A portrait of who they were

Between March 20, 2003 and May 6, 2004, 759 US troops died in Iraq. This is the longest, fiercest, sustained combat Americans have seen in a generation.

The press release from the Pentagon was terse:

"The Department of Defense announced today the death of four soldiers supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. They died on April 24, in Taji, Iraq, when mortar rounds hit their camp. The four soldiers were assigned to the Army National Guard's 39th Support Battalion, 39th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, Hazen, Ark. Killed were:

Capt. Arthur L. Felder, 36, of Louisville, Ark.

Chief Warrant Officer Patrick W. Kordsmeier, 49, of North Little Rock, Ark.

Staff Sgt. Billy J. Orton, 41, of Humnoke, Ark.

Staff Sgt. Stacey C. Brandon, 35, of Hazen, Ark.

The incident is under investigation."

For four families, the news came with a knock on the door by a somber officer in dress uniform. For four communities, it was a sharp and heavy rock thrown into a pond of thought and feeling, rippling inexorably outward in ways none could have imagined. Their loved ones, their colleagues and neighbors, had gone to war, and now they weren't coming back.

At time of writing, the number of US military personnel killed in Iraq stood at 772. This is the longest, fiercest, sustained combat Americans have seen in a generation - since Vietnam. Compared with earlier major wars, the number of military fatalities there is not yet large. Still, it took four years in Southeast Asia for the toll of US military losses to reach 500; the number reached that level over 10 months in Iraq. And while each individual loss is profoundly tragic for the families affected, the ripple effect of such losses in Iraq - the number of family, friends, and colleagues, the impact on communities and the organizations and informal groups that form the fabric of American society at the hometown level - in fact may be greater this time.

The cross section of American fighting men and women in Iraq, and especially those lost so far, hints at why. Their collective portrait shows a young man (a small fraction are women) who is 27 or 28 years old, quite likely to be married and to have children. This contrasts with Vietnam, where the typical enlisted soldier was drafted just out of high school or in his early 20s. In this way, those fighting - and dying - in Iraq are more like their grandfathers in World War II than their fathers in Vietnam.

Take Bradford, Ark., a town of just 800 people. Last year, eight men in the community - including the mayor, the police chief, and the school librarian - were called to active duty along with others in the Army National Guard's 39th Support Battalion headquartered in nearby Hazen. (This is the same unit that lost the four men cited above.)

Mostly older family men (Mayor Paul Bunn has four children), they were told they'd be gone a year. But they've since learned that their tour will be extended.

Town Recorder Grebe Edens, who taught fourth grade for 35 years, is filling in as mayor. She says everybody's been sending care packages of toothpaste, deodorant, and snacks. "You can't go anywhere but what people are talking about what's going on over there, hoping that ours all get back in one piece," says Ms. Edens.

"Everybody's concerned; very much so," she says. "But we're trying to carry on just like they were here."

In paying tribute to the men from Arkansas killed in that mortar attack last month, US Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) could have been describing much of America's armed forces today. "Those serving in Iraq today are not only military men, but are also doctors, lawyers, police officers, and firemen," she said. "They are teachers, factory workers, business owners, and elected officials. Most important, they are husbands and wives - mothers and fathers...."

While American GIs come from all over the country, certain generalizations can be made about those who serve and those who are killed in the line of duty, according to experts who study military demographics and sociology.

"It's small town America and the inner city," says Charles Moskos, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Chicago specializing in the military.

Those lost in this war also tend to come from communities with a slightly lower-than-average annual household income: $39,366 versus $41,994 for the country as a whole, a $2,628 difference.

"It tends to underrepresent both the top and the bottom of the socioeconomic structure," says David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organizations at the University of Maryland in College Park.

"The bottom gets cut out because of low educational levels, lower mental aptitude scores, poor health, or criminal records," says Dr. Segal. "The top pretty much excludes itself."

Generally speaking, today's soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are older than their counterparts during the draft, which ended in 1973. And they marry somewhat younger - typically at 24 compared with 27 for the average American male. Some enter military service well into their 20s, and many are likely to reenlist.

This has had a noticeable effect on the overall complexion of the force, notes Segal.

"More of them are married," he says. "They're older. They have more kids. They have civilian jobs that they're leaving behind. They have community responsibilities, both formal and informal."

But there have been other changes to the makeup of the US fighting force as well. In general, Dr. Moskos says, it is the case that "our privileged youth are no longer serving."

He cites several indicators of this shift:

Of all 535 members of the US House and Senate today, only half a dozen have children in the military (and just one of those is in Iraq).

Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and his three older brothers all served in the armed services, two of them in World War II (one of whom died in action). Of the 17 next-generation males born to Senator Kennedy and his eight brothers and sisters, none joined the military.

In Professor Moskos' own class at Princeton University (1956), more than 400 of 750 in the then all-male school, including Moskos, either were drafted or took ROTC commissions.

That included such notables as former Harvard President Neil Rudenstine, former Delaware Gov. Pete DuPont, and R.W. Apple of The New York Times. Out of 1,100 men and women in Princeton's Class of 2003, by contrast, just seven went into the military.

Noting that Elvis Presley willingly joined the US Army in 1958 to do his bit - serving with the Third Armored Division in Germany - Moskos asks, "Can you imagine [rap singer] Eminem as a draftee?"

There's another big difference, compared with a generation and a major war ago.

"Women not only are more present, but they're taken seriously by the men and this is a change," says retired US Naval Reserve Capt. John Allen Williams, professor of political science at Loyola University in Chicago.

"There are problems with harassment and assault, but overt sexism is a career-seeking missile, as it needs to be," says Dr. Williams. "It doesn't mean that people agree that women need to be in ground combat - there are reasonable differences about that - but that they can fight and serve honorably, the debate is over about that."

Women make up 13.4 percent of the active duty, National Guard, and Reserve force. Twenty US servicewomen have been killed in Iraq so far (2.5 percent of all US military fatalities), 14 of those due to hostile action.

Of all military men and women killed there, 121 (13 percent) were in Reserve and National Guard units called to active duty.

The demographics of those killed are general. But over the months of the war, wire service reports of their lives and their loss reveal their individual accomplishments and especially their promise. These stories are personal, perhaps suprising in some ways.

When he wasn't flying helicopters, Army Chief Warrant Officer Kyran Kennedy, his wife, Kathy, and their three kids tended an orchard and managed a beekeeping operation in Kentucky. Chief Warrant Officer Kennedy was a talented woodworker who took to Iraq the dulcimer he had made. The music provided a sense of peace in the midst of war, Kathy Kennedy said.

Navy Reserve Lt. Kylan Jones-Huffman was fluent in French, Farsi, and Arabic. He had taught history at the US Naval Academy, and he planned to get his doctorate in Turkish studies.

Marine Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez was an orphan from Guatemala who walked part of the way to California, where he lived in a homeless shelter for a time. Joining the military "was a question of honor," a way to pay back his adopted country, said his foster brother Max Gutierrez.

Like several other American servicemen killed in Iraq, Lance Corporal Gutierrez was awarded US citizenship posthumously.

Army Sgt. Felix Delgreco studied Latin for four years in high school. His teacher, Bergouhi Spencer, remembers Sgt. Delgreco as keenly curious and always smiling.

"He was one of those kids you just wanted to bring home and adopt," she says.

Marine Lance Cpl. Gregory MacDonald played classical guitar, studied philosophy as an undergraduate, and had a master's degree from American University. He figured military experience would help a career in Middle Eastern affairs, said his close friend Jeni Spevak.

Like many of those in the National Guard and Reserves, which are likely to make up 40 percent of all US servicemen and women in Iraq over the next year, Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Camara was a first responder - a police officer in New Bedford, Mass.

Friends remember him as quiet and generous - the kind of dad who would take all the kids in his working-class neighborhood out for ice cream.

"Joey was a sweetheart," fellow police officer Scott Morton told the Monitor. "It was kind of scary how much of a nice guy he was, you know?"

Joey Camara was also a member of the Rhode Island National Guard, called to active duty. When his Humvee was blown up late last year, friends and colleagues around this historic whaling town immediately set up a fund to help Ana Camara and their three children.

Then Mr. Morton organized a benefit hockey game in which former players for the Boston Bruins faced off against a team of New Bedford police and firefighters.

"They killed us in the beginning, but then they kind of let us catch up," remembers another officer.

Final score: 12-8. The rink was packed with 1,200 people, and several thousand dollars was raised for the Camara family.

The community intends to keep helping. "If she starts having financial difficulty, we're going to step right in," says Officer Morton. "We may set up a scholarship fund in his name. We'll attach Joey's name to it, because that's the kind of guy he was."

The ripples continue.

It's impossible to know for sure how many children, stepchildren, nephews, nieces, and other young people will no longer have those lost ones to look up to, to learn from.

Each one lost is important; together their influence has been - would have been - considerable.

Marine Pfc. Eric Ayon had been a youth counselor working with gang members. Just before he died in a firefight in Al Anbar Province last month, he sent his 7- year-old son Joshua a birthday card.

"Being your dad is the coolest thing I've ever done in my life," he wrote. "You being my son makes me a better man."

"I'm sorry I'm not there with you today," Private Ayon wrote to his son. "I love you and I will always be around."

The Pentagon sent out another press release the other day, as it does just about every day.

Like the others, it was terse:

"The Department of Defense announced today the death of five sailors who were supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. They died May 2 in the Al Anbar Province as a result of hostile fire. They were assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 14, Jacksonville, Fla.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael C. Anderson, 36, of Daytona, Fla.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Trace W. Dossett, 37, of Orlando, Fla.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott R. Mchugh, 33, of Boca Raton Fla.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert B. Jenkins, 35, of Stuart, Fla.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald A. Ginther, 37, of Auburndale, Fla."

Leigh Montgomery and Alan Messmer of the library staff contributed to this report.

The Monitor's analysis of US military casualties drew from information compiled by the Associated Press War Casualty Database, US Department of Defense and its armed forces divisions, the US Census Bureau, Lunaville.org, and Women in Military Service for America Memorial. It includes the 759 troops who died in Iraq from March 20, 2003, to May 6, 2004.

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