ORLANDO, Fla. — Cpl. Christopher Lee Poole Jr. would have celebrated his 29th birthday this Fourth of July. A "firecracker baby," his parents called him.
Every year his mother still gets him a big cake, and every year his family still gathers in his honor. But the holiday is no longer a joyous one in the Pooles' Leesburg household.
Christopher Poole, assigned to the U.S. Marines 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, was killed in combat in Iraq on Sept. 6, 2007. He was 22 years old.
"It makes you really think about whether wars are justified," younger brother Jeffrey Poole says. "But whether they are or not, he did his job, and he served his country. That's what he enlisted for."
As the U.S. rebuilds a military presence in Iraq to deal with the growing threat of Sunni militants — 2½ years after pulling out the last American troops there — many of those who lost loved ones in Operation Iraqi Freedom say they are conflicted. They hope for peace, but they say that war, even with its heavy price, may be inevitable.
Freedom, they'll tell you, isn't free.
Military servicemen and -women tend to be a small, tightknit segment of the population. In more than a decade of warfare following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, only about one-half of 1 percent of Americans have served on active military duty.
"You become a family," says Tamara Cashe, 46, who, like her husband, Alwyn Cashe, made a career in the Army. "When you're under attack, you don't think about your safety. You just try to help your people."
The couple lived in Oviedo before Alwyn was deployed to Iraq. He died Nov. 8, 2005, three weeks after being severely injured when his Bradley Fighting Vehicle was hit by a makeshift bomb. Though covered in fuel, Alwyn Cashe crawled back to the burning tank five times to pull out survivors.
He was 35.
"After a certain amount of time and so many lives lost, I do wonder what it will accomplish to get involved again," his widow says. "But my feeling is: If you're not over there, you can't really judge. I don't pretend to know what's right and what's wrong."
If it sounds like a sort of wistful acceptance, she is not alone in feeling that way.
"War is a necessary evil," says Valorie Britt, "and sometimes it doesn't change anything."
Her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Sandy Britt of Apopka, died Aug. 7, 2007, after a bomb detonated near his unit outside Baghdad. He was 30.
"All I know is that my husband believed in what he was doing, and he was proud to be in the military," she says. "I think of him as a hero — and as a tragedy."
Though it has been seven years, the grief of his death still feels fresh. She moved back to South Carolina, where the couple had met, hoping the happy memories would help. They haven't.
She can't concentrate enough to work, and she worries about their son, who was 4 when his father died. The boy still doesn't like to talk about it.
"To be honest, it has been hell," Valorie Britt says. "I know a lot of other widows, and they've gotten remarried or they've started dating. But I'm one of the ones who just can't get over it. I don't even watch the news. It's too much. You wish there were some way they could just stop it all."
Jill Roberts of Longwood can understand. She was still a teenager when she married Robert "Bobby" Roberts, who joined the Army in the months before the 2001 terrorist attacks so he could support his young wife and child. Jill Roberts thought it would be a good living, that it might give the family opportunities to travel, that it would be the sort of adventure the recruiting ads always made it seem.
Five months after her husband's deployment to Iraq, she was at home early one Sunday, feeding their 3-year-old and cleaning house, when she saw her uncle and a man in an officer's uniform at her front door. She knew what it meant. The following weeks are still a blur.
"You want to be angry at the government," she admits. "But on the other hand, no one is forcing you to join anymore. I know Bobby believed in what he was doing. And you can't fault someone for wanting to serve his country — for wanting to serve the rest of us."
For Shelley Burnett, 57, of St. Cloud, not a day passes that she doesn't think of her eldest son, Jason, and what his life might be like now if he were alive.
"How many kids would he have? What would he be doing?" she wonders. "When he enlisted in the Marines, we knew there was a possibility that he would be hurt or even killed, but I don't think it really sank in. I remember telling people there was a greater chance that he'd die in an automobile accident."
He was 20.
Jeffrey Poole tries not to wonder.
When he thinks of his big brother these days, it's to remember the cross-country road trip they made in his '96 Mustang with the bad head gasket. He can still picture his brother in the passenger seat, grinning — just two weeks before he deployed to Iraq. And he envisions the enemy truck, loaded with explosives, that Christopher stopped at a security checkpoint, touching off a gun battle.
It was a move that cost the young man his life — but saved 30 others. A group of fellow Marines, the intended target, was just down the road.
"Regardless of the politics," Jeffrey Poole says, "I know my brother made a difference."