TRIM AND MUSCULAR AT 38, 1ST Sgt. Edward Smith could leap from airplanes, survive eating insects, rappel down sheer heights, and, if necessary, efficiently dispatch a man's soul into eternity. He was a "Recon" Marine. Loosely translated, that means "Bad Dude." So when he attended the police academy at Palomar College in San Marcos, Calif., to prepare for his second career, it was no surprise that he finished first in his class.
In 1999, while still on active duty, 1st Sgt. Smith joined the Anaheim, Calif., police department, part-time. In 2000, the city named him "Rookie of the Year," and the next year, the county named him "Reserve Officer of the Year." 1st Sgt. Smith was set to retire from the Marine Corps in January 2003 and join the police force full-time. But because of the war on terror, the Corps froze his retirement, and in February sent him to Iraq. Two months later, he died in Doha, Qatar, from wounds received in action.
Edward Smith was one of 140 U.S. military personnel killed during the war in Iraq. To millions of Americans, such men are heroes, camouflage-clad symbols of duty, honor, and sacrifice. But to their families and friends, Edward Smith and his comrades were whole people: sons, dads, brothers, uncles, friends, and, in one case, daughter and mom. They liked cheeseburgers, pumped iron, built model cars, volunteered at shelters, hated country music. They had big plans, sent paychecks home, loved their kids, and looked forward to meeting those not yet born. And though none was perfect, many left behind tall images that family and friends still look up to.
Anaheim police officer Steve Davis, for example, remembers that 1st Sgt. Smith, who called everyone "Dawg," breathed fresh air into his police career. Once, the two responded to a call in which a woman raved about people who peeked in her windows at night and shot microwaves into her head. After 14 years on the force, Mr. Davis had had his fill of such wackiness. He urged 1st Sgt. Smith to get back in the patrol car, but the Marine wouldn't leave.
"Dawg, she just wants to be heard," he told Mr. Davis, and stayed on, listening sincerely to the woman's nutty story. By the time they left, "this woman felt she'd been served by the police department," Mr. Davis said. "Here was a guy who had served his country, and now he wanted to serve his community. I thought, 'I want to be more like that.'"
When he died, 1st Sgt. Smith left behind his wife, Sandy, and their three children, 12, 10, and 8. All told, warriors who died in Iraq left behind 83 born children and eight pregnant wives, according to a database compiled by the The Gazette, a Colorado Springs daily. Marine Cpl. Jorge Gonzalez, 20, never saw his son, Alonso, born March 3, weeks after his father's unit shipped out. Jill Kiehl was due to deliver her first son, Nathaniel, last week. Her husband, Army Spc. James Kiehl, 22, died March 23 when Iraqis ambushed the 507th Maintenance Company.
Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa, 23, died in the same attack. The only woman to die in the war, Pfc. Piestewa, a single mom, left behind a 4-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. Her death marks the first female loss of life in battle since American women were placed in combat. Two thouand people attended Pfc. Piestewa's Tuba City, Ariz., funeral. Her orphaned children sat in the front row.
For another Arizona resident, the fighting in Iraq was over almost as soon as it began. Maj. Jay Thomas Aubin, 36, seemed to be preparing for that. Dubbed "Sweet Pea" by his Marine Corps buddies because of his friendly nature, Maj. Aubin had grown up wanting to be a pilot like his dad. He had achieved that dream and was a CH-46 helicopter pilot living in Yuma, Ariz., with his wife Rhonda and their two children, 10 and 7, when the Defense Department ordered his squadron to Iraq. On March 18, the day before U.S. warships fired the first shots on Iraq, Maj. Aubin mailed a letter to his mother, Nancy Chamberlain, in Portland, Maine. In parts of it, he seemed to be signing off.
"I want to thank you for everything over the years," Maj. Aubin, 36, wrote. "You always tried your best to put us first at your expense." On March 20, two days after he mailed the letter, Maj. Aubin's CH-46 helicopter crashed in Kuwait, killing him, three other Marines, and eight British soldiers. Mrs. Chamberlain learned of her son's death the next day but didn't receive his letter until just before his funeral. At that service, she read excerpts to mourners. "Hopefully," Maj. Aubin had written, "I will be home soon."
Maj. Aubin was one of many coalition airmen who didn't make it home. During the first week of the war, 19 U.S. and British troops perished when helicopters crashed in Iraq and Kuwait. (That same week, six Americans died when a U.S. chopper fell out of the sky over Afghanistan.) Two single-seat, fixed-wing jets, an Air Force F-15 Eagle and a Navy F/A-18C Hornet, also crashed. Air Force Capt. Eric Das, 30, of Amarillo, Texas, died April 7 when his F-15 went down during a combat mission over Iraq. Navy Lt. Nathan White, 30, of Mesa, Ariz., was killed when a coalition-fired Patriot missile blew apart his Hornet.
That tragedy was one of at least five "friendly fire" deaths in the war-some of the toughest deaths to deal with. Lt. White's father, who had flown Air Force C-130 cargo planes in Vietnam, said he experienced "the normal anger, but I also know it's a war situation." Marine Pvt. Nolen Ryan Hutchings, 20, of Boiling Springs, S.C., was killed on March 23 in a friendly-fire incident while securing a bridge near Nasiriyah. That his son's fatal wounds came from his own country's forces didn't matter to his dad Larry Hutchings: "My son was there, he died for his country."
The Hutchings family adopted Nolen when he was in the fifth grade. He grew up wanting to be a Marine, and signed up soon after graduating from Boiling Springs High School. "He was proud to be a Marine. We were proud of him," Mr. Hutchings said, adding that television images of joyous, liberated Iraqis help with the pain of losing Nolen. "The Iraqis are free. We see their happy faces and realize he wasn't there in vain."
Before the Marine Corps declared Pvt. Hutchings killed in action, it reported him missing on March 23. That was the same day a convoy of Army soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company made a wrong turn that would turn out for some to be fatal.
Theirs was a support mission. The cooks, mechanics, and supply clerks of the 507th were supposed to help Marine Corps combat troops that had already stormed north from Kuwait. But just as the sun first lit clear desert skies that morning, "we got turned around and then lost and we rolled in Nasiriyah before it was secure ... there was an ambush waiting for us," Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30, of El Paso, Texas, told The Washington Post.
Without warning, gunfire and explosions ripped into the convoy from every side. Humvees flipped, supply trucks careened out of control, rifles jammed. In the boiling smoke and dust, the American fighters fired desperately in every direction.
"There was nowhere to go," said Sgt. James Riley, 31, a Pennsauken, N.J., native, and the senior U.S. soldier embroiled in the firefight. "We were like Custer. We were surrounded. We had no working weapons."
Before Sgt. Riley could surrender, nine soldiers died. Spc. Jamaal R. Addison, 22, of Roswell, Ga., and Pfc. Howard Johnson II, 21, of Mobile, Ala., were confirmed dead at the battle site. Ten days later, special operations commandos on the now-famous mission to rescue Pvt. Jessica Lynch unearthed 11 bodies, including seven more from the 507th: Pfc. Lori Piestewa; Master Sgt. Robert J. Dowdy, 38, of Cleveland; Ruben Estrella-Soto, 18, and Johnny Villareal Mata, 35, both of El Paso; Pvt. Brandon Ulysses Sloan, 19, of Bedford, Ohio; Sgt. Donald Ralph Walters, 33, of Salem, Ore.; and new dad-to-be Spc. James M. Kiehl, 22, of Comfort, Texas.
Some soldiers killed in the ambush on the 507th were barely old enough to vote. As of May 15, 39 young men age 21 or younger had given their lives to bring freedom to Iraq. Many who died were so young that stateside reporters seeking biographical information often went to the soldiers' high-school teachers for comment. Pictures that emerged from that reporting were of kids-just kids-who loved wrestling and baseball and camping and fishing, lit up rooms with their smiles, dreamed big dreams, and warned their little sisters to stay away from boys.
Marine Lance Corporal Andrew J. Aviles, 18, of Tampa, Fla., had been a high-school wrestler, class president, and National Honor Society Member. Because he felt duty-bound to serve his country, he put off attending Florida State University on a scholarship. He died on April 7 when an enemy artillery round smashed into his vehicle.
Marine Lance Cpl. Jose Garibay, 21, of Costa Mesa, Calif., was a native of Jalisco, Mexico. He dreamed of becoming an American citizen, and had planned to become a police officer after his enlistment expired next year. He died March 23 in combat action near Nasiriyah, and was granted U.S. citizenship posthumously.
Army Pfc. Gregory P. Huxley, 19, of Forestport, N.Y., loved being outdoors with his dad, and even taught him how to snowboard. Pfc. Huxley died in a firefight on April 6. In his honor, Pfc. Huxley's father and his two uncles last month took a memorial snowboarding trip to Killington, Vt. "One last trip for Greg," Mr. Huxley said, his voice breaking.
Another young man who died in Iraq left behind a family he had prayed for all his life, but that he had known for only three years. After his mother went to prison when he was 2 years old, Devon D. Jones bounced among foster and group homes in San Diego, Calif. His two little brothers bounced, too, but for 14 years, the three never lived under the same roof. Then, when Devon was 16, Evelyn Houston, an unmarried Christian woman, took all three boys into her home in southeast San Diego, a poor section of the city.
After the brothers moved in, Ms. Houston took them twice a week to services at New Creation Church. One Sunday morning, Devon stood up before the congregation of about 500 and told them that Ms. Houston was God's answer to his prayers: "By the time I was a teenager, I had been in the foster-care system almost my whole life," Ms. Houston remembers him saying. "But I prayed to my Father for a family, and He greatly answered my prayers." As many of his listeners began to cry, Devon pointed to Ms. Houston and said, "There's my mother, right there."
As he progressed through San Diego's Lincoln High School, Devon decided he wanted to become a teacher. But he didn't have money to go to college, so he joined the Army a few weeks after graduation. Pfc. Devon Jones, 19, deployed to Iraq with the 41st Field Artillery Regiment. When his vehicle fell into a ravine on April 4, he perished with two other men: Pfc. Wilfred D. Bellard, 20, of Lake Charles, La., and Spc. Daniel Cunningham, 33, of Lewiston, Maine.
Last week, Ms. Houston received a letter from a social worker who had long known Devon and his brothers. She wrote, "Devon never became a certified public-school teacher, but he was definitely a teacher before he died ... he showed us all what it is to live for God."