'Why Are People Dying?'
Some Back Home Wonder, 'Why Are People Dying?'
By Monica Davey
The New York Times
Monday 02 June 2003
Somewhere along the way, the military families had stopped bracing so hard for the possibility of terrible news. Baghdad was taken, the statues had toppled, and the war seemed to be winding down. So at home, the relatives of service members said they began to sleep more deeply and to eat again. Some turned off televisions that had run for weeks. A few dared to plan homecoming parties.
One day in late April, Mary Arnold opened an e-mail message and felt the first traces of relief settle in her. Her marine son, Andrew Todd Arnold, a chief warrant officer, was preparing to leave Iraq for Kuwait, the message said, where he would start cleaning up the 18 howitzers he had been responsible for. Surely this meant it was over.
"That morning, when I saw it in writing," Ms. Arnold said, "I thought, `O.K., God, thank you. He's made it.' "
Hours later, at 10:15 p.m., the doorbell rang at Ms. Arnold's home in Spring, Tex. She spotted two marines through the peephole, she said, and began to scream. Mr. Arnold, who signed up for service 11 years ago and who spent his downtime watching Nascar and fishing and listening to country music, died on a firing range with two other marines on April 22, when a rocket-propelled grenade launcher they were testing malfunctioned.
Even as Americans viewed the conflict with Iraq as mostly over and the nation's attention turned elsewhere, the Department of Defense reported the deaths of about 40 service members in the past six weeks. About three-fourths of the deaths came after May 1, the day President Bush formally declared the end of major combat operations. Deaths over the past six weeks were fewer than at the height of the struggle: three times as many Americans were killed in the month after the war began. But for families who had just begun to allow themselves to think their loved ones might be safe, the news was all the more jarring, the numbers impossible to consider.
"We won the war, so why are people dying?" asked Fran Stall, whose companion is the father of Sgt. Troy David Jenkins, who died on April 24. "I don't understand why this keeps happening. We have guys getting killed every day."
They have been killed in a string of sudden attacks assaults that have grown far more common in the past week and have begun raising questions among some families about whether there are enough United States forces in Iraq to handle mounting resistance. Soldiers have been shot at as they stood guard at vehicle checkpoints. They have been ambushed as they traveled along roads in convoys.
Maj. Mathew E. Schram of the Army died on Memorial Day when his military convoy was fired on. In Wisconsin, Major Schram's sister, Susan Kuske, said that she had known he would still be facing "nitty-gritty stuff" in the tense period after Saddam Hussein lost power, but that she had put her fears "somewhere in the back" of her thoughts. "I guess you never know. It's heart-wrenching, but I expect we will lose more."
More of the service members have died in accidents than in attacks. A tank plunged from a riverbank. A gun went off as a soldier cleaned it. A Humvee hit a parked trailer. A helicopter crashed. A transport truck rolled over. A rocket-propelled grenade launcher, the one Mr. Arnold was near, malfunctioned.
In late May, the Defense Department announced plans to cut in half the rate of "mishaps" over the next two years. The plan was prompted by an increase in accidents from 2001 to 2002, not by events in Iraq, according to a statement issued by the department in response to questions. Still, the department said it was "concerned about the number of accidents in Iraq," adding, "We do not tolerate preventable accidents anywhere."
Killed on the firing range beside Mr. Arnold were Chief Warrant Officer Robert William Channell Jr., a career marine, and Lance Cpl. Alan Dinh Lam, who was starting out.
Three days before his death, Mr. Channell, 36, had called home for the first time since the war started. He was safe, he told his wife, Joyce. He hoped to be back to North Carolina around Independence Day. He had all sorts of plans for fun with their daughter, who is 5.
"He was ready to come home," Ms. Channell said. She knew even then, she said, that she would not be fully relieved until she saw her husband at the door, but the call made her feel that much more upbeat. "I felt like it was over," she said.
Corporal Lam, 19, called his North Carolina home the same day. He told his sisters he would be there soon. He said he wanted to eat at his favorite restaurant, a Chinese buffet, right away. And he was excited about the souped-up car he had heard his father was going to give him when he got home. He wanted it painted jet black, he told his sisters. One of them, Melanie, recalled, "We thought that we were all in the clear."
`A Stupid Accident'
The accidental nature of the deaths made them still more difficult for some families to accept.
Specialist Rasheed Sahib of Brooklyn died on May 18 when he and another soldier were cleaning their weapons, the Department of Defense said. The other soldier's weapon went off. Specialist Sahib, 22, was hit in the chest.
"He died for nothing, then," said Amitt Permaul, a friend who remembered Specialist Sahib as his 6-foot-3 protector while they were hanging out together in a rough neighborhood. Specialist Sahib was the guy who would barbecue with Mr. Permaul all day long, or spend afternoons at Coney Island.
"He died over a stupid accident," Mr. Permaul said. "Honestly, I can't believe it."
Three days later, Specialist Nathaniel A. Caldwell died when the vehicle he was in flipped over in Baghdad. His wife, Amanda, said military officials told her that the vehicle had been headed up a hill when her husband was ejected and then pinned under it. Specialist Caldwell, 27, originally from Phoenix, had expected to leave the service in 2005, Ms. Caldwell said. He wanted to become a chaplain.
"He's supposed to be over there protecting Iraq and giving them freedom," Ms. Caldwell said. "But to know he died in a freak accident, it's just indescribable."
Other families said they were relieved to know their servicemen had not lingered in fear or in pain in the middle of a combat zone. Death came swiftly.
Lance Cpl. Jakub Henryk Kowalik was 21. But to his mother, Danuta, he was still "my baby marine."
He was her youngest, just 5-foot-5 and 140 pounds, but strong, she said. He had also been her translator when the family had arrived in the United States from Poland when he was 10. On Mother's Day, Corporal Kowalik called home to the Chicago suburbs and talked for 30 minutes. It was their longest conversation since he had been deployed. He was hot, tired and in need of a bath, but he was O.K., he told her.
Ms. Kowalik immediately told all her friends about the call. "I was the happiest mother in the entire world," she said.
A day later, Corporal Kowalik died when an unexploded ordnance he and another marine were handling detonated. Also killed was Pfc. Jose F. Gonzalez Rodriguez, 19.
"I know he died right away," Ms. Kowalik said of her son. "It's better that he didn't suffer." Everything he was doing, she said, was connected with the goals of the war, whether the explosion was accidental or not. "This time," she said, "the enemy was just that ammunition."
Speed was some consolation, too, for the family of Staff Sgt. Brett J. Petriken of the Army. He and another soldier, Pvt. Kenneth A. Nalley, died on Memorial Day when a heavy equipment transporter crossed the median in a road and struck their Humvee. Before enlisting, Private Nalley, 19, had pumped gas and changed tires at a gas station in Hamburg, Iowa, his hometown. Sergeant Petriken, 30, had chosen the Army more than a decade ago after growing up in Flint, Mich.
"The thought of your child laying on a combat field hurt, that I just could not take," said Deborah Petriken, Sergeant Petriken's mother. Still, she said, she wants to know more about the accident. Could sleep deprivation or a sandstorm have been factors? She said she had been told that the transporter was also driven by Americans.
Melissa Givens was left with her own questions.
Her husband, Jesse A. Givens of Springfield, Mo., had joined the Army relatively late in his 30's. For years, he had held jobs in private industry. But the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed him, Ms. Givens said, and he enlisted at the start of 2002.
"He didn't like the fact of children losing their parents when the buildings fell," she remembered. "That idea really bothered him, and he was real patriotic."
He was 34, a private first class, on May 1, when a bank gave way, sending his tank into the Euphrates River and killing him, the Defense Department said.
Ms. Givens has heard different versions of what happened. She said she did not understand what put the troops so close to the river or what else was happening at the time. "It's kind of confused me," she said, quickly adding that her husband believed in what he was doing. "He was making the world a better place."
Ms. Givens had a baby on Thursday. His middle name is Alan, the same as his father's.
In mid-May, Lt. Col. Dominic R. Baragona talked to his relatives back home, his brother, John, said. He was 42, a West Point graduate from Niles, Ohio, who had always been the pride of his family. Colonel Baragona just Rocky to his family said he was on his way home.
When his father asked whether there were any safety issues left to worry about, Colonel Baragona's response, his brother said, was simple: "Something stupid happening."
The next day, on May 19, a tractor-trailer jackknifed on a roadway, collided with Lieutenant Colonel Baragona's Humvee and killed him.
An Ill-Fated Rescue
Many men perished in helicopters.
On May 9, three soldiers died when their UH-60 medical helicopter plunged into the Tigris River. Relatives said the men were aiding in the rescue of a wounded Iraqi child. Two helicopters were involved in the nighttime rescue, and one, hovering over the rescue, suddenly went down. Margaret Gukeisen, whose son, Hans, was among the dead, said she was told there were reports of tracer rounds just before the crash.
Her son, who was 31 and a chief warrant officer from Lead, S.D., loved his job, his mother said. He loved racecars. He loved helicopters. "He loved big powerful machines." Also killed that night were Chief Warrant Officer Brian K. Van Dusen, 39, of Columbus, Ohio, and Sgt. Richard P. Carl, 25, of Murtaugh, Idaho.
Ms. Gukeisen said she had often wondered about the fate of the injured Iraqi girl. "I hope that she survives," she said. "I hope she turns out to be an outstanding woman. The cost of her life was high. Three men died to save her."
Ten days later, a helicopter crash caused more deaths than any other incident since the end of major combat in Iraq. Four marines were heading off on a resupply mission in a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter that day, May 19, when it came crashing back into a canal after takeoff. A fifth marine, Sgt. Kirk Allen Straseskie, drowned when he jumped into the canal to try to save his colleagues, the Defense Department said.
The crash is still under investigation, but officials said at the time that there was no sign ground fire had played a role.
Lance Cpl. Jason William Moore had called home not long before the crash. He said his unit was getting ready for one last mission, his sister, Michelle, said. Then he would be home in California. The family began planning a party, and Ms. Moore made her brother promise that he would call her with a precise date as soon as he knew it so she could get time off work.
Corporal Moore, 21, loved the Marines, but his sister, who had also served in the military, said she always worried about the flying. "Those helicopters are fragile," she said, "and I worried. I really didn't want him doing this. But he promised me he would be home."
In Shawnee, Okla., Staff Sgt. Aaron Dean White's mother, Karen, had never been quite comfortable either. "I chewed him out when I found out he was flying over there," she said. Helicopters and sand did not mix, she tried to tell him. But Sergeant White, 27, always knew what he wanted to do, she said. He left for boot camp the Monday after he finished high school.
Killed in the crash along with Corporal Moore and Sergeant White were Capt. Andrew David La Mont, 31, of Eureka, Calif., and Capt. Timothy Louis Ryan, 30, of Aurora, Ill.
The news that Sergeant Straseskie had jumped into the water came as no surprise to his grandmother, Janice Helmer, back in Beaver Dam, Wis. "That's how our boys are," Ms. Helmer said. "We have a lake here too, and if he would have seen someone fall in there, he would have been right in after them."
Sergeant Straseskie, 23, had been planning to stay in the Marines for his career, Ms. Helmer said. But then he met a young woman he wanted to marry, so he had started talking of getting out and becoming a police officer to stay closer to her. "My heart was so filled with pride for what he did," his grandmother said, "but then also filled with hurt.
"Part of me wants to say, why him? Why did it have to be him? But then I think, why anybody, really?"
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