Deaths in Iraq Take a Steady Toll at Home
New York Times
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
Published: November 2, 2003
WEST POINT, N.Y., Nov. 1 In the last two weeks, 22 American soldiers have given their lives to the occupation of Iraq, a platoon of 21 men and 1 woman cut down to a stack of photographs by accidents, illness and the rising insurgency.
There is Lt. David Bernstein, a soldier's soldier who was killed two weeks ago and buried on Friday at the United States Military Academy here. As his mother sat with a folded flag in her lap and his father accepted a Bronze Star, even the Green Berets cried.
And there is Sgt. Aubrey Bell, the 280-pound Alabama National Guardsman, who drove a forklift and ate mayonnaise sandwiches, and who was shot to death in front of a police station.
And Pvt. Rachel Bosveld, the 19-year-old military policewoman who loved to draw forest scenes and was silenced by mortars.
And Sgt. Paul J. Johnson, a paratrooper who could imagine no fate better than leaping into the night sky, who died after being burned by a bomb.
And Pvt. Jamie L. Huggins, Pvt. Jason Ward, Pfc. John Hart, Lt. Col. Charles H. Buehring and 14 others.
President Bush declared an end to major combat hostilities in Iraq on May 1. But in the six months since then, 222 American soldiers have died, more than one a day. In October, at least 33 American soldiers were killed by hostile fire, twice as many as in September.
For every soldier killed, Pentagon officials estimate, another seven are wounded.
Back home, the steady rhythm of casualties is producing a steady rhythm of rituals the gray car with government plates pulling into the driveway, the notification, the papers to sign, the cards to read, the flag to fold.
And then another day, another town, another set of horns to blow.
In Fayetteville, N.C., Missy Johnson was studying for a pharmacology test in her pajamas when she heard the thump on the door.
Who in the world is that? she asked herself.
She glanced out the window. Military men in their dress greens.
"I couldn't believe it," Ms. Johnson said. "I just couldn't believe it. I knew exactly what they were here for."
Her husband, Paul, a decorated paratrooper known as P. J. who had once fought a battle in Afghanistan in a flak jacket and boxer shorts, had been killed. His squad had just finished delivering a load of school supplies in Falluja on Oct. 20 when a homemade bomb ripped through his Humvee. He had burns on 80 percent of his body.
"The secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your husband was killed in action," the notifying officer began. It is a formal script, always delivered standing.
Sergeant Johnson, 29, wanted to be G.I. Joe. At age 5, he announced that he was going to be a soldier. At age 8, he dug ditches in the yard for toy soldiers.
"He put those little plastic men through basic," said his mother, Patricia Urban.
As a teenager, he gravitated to Vietnam veterans, soaking up their stories and their combat aura. On his 16th birthday, the first day he was old enough to do it legally, he jumped out of a plane.
When Ms. Johnson told her 4-year-old son, Bryan, that Daddy had gone to live with Jesus, he put his hands on her cheeks and said, "It'll be O.K., Mommy, it'll be O.K."
The next day she got three envelopes, addressed in a hand that made her feel sick. Because of the delay with mail from Iraq, her husband's letters keep coming.
There is no such thing as a "family" crisis here. Minutes after the family of Sgt. Jamie L. Huggins learned that he had been killed in combat, phones starting ringing across Worland, population 50. The Huggins boy had died. Time to start a collection.
Fay Wehar, a neighbor, started banging on doors, trying to raise some gas money.
"Everyone knew Jamie and everyone's reaction was about the same: it was a horrible thing," she said.
Ms. Wehar collected $371, mostly crumpled bills and one check. She gave it to the Hugginses, who left a few hours later for the 20-hour drive from this prairie town of shuttered coal mines to Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the 82nd Airborne Division.
Sergeant Huggins, a 26-year-old paratrooper, was killed during a patrol in Baghdad on Oct. 26, after his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb, the insurgency's weapon of choice.
Danielle Huggins had just heard from her husband the day before. She said she asked him: "Why are you still needing to be there? You should be at home."
His answer, she remembered, was, "We are doing good, Danielle; we are doing good."
Fort Hood, Tex.
Andrea Brassfield's husband painted a different picture.
"He told me: `They don't want us here. They throw rocks at us. They shoot at us. I don't know what we're doing here,' " she said.
Specialist Artimus D. Brassfield, 22, a tank driver for the 66th Armored Regiment, Fourth Infantry Division, was killed in a mortar attack in Samarra, north of Baghdad, on Oct. 24. His death has not changed his wife's opinion of the war. Ms. Brassfield was against it when it began. She is against it now.
Capt. John R. Teal was coming home. The table was laid with cakes and cookies; there were flowers, too many flowers, blooming in the living room; his parents, Emmie and Joseph Teal, waited on the couch, hands knitted in their laps.
"I need to see him, Joe," Ms. Teal said.
Mr. Teal looked at his hands.
Captain Teal, 31, Second Brigade, Fourth Infantry Division, was blown up by a bomb while riding in a convoy in Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, on Oct. 23. He had been working with Iraqi town councils.
His remains were making the journey from Baghdad to a base in Germany to a funeral home in Montpelier, on the outskirts of Richmond. Army officers told the Teals their son "got the full blast" of the explosion.
"I hope they fix him up good," Ms. Teal said.
"No, no, no," Mr. Teal said. "What's in that casket is a cold, damp piece of shell."
"Maybe they can crack the lid just so I can hold his hand," she said.
"Damn it, honey," Mr. Teal exploded. "That's not him, that's not the person who walked out of here, that's not John Robert!"
"O.K., honey, O.K.," she said.
Rain beat against the windows. The living room grew gray. Both the Teals started to cry. "When I heard the news I felt almost, almost . . ." Ms. Teal paused, knowing the word but not quite ready to bring it into the room. "Relief."
"I was dreading this every day of my life," she explained, between sniffles. "So when the Army finally came to the door and told us J. R. was dead, it was like this big thing hanging over my head just went away."
Sgt. Aubrey Bell grew up poor. He was raised in the woods drawing water from a well and eating whatever his mother stuck between two slices of bread. Butter sandwiches. Mayonnaise sandwiches. Ketchup sandwiches. You name it.
His life, as his friends tell it, was taking a little and making a lot.
"He was just a cheerful, happy dude," said Eric Wingate, a childhood friend.
Sergeant Bell, 32, didn't especially savor the intense Iraqi heat, or sleeping in tents with 100 men and 100 pairs of ripening combat boots.
But he liked children. And in Iraq, the 280-pound soldier in the XXXL uniform drew them like a magnet. "I used to always ask him, why you let them get so close to you?" said his fiancée, Philandria Ezell. "And he'd say, honey, they're just kids."
On Oct. 27, Sergeant Bell, an Alabama National Guardsman with the 214th Military Police Company, was shot in the stomach in front of a police station, where he had been training Iraqi police officers.
His family is furious. As they sat around on folding chairs in his mother's front yard, an ice chest of Miller Lite at their feet, they glared at the ground.
"Why is it O.K. if he dies?" his cousin Vecie Williams asked. "The president don't care. You see him on TV. He says this, he says that. But show me one tear, one tear."
Something that nags them is whether Sergeant Bell was wearing a bulletproof vest. In many of the pictures he sent home he is not. There is nothing between him and the enemy but a few layers of cotton.
"The Army people say he got shot," Ms. Ezell said. "But they don't say nothing more."
Brian Hart is on a quest for answers. By night, he sends e-mail messages and posts notes on electronic bulletin boards. By day, he works the phones.
Mr. Hart is haunted by the ambush that killed his son. Pfc. John Hart, a 20-year-old paratrooper with the 173rd Infantry Brigade, was hit in the neck and killed on Oct. 18 in Taza, near Kirkuk. It was the same late-night attack that took the life of Lieutenant Bernstein. Their unit was ordered to find the enemy. The enemy found them.
But what happened after that, after the grenades ripped into the Humvee?
"Did John bleed to death? Did he suffer?" asked Alma Hart, his mother.
Mr. Hart is more critical.
"The Army hasn't given us any more information than a three-sentence press release," he said. "It's awful."
An Army spokeswoman, Shari Lawrence, said what relatives are told about a soldier's death was sometimes incomplete "because we try to notify the family as quickly as possible."
So the Harts have turned to their son's comrades for information. They have learned that some soldiers have been camping out in water treatment facilities and sleeping on pipes. And that others lack the right protective gear. And that most Humvees, like the one their son was riding in, are not armored.
"It breaks your heart that these kids are living in real deprivation out there and we don't know about it," Mrs. Hart said.
Maj. Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman, said that nearly 50,000 troops in Iraq, more than a third of the total force there, did not have bulletproof vests, but that the Army hoped to have them outfitted by next year.
The Harts are working with members of Congress to get more resources now. They still support the war. They just want it fought better.
These are the other Americans who died in Iraq in the last two weeks:
Pfc. Paul J. Bueche, 19, of Birmingham, Ala., died on Oct. 21 in Balad when a tire on a helicopter exploded as he was changing it.
Over the next two days, Pvt. Jason M. Ward, 25, of Tulsa, Okla., and Specialist John P. Johnson, 24, of Houston died of injuries not related to combat.
On Oct. 24, Sgt. Michael S. Hancock, 29, of Yreka, Calif., was killed when a grain silo he was guarding in Mosul was attacked by Iraqis, and Specialist Jose L. Mora, 26, of Bell Gardens, Calif., was killed in a mortar attack in Samarra.
On Oct. 26. Pfc. Steven Acosta, 19, of Calexico, Calif., died in Baquba from a "non-hostile" gunshot wound, an incident that is still under investigation. Lt. Col. Charles H. Buehring, 40, of Fayetteville, N.C., was killed in a rocket attack on the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad. Pvt. Joseph R. Guerrera, 20, of Dunn, N.C., was killed in Baghdad when his vehicle was hit with a bomb. And Pfc. Rachel K. Bosveld, 19, of Waupun, Wis., died in a mortar attack on a police station in Abu Ghraib.
The next day, Pvt. Jonathan I. Falaniko, 20, of Pago Pago, American Samoa, was killed when a roadside bomb exploded near a police station in Baghdad.
On Oct. 28, Pvt. Algernon Adams, 36, of Aiken, S.C., died of injuries not related to combat. And Sgt. Michael Paul Barrera, 26, of Von Ormy, Texas, and Specialist Isaac Campoy, 21, of Douglas, Ariz, were killed in Baquba when a tank was hit by a bomb. The last two soldiers were killed on Saturday in a roadside bombing in Mosul. The military has not yet named them.
West Point, N.Y.
The sky was clear, the air was crisp and the general had a story to share.
The old men in the American Legion hats tipped their heads forward to listen. The Green Beret commanders looked down at their boots.
Brig. Gen. Leo Brooks Jr., commandant of the United States Military Academy, explained why Lieutenant David Bernstein, 24, valedictorian of his high school class, fifth in his class at West Point, was winning a Bronze Star. "That night there had been a rocket attack at the Kirkuk airfield," General Brooks began.
Lieutenant Bernstein and his men were searching the countryside. Suddenly, Iraqi forces surrounded them and blasted their Humvee with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Private Hart was killed instantly.
"They were taking fire from the back and from the front," the general said. "And Lieutenant Bernstein was hit."
But his driver had fallen out of the truck and was pinned underneath. And the enemy was advancing. With a bullet in his leg, Lieutenant Bernstein tried five times to rescue his driver. The fifth time, he pulled him out.
But the lieutenant had lost so much blood, he was now dying. He fired a few rounds before he fell.
"I have seen the face of terror, I have felt the stinging cold of fear, I have lived the times most would say are best forgotten. But at least I can say I am proud of what I was a soldier," Lt. Col. Kevin McDonnell said in a graveside speech. "I am not sure who originally said those words. But they remind me of David."