Alcides Bloem stepped to the podium at First Evangelical Presbyterian Church in this Seattle suburb on Aug. 15 and choked through words his family hoped never to hear. "I'm going to miss him," Mr. Bloem, 20, said of his twin brother Nick, one of 14 Marines killed in a roadside bomb attack just south of Haditha, Iraq. Lance Cpl. Nicholas Bloem died instantly Aug. 3, the day after his 20th birthday.
In what has proved a costly month in the continuing struggle to root out Iraqi terrorists, the Bloems are among many families to have paid the ultimate price. August is on pace to rank in the top five months for U.S. deaths since the war began in March 2003. Rather than offer comfort or strength, such numbers only quicken the anguish.
Nevertheless, as friends and family stood to eulogize this fallen Marine, a theme of hope emanated through tears. "He died well," said Eric Irwin, the Bloems' longtime pastor before their move from the Northwest to Belgrade, Mont., three years ago. "He died as a sacrifice. He died with courage. He died with integrity."
Nick Bloem's eight sisters, twin brother and parents Al and Debbie filled the front row of a near-full auditorium built to hold a thousand people. A brass band opened the memorial service with hymns. Famed gospel singer BeBe Winans closed with a song written in tribute to his recently deceased brother. In planning the funeral, friends of the Bloems had merely hoped to attain sheet music for Mr. Winans' song, "Safe from Harm." The artist was moved to come perform it himself. The audience wept.
In anti-war bastions across the country, Nick Bloem's death fueled entirely different sentiments. With the number of U.S. troops lost in Iraq closing in on 2,000, bitter denunciations of U.S. foreign policy steadily increase. Spurred by the deaths of 10 Ohio Marines in the same attack that killed Mr. Bloem, the Northeast Ohio Antiwar Coalition is demanding the immediate return of deployed troops and has stepped up efforts to block military recruitment.
The work of similar organizations combined with negative press likely contributed to the Army recently falling 11 percent short of its fiscal year recruiting goals. The National Guard and Army Reserve have also lagged behind. But the Air Force, Navy, and Marines have all met or surpassed their targeted numbers.
No amount of anti-recruiting rhetoric could have kept Mr. Bloem from fulfilling his lifelong dream. Upon graduation from high school in 2003, he immediately enlisted as a Marine, harboring visions of moving up the ranks to become a commissioned officer or even Corps Commandant.
Like many of his fellow troops, Mr. Bloem defied media stereotypes of backwoods bumpkins with few choices in life but military service (see next page). Friends described him as bright, passionate, and fearless-the only one to leap from 50-foot cliffs on a family camping trip to central Washington. Having fallen in love last December, Mr. Bloem eagerly awaited the conclusion of his seven-month term in Iraq-just a few weeks away when he died.
In the shade of a gazebo at Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent, Wash., a handful of Marines carefully folded the American flag that had draped over Mr. Bloem's coffin and presented it to the family. From a green hill nearby, the cracks of a 21-gun salute echoed off surrounding fir trees. The mournful notes of "Taps" followed.
In the midst of great suffering, Al Bloem has found comfort in the meaning of his son's death. "There is a price that must be paid to do the things that need to be done to ensure peace in our time," he told WORLD. "You think about things like Gettysburg, Lexington, and the list goes on in history, Nick's a part of that now." For a father confident in his son's faith, Nick Bloem is part of much more as well: "Throughout this pain that we're going through, one thing has been foremost in our minds: The sun rises in Christ."