Cover Story

Sons & daughters

Americans who died in Iraq are heroic symbols of sacrifice, but they are also real people to those they left behind

Issue: "Memorial Day 2003," May 24, 2003

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.

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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."

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