody try so hard to get better and then just
not make it."
of British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan reached 297 this month.
Behind each returning coffin are ordinary families destroyed by grief – mothers
and fathers, brothers, sisters and children mourning their loved ones. Over the
past month Dan McDougall has interviewed many of the relatives of the 'Fallen'
to coincide with a BBC documentary chronicling the suffering of the families.
This is their story
November 2 2008
This article appeared in the Observer on Sunday November 02 2008 on p8 of the
It was last updated at 00.02 on November 02 2008.
about the families, and a life torn apart'
line up pints of bitter at the Kings Head bar in Droylsden, Greater Manchester.
Behind the till Ronnie Downes, 60, reads his son's last letter home. Outside the
pub hangs a huge picture of Tony and the words: 'Tony: Our son, Everyone's
Guardsman Neil 'Tony' Downes, aged 20, was travelling with the Afghan National
Army close to the town of Sangin in Helmand province when their vehicle was hit
by an explosion.
Before going out to Afghanistan, Tony wrote his family a letter to be opened in
the event of his death. Standing in their pub, Ronnie recites passages: 'I love
you all from the bottom of my heart. Please don't be mad at what has happened. I
did what I had to do, and serving the British army was it. Don't be sad -
celebrate my life, because I love you and I will see you all again.' As he
finishes, Ronnie falters and breaks down in tears.
'What amazed me most was that my mum and dad were really strong. That really
brought us together as a family,' says Ronnie's eldest daughter, Katie, 21. 'My
mum campaigned for the soldiers, for the job they were and are doing out there
in Afghanistan and Iraq, and inspired us all. Everyone expected her to be the
other way. She urged the government not to bring troops home - because it would
mean Tony died in vain.
'Tony loved serving with the 1st Battalion of the Grenadier Guards. He died
doing something he loved. It doesn't stop our pain, but it comforts us to know
how fulfilled he was in his career and life as a soldier. My brother had only
been in Afghanistan for 12 weeks and was due to return home on 28 June 2007.
That date became the date of his funeral.'
Katie says the hardest thing was listening to her brother's letter: 'I think
about what must have gone through his head when he was writing that, knowing
that he could die.
'Before he left for good, and I remember this vividly, he was packing up one of
his huge rucksacks and out popped two letters, from the top of his bag. They
both said: "Not to be opened unless deceased." I remember catching my breath as
I saw the writing on the envelope.
'My brother was the 60th member of the armed forces to die in Afghanistan since
the start of operations in November, 2001, and for the first time it really made
me think about what all those other families have gone through and all the
families since - each death of a child, a brother, a husband, a boyfriend or a
father, a life torn apart.'
The soldier's younger sister, Jodie, 17, describes how she now visits her
brother's grave more than ever. 'I talk to him in the cemetery. Sometimes I
stand, other times I kneel down and talk to him like he is there,' she says.
'Some days I cry; other days I just pass the time of day. I feel silly and
self-conscious speaking to a grave, but whenever I look around, nobody is paying
the slightest bit of attention. There are other people there at the gravesides,
crying and mourning in their own way, talking to their loved ones and praying.
It is definitely therapeutic.'
She adds: 'What has helped me above everything is knowing he is in a better
place, a happy place, in heaven. It may sound daft, but I believe angels are
looking after him up there, and he is looking down on me and probably laughing
at me crying. If he could speak he would probably just laugh and tell me not to
be so daft.
'Losing my big brother has definitely brought me closer to all my siblings and
to mum and dad. In some ways it makes you special having a brother as a war
hero; people look at you and feel sorry for you, but also admire what you have
'I am only young, but what I do know is I never want to feel pain like this
again. I have cried enough now.'
'I couldn't bear to see his coffin in the flag'
flags hang limp in the suburban gardens of Eltham in south-east London. Inside
her family home, Ruth Rayment, left, sits in front of an electric fire, her
knees scrunched up around her neck. She is surrounded by army memorabilia that
belonged to her brother, Christopher.
'I was 16 when he died,' says the nursing student, now 20. 'When the men in
uniform came knocking on my door, we knew what it was straight away. I remember
my mother screaming and collapsing in the front room, I will never forget the
Christopher Rayment, a private with the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, died
aged 22 when a security barrier fell on him while he was manning a checkpoint.
He had been in Iraq for more than five months and died just 10 days before he
was due to return home to his parents, Pamela and Gordon. Four years on his room
remains virtually untouched.
'Everyone expected it to hit me hardest, but I didn't mourn for a year,' says
Ruth. 'I started crying on the anniversary of Chris's death - that's when the
trauma hit me. It came like a black cloud; it consumed me, and I realised I was
depressed. I kept hearing my brother's voice. His presence wasn't frightening,
Ruth thinks her decision not to go to Brize Norton to watch her brother's body
arrive back in the UK contributed to what she calls 'suspended reality'.
'For me he was still out there, in Afghanistan, patrolling as a soldier,' she
says. 'That's what I convinced myself of, anyway, that he wasn't coming back
because he was still out there.
'I think this feeling was because I couldn't bear to see him come back, to see
his coffin in the flag. When the realisation he was gone finally hit me, a year
later, it felt like I'd been hit by a huge black wave, like a tsunami, and the
water was pouring into my ears and nose, suffocating me. It was the most
terrifying experience of my life.'
Ruth's sister, Mandy, 29, says her experience of Chris's death was different.
She went to Brize Norton to see his body arrive. 'I can honestly say it was the
proudest, and in a strange way the happiest, moment of my life,' she says. 'I
sent Chris a little charm to take to Afghanistan, a little St Christopher, and
it was returned with his body. I keep it with me at all times now.'
Both sisters share a strong sense of spirituality and, like many relatives of
the 'Fallen', Mandy has started seeing a clairvoyant. The medium, she claims,
brings her closer to her brother's spirit. That is why she finds it hard to
visit his grave; she thinks his soul is elsewhere: 'Since Chris died I've been
going to church, and last week I was finally baptised. People might think I
could be angry with God for what has happened to my family, but my belief in God
helps me to come to terms with what has happened. It is his plan and my brother,
in the middle of all of this, is in a happier place and is smiling down on us.'
'Daddy is happy in heaven eating crispy duck'
small room in the family semi in Wythenshawe, Manchester, seven-year-old
Courtney Ellis, above, strums her guitar, singing a song she has written about
her father, Private Lee Ellis. To the tune of 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star',
she sings 'I love daddy in the sky'.
Later she flicks through the album of photographs she keeps under her bed,
images of her last holiday with her 23-year-old dad. Her favourite picture shows
her father looking on as she opened her presents on Christmas Day.
A Para from 2nd Battalion, Ellis died on attachment to the Royal Scots Dragoon
Guards in Al Amarah, Maysaan province, when he was killed by a roadside bomb on
28 February 2006.
'This is a picture of our last holiday together,' says Courtney. 'Daddy is in
heaven now, and although he is dead, he is happy. When someone dies and they are
naughty, they go to hell. My mum says that my daddy is eating a lot of crispy
duck in heaven. It was his favourite food, and he wouldn't share it, even though
he is in heaven.'
'He brought us here. And now we are alone'
night television blares in the background as a crescendo of game show applause
drowns out Camari Babakobau's faint voice. In mid-sentence she breaks down in
tears and walks, head bowed, towards the front windows of her cramped barracks
home. At her feet, her two young sons fight over the remote control, increasing
the volume further as they clamour for her attention.
Outside, the rain is pounding the glass. 'The weather is the hardest thing about
living in England,' says Camari. 'He brought us here from the islands - my man -
to give us a future, and now he has left us. We are alone. This is an army
house. We will lose it in two years and have to go elsewhere.'
On the wall of her lounge is an oversized portrait of her dead husband, Trooper
Ratu Sakeasi Babakobau, in his Household Cavalry uniform. In the hallway, next
to a calendar of the Pacific islands, is another photograph of the guardsman in
desert fatigues; behind him, the scrubland of Afghanistan's Shomali Plain. It is
the last picture taken of him before he died.
Next Sunday, Camari, 28, who lives on a bleak housing estate on the outskirts of
Windsor, will be one of thousands laying wreaths at memorials around the
country. Her husband was killed on 2 May 2008 in the Nowzad area of northern
Helmand, the victim of a Taliban landmine.
Ratu's journey began in an MoD recruiting interview in Suva, Fiji's port
capital. He was one of a growing foreign legion fighting for someone else's
queen and country. He arrived in the UK in May 2004, and his first deployment
overseas came four years later. But within a month of arriving in Afghanistan,
the 29-year-old Fijian was dead. On the other side of the world, uniformed
officers and a Household Cavalry chaplain were dispatched to Windsor to knock on
'Other wives and mothers tell me they knew when they opened the door and saw the
uniformed officers standing on the doorstep,' she says. 'I didn't know. I didn't
expect it, because I probably didn't understand how dangerous my husband's job
was. I thought they had come to see me about my son's British citizenship. I
couldn't stop crying.
'He returned six days later in a coffin with a foreign flag over his body,' says
Camari. 'All I could think about was that my boys would never know their father;
they would never play rugby with him, or be scolded for not doing their
homework. To them, their father would be a photograph - not even a memory.
'The band played at Brize Norton and I stood there weeping, clutching my
children's hands. The aircraft looked terrifying as it came in to land. I kept
thinking, "Why is he in there, not breathing, his useless body coming back to me
- for what?"
'Young Fijians join the British army for financial reasons, for citizenship, for
an escape from poverty and island life. My husband made this choice. For what?
We Fijians don't understand anything about foreign affairs. Sure, the money is
good for us, but you only have one life. My children will be told their father
was a hero, but maybe he was foolish. Maybe others who follow him from Fiji are
• The Fallen is a three-hour film in which families and friends
of the soldiers
who have died
talk about their feelings and grief.
It will be broadcast at 8pm
on Saturday 15 November
July 26, 2008
The New York Times
By MICHAEL KAMBER and TIM ARANGO
BAGHDAD — The case of a freelance photographer in Iraq who was
barred from covering the Marines after he posted photos on the Internet of
several of them dead has underscored what some journalists say is a growing
effort by the American military to control graphic images from the war.
Zoriah Miller, the photographer who took images of marines killed in a June 26
suicide attack and posted them on his Web site, was subsequently forbidden to
work in Marine Corps-controlled areas of the country. Maj. Gen. John Kelly, the
Marine commander in Iraq, is now seeking to have Mr. Miller barred from all
United States military facilities throughout the world. Mr. Miller has since
If the conflict in Vietnam was notable for open access given to journalists —
too much, many critics said, as the war played out nightly in bloody newscasts —
the Iraq war may mark an opposite extreme: after five years and more than 4,000
American combat deaths, searches and interviews turned up fewer than a
half-dozen graphic photographs of dead American soldiers.
It is a complex issue, with competing claims often difficult to weigh in an age
of instant communication around the globe via the Internet, in which such images
can add to the immediate grief of families and the anger of comrades still in
While the Bush administration faced criticism for overt political manipulation
in not permitting photos of flag-draped coffins, the issue is more emotional on
the battlefield: local military commanders worry about security in publishing
images of the American dead as well as an affront to the dignity of fallen
comrades. Most newspapers refuse to publish such pictures as a matter of policy.
But opponents of the war, civil liberties advocates and journalists argue that
the public portrayal of the war is being sanitized and that Americans who choose
to do so have the right to see — in whatever medium — the human cost of a war
that polls consistently show is unpopular with Americans.
Journalists say it is now harder, or harder than in the earlier years, to
accompany troops in Iraq on combat missions. Even memorial services for killed
soldiers, once routinely open, are increasingly off limits. Detainees were
widely photographed in the early years of the war, but the Department of
Defense, citing prisoners’ rights, has recently stopped that practice as well.
And while publishing photos of American dead is not barred under the “embed”
rules in which journalists travel with military units, the Miller case
underscores what is apparently one reality of the Iraq war: that doing so, even
under the rules, can result in expulsion from covering the war with the
“It is absolutely censorship,” Mr. Miller said. “I took pictures of something
they didn’t like, and they removed me. Deciding what I can and cannot document,
I don’t see a clearer definition of censorship.”
The Marine Corps denied it was trying to place limits on the news media and said
Mr. Miller broke embed regulations. Security is the issue, officials said.
“Specifically, Mr. Miller provided our enemy with an after-action report on the
effectiveness of their attack and on the response procedures of U.S. and Iraqi
forces,” said Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, a Marine spokesman.
News organizations say that such restrictions are one factor in declining
coverage of the war, along with the danger, the high cost to financially ailing
media outlets and diminished interest among Americans in following the war. By a
recent count, only half a dozen Western photographers were covering a war in
which 150,000 American troops are engaged.
In Mr. Miller’s case, a senior military official in Baghdad said that while his
photographs were still under review, a preliminary assessment showed he had not
violated ground rules established by the multinational force command. The
official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was
ongoing, emphasized that Mr. Miller was still credentialed to work in Iraq,
though several military officials acknowledged that no military unit would
Robert H. Reid, the Baghdad bureau chief for The Associated Press, said one
major problem was a disconnection between the officials in Washington who
created the embed program before the war and the soldiers who must accommodate
journalists — and be responsible for their reports afterward.
“I don’t think the uniformed military has really bought into the whole embed
program,” Mr. Reid said.
“During the invasion it got a lot of ‘Whoopee, we’re kicking their butts’-type
of TV coverage,” he said.
Now, he said the situation is nuanced and unpredictable. Generally, he said, the
access reporters get “very much depends on the local commander.” More
specifically, he said, “They’ve always been freaky about bodies.”
The facts of the Miller case are not in dispute, only their interpretation.
On the morning of June 26, Mr. Miller, 32, was embedded with Company E of the
Second Battalion, Third Marine Regiment in Garma, in Anbar Province. The
photographer declined a Marine request to attend a city council meeting, and
instead accompanied a unit on foot patrol nearby.
When a suicide bomber detonated his vest inside the council meeting, killing 20
people, including 3 marines, Mr. Miller was one of the first to arrive. His
photos show a scene of horror, with body parts littering the ground and heaps of
eviscerated corpses. Mr. Miller was able to photograph for less than 10 minutes,
he said, before being escorted from the scene.
Mr. Miller said he spent three days on a remote Marine base editing his photos,
which he then showed to the Company E marines. When they said they could not
identify the dead marines, he believed he was within embed rules, which forbid
showing identifiable soldiers killed in action before their families have been
notified. According to records Mr. Miller provided, he posted his photos on his
Web site the night of June 30, three days after the families had been notified.
The next morning, high-ranking Marine public affairs officers demanded that Mr.
Miller remove the photos. When he refused, his embed was terminated. Worry that
marines might hurt him was high enough that guards were posted to protect him.
On July 3, Mr. Miller was given a letter signed by General Kelly barring him
from Marine installations. The letter said that the journalist violated sections
14 (h) and (o) of the embed rules, which state that no information can be
published without approval, including material about “any tactics, techniques
and procedures witnessed during operations,” or that “provides information on
the effectiveness of enemy techniques.”
“In disembedding Mr. Miller, the Marines are using a catch-all phrase which
could be applied to just about anything a journalist does,” said Joel Campagna,
Middle East program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
New embed rules were adopted in the spring of 2007 that required written
permission from wounded soldiers before their image could be used, a near
impossibility in the case of badly wounded soldiers, journalists say. While
embed restrictions do permit photographs of dead soldiers to be published once
family members have been notified, in practice, photographers say, the military
has exacted retribution on the rare occasions that such images have appeared. In
four out of five cases that The New York Times was able to document, the
photographer was immediately kicked out of his or her embed following
publication of such photos.
In the first of such incidents, Stefan Zaklin, formerly of the European
Pressphoto Agency, was barred from working with an Army unit after he published
a photo of a dead Army captain lying in a pool of blood in Falluja in 2004.
Two New York Times journalists were disembedded in January 2007 after the paper
published a photo of a mortally wounded soldier. Though the soldier was shot
through the head and died hours after the photo was taken, Lt. Gen. Raymond T.
Odierno argued that The Times had broken embed rules by not getting written
permission from the soldier.
Chris Hondros, of Getty Images, was with an army unit in Tal Afar on Jan. 18,
2005, when soldiers killed the parents of an unarmed Iraqi family. After his
photos of their screaming blood-spattered daughter were published around the
world, Mr. Hondros was kicked out of his embed (though Mr. Hondros points out
that he soon found an embed with a unit in another city).
Increasingly, photographers say the military allows them to embed but keeps them
away from combat. Franco Pagetti of the VII Photo Agency said he had been
repeatedly thwarted by the military when he tried to get to the front lines.
In April 2008, Mr. Pagetti tried to cover heavy fighting in Baghdad’s Sadr City.
“The commander there refused to let me in,” Mr. Pagetti said. “He said it was
unsafe. I know it’s unsafe, there’s a war going on. It was unsafe when I got to
Iraq in 2003, but the military did not stop us from working. Now, they are
stopping us from working.”
James Lee, a former marine who returned to Iraq as a photographer, was embedded
with marines in the spring of 2008 as they headed into battle in the southern
port city of Basra in support of Iraqi forces.
“We were within hours of Basra when they told me I had to go back. I was told
that General Kelly did not want any Western eyes down there,” he said, referring
to the same Marine general who barred Mr. Miller.
Military officials stressed that the embed regulations provided only a
framework. “There is leeway for commanders to make judgment calls, which is part
of what commanders do,” said Col. Steve Boylan, the public affairs officer for
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq. For many in the military, a
legal or philosophical debate over press freedom misses the point. Capt. Esteban
T. Vickers of the First Regimental Combat Team, who knew two of the marines
killed at Garma, said photos of his dead comrades, displayed on the Internet for
all to see, desecrated their memory and their sacrifice.
“Mr. Miller’s complete lack of respect to these marines, their friends, and
families is shameful,” Captain Vickers said. “How do we explain to their
children or families these disturbing pictures just days after it happened?”
Mr. Miller, who returned to the United States on July 9, expressed surprise that
his images had ignited such an uproar.
“The fact that the images I took of the suicide bombing — which are just
photographs of something that happens every day all across the country — the
fact that these photos have been so incredibly shocking to people, says that
whatever they are doing to limit this type of photo getting out, it is working,”
March 22, 2008
The New York Times
By LISA W. FODERARO
For some relatives of service members killed in Iraq and
Afghanistan, the money feels, at first, like an affront, as if the government
were putting a price tag on a loved one’s life. Others are thrown off balance by
the sudden infusion of $500,000, spending with abandon to assuage grief or
finding themselves besieged by hard-up friends and relatives. And the newfound
wealth often strains relations among in-laws.
Three years ago, advocates for military families succeeded in winning a
significant expansion in survivor benefits, which include life insurance, a
death gratuity, medical care and housing and education assistance. But the
increases have left some widows and next of kin clearly rattled by the collision
of mourning and money.
“It’s like winning the lottery, and your relatives all look at you like you’re a
cash cow,” said Kathleen B. Moakler, director of government relations for the
National Military Family Association, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “Money
makes people do strange things.”
The parents of Sgt. Eli Parker of the Marines, killed by a roadside bomb in
Iraq, used the $500,000 to finance their retirement, remodel their house near
Syracuse and travel to Washington for the Marine Corps Marathon. After Sgt.
Dominic J. Sacco of the Army was killed three years ago by an insurgent attack
on his tank, his widow, Brandy, fielded requests for cash from family members
she had not talked to for years — as well as from her husband’s ex-wife and a
woman in prison who claimed that Sergeant Sacco had fathered her son.
Kayla Avery, whose husband was killed seven months after their West Point
wedding, invested most of the payout, but not before buying new bedroom
furniture, a Louis Vuitton wallet and a purple Coach bag to match her funeral
“I thought, ‘Well, this is my husband’s last Christmas gift to me,’ ” said Ms.
Avery, 25, a graduate student in psychology who lives in Tennessee, near Fort
Campbell, where her husband, First Lt. Garrison C. Avery, was an Army platoon
It is impossible to know how many survivors of the service members killed in
Iraq and Afghanistan have struggled with managing the benefits, and in
interviews with dozens of military families, only a handful were willing to talk
specifically about how they spent the money. Many families use the money to
secure children’s futures, pay off mortgages, or otherwise make up for a
long-term loss of income. But experts on military families say that they are
seeing a growing number of problems, and that young widows — often naïve about
finance and easily seduced by the glamorous accouterments of pop culture — seem
to be especially vulnerable, trying to somehow fill emotional gaps with material
things and ending up in debt instead.
“When you face sudden death, and the death of someone your own age, you think,
‘I could die, too,’ ” said Joanne M. Steen, co-author of “Military Widow: A
Survival Guide” (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2006). “All of a sudden you get
hundreds of thousands of dollars, and there’s a perception that it’s going to
last forever, but it doesn’t. You’re dealing with some really tumultuous
emotions and unclear thinking.”
In 2005, the so-called death gratuity — the sum given to survivors for an
active-duty death — jumped to $100,000 from $12,420, and the military’s group
life insurance maximum rose to $400,000 from $250,000. Both are retroactive to
October 2001, covering the nearly 4,500 service members who have been killed in
the Iraq and Afghanistan wars since.
There are myriad other survivor benefits, too, many determined by specific
circumstances. Joyce Wessel Raezer, chief operating officer of the National
Military Family Association, said that a hypothetical widow of an Army corporal
based at Fort Drum, in upstate New York, with three years of service and two
young children would likely receive payments totaling $5,335 a month for the
first year. In addition, a spouse would get free medical care for three years —
the children into adulthood — and all would receive education assistance.
Through private companies, the Department of Veterans Affairs provides insurance
beneficiaries the service of a professional financial planner for a year, but a
spokesman said that only one in 10 families uses it.
Bill Saunders, director of client services for the Armed Forces Services
Corporation, a private firm based in Arlington, Va., that offers military
families advice on such issues, said that survivors are often overwhelmed by
grief when they learn of the availability of financial advice, and that the
military would do well to remind them after a few months.
“The money all shows up in their accounts within days or weeks, where there
might have been $500 in there — ever,” Mr. Saunders said, referring to the lump
sum of $500,000. “Many of these surviving spouses are young, which means they’ve
never done any kind of money management or investing. So it’s completely foreign
to them. It’s like saying, ‘Hey, would you like me to teach you Russian
tomorrow? Come down to my office.’ And they don’t show.”
Ms. Avery, the widow who bought furniture and a purse — but not the BMW she
coveted — credited her financial adviser with pushing long-term investment, but
said she knows some widows who are now destitute.
“I do know that there have been widows who used all the money by paying cash for
a house and paying cash for a car,” she said. “If they pay cash for a McMansion,
they may not think about all the incidentals like heat and water and phone and
cable and taxes and furniture.”
One widowed acquaintance, whom Ms. Avery declined to identify to protect her
privacy, ended up applying to the Army for an emergency relief loan after
blowing through the $500,000. “You have to have nothing — like the electricity
has to be getting turned off” to qualify for such a loan, Ms. Avery said. “In
grief, you’re in such a state of shock that you don’t take into account that you
won’t have your husband’s salary in six months.”
Mr. Saunders said that a widow called his office in January wondering if there
were any more monthly benefits she was entitled to (there were not). She had
apparently spent the initial lump sum without buying a house or making
“I said, ‘In that case, there’s not much more your government can do for you,’ ”
recalled Mr. Saunders.
As they decide what to do with the money, survivors are often surrounded by
people with their hands out.
“It wasn’t even two weeks after I had buried Nick, and I had people asking me
for money,” recalled Mrs. Sacco, a 26-year-old nursing student who now lives in
Topeka, Kan., with her two children. “There were quote-unquote friends whom I
hadn’t seen in a long time who wanted to come and support me, but what they
really wanted was money. It was pathetic.”
Though Sergeant Sacco’s ex-wife’s attempt to get benefits was unsuccessful, many
survivors find themselves fighting over the military’s money with other family
members, and rifts often develop between the late service member’s spouse and
Rachelle Arroyave, 32, who lives in northern California, learned after the 2004
death of her husband, Staff Sgt. Jimmy Javier Arroyave of the Marines, that his
mother was the life insurance beneficiary, even though the couple had two
children and a baby on the way. Sergeant Arroyave’s mother got $400,000, while
his wife received $100,000 from the death gratuity.
“I never thought to ask, and I take responsibility for not making sure,” said
Mrs. Arroyave, whose children are now 10, 6 and 3. “But it was my husband. Why
wouldn’t he take care of his wife and children? We had our whole lives planned
out as to where we were going to retire and grow old together.”
Research databases did not turn up a current home telephone number for Sergeant
Arroyave’s mother, and efforts to reach her through relatives were
unsuccessful.Because of such situations, in 2005 the military began notifying
spouses when service members choose someone other than a spouse or a child as
their insurance beneficiaries or if the member declines the maximum coverage.
This summer, as the law changes to allow service members to designate the entire
death gratuity to whomever they wish, the military will require a similar
spousal notification (now, half the $100,000 gratuity must go to the next of
But the hurt and awkwardness can cut both ways. Debra vonRonn, whose son, Sgt.
Kenneth G. vonRonn of the Army, died in a bomb explosion in Iraq in 2005, said
she felt the military heaped a disproportionate amount of attention on her
daughter-in-law, who received the official notification of death and was
provided a car and driver for the funeral.
“They were married for one year, but I had him for 20 years,” Mrs. vonRonn said.
“I understand that the spouse comes first, but they really need to pay a little
more attention to the families. What about the parents? What about the sisters?”
Regardless of who gets the money or how it is spent, the initial reaction to the
death gratuity can be viscerally negative. As Ms. Steen, a Navy widow herself,
wrote in her survivor’s guide: “Some feel like they were paid off for their
When Karie Darga’s husband of 12 years, Chief Petty Officer Paul J. Darga, was
killed in 2006 on his fourth tour in the Middle East, she received the first
$100,000 within the first few days.
“My casualty assistance officer handed me the check and I wanted to tear it up
and throw it right back at him,” recalled Mrs. Darga, who lives in Norfolk, Va.
“It was almost like accepting the money meant truly acknowledging that the death
But Donna and Renny Parker, the upstate New York couple who remodeled their
house, among other things, with the survivor benefits after their son was
killed, said it has “been a positive thing.”
“I don’t think it’s blood money,” Ms. Parker said. “I just wish Eli was here to
The New York Times
By NINA BERNSTEIN
telegram arrived in Peekskill, N.Y., on a springlike day in February 1945. The
parents put it down unopened, falling to their knees to pray. Three of their
five sons were pilots fighting overseas, and they were afraid to learn which of
their boys was dead.
Their firstborn, Joseph Huba, 27, was the one named in the telegram. His
transport plane had crashed in the Burmese jungle. And like tens of thousands of
other American servicemen who died in World War II, he remained officially
missing — a fate that has haunted such families ever since.
“My poor mother would say, ‘If they could just find him so I could bury him — I
don’t want the birds picking on his body,’ ” recalled Francis Huba, 84, who
remembers Joseph as “the best big brother anyone ever had.”
But it was a nephew — born 15 years after his uncle’s plane went down — who
combed military records, interviewed witnesses and is now weighing a third-hand
report that Burmese hunters have stumbled on the wreckage of the doomed plane.
More than six decades after the end of World War II, the families of men like
Joe Huba are making a new push to find and bring home the remains of their
missing and dead. After years when survivors accepted the solace of mass
memorials and unknown-soldier graves, a younger generation is seeking something
much more personal.
The relatives are spurred by strides in DNA matching, satellite mapping and
Internet archives, and by a new advocacy group impatient with the pace of the
military unit that tracks down remains.
“We owe these men for giving their lives — we can’t just leave them in jungles,
on mountainsides,” said Lisa Phillips, 45, president of the group, World War II
Families for the Return of the Missing, which was formed in 2006 to compete with
organizations pressing for recoveries from the conflicts in Vietnam and Korea.
“There’s that saying, ‘No one left behind,’ and we’ve left a generation behind.”
The search has its pitfalls, Ms. Phillips admits. Discoveries about how a loved
one died can prove more disturbing than ignorance. International swindles and
treasure hunters complicate the sheer challenge of identifying remains after so
And some relatives have come up empty-handed after expensive private searches,
like a Minnesota man who has spent thousands of dollars on underwater dives off
Yap Island in the South Pacific without finding his uncle’s sunken B-24.
The numbers are daunting. Of more than 88,000 American servicemen missing in
20th-century conflicts, some 79,000 are casualties of World War II, and though
many of them were forever lost at sea, the government classifies about 35,000 as
recoverable. The unit responsible for all recoveries, the Joint P.O.W./M.I.A.
Accounting Command, identifies about 75 remains a year. Yet the unit’s forensic
successes keep raising expectations.
Last year a sailor killed at Pearl Harbor in 1941, and buried as an unknown in
the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, was exhumed,
identified as Alfred E. Livingston, and reburied in Worthington, Ind., his
Similar identifications are now likely for some of the 47 “Okinawa Unknowns,”
according to the Defense Department.
And in 2006, the recovery unit confirmed the identity of a World War I doughboy,
Pvt. Francis Lupo, discovered in a construction site near Soissons, France,
matching mitochondrial DNA from his bones with a niece’s saliva swab. He was
buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
“Things that weren’t possible for identification of remains 10 years ago are
possible now,” said Gary Zaetz, 53, of Cary, N.C., who has been pressing the
government for a recovery from a mountainside in northern India, where a World
War II B-24 bomber nicknamed “Hot As Hell” was found a year ago by an Arizona
Mr. Zaetz’s uncle, First Lt. Irwin Zaetz, 26, known as Zipper, was the navigator
on that plane when it disappeared in January 1944, with a crew of eight. Like
Joseph Huba’s plane, it flew war supplies from India over the Himalayan peaks
known as the Hump to Chinese forces resisting the Japanese. It became part of an
aluminum trail of 500 wrecks — aircraft felled by icy storms and engine failure
as much as by enemy fire. Few who bailed out were ever seen again.
After stumbling on a Web page that featured the “Hot As Hell” debris and listed
its crew, Mr. Zaetz tracked down descendants through genealogical Web sites,
enlisted many in his campaign, and drew coverage in hometown newspapers from
Burlington, Vt. to Concord, Ga.
“One big concern of relatives of the World War II missing is that their families
are really at the bottom of the totem pole,” he complained. “The focus has been
overwhelmingly on recovery of M.I.A.’s from the Vietnam and Korean conflicts.
We’re just looking for some parity of effort here.”
The government created a military recovery unit in the 1970s in response to an
outcry after the Vietnam War, but its mission was expanded to all wars in 2000.
“We’re doing our best to be as fair as possible, with frankly limited manpower,
limited resources,” said a spokesman, Troy Kitch.
The government’s graves identification effort after World War II was enormous,
he noted, citing 280,000 remains recovered worldwide between 1945 and 1954, more
than 171,000 of them returned to the United States for burial.
The rest were buried in cemeteries around the world maintained by the American
Battle Monuments Commission — places like the Cemetery of the Pacific, where
sweeping vistas draw millions of visitors, and memorial tablets record the names
of “comrades in arms whose earthly resting place is known only to God.”
But such collective memorials do not satisfy searchers like Ms. Phillips, head
of the World War II families’ group, who has consulted meteorologists and
aviation experts about wind currents over Bangladesh, trying to pinpoint the
site of a 1946 crash during early recovery efforts. The plane was carrying the
remains of dozens of men, including those of her great-uncle, Second Lt. Joseph
Rich of Portland, Me.
In those days, she said, survivors “didn’t question the government — they
accepted what they were told.” But like Mr. Zaetz, when Ms. Phillips traced and
recruited the kin of others missing in the crash, she found unresolved grief
among the old and demands for better answers from the younger generation.
“It’s been all those years and you still have a hole in your heart,” said Ruth
Garmong, 83, of Vandergrift, Pa., who cried as she spoke of her first husband,
Bill Fetterman, “my high school sweetheart and the love of my life.” He was shot
down Dec. 1, 1943, 10 days after his 21st birthday, and six months before the
birth of their daughter, Andria.
Now 63, Andria Fetterman Clarey is searching for her mother’s sake, she said:
“It breaks my heart that after all these years she hasn’t got anything back.”
Con men, some with Web sites, can capitalize on such emotions, Ms. Phillips
cautioned. “There are people trying to sell you bones, telling you it’s your
uncle,” she said, or charging for free military documents.
Another factor is the rise of amateur adventurers, epitomized by Clayton Kuhles,
the Arizona mountaineer who located the “Hot As Hell” in India.
“It’s a hobby,” said Mr. Kuhles, 53, a history buff who posts information on his
Web site, miarecoveries.org. “Some people go to Las Vegas or take a cruise. I
like to go on mountaineering expeditions.”
Tips from native hunters are crucial to such expeditions, and with new
immigration, leads also surface in the United States. It was through a Burmese
refugee that a report recently reached Joseph Huba’s family about a wreck
bearing his plane’s serial number. But there were implausible details, like
eight dog tags supposedly found at the site that did not match any missing war
Joseph’s nephew, William Huba Jr., a supervisory agent with the F.B.I. in
Syracuse, already had unearthed some disturbing answers about his uncle’s fate,
summarized in the minutes of a 1947 military board that abandoned recovery
efforts for the plane’s crew of four.
The plane lost an engine, then radio contact. Three parachutes were later
spotted not far from the wreck, caught in a canopy of 100-foot trees. Three of
the crew had certainly perished in the jungle, the board concluded, and if one
went down with the plane, his body probably had been dragged away by wild
“My parents never saw that documentation,” said William Huba Sr., 73, who was in
grade school when the telegram arrived. “Maybe in a sense it was better that
Haunted afresh by Joseph’s death, he and his brother Frank sometimes talk
through the night, they said, dispelling fearful images with lived memories:
Joe, the high school student, delivering milk for $1 a night to help their
immigrant parents make ends meet in the Depression; Joe, the young artist,
designing window displays for Sears; Joe, “the best big brother,” who took the
younger ones to the city to hear big-name bands, and when he worked late, always
brought home a candy bar for them to share.
“I pray for him,” Frank Huba said. “And just to have somebody looking is very
of tomorrow's Remembrance Day ceremonies promise to be even more poignant than
usual. The poppies of northern France became an emblem of the Great War thanks
to John McCrae's composition of these lines commemorating the dead:
"In Flanders fields the poppies grow, between the crosses, row on row."
The Queen, the Prime Minister and various dignitaries from around the
Commonwealth will lay wreaths representing the crimson flowers at the Cenotaph
on Whitehall to honour the hundreds of thousands of Britons and imperial
subjects who died in that conflict.
But look closer at those wreaths and one can see another, more contemporary,
battle reflected in their scarlet hue. More poppies today grow in Afghanistan
than anywhere else in the world. And this is the country in which 7,700 British
soldiers are fighting – and dying – to support the administration of President
Hamid Karzai. Eighty-three UK troops have been killed in the country since 2001.
The latest died yesterday in a road accident. We also learnt yesterday that our
military commitment has been extended in length.
Of course, in Afghanistan poppies have a very different significance than they
do here in Britain. Poppies represent this ravaged country's only significant
cash crop. The opium made from Afghanistan's poppy seeds feeds the world's
heroin addiction. Yet one of the responsibilities of our soldiers in Afghanistan
is to destroy the poppy crop.
This has little to do with helping Afghanistan. It is to cut the supply of
heroin to the developed world. Afghans are understandably aggrieved at this. The
insurgents of the Taliban have exploited this sense of injustice and used the
tacit sympathy of the local population in the south to mount effective attacks
on British troops. Across Britain tomorrow, our dead servicemen and women will
be commemorated with poppies. In Afghanistan they will be dying because of the
So when the two-minute silence begins at the 11th minute of the 11th hour
tomorrow, we must remember not just those who died serving their country in past
conflicts, but also contemplate those who are risking their lives today in
Afghanistan. We must also reflect on the plight of the 5,000 servicemen and
women still stationed in the south of Iraq.
In some respects, the experience of the soldiers of the Western Front would be
unrecognisable to today's servicemen and women in Middle Eastern and south Asian
conflict zones. There are no mass charges into no man's land, no poison gas
attacks. Men are no longer shot for cowardice. And, mercifully, the casualty
rates in Basra have been far lower than witnessed on battlefields such as the
Somme. But not everything has changed. There has been trench warfare in
Afghanistan. And, of course, both sets of soldiers would be able to swap stories
about the deficiencies of their political leaders.
Yet that human link with the past grows ever more frail with each passing year.
There are just five known British veterans of the Great War still alive. Our
living connection with the terrible carnage and human waste of the First World
War has almost been broken. But we have ample means to remember. Technology has
enabled us to record the testimonies of those who served. The internet allows
families to research relatives who served. Veterans will die, but their stories
and histories will live on. And, of course, we have the destruction and
slaughters of the present to remind us of the endless agonies of war. If we
forget, it will be because we have chosen to, not because our memories will have
failed us. There can be no excuses
July 26, 2007
Filed at 5:51 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Vietnam (AP) -- The suspected remains of three American soldiers killed during
the Vietnam War have been sent back to the United States, a U.S. official said
Three cases holding the likely remains of three American soldiers left Da Nang
in central Vietnam in a military aircraft headed for the United States on
Wednesday, said Ron Ward, an official of the U.S. MIA, or Missing in Action,
office in Vietnam.
They are to be identified at a military laboratory in Hawaii, Ward said.
The remains were recovered from three different sites -- one in the north and
two in central Vietnam -- over the past three months, he said.
Nearly 1,800 U.S. servicemen deployed to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War
remain unaccounted for since the conflict ended in 1975, including more than
1,360 in Vietnam. An estimated 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese were
killed in the war.
July 3, 2007 Filed at 12:19 p.m. ET By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS The New York Times
IWO JIMA, Japan (AP) -- Maj. Sean Stinchon stands at the base of Hill 362A
and scans a map drawn up by Navy Seabees in 1948 that is deeply creased and
covered in reddish brown dirt. The map shows a labyrinth of caves and tunnels
that runs through the brush-covered hill like the cross-section of an ant
Save for the buzzing of mosquitoes, all is quiet. Stinchon can see all the way
to the pristine black-sand beach and the Pacific. It's a breathtaking scene. But
Stinchon, of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base on
Hawaii, is focused on finding a Marine named Sgt. William H. Genaust, killed 62
Over the past two years, Stinchon has traveled through Europe and Asia looking
for the remains of America's fallen troops. More than 78,000 are still missing
from World War II alone. An additional 8,100 are MIA from the Korean conflict,
and 1,750 from Vietnam.
In 1945, Hill 362A was a kill zone. The 21,200 Japanese defenders, deeply dug in
with weapons and supplies, faced a desperate situation: 100,000 Americans who
were storming Japanese soil for the first time. They watched a huge flotilla of
U.S. Navy ships surround their island. Then came the bombings and heavy
Then the Marines.
Within days, an American flag was flying atop the highest point on the tiny,
pork-chop shaped island -- Mount Suribachi, a sulfur-belching volcano on Iwo
Jima's southern tip. But it took 31 days before the U.S., on March 26, 1945,
declared the island secure. Some 6,821 Americans were killed; only 1,033
Japanese survived. For the U.S., it was the fiercest battle of the war -- none
had generated a higher percentage of casualties.
It was a turning point.
On Feb. 23, 1945, AP photographer Joe Rosenthal hiked up to the top of Suribachi
and shot the flag-raising -- the second one that day. His photo, which won him
the Pulitzer Prize, helped rally the weary nation behind the final push to
defeat Japan, and continues to serve as the single most important icon of the
valor of the Marine Corps.
Genaust, a Marine combat photographer, was also there. After escorting the
unarmed Rosenthal up the volcano, he stood next to Rosenthal and filmed the
moment with a movie camera.
But he didn't live to see the impact of his own footage.
Nine days later, Genaust was on Hill 362A helping his unit secure a cave. They
needed a flashlight to see inside, and Genaust volunteered to use his. But as he
entered the cave, he was riddled with machine-gun fire and died on the spot. The
entrance to the cave was sealed -- possibly by a bulldozer.
Genaust's body, with those of 280 U.S. ground troops who fought on Iwo Jima, was
Stinchon was on Hill 362A to change that.
In a 10-day expedition, Stinchon and his seven-member team -- the first U.S.-led
search on Iwo Jima in nearly 60 years -- were looking for what wasn't on his
map: caves and tunnels that were closed and sealed, then missed when U.S.
searchers combed the island for American dead.
''We need to find places that haven't already been searched,'' he said.
Iwo Jima, inhabited today by about 400 Japanese soldiers, is craggy, volcanic
terrain. Its interior is thick with thorny foliage. Shrapnel still litters the
ground, and unexploded shells remain a major hazard.
''You couldn't move out there without the use of a machete,'' Stinchon said.
''It was very thick, a lot of tall cactus plants.''
Stinchon and his team hacked their way up the side of the hill and found two
Both could easily have been missed.
One appeared to be a small crack, just big enough for a dog to get into, behind
rocky debris. The team had to dig through several feet of dirt to reveal the
entrance to the other.
To the experts, there was one big giveaway -- heat.
''You can kind of tell when you are coming up to a cave or a cave entrance
because you can feel the heat coming out and you can smell the sulfur fumes,''
He said the team couldn't get into either to do an extensive investigation for
fear of a cave-in, but he said members will take the information they found back
to headquarters and recommend that a follow-up team be sent in with heavy
equipment to excavate.
''We'll continue to search,'' he said. ''At this time, we have a good start.''
Back in Hawaii, JPAC officials say they will analyze the results of the
investigation and decide whether a further search, and possibly a full recovery
team, is warranted.
Following the motto ''Until They are Home,'' JPAC, which was created in 2003,
identifies about six MIAs each month -- some 1,300 so far. The command, which
also runs permanent branches in Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, has at any given
time about 1,000 active cases.
''It's such an incredible mission,'' said Lt. Col. Mark Brown, the JPAC
spokesman. ''There's a lot of families who have been waiting a long time.''
Stinchon's team was fairly typical.
Once a promising area is pinpointed, a preliminary investigation is conducted by
a team that generally includes linguists, medics, forensic anthropologists and
Though it boasts the world's largest forensic anthropology laboratory, JPAC's
staff of about 425 people is stretched to the limit and often relies on outside
tips -- from family members, friends or amateur historians.
''No lead is too small,'' Brown said. ''We do not turn down a lead.''
In Genaust's case, information provided by businessman Bob Bolus of Scranton,
Pa., was key to getting the team to Iwo Jima. Bolus saw an article in Parade
magazine two years ago about Genaust, and spent thousands of dollars of his own
money to track down leads and even visit the island with his own team of private
Brown said JPAC is particularly interested in obtaining ''family reference
samples,'' mitochondrial DNA from the relatives of MIAs. Typically the samples
are obtained by swabbing the inside of the cheek, and can be vital in cracking
an otherwise impossible identification.
''There are lots of leads we need, people we need to find,'' he said. ''If there
aren't dog tags or artifacts, if it's impossible to do dental identification,
our last resort is family reference samples.''
The forensics experts have DNA from a niece of Genaust.
Japan's government and military helped with the search on Iwo Jima, which last
month was officially renamed Iwo To -- the island's name before the war.
Japan sent its first search parties to the island in 1952 and others have
followed every year since Iwo Jima was returned to Japanese control in 1968.
They have recovered 8,595 sets of remains -- but, to date, no Americans.
JPAC remains determined.
''We want them all,'' said Hugh Tuller, a civilian anthropologist with the Iwo
Jima search team. ''We want to find them all.''
April 18, 2007
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Filed at 2:03 a.m. ET
The New York Times
As of Tuesday, April 17, 2007, at least 3,309 members of the
U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003,
according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military
civilians. At least 2,689 died as a result of hostile action, according to the
The AP count is two higher than the Defense Department's tally, last updated
Tuesday at 10 a.m. EDT.
The British military has reported 142 deaths; Italy, 33; Ukraine, 18; Poland,
19; Bulgaria, 13; Spain, 11; Denmark, six; El Salvador, five; Slovakia, four;
Latvia, three; Estonia, Netherlands, Thailand, two each; and Australia, Hungary,
Kazakhstan, Romania, one death each.
The latest deaths reported by the military:
-- No deaths reported.
The latest identifications reported by the military:
-- Army Spc. Ryan A. Bishop, 32, Euless, Texas; died Saturday in Baghdad of
wounds sustained from an explosive; assigned to the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry
Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), Fort
-- Marine 1st Lt. Shaun M. Blue, 25, Munster, Ind.; died Monday of wounds
sustained in Anbar province; assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment,
1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Twentynine Palms, Calif.
-- Marine Lance Cpl. Jesse D. Delatorre, 29, Aurora, Ill.; died Monday of wounds
sustained in Anbar province; assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment,
1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Twentynine Palms, Calif.
-- Marine Lance Cpl. Daniel R. Scherry, 20, Rocky River, Ohio; died Monday after
a non-hostile accident in Anbar province; assigned to the 1st Battalion, 2nd
Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp
-- Army Pfc. Lucas V. Starcevich, 25, St. Charles, Ill.; died Monday in Baghdad
when an explosive struck his vehicle; assigned to the 1st Battalion, 18th
Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Schweinfurt,
-- Army Sgt. Joshua A. Schmit, 26, Willmar, Minn.; killed Saturday when an
explosive struck his vehicle in Fallujah; assigned to the 1451st Transportation
Company, 13th Support Command, Iraq.
-- Army Sgt. Brandon L. Wallace, 27, St. Louis, Mo.; killed Saturday when an
explosive struck his vehicle in Fallujah; assigned to the 1451st Transportation
Company, 13th Support Command, Iraq.
-- Army Pfc. Aaron M. Genevie, 22, Chambersburg, Pa.; killed Monday in Baghdad
when his vehicle struck an explosive; assigned to the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry
Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Fort Riley,
-- Army Pfc. Steven J. Walberg, 18, Paradise, Calif.; killed Sunday in Baghdad
by small-arms fire; assigned to the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 4th
Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Fort Riley, Kan.
-- Army Sgt. Mario K. De Leon, 26, San Francisco; killed Monday in Baghdad by
small-arms fire; assigned to the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd
Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Schweinfurt, Germany.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Army said on Friday that it will apologize to the
families of deceased and wounded officers that it mistakenly encouraged to
re-enlist via letters sent out in late December.
About 75 families of deceased officers and 200 families of wounded officers
received such letters sent to more than 5,100 officers between December 26 and
28, the Army said in a statement.
"Unfortunately, the database used to address those letters contained names of
officers who were killed in action or wounded," the Army said. "Army personnel
officials are contacting those officers' families now to personally apologize
for erroneously sending the letters."
The names of these soldiers had been removed from the database, but an earlier
version of the list was mistakenly used, the Army said.
The Army said it is taking steps to ensure this mistake does not happen again.
On Thursday, a U.S. soldier was killed in western Baghdad, bringing the total to
3,006 the number of U.S. soldiers killed so far since the U.S.-led invasion in
The United States has 132,000 troops in Iraq and President George W. Bush plans
to unveil a new Iraq strategy as early as next Wednesday that could include a
short-term increase of up to 20,000 U.S. troops in the country.
The New York Times
By MICHAEL LUO and MICHAEL WILSON
Nov. 9 — Memorial services honoring fallen soldiers from the First Battalion,
22nd Infantry in Iraq used to require planning meetings of as long as 45
minutes. But at this point, they take barely five.
“We’re here again,” said Chaplain John Hill. A roadside bomb had killed yet
another soldier from the battalion the day before. He began to recite the unit’s
“memorial ceremony execution matrix,” a 40-item checklist of tasks that includes
everything from collecting personal effects to finding a singer.
Lt. Col. Craig Osborne, the battalion’s commander, said, “Unfortunately, we’ve
gotten, I won’t say, good at this,” and he wrapped up the meeting almost as soon
as it began. “It’s become habitual.”
In October, 105 American troops were killed in Iraq, the most since January
2005. The spike in deaths, more than three years after the war began, became a
major factor in the sweeping Democratic gains in Congress this week. Colonel
Osborne’s soldiers alone lost nine comrades, just as the battalion was beginning
to make preparations to return home later this month.
“When something like this happens, all you do is think about it,” said Sgt.
First Class Robert Warman, who last month watched a Humvee carrying four
soldiers get blown to bits in front of him when a huge bomb hidden in the road
exploded. “You think about it when you go to the mess hall, when you go to take
a shower, when you lay down to sleep. You think, and you think, and you think,
and you cry.”
The 800-strong Army battalion, part of the First Brigade of the Fourth Infantry
Division based in Fort Hood, Tex., has been patrolling a vast swath of land west
of Baghdad riven by Sunni Arab insurgents.
The losses in the unit in October were the most suffered by any battalion or
squadron, according to a New York Times database of war casualties compiled from
information provided by the Pentagon.
Back home, among the soldiers’ wives, fear spread in ever-widening circles. News
sped from a woman’s living room in Killeen, outside Fort Hood, to her friend
across town and then across the country.
After hearing that a member of her husband’s unit had been killed, Debbie
Borawski braced herself. She was so certain that an Army officer was going to
arrive at her home that she called a friend to come and wait with her. “I pretty
much almost blacked out, “ she said.
Hour by hour from her home in Fort Hood, she filters the news of every roadside
bomb, every sniper attack. “Until you hear that he’s safe, it almost kills you,”
she said. “It eats you away.”
In the battalion’s first tour in Iraq, when it aided in the eventual capture of
Saddam Hussein in Tikrit, it lost a handful of soldiers. And until September,
only 3 soldiers of the 800 in the battalion had been killed in combat during
this tour. On Oct. 1, a platoon of soldiers from A Company set out to establish
an observation post near a road that had been plagued by concealed bombs.
Specialist Heriberto Hernandez, 20, was among a group of soldiers in a Humvee
that rolled up toward a bridge near where they would set up. Specialist
Hernandez and another soldier got out, while Cpl. Chase A. Haag, 22, a carefree
soldier from Portland, Ore., who was in the gunner’s hatch, continued down the
road with two others. The explosion that followed detonated right below Corporal
Haag. Specialist Hernandez said he could tell right away that his friend, one of
the best gunners in the battalion, was gone.
Still, he gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until the medevac helicopter
arrived. Specialist Zachary Mayhew, who was one of Corporal Haag’s closest
confidants in the platoon, put a splint on his mangled leg.
“We got him out of there in 25 minutes,” Specialist Hernandez said. They learned
later that their friend had died. That shook the younger soldiers in the
platoon, who had protected themselves with an inflated sense of invincibility.
The young soldier’s death forced couples like Sgt. Joseph Wilson and his wife,
Sara, to strip away denial from their conversations.
“He doesn’t really like to talk about it,” said Mrs. Wilson, 26, living in
Arizona until her husband’s return. “I’ve kind of forced him to talk about
things, especially Haag’s death. He gets upset and starts crying.”
A few days later, Sgt. Brandon S. Asbury, 21, part of the battalion’s forward
support company, was shot and killed by a sniper. Less than two weeks afterward,
a roadside bomb killed Second Lt. Johnny K. Craver, 37, from the battalion’s B
Company. On Oct. 18, four soldiers — Cpl. Russell G. Culbertson III, 22;
Specialist Joseph C. Dumas Jr., 25; Second Lt. Christopher E. Loudon, 23; and
Cpl. David M. Unger, 21 — along with their Iraqi interpreter, were killed by a
bomb blast that left a crater in the road 7 feet deep and 15 feet wide.
Sgt. Scott Borawski, 36, of C Company, was supposed to have been on that Humvee
that day. But because he was busy with other duties, he was replaced by Corporal
Unger of Headquarters Company, whom Sergeant Borawski and his wife had
befriended back home at Fort Hood.
Debbie Borawski first thought her husband was among the dead, after a call from
Corporal Unger’s grieving wife.
“I knew Scott was with them,” Mrs. Borawski, 40, said later. “I didn’t know he
wasn’t with his crew.”
She struggled to focus on the new widow, now forced to raise her young son
alone, on the other end of the line. “I was so much more worried about my
husband,” she said. “I feel selfish saying this. But I ended up kind of shutting
After the blast, it took Sergeant Borawski two days to gather himself enough to
call his wife to tell her what had happened. He had hoped to avoid breaking down
for his wife’s sake, but halfway through he did.
“I didn’t know if I should feel grateful for not being there, or remorseful,” he
The bomb attack, coming so soon after Corporal Haag’s death, shook Specialist
Mayhew anew. Lieutenant Loudon was a high school friend of his. The pair came
from the same tiny town of just 2,100 people in Pennsylvania. They played on the
same soccer team. Their mothers were friends. Somehow they had wound up in the
same battalion in Iraq.
Back in Pennsylvania, Specialist Mayhew’s mother, Beverly Fustine, attended the
young lieutenant’s funeral.
She said she was “pretty much O.K.” before October but now needed medication to
sleep at night.
“I’m scared to death,” she said. “Sometimes I even fear answering the door. But
it can’t compare to the fear he must feel every day.”
On Oct. 22, as Colonel Osborne and his men were questioning a store owner about
reports of a Sunni checkpoint stopping Shiites, a shot rang out. Specialist
Nathaniel A. Aguirre, 21, a medic who had been making plans to enroll at Texas
A&M University and sign up for ROTC after Iraq, lay motionless on the street. He
was standing less than 20 feet from the battalion commander.
Sgt. Kenneth England and Colonel Osborne dragged his body behind a parked car
and tried to revive him. Sergeant England shoved a tube into his nose to try to
create an airway but after five minutes of work, he pronounced Specialist
Less than a half hour later, as they were still looking for the sniper, they
heard the crack of another rifle shot. Word came over the radio that the gunner
in one of the Humvees down the street, Specialist Matthew W. Creed, 23, had been
Sergeant England again dashed out to try to save Specialist Creed, one of many
soldiers in the battalion who was supposed to have left the Army but is in Iraq
because of the Department of Defense’s stop-loss order. He could not save him
That night, Sergeant England called his wife, Vanessa, a pharmacy student in
Oklahoma, as he always does.
“Hey baby,” he said and listened to her tell him about her day.
When it was his turn, he could only say that it had been bad. It was not until
several days later that he shared a few details.
“I told her we lost two guys, and I was there,” he said. “She really doesn’t
need to know there was a sniper 50 meters away from me.”
Several wives said they took for granted the misinformation coming from their
own husbands, well-intentioned little lies to ease fears. The women gather bits
of news from one another, within the longstanding Family Readiness Groups or
through the less formal channels of MySpace accounts and cellphones.
Specialist Hernandez made his fiancée, Kathleen Soliz, promise not to watch the
news. In October, she broke the promise.
“I try not to, but it’s just that forbidden fruit,” said Ms. Soliz, 20, of
Austin. “I can’t help it. I want to see if things are getting progressively
worse or better, what regions are in a bind, and how the forces are dealing with
that. I don’t even know what area exactly he’s in, so I’m probably doing myself
an injustice more than anything.”
For the soldiers struggling to cope back in Iraq, it is the quiet moments in
between missions and hanging out with buddies that are the most difficult. On
Nov. 1, they lost yet another soldier to yet another makeshift bomb.
Pfc. Shane Barrows, who was there when the four soldiers in the Humvee were
killed last month, strums his guitar and sings to himself in his room. He and
others spent hours afterward cleaning up the area, collecting remnants of their
friends’ bodies and placing them gently in body bags.
On a recent morning, he closed his eyes and sang: “When you are reading the
paper, will you remember them? Will you see their faces like I did? I will see
them forever in my head.”
reported from Baghdad and Camp Liberty in Iraq,
and Michael Wilson from Killeen,
Tex. Andy Lehren contributed reporting from New York.
10:59 PM ET
By Gregg Zoroya
A review of
battlefield deaths that included the case of former pro football player Pat
Tillman has concluded that the Army gave wrong or misleading information to the
families of seven dead soldiers, according to the Army's casualty notification
Secretary Francis Harvey ordered the review after the media cited mistakes in
several war deaths. Tillman, once a safety for the Arizona Cardinals, was an
Army Ranger when he was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. His family was told he
died from enemy fire, when actually fellow Rangers shot him by accident.
Col. Patrick Gawkins, head of the Army's notification office, provided findings
of the review to USA TODAY. He said the review looked at about 810 deaths and
found that the families of Tillman and six others were misinformed about how
their relatives died.
The number of deaths reviewed amounted to roughly 40% of nearly 2,200 Army
soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The findings mark the first time that the Army has released a total number of
cases where next of kin were given incorrect information on causes of death.
Gawkins blamed the mistakes on the "fog of war" or possibly inappropriate
efforts by individual soldiers to protect families from negative information. To
guard against future mistakes, the Army is investigating every war death and
alerting families if there may be "suspicious" circumstances, Gawkins said. "One
mistake is way too many."
Among the soldiers whose deaths were misreported are Tillman; Sgt. Patrick
McCaffrey and 1st Lt. Andre Tyson, both killed by Iraqi civil-defense soldiers
in the same 2004 incident; and 1st Lt. Ken Ballard, accidentally shot to death
Also on the list is Spc. Jesse Buryj, 21, who died in a "friendly fire" incident
in Iraq in 2004. His mother, Peggy Buryj of Canton, Ohio, said she thinks the
Army is only reacting to public pressure.
"I don't think the Army would have done anything if people hadn't made a stink,
I really don't," said Peggy Buryj, who was told that her son died in a vehicle
accident. "I hope they're sincere. ... I don't know."
In five of the seven deaths, the same mistake occurred: Families were not told
that friendly forces were to blame. Those cases were Tillman, McCaffrey, Tyson,
Buryj and the death of a soldier who Gawkins declined to identify. Ballard's
mother was originally told her son was killed by enemy fire.
In a seventh case, a soldier in Afghanistan died from a heart attack and his
family was not told that the death occurred during inhalation of a substance
from an aerosol can, Gawkins said.
The re-examination of deaths is part of several steps taken by the Army to
improve the way it notifies families. Other steps include:
•Requiring more chaplains in the process.
•Producing an $800,000 training film that highlights how grieving families
•Dispatching training teams to educate soldiers.
•Creating a new coffin cover with a flag emblem that will make it easier for air
freight personnel to treat remains in a dignified fashion.
"They are trying," said Joyce Raezer of the National Military Family
Association, a support organization. "We hear fewer horror stories about
casualty notification than we used to. So folks are learning."