'Every one of them is a husband, a son, a father, could be a mother or daughter'
BAGHDAD — Staff Sgt. Michael Elledge and Sgt. Christopher Simpson weren’t the 4,000th.
The C Company, 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment soldiers died while returning from Taji, Iraq, a week before the grim milestone. Their convoy had left their base in Baghdad to exchange an older Humvee for an updated model. They were driving that new and improved Humvee when an explosively formed projectile killed them.
But Elledge’s and Simpson’s deaths give the growing U.S. casualty list in Iraq a special resonance to the 1-68 soldiers.
“Every one of them is a husband, a son, a father, could be a mother or daughter,” said Capt. Leonard Siems, the 1-68 chaplain. “They are truly a great generation.”
For some, such as Spc. Stephen Anctil, a 23-year-old Cape Cod, Mass., native, their deaths and the new tally have given him a growing desire to get to know the other soldiers in his unit.
Yet most of those who didn’t know Elledge and Simpson have known others who died. Spc. Enrique Saumell, for example, lost two friends to roadside bombs in Diyala province during his last deployment. One of those deaths, in particular, has stayed with the 22-year-old soldier. He still remembers how the soldier said goodbye to all his family members before he died, as if he knew his death was imminent.
“It’s sad,” he said. “It’s the depression. You’re out here fighting knowing that you might not see your family again.”
For many in this unit, the personal connection they share with the soldiers who have died waters down the significance of the larger tally. Each loss was tragic. Each loss was a reminder to stay vigilant. Each loss was a taste of what could happen.
“Four thousand is no more significant than 3,999,” said Spc. Christian Frank, 22, of North Hampton, N.H.
“It means great sacrifice on behalf of the soldiers here for our country,” said Staff Sgt. Dennis Hunter, 33. “It just shows the dedication.”
“It’s them trying to help better the people of Iraq. Everybody over here that’s dying is dying for a cause,” Saumell said.
For many troops throughout Iraq, the attention paid to every 1,000th American death in Iraq rubs them the wrong way.
“I definitely think the media sensationalizes it,” said Spc. Micah Alexander, of Troop G, 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Diyala province. “I don’t think you can judge our success or failure based on casualty rates.”
“The first week after we lost a guy, it was tough,” the 31-year-old native of Grand Rapids, Mich., said. “But you get back into the routine of doing what you’re doing, and you just keep on doing what you gotta do.”
It’s not that troops are oblivious to the cost.
“That’s 4,000 families without a son or husband or wife or daughter,” said G Troop First Sgt. James Adcock, 32, of Beeville, Texas. “They all need to be remembered, but the guys who served with them are never going to forget, and that’s what’s important. We don’t need a running tally to remind us we’re in a dangerous job.”
The meaning of the 4,000th death was open to interpretation.
Maj. Chuck McGregor, a Marine Corps reservist who commands Military Transition Team 131 in Diyala province, took the occasion to criticize the influence of companies working under contract in Iraq.
“If soldiers and Marines are dying to support these contracts then something is wrong,” he said. “There’s an obnoxious number of contracts out here and money being poured into missions that are half-baked. I hope the next administration has a better approach to keeping peace here and abroad than this one.”
For most troops, though, the day of death 4,000 was a day like many others. Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Armstrong, a corpsman with MiTT 131, spent it building defenses around a new Iraqi army outpost.
“The press definitely blows the casualties way out of proportion,” he said. “There should be more focus on what we’re doing here.”
On Monday night, the soldiers of the 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment gathered in their base dining facility to honor Elledge and Simpson.
But the service wasn’t just for the fallen soldiers; it was also for the comrades they left behind, Siems, the chaplain, said. They are the ones who need closure to strengthen their spirits. They are the ones who must press forward with their mission — even as new names are added below the 4,000 already on the casualty list.
“They are there to do a job,” Siems said. “It doesn’t matter the circumstances. They are going to do it no matter what.”
By the numbers
Month with lowest number of deaths
February 2004 (20)
Month with highest number of deaths
November 2004 (137)
Number of U.K. soldiers killed
Number of other coalition country soldiers killed
Average number of soldiers killed per day of war
Most deaths on a single day
37 (Jan. 26, 2005)
Number of days when more than 10 deaths occurred
Percentage of deaths by military service
Army: 72 percent
Marine Corps: 24 percent
Navy: 2 percent
Air Force: 1 percent
Active duty: 83 percent
National Guard: 10 percent
Reserve: 6 percent
Iraqi provinces with most deaths
Percent of deaths who were enlisted
Number older than 45
Most common age of the dead
Percentage under 21
Percentage of deaths caused by ...
Roadside bomb: 52
Aircraft crashes: 5
“non-hostile” actions: 18
Number of women
By ethnic group
White: 75 percent
Hispanic or Latino: 11 percent
Black: 9 percent
Asian: 2 percent
multiple race or race unknown: 1 percent
American Indian or Native Alaskan: 1 percent
State from which the most dead came
State from which the least dead came
Sources: Department of Defense, icasualties.org, The Associated Press.